April 16th, 2011 Comments Off on Chapter Seven
Even with the few amenities available to prisoners in the Segregation Building, or the Isolation and Detention Building as it was also known, the prisoners there succeeded in making life for themselves as bearable as possible under the circumstances. There was more than enough time to figure out ingenious ways to cope. Ernesto had obtained for himself an empty coffee can and he attached it to a string he had made from threads pulled from his clothing. By puncturing the coffee can in two places at its top and pulling the string through the holes he fashioned a handle or bridle of sorts for the can. To the bridle he attached a long length of string. Directly across the corridor from his cell was a steam radiator and when he could talk the guard into filling the can with coffee and placing the can on the radiator all Ernesto had to do was to lift up and pull the hot coffee to him when he was ready for it. It, however, the guard consented to give him extra coffee but wouldn’t place the can on the radiator, Ernesto solved the problem by attaching the can to the light fixture on the cell’s ceiling. Then, suspending the can in a way that immersed half of the bare light bulb in the coffee, he had only a few minutes to wait for the warm coffee he wanted.
String was the most valuable tool in the Segregation Building for transferring objects of one sort or another. Most of the string was made by unraveling the yarn from the tops of prison issue socks and the braiding and knotting it for whatever strength or length was required. Everyone in the Segregation Building had a supply of string adequate for his needs. In late 1953, when ventilation grates and ducts were at long last installed in the building, string became even more important because such things as tobacco and food were passed from one floor to the other through the ventilation ducts. Up until they were installed the sewer main linking the toilets on each floor was the principal conduit for the transfer of cigarettes. The sewer’s shortcoming, of course, was that items placed in it could only be transferred horizontally, not vertically. When the ventilation ducts were put in transfers could take place from anywhere in the building.
Because the ventilation shaft leading to the outlet in the cell below was not within the cell itself but out in a utility corridor separating the cell banks it was often necessary for the prisoner in the upper cell to use a pole. The pole was made by rolling up the pages of The War Cry, the religious magazine published by the Salvation Army, and telescoping one rolled page within another until the necessary length was obtained. The prisoner in the upper cell then tied the cigarettes to one end of the string and the opposite end to the tip of his pole, much like a fishing rig. When he lowered the cigarettes in the shaft the prisoner in the cell below used a crude mirror fashioned from the inside of a small salve tin to guide his benefactor to the left or right, as the case required, until contact was made. In this manner upward of downward transfers became quite easy. It took a while but inmates in the Segregation Building weren’t going anywhere anyway.
Before the ducts were installed, when the toilets were used for the movement of materials, the string was flushed to the receiver on the other side of the hole, once the string was retrieved, the toilets were dried with the pants so that the tobacco, cigarette papers and matches would not get wet or soaked. And then the boodle was pulled up for the celebration.
Up on the third floor of the Segregation Building where the prisoners awaiting execution were kept, one of them became the butt of what might properly be called gallows humor. The condemned man had come home unexpectedly and caught his wife in bed with another man. Temporarily insane, he fetched a shotgun and shot his wife and her lover, killing both of them. When the cuckolded husband was leaving the house, he chanced upon the family dog and, being still temporarily insane, he also shot and killed the innocent pet.
One day when he, the condemned man, was heard crying and sniffling over his death sentence, the other cons yelled, “Stop your fucking crying you stupid mother-fucker! You would not have gotten a day for shooting your wife and her jocker, but you had to shoot the poor innocent dog! You dumb bastard, now stop your fucking crying!.”
Another inmate yelled out to the condemned man, “I’ll bet you are crying like a baby because you miss your dog now.”
The more he was teased, the louder he cried. His remorseful crying fell on deft ears, no one seemed to care.
(Recently, 2008, The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in part, that Nebraska the only state that used it as its sole means of execution could have a death penalty but not one that offends rights under the state constitution. That evidence shows that electrocution inflicts intense pain and agonizing suffering….)
While Ernesto was still in the Nebraska Penitentiary, the governor commuted the killer’s sentence to life imprisonment and he no longer had to worry about being taken to the room on top of the hospital building where, because of the high voltage involved, the electric chair was housed. Prison rumor had it that there was a sign on the back of the electric chair which read, “You can be sure, if it’s Westinghouse.”
Warden Hann was probably close to the truth when he later told the Lincoln Evening Journal that ten percent of the inmates were incorrigible and caused most of the problems, but certain guards were equally to blame for the problems to which Hann alluded. Many of them used excessive force better described as brutality, they lied, and some took it upon themselves to punish the prisoners in their own little ways, especially the inmates in the Segregation Building. And if the men sent to the hole were corrigible when they went in many were incorrigible when they came out, because it was there where the prisoners were most vulnerable to the guards who had a sadistic streak in their make-up. Underlying the entire fabric of life in a maximum security facility is the simple fact that both inmates and guards are afraid of one another, and frequently with good reason. Neither side cares to bring out the best in the other and it was all too easy for the men who ran Lincoln Penitentiary to forget that men were sent to prison as punishment and not for punishment, a nuance Hann gave lip service to but ignored in practice, Ernesto believes.
It is doubtful that even the Black Hole of Calcutta would have curbed the teenage Mexican’s combative, rebellious nature and there can be no doubt that Ernesto’s behavior became worse if he thought he or his fellow inmates were being short-changed by the guards. On one of his many stays in the hole, Rodriguez ran into difficultly with one of the more objectionable guards, a man named Nance who had just been promoted to captain. Nance was the kind of man who enjoyed trying to wake prisoners by waving a flashlight beam back and forth across their faces while they slept. When Nance was making his rounds one evening he overheard Ernesto talking to the prisoner in the next cell and he got mad.
“Alright, you dummy,” he barked at Rodriguez, “when I come into the hole I want silence, not one goddamn word. Not a sound from you, and when I talk to you, Rodriguez, I expect you to stand up. Is that clear?” He pulled his cap down low over his forehead to make sure his new captain’s insignia could be seen.
“Why don’t you go fuck yourself!” Ernesto suggested and turned his back on the man.
Rodriguez had almost finished his most recent thirty days in the hole, the maximum allowed, and had only one day to go. But, as the reader may suspect, it was another thirty-one days before he was released from solitary. Nance had reported Ernesto for insolence and claimed that the prisoner had spit on him, something Ernesto had never done to any man in his life.
