If one gives a man a fish, he feeds him for a day. If one teaches a man to fish, he feeds him for a life time, or so the old saying goes. I’m not sure who coined the previous adage, but it has been around for a long time. I guess the saying offers an enduring lesson. I have no doubt, based on experience, teaching a man to fish is infinitely rewarding and beneficial to the future of both the student and the teacher, but sometimes giving a man a “fish” is a far more prudent investment.
One night while luxuriating in the comfort of my 8×10 cube (prison talk for cubicle), I was finding it difficult to sleep. My thin mattress was wreaking havoc on my lower back, so I decided to read for a while. Because the lights were out (lights out after count time around 9:00pm or 9:30), it was pitch black in the unit. I borrowed a small reading light from my 72 year old cellie (short for cellmate), Sid. As soon as I turned the reading light on, the man in the next cube objected loudly. I had seen him earlier in the day ironing his prison gear. He was now posted up in the corner of his cell, seated in a plastic chair. He had the build of an English bulldog. He had been stepped down in security level from ADX, the federal governments version of Supermax, an underground prison in Colorado. He was a grumpy fella who muttered something about taking my head off if I didn’t cut off that light. I later learned he had been down (prison talk for incarcerated) thirty nine years. He was steeped in prison “etiquette”, and the unwritten rules of survival at every level of the prison system. Although I knew better, I gently challenged him. I asked if the rule to shut off my light included a caveat for being able to hear his music blaring every night even though he was wearing headphones. He stared at me blankly. He was either shocked that I was challenging him, or he was contemplating the many ways he could shank me without jeopardizing his newly acquired minimum security status. I think to some degree, he had not realized his music was so loud, but nonetheless he mumbled something about snuffing me out in my sleep, and then he went back to reading his bible. As I laid back down, I could hear my mama in my head saying; “Fool, he just might have the wherewithal to snuff you out.” I imagined having to engage in hand to hand combat with the bulldog in the confines of my small cube. I figured my 72 year old cellie would probably be no help. The thought was fleeting, I decided to lower my light, show deference and respect to the bulldog, and I quickly fell asleep.
The next morning came quickly. I was up by 5:00am, and so was the Bulldog. He was back in his chair hard at work doing his resistance training. He was in the middle of a set of curls. The bulldog’s routine was disciplined. He got up around 5:00am, quickly made his bed, shimmied down the ladder of the bunk beds, and on to his chair for a vigorous resistance work out. After his workout, he showered, donned his pressed prison gear and his shined prison boots, and headed off to work at UNICOR (the federal governments version of New Aged Slavery). It dawned on me more than once that the Bulldog would have made an excellent drill sergeant, but for being busted at 22 for drugs. (he was originally given life plus forty years in a historical dope case, but was given clemency by President Obama whereby the life sentence was removed. Therefore, the Bulldog is serving the remainder of a forty year bid (prison sentence) with 10 years of supervised release to follow) As an aside, a historical case is where people come into court to testify, for various reasons, that they engaged in drug transactions with the defendant. There is rarely any actual dope. In prison this is known as a “ghost dope” case. The amounts to which the witnesses testified are aggregated into a total weight. The total weight is then applied to the defendant as if he had trafficked in the amount the witnesses or co-defendants attributed to him. This type of case is a tactic utilized mostly at the Federal level, and can result in some hefty sentences for drug offenders. Anyway, after I made my bed, folded up my extra sheet and blanket, and transferred my reading light back into the confines of my locker, I headed off to breakfast. Of course, I had to wait until the “big voice” came over the prison loud speaker authorizing us to leave the unit. I was not the only hungry soul. The line was long. I waited for whatever it was they happened to be serving. As I stood there, I noticed how various prisoners trade bread, fruit, or milk with one another. I decided I would get the milk, even though as most of my friends know my stomach certainly could not handle it, not to mention the fact that it comes in a bag. I figured I would offer it to another inmate on my way to sitting on the “Black/Hispanic” side of the chow hall. (Black people had the main part of one section with the Hispanics occupying a few tables in the corner. White people had the other section to themselves–these types of informal seating arrangements in prison are troublingly common, but true.) As I walked toward a seat, I spotted the bulldog. He saw me too! He offered me a seat, I politely declined, but offered my two bags of milk. He accepted, thanked me, and smiled. Phew!!!! I ate my banana feeling relieved.
After breakfast, I walked back to the housing unit. As I turned to enter my cube, I heard a voice— “Aye, Aye Big Homie!” Uh oh, it was the bulldog. He stuck out his hand and apologized. He thanked me for the milk, and he told me if I needed anything, to “see him.” He went on to say that often times he may seem angry at various prisoners, including me, but in actuality, he was “angry at what the system did to him.” Prison is a very complex place. Clearly I have a lot to learn. There are many rules, it can be dangerous, and interestingly enough, respect is paramount, but giving a man a “fish” can go a very long way.