I had arrived at Avenal State Prison in the Central Valley of California only months before. I’d been there long enough to start a subscription to the Christian Science Monitor (which was free, at the time, to anyone incarcerated). I was also excited to receive my first quarterly package order. Now I had a radio and personal clothing including underwear. They had substituted briefs, which are associated with he-she’s in prison, for the boxers I ordered but I was still happy to wear them instead of the state issued, and recycled, boxers. Things were going as well as could be expected for being incarcerated.
On a particularly sunny, but not yet hot, day I decided to go walk the yard. I put on my new, still white, tennis shoes and the grey mesh gym shorts from my package. I grabbed the week’s Monitor newspaper and my radio and headed out on the hourly unlock. After strolling once around the dusty half-mile track encircling the whole yard, I put in both earbuds, tuned the radio to the one local NPR station we could get and opened the paper to read an article on the new Illinois Senator Obama. To the average person this may not seem all that unusual. Most of us have seen someone walking in the park, listening to the radio and browsing the newspaper. However, in prison, I had violated at least 3 safety rules, as was explained to me later by my lifer bunkie. First, I had worn all new clothes marking me as a newbie with money on my books. I also had the paper open in front of me and was reading so I couldn’t see or pay attention to what was going on around me. Lastly, I had both earbuds in so I couldn’t hear anything – like the guards shouting “Get down! Down on the yard!”
By the time I heard them and looked past the newspaper, I realized that everyone else on the yard, some 400 guys, were all already seated in the dirt. Well, I promptly folded up my newspaper and sat on it (to keep my new shorts clean, of course). As I became aware of my surroundings I saw that there was no one sitting within several yard of me. My corner of the track was suspiciously empty – except for one guy who was actually lying face down, which I thought was odd because I had been told that’s the posture you assume when they shout to “get down” at a level 3 prison but Avenal was only a level 2 so we were supposed to sit. Then I notice his head is lying in the rain gutter along the track, in the middle of a trickle of water – but it’s been bone dry so where’d the water come from? Oh, wait. It’s blood!
He had been jumped and his skull cracked open, probably with a lock in a sock. The guilty party, and everyone else, had immediately left the scene of the crime. Everyone except the guy reading his paper and listening to his radio who had walked right up to the body before hearing the alarm to “get down.”
The guards came and took the injured guy out on a gurney and I never saw him again. Then they began to strip search everyone on the yard to find the long-gone weapon, starting with the person closest to the body: me. As the first, all eyes were on me as I stripped. Luckily, I’m not self-conscious about my body but when I removed my shorts to reveal my underwear (briefs, remember) the whole yard erupted in cat calls and whistles. The guard even grinned and said “I bet you’re loving all the attention.” I had never wanted to punch a guard so badly but instead I said “Not at all” and dropped my briefs to a thunderous ovation.
Having been stripped nude in front of over 400 cheering men helps me keep all future embarrassment in perspective.