At the time, Rodriguez wasn’t told why he’d been given an additional thirty days, but a year later the guard who had been with Nance at the time told him why.
“I never spit on him!” Ernesto exploded.
“I know you didn’t.” the guard agreed.
“If I go see the warden, will you back me up, tell him the truth?”
The guard agreed to, but when Ernesto confronted the warden with Nance’s lie the warden just shrugged. His mind was closed.
“I don’t give a shit, Rodriguez. I’ve got the report right here in front of me and I don’t see anything wrong with Captain Nance’s report–Get out of here!”
Furious, Rodriguez replied, “You tell Nance that the next time I see him I’m not going to spit on him, I’m going to spit all over him!”
A few weeks later Nance again had duty in the hole and Rodriguez was ready for him. He had spent the entire morning filling a large paper cup with spit. Even the thought of Nance’s face and neat white captain’s shirt made him salivate, get juicy.
“Oh, Captain,” Rodriguez called out in his nicest voice, as he saw Nance approach , “I have something for you.”
When the captain reached the cell door Rodriguez caught him square on the face and chest with a brimming cup of spit. There wasn’t a damn thing more Nance could do to him anyway, because Ernesto was already in the hole.
The ranking jailhouse lawyer in the penitentiary was a man named Harry Dunn. He was a slender, middle-aged man with a small paunch, who in his prior life had been an attorney. When the legal fees from his noble profession fell below expectations he had turned to armed robbery as a side line. Once he was known to be a thief, his law business had fallen off somewhat which, naturally, served only to intensify his interest in robbery. When he had been picked up the last time he was sentenced to twenty-five to fifty years at the Lincoln State Prison.
Harry Dunn may have been a lousy robber but he wasn’t a bad lawyer, at least not from a prison warden’s point of view. From Dunn’s cell flowed an uninterrupted stream of writs and petitions with which, by law, the warden was unable to interfere. Dunn’s campaign against James Jones, Hann’s predecessor as warden, was widely credited with Jones’ short tenure. Whether he was in the Segregation Building or out among the general prison population, Harry Dunn was a loose cannon, the type of man who could give Hann a bad reputation with the governor or the State Board of Control, which was responsible for the reformatories and the prison.
As in all penal institutions, the grapevine in the Lincoln Penitentiary was a rapid and effective communication system. It worked twenty-four hours a day and required no fiber optics or unions. Rumor had it, Ernesto remembers, that Hann was guilty of a number of improprieties, among them that prison meat was fed to Hann’s dogs, food from the prison cannery went to two prostitutes thought to be friendly with Hann and his deputy, a prison automobile was used to transport the two men to the races, inmates were used to build a garage for a prison official with state lumber, prison rifles and ammunition were used for hunting, and that choice steers belonging to the state were traded to the warden’s friends for range cows from whence came the prisoners’ hamburger meat. Much of the information about the alleged improprieties came from a lifer named Joe Beads who chauffeured the warden and his cronies. These allegations, when coupled with the known brutalities regularly occurring, were of enormous interest to Harry Dunn, who converted them to legalese and passed them along to the state’s highest authorities.
When action taken to correct the abuses wasn’t as fast in coming as Dunn thought it should be, he shifted to a sure fire strategy he had used against Hann’s predecessor, he organized a fire in the prison laundry. The danger to the inmates was minimal and the danger to the members of the prison establishment was the media. Being a clever man, Dunn, of course, didn’t want to be identified as the instigator.
On January 29th, 1954, the fire in the laundry was lighted, sirens screamed, bells jangled, and the screws reacted as Dunn had predicted. As well staged as the victory march in Aida, the fire did thousands of dollars damage to the building and equipment, but no one was injured. Several officials thought they detected Harry Dunn’s fine Italian hand in the uproar and claimed he had been part of it, but Dunn had anticipated that possibility. At the peak of the confusion he grabbed a guard around the neck and shoved him out of the burning building, claiming later to have saved the guard’s life. He told the investigators that he himself hadn’t dared leave the building because he was afraid he’d be shot by the guards ringing the laundry. Of course, what he didn’t say was that he wanted to stay inside to light more fires.
Rodriguez remembers that he hole in the Segregation Building had six cells. One hundred inmates thought to be involved in the riot and some responsible for the laundry fire, including Harry Dunn, were jammed into those six cells, where they were put on bread and water. So jammed were the cells that prisoners had to sleep in shifts. Most of them were forced to pack tightly together, upright, to permit a very few to sleep. Sitting up took up too much room.
In the cell tier above the hole Ernesto made plans to feed the less fortunate men below. They weren’t as accustomed to the bread and water routine so he wanted to do what he could. The kindest thing the men on the second floor could do was to share their food if they could get it down there.
Anticipating a rainy day or a need for favors, Ernesto had had the foresight to produce three new “fuck books” for future barter. One of theguards, whose name escapes Ernesto, was especially taken by the little books and Rodriguez knew it. If anyone could be bribed it was he. The word was passed from cell to cell on the second tier for each man to save as much of his own food as possible. Wrap it up and we’ll get someone to put it down the ventilation shafts leading into the cells in the hole, they were told. And as evidence that there is more than honor among thieves, it wasn’t long before Ernesto had a supply of food collected and was ready to negotiate. When the susceptible and excitable guard next came on duty Rodriguez was ready for him.
“Hey Shit Head,” Ernesto called out to the guard when he came on duty, “I got some new books you might want to see.” (If you were on friendly terms with a guard, it was all right to be a little disrespectful.)
“Yeah, I’d like that,” the guard agreed, sauntering over to Ernesto’s cell door. “Let’s have a look.”
“These are really good juicy ones,” Rodriguez told him, “but before I show them to you–I got three of them–you have to do me a favor.”
“What’s that?” the sexually alert guard inquired.
“You gotta promise you’ll take the food we give you on this floor and shove it down the ventilation shafts to the hole. Those poor bastards haven’t done anything to deserve to be starved.”
“Oh no,” the guard replied in horror, his eyes narrowing, “I can’t do that. It’s against the rules and I’d get in a shit pot full of trouble, lose my job.”
“Look, you know fucking well nobody’s going to say a damn word about it. Ain’t nobody going to know, unless you tell. The guys in the hole won’t even know who done it. No risk at all, and you should see these books. My best. Here, let me show you one.”
