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Only the Strong Survive by Seth Soul Man Ferranti
U.S. vs Ferranti: that’s how the case was styled. The United States of fucking America versus me. At nineteen, I was charged with running a Continuing Criminal Enterprise by the feds and sentenced to twenty-five years. I turned to look at my mother as the US Marshals moved in and Judge Hilton of the Eastern District of Virginia said, “You will be committed to the custody of the Attorney General.” Great I thought, Janet Reno, my fucking babysitter.
I never thought I would get busted and prison was the furthest thing from my mind. I was white, middle-class, and from the affluent suburbs of Burke Centre, Virginia. I did the college thing: Penn State, West Virginia University, Virginia Tech, Radford, University of Virginia, East Carolina. My life was a party on wheels. Kind bud. Acid. Brick pot. I figured I was a career man. It was like, have drugs, will travel. But I found out that the feds don’t fuck around and justice doesn’t discriminate. My white skin and middle-class upbringing would only be a drawback in prison and that was no laughing matter.
The marshals handcuffed me and put me in leg irons. They pointed Mossberg twelve-gauge riot-guns at my face and put me on a bus with bars on the windows and an armed escort riding shotgun. It reminded me of some Mad Max type shit. The convicts on the bus called it “diesel therapy.” I could feel the eyes on me as I made my way down the aisle. I tried to look tough as I noticed there weren’t many white people and no one struck me as a suburbanite. In fact, I saw the only other white guy on the bus getting exposed. “What the fuck you looking at cracker?” Yelled a black prisoner. “Nothing.” Replied the white dude meekly with his head down. What a chump I thought as I sunk deeper into my seat and wished I was invisible.
When I hit the compound this old-timer, White Shoes, pulled me aside. I was wary at first, because you never know what a fucker wants in here. But I learned that he only wanted to help. He could tell I was green and I guess he saw convict material, because he took me under his wing. He wanted to see my paperwork to make sure I wasn’t no rat motherfucker. When I checked out he schooled me on prison etiquette. “Don’t gamble, don’t do drugs, and don’t fuck with punks,” he said. “When you talk to people look them in the eye and always be polite, because you never know when someone will lose it. Be cool and if you have a problem, come and get me.”
The advice was right on time as I was adjusting to my environment learning the more disturbing aspects of day to day life on the inside. Like the rest of middle-class America I had seen the movies, but this wasn’t any movie. This was real life. And the realities of prison, I learned, were vicious.
That first morning when the doors cracked I went to go to chow. But as I stepped out the cell this shorty creped on a sleepy-eyed brother and cracked the “nigga” on the dome with a lock in a sock, a favorite prison weapon. The sleepy-eyed con stumbled as he started bleeding profusely from the head. The little shorty punished him and screamed, “Don’t ever be dissing me again nigga.” I stood transfixed by the violence before me as shorty noticed me and said, “You didn’t see nothing did you, white boy?” I shook my head and went back into my cell, skipping breakfast. I later learned this was all about respect and in prison respect was the most important thing.
In prison they say that your word is all you got and if your word ain’t no good then you’re some shit. The concepts of respect and disrespect go hand in hand with that and are at the root of most beefs in prison. Say you bump into dude and you don’t say excuse me. This is a serious sign of disrespect. To get his respect the convict you accidentally bumped might stick six inches of steel into your gut.
In prison you get respect by giving it and demanding it back, by force if necessary. If you lose face just once you could be labeled soft. And if someone thinks you’re soft, they’re gonna try you.
I remember this one white kid Stevie from Maryland who came in. Nice, polite, slightly built, and middle-class. He was in for trying to blow up a gay bar. Some Gangster Disciples took him for a chump and pushed up on him for some commissary. Stevie, fresh to the system, thought he was doing them gangsta’s a favor and bought them a couple packs of smokes. But it didn’t stop there. The next week it was a carton of Newports, the week after some Nike high tops. Then they broke into his locker, taking everything Stevie had. Some white dudes stepped to Stevie and told him he needed to get down and handle his business. Still the idiot did nothing. And in prison you can’t help those that won’t help themselves. Finally the Gangster Disciples raped Stevie. He ended up being pimped out by the gang and is probably still sucking dick to this day.
