In prison those who share your race or ethnicity are your gang, your people. Everyone else is the enemy.
by Nate McKowen
Prison is full of borders. The obvious one stands around the perimeter, 20 feet tall, chain-linked and topped with razor wire, separating the outcasts from the rest of society. Then there are borders inside, dividing the jailors from the jailed. They’re painted on the sidewalks with red letters—No inmates beyond this point—separating us from them.
But the most significant borders are the cultural borders that separate the Chicanos, the Paisas, the Chiefs, the Blacks, and the Whites.
If my vocabulary here comes off as insensitive or not politically correct, I apologize. I just spent ten years in a place that systemically enforces racism and considers sensitivity a mark of weakness. In prison those who share your race or ethnicity are your gang, your people. Everyone else is the enemy.
My first day on the yard, a guy with a swastika tattooed on his neck ran down the rules for me.
“Don’t eat with another race. Don’t share cigarettes with them. Don’t sit at the other races’ tables.” He smacked his fist against his palm to emphasize each point.
“If you see a pig on the tier, always call out, ‘One-time!’” That was a heads-up that a C.O. was doing his walk. We were expected to keep watch for each other, that way no one got caught doing drugs, or slinging ink, or whatever other illegal activities were going on.
He continued. “And don’t ever talk to the pigs alone, or people will get the wrong idea. Act like a convict.”
Apparently, there were prison rules and then there were convict rules. Inmates followed the prison rules and Convicts followed their own code. An Inmate was weak. A Convict was a real man. An Inmate submitted to his captors. A Convict stood with his chest out and his middle finger high. To be called an Inmate was a great insult.
As we made our way to the chow hall, my “instructor” continued. “If someone disrespects you, you better handle your business,” he told me. “Your best bet would be to punch him in the face right then and there, while everyone is watching, or people might get the idea that you’re weak. Or if you’re feeling really disrespected, go get your piece and fill him full of holes.”
I nodded, trying to keep a stern face. My stomach was doing somersaults.
There were seating rules, too. “The Blacks sit over there, then the Paisas (Mexican Nationals), the Chiefs, Chicanos (Mexican Americans), and us.” He gestured around the room as he spoke. The chow hall was divided into five neat rows of skin tone.
“Don’t ever sit at that back table.” He pointed to a group of guys in our section, who sat with the casual ease that often accompanies dominant animals. “That’s for the guys running the yard. Don’t sit at the table next to it either, unless you plan on putting in work. That’s for the soldiers. The table by the juice is where the lames sit.” A lame is what they called those who were weak. Guys who, if it came to a fight, would back down.
It reminded me of high school all over again. A very grim, violent, high school.
That night I lay in my rack, staring at the stark walls, feeling more alone than I had ever felt in my life.
I grew up in a household that valued compassion, tolerance, and equality. My friends were Filipino, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Italian. Of course, I never thought of it like that because, for me, race never factored into the equation. We went on adventures together, celebrated victories together, dealt with heartbreak and loss together. We pulled each other through treacherous marshlands of youth. We were brothers.
On Thursday mornings, after count time, the prison PA announced religious services. Men gathered on the rec field, sticking with their own. These weren’t the Sunday services I was familiar with growing up. Here, men gathered to worship the gods of their ancestors. The Chicanos and Paisas embraced their Aztec roots, the Blacks cracked open the Quran, the Chiefs came together in their talking circle, and the Whites hailed the gods of the Norse.
While it is well known that people often find religion behind bars, this seemed like something deeper. These guys had reached into their cultural histories in order to build a stronger sense of identity.
I understood the need. When I was sentenced to prison, I was torn away from everything that made me who I was: my family, my job, my dog, my dreams for the future. I was literally stripped naked, handed a uniform identical to everyone else’s, and assigned a number. I was told to shave my beard, tuck in my shirt, and stay in 704 compliance.
Everything that made me unique or special was gone. I was no longer an aspiring filmmaker. I was no longer my dog’s best friend. I was no longer a son that could help his mom put bird netting over the garden when the tomatoes came in. I was number 259045.
Deep in the pit of my soul grew an existential void. Who am I? I asked myself–a question that repeated again and again.
My workout partner was a skinhead I’ll call Shane. While we didn’t share the same life philosophy, or agree on much of anything, I could count on him to drag me out to the yard to do some push-ups. And since good conversation was hard to come by, part of me appreciated our debates. They were epic.
When Shane found out I had dated a Korean girl in high school, he lectured me about the importance of keeping our race pure, of not diluting our blood. I told him that nature favors genetic diversity, and that a closed gene pool stagnates causing all sorts of birth defects.
“What kind of birth defects?” he asked.
“Club feet, hemophilia, and your ugly ass face,” I said.
Shane laughed and handed me a book, Myths of the Norsemen.
“The stories of our people. We descend from the Germanic tribes. You know what Germanic means? War-like. That’s where we came from. We were Vikings, my friend. Conquerors. We ruled with the sword, and our greatest honor was to die in glorious battle.” He let out a hearty laugh, as if he had just made a toast in the mead hall.
I didn’t feel like a conqueror. I barely felt like a human being. But Shane stood there, all rugged bravado, master of his world. It made me want to stand up, hammer my fists against my chest, and welcome all challengers.
“I want you to study that,” he said. “And when you’re ready you can join the circle. Maybe one day you can earn one of these.” He pulled his necklace from under his collar and showed me his pendant. Thor’s hammer.