The guard’s libido overcame his devotion to duty enough to make him sidle closer for a glance at the book Ernesto was holding. As Rodriguez paged through the book, the guard began to laugh and scratch his crotch, with almost immediate results.
“Hot damn!” he said, “That sure is something. You say you have three of them?”
“Yeah,” Ernesto smiled, waiting until the guard was fully tumescent, “the others are even better, but you can’t have any of them unless you cooperate with me. What d’ya say?”
“Oh shit, I suppose it’s okay, but I don’t want a goddamn word from any of you about his.”
“You got it man,” Ernesto replied, trying not to laugh. “As soon as the food’s put down there you get all three of these fuck books. You got a deal, but you have to help us as long as those guys are being starved down there, okay?”
“Yeah, it’ll be okay, but you better keep your mouth shut. I’ll tell ‘em you were lying and nobody’s gonna believe you, not you, Rodriguez.”
And thus it was that Harry Dunn and his co-rioters ate a bit better, received plenty of smokes for everybody that wanted a cigarette, than Hann had in mind. When Dunn was put in the hole with the others he had warned Hann that if he wasn’t released immediately that he, Dunn, would have the warden’s job within a year, that all he needed was a few law books.
“Fuck you Harry Dunn,” the warden replied. “You ain’t going nowhere and you don’t get any law books.”
“I’ll make you carry them to me personally, you two-bit crook,” Dunn vowed.
Ernesto’s quick temper and playfulness continued to cause him trouble. No sooner would he be taken off bread and water and moved to the second tier than he’d find some new way to anger his jailors. Then it was back again to the hole. Like a yo-yo, it was up and down, up and down for the Mexican malcontent.
During one of his many sojourns in the hole, two of the inmates in the end cell succeeded in picking the padlock on their cell door by inserting a very thin strip of metal into the top of the old fashioned Master Lock padlock. Once the tumblers were released the lock pulled open easily and the two men were freed to move about the corridor, where they set about trying to pick the locks of the other prisoner’s cells. They could all escape together.
Unfortunately, a guard who worked in the Segregation Building chose that moment to come on duty. The stairway leading into the Segregation Building was mounted on the outside of the building and as he climbed the steps he happened to glance into the narrow window at the end of the hole’s corridor. There, to his horror, he saw two dangerous felons walking about free in the corridor, a sight which caused him to dash up the steps and sound the alarm.
Ernesto had seen the guard’s face peer through the window and he yelled, “Hey you guys, you’ve been seen by a screw. Through the window. He’s gone to get help.”
The two prisoners quickly returned to their cell and locked themselves in, waiting for the goon squad to appear on the scene. By the time the heavily armed men arrived, all was quiet and serene in the hole. Each inmate was counted and all locks carefully tested. What, the prisoners wanted to know, was all the fuss about.
The dozen armed guards said nothing but continued, for what seemed to be a good half an hour, to pound each bar with a hammer expecting a bar or bars to fall apart–they just knew they would find a hole where the inmates had crawled through, but found nothing–no broken bars nor opened locks.
The guard swore he had seen two prisoners out in the corridor, showed them where he had been when he saw them, and appeared to be quite overwrought by the whole experience. When the guard was asked to return to the Administration Building with the others he continued to claim he had seen prisoners in the corridor. The matter was finally settled by Hann and Greenholtz, who suggested that he take a two week vacation and not come back until he was much better. They also assured him that after that he would have to get used to the strains of penitentiary work, but at this moment, a few days off might remedy his overworked imagination.
On several occasions after the episode of the phantom prisoners the guard approached Ernesto and tried to get assurance from him that he hadn’t been hallucinating, but Ernesto chose not to allay the guard’s natural concern about tricks people’s minds sometimes play. Especially if these people are guards because anyone who chose to work in a prison had to be crazy anyway.
When the laundry fire, which Harry Dunn had organized, failed to bring about a thorough investigation of prison conditions, specially in the Segregation Building, the prisoners’ leadership cadre decided to escalate their rebellion. The Laundry fire hadn’t been a total waste of time because it had produced a few small inquiries about the food and conditions in the Segregation Building. Preachers and doctors who visited the inmates there passed along their complaints, but no remedial action of any consequence was taken. One way or another, the prisoners decided, they were going to get attention, even if it meant murder. Murder couldn’t be whitewashed and it surely would stir up the media hive.
John M. Clausen was one of the few guards without an enemy in the prison. Most of the prisoners liked him and seldom gave him trouble, but he was an unlucky man. Fate gave him duty in the Print Shop on April 16th, 1954, the day the inmates chose to murder a guard, any old guard. Clausen’s attacker sneaked up behind the trusting man and, using a razor sharp knife, cut his throat from ear to ear, almost severing the head from the body. Later, after the body had been photographed where it fell, Clausen’s remains were carried by stretcher from the Print Shop to the Hospital for an autopsy. According to witnesses, the stretcher bearers didn’t realize how little tissue still connected the head to the body and people following the procession were horrified to see the head separate itself from the trunk and fall with a dull thud on the floor. The assailant had severed the backbone but the blood had hidden that.
An investigation of the State Penitentiary’s administration was called for by Senator Arthur Carmody. Warden Herbert H. Hann gave the suggestion his hearty approval, according to the Lincoln Evening Journal.
“As a taxpayer,” Hann said, “I would like to see the state get some benefit from any investigation. The inquiry should be made by people who know something about the operation of an institution of this kind, not by an inexperienced person who does not understand convict reactions.”
Hann recommended a committee selected from members of the National Association of Prison Officials be chosen to investigate the Lincoln Penitentiary. He knew many of the association members and surely, as professionals, they would have some valuable suggestions to make. Lincoln, Nebraska, was not the Paris of the Midwest, the pheasants weren’t in season, or anything, but surely some entertainment could be found for the visiting committee of prison experts.
To no one’s particular surprise, three union officials of the State Penitentiary defended Herbert Hann in connection with what they called “recent bad publicity.” According to the three union officials, all of who worked for Hann, “the warden adds dignity to the institution. He gives more time to the inmates than other wardens have done to help them with their own problems.”
Nineteen prisoners had been in the Print Shop at the time of Clausen’s murder, but none could be pointed to as the killer with any certainty. Suspects’ shoes, clothing, gloves, hair samples, fingernail scrapings, and even the murder knife were sent to the FBI Laboratory in Washington, D.C. Sodium amatol, the “truth serum”, was used to supplement lie detector tests, but with all these aids the true identity of the killer eluded the investigators.
