March 27th, 2011 Comments Off on Prelude

Ernesto Rodriguez was cold, he was damn near always cold at Michigan’s maximum security prison in Marquette.  To the outdoorsman, or to anyone who loves granite, pines, and cold clear water, Marquette Michigan, is a great vacation spot. But to the prisoners assigned to the walled fortress it was a miserable place which felt as if the cell blocks had been carved out of dry ice.

Adding to the monstrous indignities for which most prisons are famous was the constant presence–winter and summer–of sea gulls, big gray and white herring gulls. Stuffed with an abundant supply of fish from Lake Superior, these flying alimentary canals made mincemeat of moving or stationary targets within the prison walls. “Gull Haven” was one of the nicer names the inmates chose for their northern home.

Ernesto kept himself warm by working on an old racing skate blade he’d been lucky enough to find in a pile of athletic gear, gear the prison had burned but had not yet disposed of. Luckily, a friend of his, a lifer, had loaned him a metal file and a whetstone. Using them, it was only a matter of patience and a little skill to convert the blade into a very deadly weapon.

Most of the prisoners around him at the Marquette facility carried “shanks”, or knives. The guards knew they did and knew also that shanks were tools of survival for the special breed of men warehoused in the Marquette prison. Owning a knife was no new experience for Rodriguez, a tough Mexican-American who had, in a manner of speaking, been born with a silver shank in his mouth.

The Marquette prison was a place where men played for keeps, they didn’t waste their time cutting opponents just to teach them a lesson. The way Ernesto saw it, if you didn’t want to just prick or nick your enemy why fool around with a three inch blade? Hell, three inches wasn’t always long enough to penetrate clothes and still get into a guy’s vital organs. If Ernesto got into a fight up here he wanted a tool which would finish the job.

Rodriguez had one thing going for him. He could at least look forward to the day he’d be released. He could still look forward to something. But many of his companions couldn’t do that. No, they would never get out, and that being the case, what possible difference did one more homicide on their record make? None, of course, and that is what made so many of his fellow prisoners dangerous competition.

As he sat in the cold cell with the soft purring cadence of steel rubbing against steel to keep him awake, Ernesto watched the skate blade’s edge almost disappear. Twice now he’d cut himself testing it and soon it would ready for the black friction tape handle he envisioned for his deadly weapon.

It was about time because he was getting bad vibes from a self-styled Black Muslim leader, a dude who proclaimed that there were too may “blue-eyed White devils” breathing the same air he was. And he mistakenly considered Rodriguez as one of the White race. The “poor stupid Bastard!”

That malevolent Black wasn’t the only man Ernesto had better watch closely. Marquette wasn’t a place for light-fingered accountants, or petty crooks who had violated their probations or paroles. Rather, it was a cage for men who had caused big troubles inside or outside a prison’s walls. Murderers, rapists, escape artists, and rioters found congenial company at Marquette.

Not long before, in April of 1952, the prison down in Jackson, Michigan had experienced the worst prison riot up to that time in the nation’s history.  Attica and Santa Fe would follow later. The riot at Jackson triggered off copycat riots in Nebraska and other places. All across the country there were  “lockdowns” and prison security was increased.

During the riot at Jackson one convict was shot by the guards when he tried to torch the textile shop. Twelve guards were held hostage by the rioters for five days. And rumor had it that two of the guards held hostage had been sodomized by their captors.

When the riot ended, all of its ringleaders were sent to the Marquette prison. These were the men with whom Ernesto, at age 22 and the youngest prisoner in the institution, found himself associating.

There was “Crazy Jack” Hyatt, a Canadian who was described as being “borderline psychotic” by the psychiatric unit in Jackson. Hyatt had been sent to the Jackson unit for evaluation after he had jumped Governor Mennen “Soapy” Williams during the governor’s tour of the kitchen at the Marquette facility. Hyatt had attempted to gain his release by holding the governor hostage but had been immediately overpowered by the guards in the governor’s retinue.  Smart as hell, Crazy Jack was an electronic genius given to violence.

Earl Ward was a jokester, always laughing. He was a dangerous con man who attempted to mask his evil intentions with good humor and outrageous pretense. He was no one to mess with.

James Hudson was a Black man who had made the Jackson riot possible when he succeeded in grabbing a guard’s keys and unlocking all the cell doors in his building. Hudson would never survive his stay at Marquette.

There was Johnny Crocker who had a fine legal mind, fine enough, at least, to get “good time” restored to Hyatt and Ward’s records. Crocker was a bitter man, up for a long stretch, whose stare, his way of looking at another man, was so intense it would send cold chills up the spine of the average man who did not know him. But, he took a liking to Ernesto.

Ray Young, a writer by nature, was a homosexual with a Chinese lover named Johnny Woo. Woo was the only Chinaman Ernesto ever met in prison.

Young and all the other Jackson ringleaders were popular up in Marquette, despite efforts by the authorities to discredit them. The prison officials told the newspapers that the inmates not involved in the Jackson riot were mad at the riot leaders because of the disruption caused in their daily routine. This claim was patently false.

Crazy Jack and Earl Ward had received the heaviest punishment for the roles they’d played in the riot. Most of the time they spent at Marquette was spent in solitary confinement. Hudson, Crocker, and Young had been released from solitary confinement by the time Rodriguez arrived, but their activities were severely restricted.

It was a tough bunch, and Rodriguez knew it. There wasn’t a man there who, if provoked, wouldn’t kill. Ernesto was a very impressionable young man and he meant to survive–even if he himself had to kill to do so.