This time I would be going to jail for real. At sixteen I'd really be tested now. Rikers Island was one of the fiercest jails in the country and the largest jail complex in the world. It sat on an actual island near Laguardia airport in the borough of Queens, New York. The surrounding waters had fierce currents that have claimed many lives of would be escapees, much like the famed Alcatrez prison in California.
It didn't matter if you were in for only a week or two years, you were put together with mass murderers who were in forever. You had to be tough or get that way fast.
My first jail fight was something completely out of a comedy movie. I was doing sixty days for burglary. I was sixteen and it was my first time on Rikers. At the time it was two men to a cell. I had a cellmate who'd come in at the same time as I but this wasn't his first time. He was a few years older than me and knew the ropes and was getting cookies, cigarettes and other goodies on the juggle (which meant paying back double, even triple of what he borrowed). He'd offer to share his stuff with me and I turned him down. I'd heard stories from the older guys in my 'hood warning about accepting gifts in jail and avoiding being pressured to pay back more than you accepted. Basically a dude would befriend an unsuspecting cat, giving him cigarettes, food, or whatever. The poor sap thinks the dude is just looking out for him. But, when the time is ripe the dude pounces, asking, "So when you gonna pay me, man?" The victim is like, "Huh? But I thought..." And the dude says, "You thought what? That I'm some kind of sucker?", and pulls out a shank asking, "What you trying to pull? You gonna pay me one way or the other!" The victim realizes too late that he is in big debt, paying back triple or more and sometimes, and if he is a weak man, he might literally pay with his behind -literally.
After a couple of days, I finally accepted one or two cigarette from him. I'll call him "Slickboy". I felt I could kick Slickboy's behind if he tried anything. I could tell that he didn't have any homeboys or juice in here. I wasn't worried about any problem. Bad move, though!
One night after being there about five days, when everyone was locked in for the night, I heard a commotion on the cellblock. There were thirty cells to each block, fifteen cells on each side of a long, narrow corridor with a reinforced, protective glass plated c.o.'s (correction officer's) booth at the front door. I was way back in thirty cell, thinking about home, my mom, what the next day in here would be like. When you're in a ten by seven foot cell with no t.v., radio or book you think a lot. I heard angry voices and shouts, "Yo, that ni*#a in thirty cell gettin' transferred!", and, "Where my cigarettes, thirty cell? I'ma f... you up when I see you!" Slickboy was pulling a fast one on the dudes he'd juggled from after running up a high tab with them. He told the c.o. that he had beef with some dudes in the cell block from the street. That was one sure way to get transferred - if you had beef from the outside. State policy is to protect inmates.
I had thought that Slickboy stayed out at lock down to clean up because it was kind of a privilege to stay out and clean the floors and when mostly everyone else was in their cells. I laid back listening to the ruckus with amusement. But my fun ended quickly as an older inmate directly across from my cell called to me with some information, "Yo, Slim. Your celly is saying you gonna pay his tab. You better say something or they gonna make you pay!" I was stunned! I was too new to even imagine such a setup!
"Yo!...," I yelled to the whole cell block. "...He lyin'! I don't even know that dude!" This was Slickboy's chance to try to put the clamp on me.
"What?" he said with mock anger. "What the f... you saying? You said you was gonna pay the tab! You shared it all with me!," he lied.
"He lying!," I spoke to the cell block. "I ain't have none of his stuff!"
"I'll kick your young, lying a#*! C.O.! Open thirty cell!" he shouted.
As if that will happen, I thought, as I lay back down on my bunk . Then other inmates echoed his demands, "Open thirty cell! Open thirty cell!" I couldn't understand why they thought they could have my cell opened but I wasn't worried. The c.o. couldn't jeopardize an inmate's life. So when I heard the hum of the electronic door I looked up in horror to see my cell door opening. Huh! I couldn't believe it! The c.o. was opening my cell door to let us fight!
I jumped up, heart pounding, mind assessing the best next move for me. I peeked out slowly to see what was going on. Slickboy hadn't heard the door open and he was talking loudly, saying what he'd do to me if he ever got the chance. He had his back to me and I stepped out of my cell and silently and swiftly made my way toward the front of the cellblock toward him. I would take the fight to him rather than deal with the uncertainty and doubt of his coming to get me. It seemed like such a long way. His back was still turned and I was upon him suddenly when he turned in surprise. I hit him with a right punch that snapped his head back.