Governor Robert Crosby immediately appointed a three man committee of distinguished Nebraskans to look into the problems of the penitentiary that may have led to the murder. The governor wanted the committee to make its investigation without waiting for the Clausen case to be solved. He wanted no more deaths.
In the end two men were charged with Clausen’s murder, Edward McClelland, and Joseph DeJonghe. Harvey Durbin, another inmate, who was scheduled to testify as the state’s witness against the two men, committed suicide in his cell before he could testify. DeJonghe, the limp-wrist son of a well-to-do out of state family, was sent to a mental institution and McClelland was acquitted. McClelland was a habitual liar and an enthusiastic homosexual who, by claiming to have committed a murder of which he was innocent, had lied his way into prison. McClelland wanted to be in prison because in those days before it was fashionable for homosexuals to come out of the closet, prison was where the action was–no real competition there.
The governor’s investigating committee dug about the prison, unearthing whatever it could. In November of 1954, when the three men made their report, they blasted the prison administration, called for substantial personnel changes, and made five specific recommendations, the first three of which bore directly upon Ernesto’s existence.
First, the committee recommended, “Bread and water as a punishment should be abolished.” Second, “The so-called hole at the State Penitentiary should be eliminated.” Third, “No mental patients should be permitted at the State Pewnitentiary.”
During the course of the committee’s investigation, Ernesto had been questioned at some length about conditions in the Segregation Building. He had certainly spent enough time in the hole to offer expert advice. Restricting a prisoner to bread and water for two out of three days, Ernesto thought, served as an irritant, not a deterrent. The hole, even the concept of the hole, belonged back in the medieval times, not in twentieth century America. And, of course, if they had kept insane people out of the State Penitentiary, that crazy Mexican who had cut his own wife into itty bitty pieces would not have tried to cut Ernesto into chitlins. The committee’s recommendations were sensible, but by the time the State Board of Control acted upon them, if they did, more time would have to elapse, more hole time for Hann’s minions.
The summer of 1954 was a hot one in the Segregation Building and when the prisoners weren’t allowed to take their weekly showers tempers flared. It had been more than ten days since they had a bath and their complaints to the guards fell upon deaf ears. The best way to get the attention of the authorities, the men decided, was for the prisoners to hang onto the food contaners they were given each day, not to return them to the guards. If they weren’t returned, they couldn’t be washed for the next meal. The conatiner would be returned if the men were allowed to shower and if they weren’t the men would settle in for a siege. The upshot of the episode was that Ernesto was teargassed for the first time, because when he returned his food tin to Deputy Warden Greenholtz he threw the remaining raisins, maple syrup, and other sticky comestibles, with added water, in the warden’s belligerent face. Ernesto smiled as it dripped down his face, on to his starched white shirt, on to his nice tie, and down his pants.
All of the inmates on the second floor were moved down to the hole, which as fast in the way of becoming Ernesto’s spiritual home.
Chess was the most popular and widely played game for those who understood the game, for those on the upper floors or in the hole. Checkerboards were fashioned from pieces of toilet paper, each square having a name. The spitballs were used as the movable pieces. Cockroaches, resting after a heavy meal, would frequently hear one of their benefactors call out, “Knight to queen bishop three and check,” and so on–“your move, motherfucker!”
Not everyone adapted to the hole as well as Rodriguez did. Some inmates couldn’t stand it, as was the case with one man from Omaha, who claimed he was a member of the Omaha’s Mafia. Outside of the Segregation Building, when he mixed with the general prison population, the man was a a braggart, but inside the hole he was a whiner.
Ernesto laughter, remembering him. “The dumb bastard started crying that he couldn’t do the seven days he’d been sentenced to. He was just crying and crying, saying that he wanted to go to the hospital, couldn’t stand the hole. Fucking stomach ached. Me, whenever I got put back in the hole, I’d find a corner and sleep for eighteen hours–put myself in a trance–and then I’d exercise like a son-of-a-bitch. I could do one hundred and fifty push ups in one setting and would do three to four sets a day, that sort of stuff.”
“Why don’t you quit crying? I asked the guy, I have been here listening to you now for two days and It’s starting to get on my nerves. Cut it out!”
“’Well, goddamnit,’ he sanpped, ‘not everybody can do their time like you.’
“I slapped the shit out of him and when the guy came to again–he wasn’t hurt or nothing–he was the quietest, nicest guy you ever did see. We didn’t talk much, except every once in a while when I’d ask, ‘how are you doing?’
“’Fine,’ he’d say.
“can you handle it?
“’I can now,’ he’d smile. “Shit, he was good as gold.”
Among the prisoners, Ernesto lived up to the highest conduct standards of the incorrigibles. No one, if Rodriguez could hellp it, was going to out-incorrigible him and he lived by that old maxim, “Don’t get mad, get even.”
One episode which serves to illustrate his keen desire to get even involved a guard who took it upon himself to deny the prisoners a second cup of coffee. All the other guards would fill the prisoners’ cans with coffee left over from the first serving. Not the new guard. He was going to show the prisoners who was boss and he figured one cup of coffee was more than enough for anyone.
Ernesto had been moved from the hole up to one of the cells on the third floor, one of the death cells, because it happened to be the vacant cell on the floor at the time. It was a spacious cell compared with the others, its only drawback being that it was at the end of the line for food and coffee service. After Ernesto and the guard had exchanged words over the new coffee policy, the guard took it upon himself to further cut Ernesto’s ration, sometimes claiming he had run out of coffee when Ernesto knew damn well he hadn’t. What, wondered the King of the incorrigibles, would be an appropiate response.
Ernesto began to study the new guard’s habits very closely and soon discovered that the man often slept on duty. He would settle himself on a chair under the stairway, within Ernesto’s sight, which was not far from Ernesto’s end cell, and then snore happily for an hour or more. Looking at the guard through the barred window–the feeding slot– of his cell, Rodriguez realized his quarry was five or six feet away and slightly lower, but definitely within range of reprisal.
