Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Dateline: April 17, 2009


Murder at Noon. If Garrison Keillor was writing this, he’d probably say, it’s been a rough week in Lake Wobegon, but he’s not, I am. Yesterday, Thursday, they had a particularly unappetizing lunch in the chow hall, so I stayed in my dorm. Next thing I know, there’s a commotion at the housing area to the west, A—Dorm, and “open dorm,” which is a warehouse-type space filled with about seventy-two prisoners and bunks on two separate sides. Close quarters.

I saw something I’ve never seen before—guards— “white shirts,” higher-ranking lieutenants, a captain, the colonel, it looked like, and several prisoners were all trying to carry a wounded prisoner to medical. They left the nurse with the wheelchair behind. It had to be bad for such exalted ranks to get bloody and jump in to help the guy.

It didn’t matter. Ten minutes later, Dexter Bridges was dead, seventeen stab wounds, one through his heart. The killer, Tim Howard, sat on a locker with the long, sharp piece of steel in his hand and waited. When the first guard approached him, he handed over the “shank,” and put his hands behind his back for the handcuffs. Last I saw of him was his back, shuffling slowly up the road to confinement. We won’t see him again.

The week started out badly on Saturday. When they opened the yard Saturday morning, two Latino gang members, one residing down the hall from my cell, hurried to the other end of the compound, entered “J” Dorm, another “open” dorm filled mostly with prisoners with bad medical problems, proceeded to a far corner, threw a blanket over a man, and beat the hell out of him before hurrying out. They were locked up shortly thereafter.

Sunday morning, I was very glad that my friend, Libby, got here early for visit. Only the first sixteen were admitted before they closed the yard, locked down the entire prison. No one came in or out for at least a couple of hours. The warden walked through the visiting area with a foot-long piece of sharpened steel sticking out his back pocket a little later.

When I finally left visiting around 2:30 PM and returned to “B” Dorm, everyone was locked in their cells. The halls were littered with trash. Uh oh. I knew what they meant—the guards had come through en masse and ransacked the cells. I hated to look when they unlocked my door to let me in. It was bad, locker dumped out, property scattered, legal papers tossed, clothes and canteen items jumbled. Very little missing, though. They were looking for knives and other weapons. Neither my cellmate nor I have any contraband. That doesn’t keep them from regularly ransacking everything I own.

Then they came in with industrial steel saws that looked like electric carving knives on steroids. They cut the heavy steel handles off the sides of the stand-up storage lockers. Ah ha! That’s where the foot-long shank came from—he broke off a locker handle and sharpened one end to a point somehow. We knew it wasn’t over.

Monday morning early they cut off the water. No toilets or drinking water. That’s a dead giveaway. They’re coming. So they did.

Cell-by-cell, step out, strip search, carry your clothes thataway, get examined for gang-related tattoos. Sorry, I don’t have any. I prefer to put my art on canvas. Some prisoners looked dipped in ink. The guards were busy writing.

Meanwhile, other guards ransacked the cells again, dumping out lockers, trashing legal papers and other property, a different crew from Sunday, shipped in from another prison, their riot squad. It was a mess.

Life in prison. The week before, they raised the canteen prices, doubled in many cases, including tobacco, which caused great problems in an already tense and poverty-filled society. Prisoners whose families sacrificed to send them money to buy sweets, drinks, food items, and toiletries were getting assaulted, and their canteen bags taken from them. The strong ones armed themselves. It got so bad, immediately, that a large cadre of prisoners who have nothing, no resources whatsoever, and no hustles, no ability to earn money, who survive by panhandling cigarettes, cups of coffee, and the occasional Ramen soup, found themselves cut off from even those meager means of sustenance. The ones who previously provided for them found themselves too strapped to share.

Tuesday, prison life seemed to return to normal. They picked up and shipped out a van load of Latino gang members, which was a drop in the bucket. Then Thursday came, and the slaughter took place.

When I came here to Tomoka, almost seven years ago, I met Dexter Bridges in A-Dorm. He was a small man with a shaved head, very polite, interested in only one thing, young, white homosexuals. Any time you saw him, you saw a white boy with him. I say, “boy,” but that’s relatively speaking in prison. “Boy” relates more to their status as passive homosexuals on the receiving end, rather than their ages. There are thirty, thirty-five, forty-year old “white boys” in prison, most aged beyond their years.

A prisoner in a neighboring cell said that Tim Howard, chain-gang nickname, “China Doll,” a very rough-looking man, had “rented out” his white boy to Bridges for fifteen dollars, but Bridges hadn’t paid him. He told them before lunch that he was going over to A-Dorm to get his money, and if he didn’t get paid, he was going to kill Dexter. He was a man of his word.

Being locked down since it happened, we haven’t heard the whole story yet, but it will all come out if they don’t lock up and ship out the dozens of witnesses in A-Dorm. Initial reports are that Dexter tried to run, got stabbed four times in the back, in the side, both shoulders, then several times in the front, including the coup de grace heart shot that killed him.

The incident caught them off guard here. After the local riot squad had to come in Sunday and Monday, a disturbance at the prison in Brevard, the next county south, required the locals from here to go down there yesterday to ransack and search, supposedly to restore order with a show of force. We had a skeleton crew on duty. Today they had to bring in additional troops to do the mopping up exercises, guards from other prisons, some a long distance away, leaving them shorthanded.

On the news, they say they need to build nineteen more prisons in the next five years to accommodate the burgeoning prison population. Who are they going to hire to staff them? They can barely staff the prisons that exist now, and then only through double shifts and overtime. It doesn’t make sense to me.

The high-ranking officials came into B-Dorm this morning to reassure the men that things would be back to normal soon. I talked to the colonel, and he authorized turning on the telephones, so we could call our families, and let them know we were safe. The TV news shows just said that a prisoner had been stabbed to death, prompting much worry among family members with loved ones in prison.

And things will probably be back to normal tomorrow, since this was a “BOB” crime, a “black-on-black” murder, no gang related activity that might lead to reprisals or racial incident, which undoubtedly provided relief for the worried guards. Had it not been a “BOB” crime, we could be locked down for days. As it is, it was a typical, run-of-the-mill homosexual stabbing, like so many others, that concern only those involved.

I remember Dexter coming out to the visiting park some weeks back, a stooped old woman hugging him. He nodded his head to me when he walked by, smiling, and I nodded back. It may not mean much to those in charge, but today, one poor mother’s heart is broken, and I feel sad.

1 comment:

Vox Populi said...

it DISGUSTS ME that he would walk through the visiting park with A SHANK. What the HELL???
It sounds like a threat.
Out here I get threatened A LOT. I can tell the difference between a threat and a coincidence. For instance, did he HAVE to pass through the visitor's park? Could someone else have carried the shank?
That's just disgusint.
I'm sorry for the loss for everyone.