I didn't have a knockout technique yet, but that was okay. I had learned early in my young life that getting in the first punch was a nice advantage. He was completely thrown off and before he could recover I snapped a stiff jab into his face. He threw a clumsy, wild punch which I dodged easily. I stuck another hard jab in his face and opened a cut. He stopped and with his hand felt the blood from his eyebrow and then he threw another punch and this time I realized as the punch missed by a mile. Slickboy didn't even know how to throw a punch! He swung like a girl! I stepped in and jabbed him hard to the face and his nose began to bleed. The cell block was pure pandemonium and wild laughter as the hard and toughened prisoners locked in their cells watched through the holes of their cell doors a comedic battle of a skinny new kid and the older guy who talked trash but really fought like a girl.
"Knock him out, Slim!" some yelled, others shouted, "F...his a#* up, Slim! F... him up!" They were all rooting for the underdog to beat and humiliate the trash talking slickster who was trying to get over on them.
By this time Slickboy's face was completely covered in blood. The fight got more hilarious when Slickboy reached into his pants and pulled out a small makeshift whip he'd fashioned from the thin electrical wires he'd gotten somewhere and had put small pieces of metal at the ends. He lashed at my arms every time I threw a punch and it really hurt! What made it so ridiculously funny was the way he made karate sounds while moving his head and arms like Bruce Lee in a karate stance every time he lashed me, making noises like, "woo, aah!". Like a kid trying to convince someone that he's dangerous and knows karate but who really can't fight.
"Grab him Slim!", "Take it from him!", my jailhouse coaches instructed me from their locked cells, cheering me on to do to Slickboy what their cages kept them from doing. I grabbed Slickboy, wrestled the pesky weapon from him and threw it to the ground before continuing to throw lefts and rights into his face. I heard someone shout, "The riot squad is coming!"
I immediately stopped beating up Slickboy. The Riot Squad! Three words you didn't want to hear, especially if you were the reason they were coming. I'd heard talk of the riot squad even before coming to Rikers Island. I'd heard that the riot squad came in swinging billy clubs, fists and boots and only after nothing was left standing did they care to find out what the problem had been.
I backed away from Slickboy to the nearest wall and stood firmly against it, keeping my eyes on him. Slickboy went into the barbers room that was surrounded by see through plastic walls and I watched him as he cleaned his bloody face. "You got me good, Slim," he spoke as he washed his face. "You good, Slim," he congratulated me as if I'd just beaten him in a game of basketball.
The main gate to the cell block opened and I watched a swarm of correctional officers in full riot gear; helmets with face shields, flak jackets, big Plexiglas shields and giant billy clubs, rush in, checking the c.o.'s booth to make sure their man was safe first. Then they looked around for trouble and found only me against the wall looking as meek and non threatening as I could manufacture and Slickboy in the barbers room washing his face and still talking to me.
"Yeah, Slim. You can fight. I'll give you that," he spoke as if we were cool. I was ready to fall down to the ground as soon as the squad came my way but Slickboy didn't seem to get it.
As they approached him he tried to assure them with harmless banter, "It's over now, y'all. You can see he got the best of me," he said to the guards who now surrounded him.
"Shut up!" one ordered.
"It's okay, c.o.," Slickboy continued, speaking as if he were equals with the guards. "It's...".
Boom! Crash!, Slap, Crunch! "I said 'shut the f... up!" a guard yelled as he hit Slickboy over the head with his stick.
Slickboy's screams were muffled by the sounds of guards shouting and beating him down. One of the guards came toward me - I still remember his name, officer Gruder - and glared into my eyes.
"You f...ed that guy up good. He's got a big f...ing mouth!"
I got the feeling that he was feeling me out. I shook my head up and down slowly, agreeing humbly. Officer Gruder liked that. "You want a job when you get out of the box?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said. I still had to go the box (solitary confinement) for fighting. Officer Gruder was letting me know that he liked my style. He was letting me know me by giving me a paying job in one of the privileged work cell blocks which were less hostile, which had perks not given to the regular cell blocks.
"Just ask for me, Officer Gruder, the paint gang, when you get out of the box," he said with a wink.
"Okay," I replied, still humble, but relieved to have avoided a riot-squad beat down.
By: Tony Shaheed Elliot