In the Armed Srrvices during World War II there was a vulgaism known as a “piss call”, the name given to being rudely awakened to stand duty. If Ernesto had been in the Navy, a shipmate would have shaken his shoulder and yelled, “Okay Rodriguez–Wake up! The world is on fire! Hit the deck and piss it out!” But whether Ernesto had ever heard of WW II piss calls or not, he developed a variety of his own. And what a great way, he thought, to wake up that over-eager bastard.
What Ernesto needed for his scheme was a tube about as long two pool sticks to reach his target. He had made a number of them during his stay in the Segregation Building, to reach the men in the hole and transfer cigarette, tobacco, and matches through the ventilation system. He had made them from pages of The War Cry, a religious magazine published by the Salavtion Army. But the one he needed now would have to be longer, stronger, and its interior completely waterproof. The same amount of religion would do very nicely.
Slowly the telescope-like tube took form. The interior side of each page was greased with petroleum jelly and one didn’t have to be an engineer to know that the center section would have to be guyed with string for support until Ernesto could get it to rest on the stairway’s metal railing, and extend it out directly above the sleeping guard’s head.
Once the tube was extended from the cell and lowered to a position over the guard’s head, Ernesto had to had to tie a string from the center of the tube to his window, to prevent it from buckling. The resourceful Mexican certainly did not want the conduit to collapse in the middle of his message.
As he had been working on his project Ernesto had begun drink one cup of water after another. He had lost count, but his bladder told him he had more than he would need for his wake up call. In the mean time, his target was getting snottier with every minute that went by. It was time to get down to business to the business of getting even.
When the count was P plus five minutes and counting, the guard’s snores filled the corridor, Ernesto’s bladder was crying for relief, and the tube was cantilevered into position. Minutes later he was even.
“That dumb bastard was snoring up a storm. Sleeping on the taxpayers’ time. After I’d been pissing in that damn tube for about a whole minute I heard him scream out, ‘You dirty bastard–you son-of-a-bitching convict!’
Earlier, the neighbor, Joe Beads who was aware of what Ernesto was up to, had taken a dump and passed it down to Ernesto to be used as a weapon. And while the guard was examining his wet clothes and screaming, Ernesto threw the excrements hitting the guard on the face and chest.
“I threw the rest of the stuff at him, and yelled, here’s some more since you like working here so much.” All the inmates in The Segregation Building were screaming with joy and cheering me on.”
“‘That’s it!’ he screamed, ‘That’s it I’m through!’
“He ran to the telephone, called somebody–administration I suppose–and I heard him say, ‘I’ve never been so humiliated in my life. The son-of-a-bitch pissed on me, threw shit at me. You better have someone over here in three minutes or this goddamn place is going to be empty of one guard–I quit!’
Ernesto had waited, knowing they would be coming to get him or move him to another cell. The hole was not being used during the investigation. Ernesto heard the keys rattling, and saw the guard run out the door quitting his job, he saw an old familiar face, that was Hann.
It was the warden and one of the biggest guards on the goon squad who was carrying a baseball bat. They were going up the stairs, both of them wearing raincoats and rain hats. Peeking up at Rodriguez cautiously, as if they were expecting more of the same.
“That’s all right, warden,” I told him. “Come on up. I’m not going to pee on you, or throw stuff on you.”
Hann pushed the key into the cell’s lock and unlocked the door. As he walked in, he asked, “How’s your nose?”
“Fine, how’s your fucking eye?”
“‘What’s going on up here?’ the warden wanted to know.
“I told him everything, about being short changed and stuff. Hann listened and then told me to get my belongings. I thought I might be going back to the hole. But they surprised me and put me in one of the end cells on the third floor. In that cell I could not see anything except the prison wall. There was no one in any of the cells. I was alone. The guards would not come near my cell, they made sandwiches and threw them, up in from of my cell. I had to reach out with my coveralls and pull them in if I wanted to eat. I got nothing to drink except water from my cell. It was two months before they allowed me to come out of cell to take a shower.
“I had been in the Segregation Building and in the hole for almost two years. But those bastards didn’t keep me in there for the remainder of my sentence. No.”
“Hell, after that last go around with Hann–when he was looking so silly in his rain coat–I started acting real nice. Didn’t give any of them trouble, y’kniow. Harry Dunn was a good friend of mine and he wrote me up a writ petitioning the court to get me released from segregation.”
“After mailing the petition to the courts and mailing a copy to the warden I asked to see him and he had me taken to his office. Where I told him that I was tired of being in the Segregation Building. I promised him I would drop the petition if he released me from the Segregation Building. I asked him to think it over and let me know.”
“Well the warden called me a few days later and told me he was going to let me out of the Segregation Building that day. I think it was the writ that got me out. Besides the writ, there was the murder case of John Clausen and Harry Dunn’s writ in the court. I am sure Hann did not want another writ going into the courts, as it would cause him more trouble and perhaps another investigation. Harry Dunn’s promise of getting me out of the Segregation Building had become a reality. I was moved to the West Cell Block, a lock up section–under punishment status, that same afternoon.”
There was one rather profound difference between the main cell blocks and the Segregation Building. It was the amount of homosexual activity that took place after “light out” in the main cell blocks. Each evening, trysts were kept after the last cell check was made. When the prison’s heart beat slowed to a murmur late at night, cell doors flew open and the “Sissies” and “Girls” described earlier dashed madly from their cells to those of their “Daddies” or “Jockers” where their true love was consummated. It was the sissies’ job, while he was being had, to keep alert for any approaching guard. The bottom of salve cans became makeshift mirrors for that purpose.
For a prisoner to get out of his cell after dark wasn’t difficult. Toothbrushes were melted down and quickly shoved inside locks to take impressions of its tumblers. From these impressions keys were made, Also locking each cell door was a dead bolt system which was activated by a guard at the end of the corridor. Before the guard threw home the dead bolt at night, he manually checked each cell door to see it it was locked. If all were, he threw the dead bolt and the prison was secure. What the guards didn’t know was that often the doors weren’t locked, but were made to feel as though they were by wedged blocks of wood or prisoners’ feet holding the doors closed. The moment the guard passed the cell, the prisoners opened the door about three inches, enough to escape the dead bolt when it was thrown. If the cell door escaped the dead bolt, the prisoners were free to come and go all night. In the Segregation Building none of that action was possible because each cell had its own individual padlock backing up the door lock and the dead bolt system.
“There was a tremendous difference being in the West Cell Block–like a country club compared to the hole. We were marched under guard–to the Mess Hall three times a day for our meals and back to our cells–no recreation time was allowed for us.”
