Tuesday, July 20, 2010


There's a guy who comes into the store where I work, we'll call him J. He's got tattoos all over him, I mean from head to toe, literally. He's got a teardrop on his cheek, on his neck in block letters it says "WHITE," his arms and legs are covered with indecipherable scribbling, and giant swastikas are everywhere. Despite the fact that I wear a Star of David ring on my finger he's always very nice to me. I thought I would ask him a few questions one day, just out of curiosity. What I wanted to ask is "Did you kill somebody? And if so, why?" and then ask him "Why?" again. What I did ask is "What do your tattoos mean?" And we started talking.

For the record, I don't make a habit of befriending white supremacists, or any people whose worldview is based solely on hatred of other people, but in the interest of story collecting, understanding things that are very hard to understand, and not hating other people, I like to talk to them.

J looks like he's in his 30's and says that he's been in prison more of his life than he's been out. If the surface area of tattooed skin is any measure of such things, I think that would be safe to say. Based on the teardrop tattoo I assume that he's killed someone. I don't know how old he was when he went to prison and I don't know what he was like before, but he didn't start out being a white supremacist. His story should say a lot to those politicians who believe that prison is to "reform" and not to "punish." I imagine he came out worse than he went in, at least in terms of ever hoping to be "reformed."

I've heard that alone is a bad thing to be when you're locked up, and obviously that's true. J was getting viciously attacked everyday when he first went away. He didn't go into detail, but I've seen "American History X" so I have a good idea. I've also been the new kid in junior high so I know that when you're lonely and scared you're going to hold on to the first hand that is extended your way. In his case it was a white hand with a swastika. And the voice he heard said "We think it's funny that you're getting beat up like you are." He asked "Why?" "Because you're white."

Of course, there are unspoken rules in any clique, especially in prison. A white boy is meant to stand up to anyone who comes at him, whether he's alone and outnumbered or not. What they do if they catch someone looking at them out of the corner of their eye is they turn to face them, pull up their pant leg to show their skin and all their offensive tattoos, then STOMP with those heavy boots they wear, and stomp loud so that anyone within earshot can stop what they're doing, take off their shirts and walk over in a slow, intimidating way, circle up and chant in the lowest possible voice "I wish a ****** would."

Prisons are notoriously segregated, I guess because racial groups are the easiest to identify. One of J's tattoos is a giant bolt on his bicep. I don't know if that has something to do with the SS or with the fact that lightning is white or what, but it's a kind of rallying cry, like "BOLT M*****F*****!" with your fist in the air. I get the idea it's a thing for the initiated, a motto, a greeting, a secret handshake. It's a declaration of loyalty to the brotherhood. When there's a fight about to break out "Bolt" means it's on.

J doesn't seem to hate anyone really, he just didn't like getting attacked in the showers while the guards turned their heads. He didn't like getting judged by the color of his skin, so he embraced it, made it his identity, and used it as a way to survive. There are those who live that life inside and out though, especially in the South, and especially in prisons. They were raised in hate and they often in hate. In Arkansas we use lethal injection to kill our prisoners. When a white supremacist gets strapped down and the plungers in those cylinders start pushing that poison into their veins they yell, as loud as they can "BOOOLLLLTTTTT!" If there are people in the yard who can hear it, and know what it means, they yell "Bolt!" too.

I guess what I don't understand is why people are allowed to get so savagely beaten in prison that they find it necessary to join a hate group, and throw away any chance of ever finding gainful employment, to survive. I just seems counter-productive to me. There should be something in there that is good. Cats maybe.

1 comment:

  1. Annie, you should watch Lockup on MSNBC. It's usually on on the weekends. Also, TruTV has some good series, (Jail or something like that) on sometimes. There was one guy who had joined the white supremacist group and tried to get out of the group while locked up. Evidently, not a good idea. He was getting death threats from his own group. Once you're in, you can't get out. I think you would like that Lockup series. Very interesting.