I looked closely at that meticulously crafted piece of contraband solder–a piece of metal that said “I belong to something special.” I wanted one.
So I studied. I learned about the Aesir and the Vanir, and Yggdrasil the world tree. I got lost in stories of heroism and courage. I felt my blood rise with the Valkyries. I studied the nine noble virtues and the magical properties of runes. I learned that the swastika had been around long before Hitler had repurposed it as a symbol of hate. The word itself comes from the Sanskrit swasti, “to be good.”
“You ready to join the circle?” Shane asked me a few weeks later.
I didn’t want to tell him that I had also been studying the eastern religions, and that I felt more of a kinship with Buddha and Lao Tzu, than I did with Tyr and Odin. No doubt, I wanted the courage of a warrior, but courage without a monk-like discernment was just stupidity, right? To me, glory in battle seemed less important than the cessation of suffering. I couldn’t tell him that, though, because if I did I would be a traitor to “our people.”
“No, I’m good,” I said. Maybe it was my constant need to fight the status quo, but I knew if I joined the circle, I would lose a piece of myself—and I didn’t have many pieces left.
“I mean, this isn’t Lord of the Rings,” I said. “I can’t honestly believe in Dark Elves and Dwarfs and stuff.”
The way he looked at me, I thought he was going to hit me. But then he laughed, hooking his arm around my neck. “That’s why I like you, man,” he said.
Guys in prison went along with the culture, pretending to be people they weren’t because they wanted to fit in. Shane respected a man who bucked the mainstream in order to stand up for his beliefs. Or lack of belief.
I may not have known who I was, but I knew who I wasn’t.
While Shane offered passable conversation, I found I had more in common with the guy who lived next to me, who I’ll call D-Money. We talked about music, women, and what food we were going to eat when we got out. He was laid back, didn’t let prison get to him. I enjoyed his company.
But “my people” had a problem with me and D-Money hanging out because D-Money is Black. So they sent one of the soldiers over to my cell to give me a “hot-one.”
That’s what happens when you break the rules. A guy (or two, if it’s serious) comes over to your cell to smash his knuckles into your face. You’re expected to fight back or you’ll look like coward. But you also have to lose, or you get it worse. It’s a delicate balance.
After I got the hot-one, the guys running the yard said that by hanging out with my Black neighbor, I made us—the Whites—look bad.
I took it to my friend T. T. had been doing time most of his life. His skin was the texture of an orange peel. He knew the ins and outs. For him, prison was a career, his resume a collage of faded blue-grey tattoos. I liked talking to him because he was an old-school convict. Anything I said stayed between us.
“Why the hell is everyone so damn racist? It’s like we’re stuck in a time warp, 1950s style. These guys who run the yard, who the hell are they to tell me who I can or can’t hang out with? Bunch of ignorant—.”
“Whoa, whoah, hold your horses there,” T. said. “There’s a good reason things are how they are. You know how prison used to be?”
I’d heard the legends. Back in the day, thirty or forty-something years ago, prison was a free-for-all, every man for himself. Young guys would come in and get robbed and extorted and raped. Some would get turned out, selling their asses for protection. It was anarchy.
“People got sick of that mayhem,” T. said.
So they banded together by the only thing they had in common—their skin color. If someone messed with one of their own, they’d kill him, T. explained. Wars broke out. Blood ran thick on the tiers in those days. It was integrated housing back then, and sometimes guys would have to lock down with someone they were at war with.
“People would go to sleep with shanks taped to their hands,” T. said.
The prison authorities realized in order to stop the killings they had to separate races. Things settled down after that. A new order emerged.
“Now a guy can do time here and not even be a part of a gang. He’s protected by his race.”
The story made sense. It has always been fear that drives people into tribes.
But was this the real story? What if these “legends” were just propaganda fueled by the gangs in power to stay in power? Maybe bad things had happened in the past, but aren’t the stories we tell ourselves what shape our present reality—and our future?
Was there a different story to tell? Maybe. But there I was, stuck in a place where borders had gone up, as they always do, for “protection.”
Everywhere I looked there were walls.
Nate McKowen is a filmmaker, writer, and justice reform advocate. He spent 8.5 years in prison. Prior to his incarceration, Nate graduated from the New York Film academy and is currently working on a documentary about the challenges and barriers prisoners face re-entering society (www.facebook.com/Handcuffedtofreedom). He is seeking voices to feature. Formerly incarcerated people can reach him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Miriam L. Zirato (above illustration) is an artist and musician, native to Tucson. She is a wildlands firefighter when summer calls, and works the rest of the time as a hotel manger at the Historic Hotel Congress. Once known as #290963, she fought to never let that number define her. Optimistic to a fault, she now finds beauty in even the darkest parts of our lives.
American Friends Service Committee is a national Quaker organization that promotes lasting peace with justice, as a practical expression of faith in action. It has several prison reform initiatives in the Southwest. AFSC-AZ challenges criminalization, opposes prison expansion, and advocates for policy change to reduce the size and scope of the criminal punishment system, which encompasses not just physical places of incarceration, but also the proliferation of systems of control, surveillance, and supervision.
ReFraming Justice is an AFSC-AZ multimedia storytelling and public education initiative for directly impacted people and communities in Arizona to influence criminal legal policy and legislative change, as well as influence the social narrative around justice and healing. Part of that initiative is the ReFraming Justice Podcast, which works to amplify the voices of people who are formerly incarcerated and directly impacted by our system of criminal punishment.