Rodriguez wasn’t exactly cut out for a life of luxury, as subsequent events soon proved.
“I suppose it was really too good to be true. I wasn’t out very long,” Ernesto explained, “because I was having trouble with my earphones and reported it to the guard. When the repairman came the guard told me to step out into the gallery while the guy fixed the headset. Two cells away from mine, on the right, was a little Italian friend of mine named Pasquale, so I walked over to see him.
“Hey, Pasquale, what’s going on?” I asked.
“Oh, not much, Ernie. Whatcha doing?”
“They are fixing my headset. Shouldn’t take too long. I’m just waiting.”
“The guard yelled, ‘Get away from there! You’re not supposed to talk to that prisoner!’”
“How come?’ I asked, “He’s my friend.”
“Never mind! You come over here and you stand in front of your cell!”
“What’s the problem, I’m not doing any harm.”
“‘You do what I tell you!’ the guard was getting red in the face.”
“What harm am I doing talking to this guy? Tell me and I’ll stop.”
“‘Goddamn you!’ the screw yelled, and came over and put his hand on my arm. “Get back to your cell!’”
“Look,” I told him, “I’m going to give you just one warning. Get your fucking hands off me, now!”
“He jerked me towards my cell and ordered, ‘Get over there! And I hit him, bang! Up against the bars he went. He swung back but I hooked him a couple of times real good and all of a sudden he yelled, “Fuck this!’ and took off down the gallery with me chasing. Got him a couple of shots with my foot too.”
“Pasquale kept yelling, ‘Don’t hit him! Don’t hit him! Ernie! Stop. They’ll get you.’”
“that damn screw had left the place so fast he hadn’t bothered to close any of the doors he’d unlocked. You could hear him yelling all over the place. Pasquale was right. I knew they’d be coming for me, so I went back to my cell and just waited for them, y’know.”
Six guards, led by Captain Nance, a man on whom Ernesto had once unloaded a cupful of spit, were soon milling about outside the Rodriguez cell. Each was armed with a baseball bat, and Ernesto knew damn well that Nance would like nothing better than for Ernesto to give them a hard time, to offer them an excuse for batting practice. He was told to strip naked, put his hands above his head, and back out of his cell. He was not even allowed to keep the gold chain and gold cross he wore around his neck. It was September, the first frost day was only a few days away and Ernesto was marched “nekkid”, as he describes it, back to the hole. Six more months of his sentence remained.
For Ernesto, life once again crept on in its petty pace from day to day. October came, then November, when the Investigating Committee’s highly critical report was published, and finally December, the month Ernesto witnessed three guards at play.
Ernesto was in one of the end cells on the second floor that day. Three guards were whispering to each other at the opposite end of the corridor, where they were out of sight from any of the cells. One guard was named Hart, another Dakota, and Ernesto can’t remember the name of the third. Unbeknownst to the three guards. Ernesto was able to watch everything they were doing, because their activities were sharply reflected in the glass of the corridor window in front of Rodriguez’ cell. He had the best seat in the house. Certain very suggestive noises coming from the end of the corridor had attracted his attention and although he may have missed the first scene, he didn’t miss the finale in which Officer Hart gave oral sexual satisfaction to his two comrades in corrections.
Maybe it wasn’t up to the high standards of a good dog and pony show in a Mexican border town, but the guards’ performance drew a rave notice from Ernesto.
“Oh boy!” shouted Ernesto, shaking his cell door, “You ought to have seen what I just did! Do I have a good story about those guards! Oh boy!”
“What’s happening?” Joe Rogue, an American Indian, in the opposite cell bank inquired.
“Oh, it’s a juicy one!” Ernesto laughed, “You should have seen what I just saw!”
As Ernesto recalls, “Hart came running down to my cell and passed me a little note which read, ‘Don’t tell anyone what you saw. If you do, it will be bad for both of us.’ He just handed it to me and left.”
“I knew I had some good evidence and that he might figure out I did, too, so I hid the note in a place nobody’s ever find it. I was afraid, y’know, they would come searching. I took apart the light fixture and pushed that little note way, way back, in the electrical conduit, back where nobody could see it, even with a flashlight. But I knew it was there and I could fish it out if I needed it.”
“Hart was so nice to me after that. ‘I’ll do anything you’d like me to do,’ he kept saying. He would bring me cookies and other things and as soon as he was gone they’d go straight in the toilet. I didn’t trust him and I didn’t want to get poisoned.
After that he left me alone, never wrote another bad report against me, not after that, nothing.”
In January of 1955 Warden Hann announced to the newspapers that the hole was condemned, that prisoners would no longer be put in it. The hole wouldn’t be used anymore, that is, unless someone damn well deserved it, but that qualification wasn’t included in the news release.
There were many interesting and colorful personages who passed through the portals of the Segregation Building. There was Joe Beades, a lifer up for second degree murder, “Red” Sledge, a former fighter and a resourceful burglar, Joe Rogue–an American Indian (who taught Ernesto how to speak the Souix Indian language.) who was up for attempted rape, Harry Dunn, the attorney played himself, and Ray Tappia, a burglar from Denver and a accomplished escape artist. Many other lads whose felonies were too numerous to mention completed the cast of characters.
Joe Beades, the lifer, was one of the first cons to recognize the need for better tools in the Segregation Building. There wasn’t one damn thing available to the building’s inmates capable of sawing through bars. His idea was to smuggle a small knife into the place which would be available to anyone wishing to make an escape attempt.
Joe succeeded in getting himself sent to the prison hospital for a short stay, because it was there that a butter knife or some other harmless looking instrument was least likely to be missed. If he could find a blade the right size, he knew how he’s smuggle it out of the hospital; he’d shove it up his ass. On the second day of his confinement he found what he was looking for and once he had it, it was easy to find the gauze, the rubber finger, and the petroleum jelly to be used on his container. If Joe Beades is alive today, he’s still probably laughing at that episode, because the toughest part of the heist was keeping the greased rubber finger in his rectum. It wanted out. Two steps, squeeze. Two steps, squeeze. It took him a very long time, indeed, to walk between the hospital and the Segregation Building and the guard escorting him must have thought “pore ol Joe’ was a terminal case. Which in a way he was.