If you want respect you gotta keep the other prisoners in check. Being nice won’t get you respect but fear will. There is a saying in here, don’t mistake kindness for weakness. Still many of these ignorant fuckers do, so it pays not to be nice. You have to close yourself off and become known as a man that will do something when provoked. Because sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Even if it means getting a shank and spilling blood. Better theirs, than yours. Don’t try to talk tough in here either, because your bluff will be called and if you don’t jump when called out you will be branded as a punk and your ass will be ripe for taking.
The best course to follow is to be respectful and assertive. Try not to draw attention to yourself, but don’t back down from a confrontation either. Most times, if you stand up for yourself, you’ll find an out, and avoid looking like a pussy. The problem could be laughed off, like “Chill out man, I was only joking.” But if the situation escalates you can get fucked up. It is a fine line to walk, but if you want to survive, you’ve got to learn when and where to draw that line.
Prison isn’t a nice place. There ain’t no good Samaritans here. When the tension boils it erupts like a volcano. As the pressure builds, you can feel it seeking its release. It’s not something easily described, it’s just an awareness. The air grows still, the silence becomes deafening and you can sense the drama about to unfold.
When the shit jumps off you don’t want to be around either. The best thing to do is just walk the other way and act like nothing is happening. Don’t even try to look or watch. Because if you’re seen watching when people handle their business you might be next or worse still you might be labeled a snitch.
It took about 6 months to scope out the basic social order in the joint. I noticed that the prison gangs played a big part in the social structure. There was a sort of prison politics going on with little diplomacy and lots of violence. The gangs were very active and protective of their hustles and interests. White gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood and Dirty White Boys co-existed with the Bloods, Crips and Gangster Disciples. The Latinos had their own crews also with the Mexican Mafia, Latin Kings, and Texas Syndicate. These fractions sometimes suffered violent and bloody struggles for power and control.
Prisoners also affiliated themselves by home states. So you had loosely organized homeboy crews from North Carolina, D.C., New York, or wherever. The Muslim religious sects were another faction that made power moves and were feared as their numbers were always deep.
It’s smart not to join or beef with a gang, because in such disputes or an all-out gang war things get brutal and you can wind up dead. The gangs controlled the drugs, the gambling, and the gumps. And if you fucked with their money they would hurt you bad.
There was this one DC cat who came down from the super max huffing and puffing. What a bad-ass he was. Dude was big, alright, and cut up. Straight diesel, like a Mack truck. But he started making his own moves, fucking with the gumps and shit. The queers he was banging belonged to the North Carolina Bloods and when they got the scoop they pushed up on the DC brother-man, telling him he got to pay to play. The DC convict told them bammers, “Fuck you.” So the Bloods retaliated, and stabbed “da nigga” 37 times. Leaving him dead with a shank up his ass.
There aren’t any fair fights in prison either. “Anything goes” as they say. If you take a wrong step you might get gangstered by a crew of homeboyz. The prison gangs always jump people and the Mexicans are the most notorious for it. If you put it on a Mexican you better have some back because like White Shoes says, “Thirty of those little burrito-eating motherfuckers are coming for you.” La Rasa will swarm like locusts, attacking in numbers to inflict maximum damage.
Most disputes are handled quietly and decisively though, because a gang war leads to bodies and that means lockdown, which stops the flow of the crews hustles. Most killings are internal also as up and comers make power plays and attempt to knock off rivals. As long as you are assertive, handle your business, and got some back, the prison gangs will leave you alone, because they prey on the weak and unconnected. In some prisons it pays to be affiliated if that is what the custom dictates, but in the end you’ll have to make your own decision, and live or die with it.
The gangs operate on the fear principle. They know their numbers and affiliation will intimidate you. But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes a crew might get into something they can’t handle and end up getting punished.
A favorite prison maxim is “Go hard.” Some convicts live their lives following this creed. To the prison gangs these are words to die for. I knew these Dirty White Boys who thought they were the shit. They tried to lock down a wine hustle in their unit. They had most of the unit in check when this “2701b nigga”, Tank, decided he wasn’t paying no crackers for no fucking wine. He stole the Dirty White Boy’s hooch from the stash spot and dared them to do anything. It was put up or shut up time and the Dirty White Boys were going hard. They strapped up with pipes and went to apply justice, prison style. They were outclassed and chumped out though as Tank took their pipes and beat the shit out of their whole crew. The gangs depended on fear and violence, but clearly the intimidation factor was lacking here, because the Dirty White Boys ran to the cop for protection from Big Tank.
