The edge of the desert's punishing summer was upon us. The time when irritability catches on to make even the most cordial of prisoners vulnerable to blazened combustion, and with a little help from a regularly discourteous prison guard, that needed spark danced perilously close to kindling.
“Yaaaard recall,” echoed from the elevated gun tower, and throughout the parched, populated prison yard. About five hundred of us hot and sweaty prisoners filed ourselves in front of our respective cellblocks, waiting for the required pat search before entering.
Perhaps it was the vexing heat, the patience-demanding wait, the officer's offensive tone, or a combination of all of the above, but suddenly the tranquil ambience shifted toward a virulent simmer. No one, not even the most vicious prisoners, takes lightly to injustice, real or imagined.
As the majority of us waited for our turn, we conversed, repeatedly wiped generous beads of sweat from our brow and joked around. The cellblock gunner sat in a loft perched behind an open window quietly observing all – his .9mm riffle strapped closely to his side like a conjoined twin.
The officers on the ground, lined like a baton-and-mace-carrying army of gate keepers, meticulously patted us down. As we approached, each officer curiously inspected our folders, bags and any other items clutched. Just another late-noon intake – until prisoner Ramirez and Officer Pino met.
Ramirez, a happy-go-lucky, fun-loving youngster, sporting old-style, bottle-thick glasses, was in possession of contraband – according to Officer Pino.
In his usual loud and confrontational manner, Officer Pino told Ramirez he couldn't have “all that bread.”
Ramirez was abducted into the system at the tender age of fourteen. He's one of those guys you see and ask yourself, “What's he doing here?” Always smiling. Carefree. Nice. A stark contradiction to the often bitter and resentful atmosphere. Now twenty-two years of age, and certainly a man, his youthful appearance follows him closely, inciting others to refer to him as “the kid.”
Ramirez had sixteen slices of wheat bread neatly stacked – loaf-like – in a transparent bag. He collected the bread from others, who had saved it from their lunch. Had Ramirez, by chance, ended up in front of any other officer, most would have simply inspected his comestible treasure for any real contraband, then cut him loose. His unusual collection was a tell-tale sign that the kid was hungry, and most likely indigent. “
Say man, why are you always messin' wit' people?” asked a guy behind him, his thick, husky voice dripping with venom. “Yeah, you know the kid don't give you guys no problems,” said another.
Responding to the growing tension, my heart began to race, my palm moistened as I silently shook my head in disagreement of Officer Pino's actions and the ominous mood that was clouding over.
It was clear by the other officers' faces, that there was a rare consensus of sentiment with the prisoners. But we didn't expect them to openly go against their colleague. Right or wrong, they just don't do that.
As Ramirez humbly ambled into the cellblock, he did so with twelve slices of bread less. Yet his head was erect, and I was proud of the easy-going youngster. He refused to let Officer Pino pinch him out of character.
“Hey Pino, what's he gonna do, kill somebody with bread?” a mono-toned voice taunted. “I know budget woes are hurtin' everybody Pino, but can't you make it on seventy-thousand a year without jackin' some poor kid for his bread?” another joked.
Fortunately, everyone was of the mind to make light of Officer's Pino's inciting. Historically, it's the smallest spark of provocation that ignite the biggest and most violent of human flames.
Since 1996, The Beat Within’s mission is to provide incarcerated youth with consistent opportunity to share their ideas and life experiences in a safe space that encourages literacy, self-expression, some critical thinking skills, and healthy, supportive relationships with adults and their community. Outside of the juvenile justice system, The Beat Within partners with community organizations and individuals to bring resources to youth (between the ages of 11 -17) both inside and outside of detention. We are committed to being an effective bridge between youth who are locked up and the community that aims to support their progress towards a healthy, non-violent, and productive life. The following pieces come from our weekly workshops which were recently held in one the 18 juvenile detention facilities – from Hawaii to San Francisco to Washington DC – we venture into each week. From the writings we produce the national publication, The Beat Within. For more information please visit us at www.thebeatwithin.org.