Joe Rogue, one of the few men in Nebraska who had spent more time in the Segregation Building and in the hole than Ernesto, was a Sioux Indian. Tough and taciturn, Rogue did not get along with Rodriguez because he insisted on calling the Mexican insulting names, such as “Tamale”, “Beaner”, “Greaser”. or “Chile Bean”. Joe Rogue enjoyed taunting Ernesto because the two men had never been put in the same cell.
“Look, you dumb bastard,” Ernesto would call out–sometimes in Sioux, which Rodriguez could speak slightly–”one of these days they’re going to put us in the same cell. Think about that. Then I’m going to give you an ass whipping you ain’t ever going to forget. If you’ve got hair on your ass, I’ll scalp it, too. Better watch your mouth!”
“Yeah, I hear you, Chili Bean. Things ain’t gonna be as easy as you think. I’m looking forward to it.”
For more than two years the men had been badmouthing each other and finally the inevitable happen. They were put in the same cell. The moment the guards were gone the fight began. Ernesto had no knife or serious weapon but he did have a little “Sticker” made from a short, rigid piece of wire he had worked off a straw broom, which was then sharpened into a fine point. The sticker could puncture the skin an inch or two, but that was about all it was good for.
In the beginning of the fight Ernesto parried Rogue’s blows with one arm and used his other to stick him with the sticker, “once,” as he told Rogue, “for every month you’ve insulted me.” When Ernesto thought he’d made enough holes in Rogue’s buttocks, arms, and shoulders, when there was blood all over the cell, Rodriguez threw away the sticker and began to fight in earnest.
Joe was not the fighter Ernesto was, but when it came to heart the Mexican had no advantage over the Indian. Rogue would not quit. Every time he got knocked down he would bounce right back up, but when the guards finally arrived on the scene the fight was entering its last stage. Just as they swung open the cell door Ernesto unloaded a vicious straight right that drove Joe Rogue backwards into the guards’ arms. But when they tried to hang on to him and drag him away, Joe wrapped his arms and legs around the cell bars. Shit, he was just getting to know his new cell mate. He still had some fight left in him, and it was a shame to waste it.
When the guards lugged Joe Rogue away to the cell next to Ernesto, he began to worry. He only had a few more months left to serve and what would happen if those punctures he’d given Joe became infected. Maybe they’d try him for assault with a deadly weapon. It all depended upon Joe Rogue, what happened to him and what he might say.
The Indian survived the fight and kept his mouth shut. Ernesto, for his part, vowed that if he ever got out of prison he’d find some way of doing something nice for Joe Rogue.
When the 1st of February rolled around Ernesto had little more than thirty days of his sentence left to serve. He was due for release March 5th. But once again he and the others in the Segregation Buillding were having trouble with one of the guards. This time it was a guard who bragged to prisoners about how much he hated them.
The guard repeatedly announced, “I hate murderers,” “I hate burglars”, or “I hate rapists,” and so forth. He really did hate the prisoners. He said so and they believed him, because at every opportunity he cut back their food rations as much as he dared. There was always something about petty abuses of this sort by guards that brought out the worst or the best in Ernesto, depending upon from which side it was viewed. Personally, the food made little difference to him because he had put himself on a rigid diet sixty days before his anticipated release date. But the other prisoners weren’t dieting and they were only getting two meals a day. That infuriated Ernesto.
When the unpopular guard next had the duty, Rodriguez requested the toilet plunger, claiming his toilet was clogged. It was an excuse to get the guard over to his cell. When he accepted the plunger Ernesto was at his chatty best. He lied to the guard about having lived in Lincoln for several years before his arrest, and told the guard how much he had liked the town. Where?, Ernesto wondered, did the guard and his wife hail from. Lincoln? Is that so? Great town. What was the guard’s wife’s name? You’re kidding! I knew her. What does she look like? Yeah, that’s her all right. Great girl. Yeah–went the conversation.
The screw’s guard was down and he seemed pleased that Ernesto thought his wife was such a great girl. And when Rodriguez beckoned for him to come closer, indicating he had something to say he didn’t want the other prisoners to hear, the guard stepped into the trap. “Did you know,” Ernesto half whispered, winking broadly, “that in the good old days your wife used to love taking it in the butt? Her favorite way. Yeah. Only way you could really get her to moan and groan some. Couldn’t ever seem to get enough. Yeah.”
“You dirty son-of-a-bitch!” the guard exploded.
“He rushed over to the phone and called the warden’s office,” Ernesto remembers. “I could hear him. Told them everything I’d said and I knew the warden himself would be right over. Giving a screw some verbal insolence meant the hole for me.”
“It wasn’t long before the warden and four other guards arrived. Hann stood in front of my cell, pulling on his leather gloves, flexing his fingers. Sort of tough guy shit–didn’t want to bruise his hands so other people could see them. Hann was still being watched pretty close, people were still snooping around after Clausen’s murder.”
“Hi Warden,” I said. “How’s your eye?”
“Hi Ernie. How’s your nose?”
“Just fine, thanks,” I said, picking up the plunger. “Maybe this time we can go at it again. I hope your are the first one through that door. It’s time to fix up that eye again for you.”
“Who gave him that plunger?” the warden asked the others and when the guard who’d started all the trouble explained how I’d gotten it the warden turned to me and ordered, “Gimme that plunger!”
“I ain’t giving you shit unless it’s up side your fucking head!”
“Rodriguez I’m warning you!”
“Look Warden, I don’t like this ass kicking any better than you. But some of your guards don’t leave me no choice. The only way we can get a problem straightened out is to get someone in authority down here to see for himself. This fucking guard has no business being here. None. He hates the prisoners and he’s screwing them out of their food, tobacco. And every item he can think of. I’m telling you the truth. Get him the hell out of here or tell him to treat us fair. It’s that or come in and get me and the plunger.”
The warden decided to deal with Ernesto at some later date. He and his goon squad walked away. Ernesto, who had braced himself up for another ass whipping, was sweating but glad it end in a safe way. He heard Hann say: “Come on men, we’ll get the plunger later. Let’s go…”
“When the warden left, the guard came over and growled at me, ‘You won this time, Rodriguez, but I’ll get you. When they let you out of this place next month, I’ll be waiting for you right outside the main gate.’”
“Why Officer,” I told him real nicely, “you don’t have the balls, I’ll just look you up myself. You had better find yourself a hole to crawl into for your own safety.” Ernesto replied.