In prison most people fit into two categories, good or no-good. There are old-timers, like White Shoes, who go around and talk of nothing else, but who is good and who isn’t. They have spent so many years inside they are consumed by it. Any slight infraction like reneging on a bet or bullshitting too much can get you the no-good label. But if you carry yourself right, handle your business, keep your mouth shut, and are true to your word then you will be considered a stand-up convict. If you have been exposed or exploited without getting your respect, hang around the man too much, or go in and out of the hole all the time without showing any paperwork, you will be considered shady and fit into the no-good category. Prisoners might call you a crackhead, a whaler, a punk, or the worst, a rat. If you pick up one of these labels you are fucked, because reputations stick with you and count as much as respect. Being labeled a rat will hinder you for the rest of your time inside.
Prisoners who are on time might be called a tough guy, a stand-up con, a solid dude, or a crazy motherfucker. Real convicts are known to “keep it real.” A solid reputation will help you to be perceived as a no-nonsense guy who doesn’t fuck around. Clowning is okay, but constant goofing is frowned upon by guys doing life. Jailing the right way earns you respect and a good reputation will make predators think twice about trying you.
The biggest way to get respect is to “make your bones” by taking out a no-good motherfucker. Rats, snitches, and chumps are all fair game. But if you show up the man you get big props. This young dude, Scott, from Kentucky handled his business one day at count. The hacks were hassling him to stand-up for count and he tripped on them, cursing and spitting like a lunatic. The cops hit the deuce and bum rushed him. Tackling him as he fought like a wildcat. He ended up in the bucket four-pointed to the bed for six days. When he finally came out after 90 days hole-time he got big respect because he went hard and defied the man.
Another time this crazy ex-marine dude, Trevor, really freaked. He was in the yard getting plastered on hooch. Then on the move he said, “I’m going back and kicking the shit out of the cop in my unit.” We were all like “Yeah, right dude, go for it.” We thought he was kidding but this motherfucker was dead serious. Later when they locked the prison down we found out Trevor with his drunk, dumb-ass had gone back to his unit, waited for the cop to settle in his office and went in and beat the fuck out of him. I never saw Trevor again, but I’m sure he is serving an extra five years for assault, because the feds don’t fuck around when you attack their guards.
A lot of crazy shit happens in here but if you use your head and aren’t a shifty dude you will be okay. Basically, in prison it’s all about respecting the next man and getting that respect back. We are herded in here like cattle with no privacy, and no rights. We are subjected to strip searches, accountable to the man at every moment, shook down, and humiliated by the powers that be. The little dignity we have left is guarded fiercely and protected violently. If you stay true to yourself, treat people with respect, and carry your weight you will be alright. If you’re a fake-ass, phoney motherfucker you’re gonna get exposed or worse, by far, violated.
You have to remember, ain’t no motherfucker in here gonna help you. If you get in a beef you better fight your way out of it. And always be polite to other prisoners, because you never know how that other dude is feeling or what is going on with their life. Maybe they just lost their appeal and have twenty years to serve. Or they just found out their girlfriend is sucking mad cocks. Or their moms just died and they are looking for an excuse to flip out. If you are not careful you could end up being that excuse. And being on the receiving end of another man’s wrath can be vicious, even deadly.
And the cops don’t care one way or another. Most of them are just punching the clock. They really don’t give a fuck if you make it through the day or not. They’re not getting involved to break up any fight. This ain’t kindergarten so if you step up you better be prepared to “take it to the wall”. When you’re down and bleeding the hacks might step in, cuff you, and take you to the hole. But other than that, the pigs are staying out of the way.
In prison you gotta handle your business and keep it real. That means that you can’t hide out in your cell for your whole bit, or try to sleep away your time. You have to face the killers, thieves, cutthroats, bullies, reprobates, hoodlums, crackheads, gangsta’s, chicano’s, gangbangers, junkies, and hustlers everyday. You have to meet them on their turf and represent. You have to put yourself out there as a man who will be respected and who will die going hard. If you’re not prepared to do this then you better check into PC and be the punk that you are.
Prison is a far cry from the suburbs, but with the right mindset you can survive. You have to be strong in body, soul, and mind. With discipline and wits you can keep yourself sharp like the edge of a machete, because you want people to know that if they touch you they will bleed. The old con, White Shoes, told me once that hard men shatter, but the strong ones endure. And in prison you have to endure because only the strong survive.
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