A week or so after the episode with Hann a much more serious event occurred in the Segregation Building. One of the younger inmates succeeded in sawing through two bars in his cell, but once he stepped into the corridor he forgot the advice of the older inmates. They had told him to threaten the unarmed guard with his knife, from a distance, and order him into the cell once he had the keys, but not to jump him. He didn’t have to do that, the older men explained, because the guard would be scared shitless.
Well, the young man chose to do it his own way; He jumped the guard from behind, put the knife around his neck–the guard panicked perhaps remembering the murder of John Clause and went wild–throwing the inmate off his back. He ran of screaming out into the night, where he was almost shot by the tower guards. Fortunately, no shots were squeezed off before identification was made.
It wasn’t long before the goon squad was on the scene and apprehended the would-be escapee. He was stripped naked, beaten, and kicked down the stairs leading to the hole where he was then teargassed for good meassure.
(Ernesto who had been teargassed himself earlier, reports that the little droplets of liquid gas have a comet-like tail following them. When the gas touches moisture, especially of the sort found in the eye, nose or throat, a terrible burning sensation is triggered. Moisture, on the skin or elsewhere, is the catalyst.)
Before long the entire building filled with fumes and the inmates began talking up a riot, not because of the teargas, but because of what they had seen the goon squad do to the young man before they locked him in the hole.
Clothing and mattresses were torn up and stuffed down the toilets, the water spigots were turned wide open, and mattresses placed in front of the cell doors to trap as much water as possible. On signal, the mattresses were raised to free the trapped water and the prisoners watched with glee as it cascaded down to the cell tier below. The place was a mess, a big–big mess. Sewers backed up, tiny islands of human manure floated by, and the building’s plumbing system had to be freed of obstructions. So foul was the mess that Warden Herbert H. Hann reactivated the hole for disciplinary use, which was, of course, a joke because it had always been in use.
Other changes, beside the lip service given to closing down the hole, had taken place since Clausen’s murder. Hann no longer reported directly to the State Board of Control. Instead, he reported to Colonel B. Albert, who was now responsible for both state reformatories (men’s and women’s) and the State Penitentiary. Hann cold no longer shoot from the hip, but found it wise to discuss major decisions with Albert, who presumably was an expert in penal matters, a subject in which Hann as a former Hall County Sheriff could hardly claim to be. Trouble was brewing and one of the braumeisters–the man stirring the kettle–was that lovable old attorney, Harry Dunn.
On February 23rd Joe Beades, the lifer who smuggled the knife into Segregation Building, and Joe Rogue, the Sioux, were released from their cells on the third floor by the third floor guard who escorted them to the shower on the second floor. (There was no shower on the third floor.) When the two prisoners reached the second floor they quickly overpowered the second floor guard and the one who’d brought them, forcing them both into a empty cell.
For the moment, at least, the prisoners were in charge of the building. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and their intention was not to escape but, rather, to take over the building and thereby force the governor to listen to their demands. Their two hostages would bring him running, they thought.
But soon Beades and Rogue ran into difficullty. They couldn’t find the keys to all the occupied cells, and they wanted all the inmates loose. Worst of all, they couldn’t find the key to “Red” Sledge’s cell and he was a valuable ally. (The two didn’t know it at the time, but the keys they were looking for were concealed under a towel on the floor and had been dropped there during the scuffle that preceded the takeover.)
The two men unlocked Ernesto’s cell first, but Ernesto didn’t want to get mixed up in things, he said, because he had only nine more days to serve. Beades and Rogue understood. When they went to Harry Dunn’s cell they were surprised that he too, didn’t wish to become involved in the uprising.
“Look men,” he told them, “I don’t want to screw up things in court now. I’ve got that son-of-a-bitch Hann on the ropes. I almost have him and don’t want to let him get loose. I agree with what you are doing, but understand why I can’t get involve. I will win my case in court.”
If they couldn’t get Sledge out of his cell and if Ernesto and Dunn couldn’t participate, Beades and Rogue decided it would be best to abort the takeaover, to save it for a better time. They knew the two guards wouldn’t be any problem to handle because were both on their knees crying and praying that they wouldn’t be killed.
“Oh please don’t kill us, don’t kill us!” Hart cried out.
Both of the guards were especially frightened because many in the prison believed it had been Joe Beades who had cut off Clausen’s head. No one could prove it, but his doing it made better sense than did some of the other possibilities suggested.
Joe Beades and Rogue made the two guards promise they would not say one word about the take over if they decided to release them. They promised not to say anything to any one. They were released to their duties, and the inmates continued on with their showering.
Ernesto had been amused by the personality change in both guards the turnabout role had caused, how quickly craven pleadings replaced arrogance. But their prayers were heard.
Neither guard ever mentioned the episode to the authorities.
Several days before Rodriguez was released from the Nebraska Penitentiary he was “dressed out”, as it was called, outfitted with clothes. Ill-fitting, drab prison issue, they were not items he wished to keep any longer than necessary. Any man wearing that junk on the street had “prisoner” written all over him. Except for his broken nose, he was in great shape. He had dropped from two hundred and twenty pounds to one hundred and seventy, ready for whatever came along next.
There was fancy publicity marterial showing a prisoner’s departure from the penitentiary. Beaming guards were lined up to shake the departing prisoner’s hand. Hann’s warm smile and outstretched hand would have done credit to a Rotary district governor. But When Ernesto left, the guards must have been busy elsewhere. Hann never left his office and his effort to smile when Ernesto waved goodbye to him suggested the warden had not yet recovered from a severe bout of malaria. If smiles could be measured on a scale from wan to warm, Hann’s smile was a perfect wan.
One of the last things Ernesto did was to say goodbye to Joe Rogue, the man who’d kept his mouth shut about how he had gotten all those holes in his hide. If Joe had chosen to make a fuss about Ernesto’s sticker, Ernesto might not have been leaving.
“Joe”, Ernesto said, sticking his hand between the bars of Rogue’s cell, “You are one of the best fucking convicts I have ever met. I really hate the fact that I hurt you, and I don’t know how to make it up to you except by writing you and maybe sending you stuff.”
Joe Rogue squeezed Ernesto’s hand and gave one of rare smiles.
“That’s all right, Chili Bean–just hurry back. We’re gonna miss ya.”