I thought I had it all figured out. Develop a routine—stay out of trouble. But in a place like prison, trouble shows up like an uninvited guest and when it does, there’s no dodging it.
My routine had been simple: Wake up around 7 a.m., hobble on my bum knee to the chow hall for breakfast, return to my cell, sleep until lunch, come back from lunch and do my best to occupy my time within the unit until around 7 p.m., when I’d get to use the phone.
The block I was in held almost 200 inmates, yet there were only eight phones. As you can imagine, tensions always ran high around them. Newer guys to the dorm would be unwittingly thrust into the Game of Phones-like contest and if you were looked upon as weak, chances were that you’d have an extremely tough time getting on a call after a certain time of day. Thankfully, I had garnered enough respect from my peers throughout the years and was able to get on whenever I wanted.
But I’d been on the phone for no more than 10 minutes when trouble walked in that day.
I was fortunate enough at the time to have a lady friend who didn’t mind talking with me on the regular. I’d known her since before getting locked up and, thankfully, I must’ve made a good enough impression during our time together for her to want to connect with me given my circumstances. Her melodic voice, calm affect and contagious positive attitude became welcomed—really, needed—qualities that helped keep me sane amid the insanity in which I lived. Not to mention that we vibed on a level that seemed to transcend our physical boundaries.
On the surface, this may not seem like that big a deal. But two 15-minute calls with this woman, back to back, during rush hour at the phone bank was not only selfish and inconsiderate on my part, but against the “rules” as well. At some point during my first call, I looked around and noticed a guy sitting in a chair behind me. I thought nothing of it due to the bustle of the dorm and the extremely good conversation I was having with my friend. But when I proceeded to make call number two, my daily grind came to a grinding halt.
“Ay bruh! Whatchu doin? I had next!” the guy said incredulously.
I ignored him. Not blatantly, but because it simply didn’t register that he was talking to me. I had been so entrenched in my routine at this point that everyone in the dorm had come to know and accept it—or so I’d arrogantly thought.
“Hell naw bruh, I had next!” he said again, as he shot out his chair toward me.
I was genuinely shocked by his apparent discontent. Did this jailhouse version of Anderson .Paak standing before me truly think his tough talk would intimidate me? I’ll be the first to admit that I’m far from the toughest guy, but I can say that his five-foot-seven, 180-pound build posed no immediate threat to my six-feet-three-inches, 215 pounds.
“Aight. I’m bout to be done after this call bruh. Just go after me,” I calmly replied.
Now standing only inches away from me, this man’s anger began to radiate heat on my neck as he paused to let what I’d just said sink in. My lady friend was trying to get my attention, but his body language and facial expression demanded my focus.
“Nah! I was next!” he suddenly yelled again.
He then proceeded to close the already small gap between us as he wedged his short, tattooed frame between me and the guy on the phone next to me, and then reached for my phone’s plunger.
“Whoa! Whatchu trippin’ on bruh?!” I said with a not-so-pleasant adjective as I placed my hand under the plunger to keep him from hanging up my call.
“I was next bruh,” he repeated for what seemed like the umpteenth time.
I’d played chess with this dude and I thought we had a decent rapport, yet here he was ready to turn me into roadkill.
Even Ray Charles could see where this was headed, but I was in no hurry to choose violence. Having a bad knee made fighting my least favorable option, but backing down or telling the C.O. was never a thought, let alone an option. And my lady-friend was listening to it all.
“C’mon bruh—it ain’t even that serious,” I reasoned.
He tried to snatch the phone away from me, in turn causing a small tussle between us. It was in this moment that I began feeling truly disrespected; my heart rate spiked and my jaw flexed as I fought to keep my anger in check.
“Chill!” I growled.
With my hand under the phone’s plunger and his in position to counter, we entered into a standoff. For a brief moment we stood chest to chest like boxers at a weigh-in.
Those who were aware of what was happening stood by in anticipation of the fireworks—hoping we’d give them a topic to gossip about on their own phone calls. I secretly wished for an out, but as I looked in this man’s eyes, I could see that the only way out was through him.
Time seemed to slow down as I finally decided to remove my hand from under the plunger, all but daring him to follow through with his plan. I watched as he hung up on my lady-friend, and I sighed. The fear of ridicule and judgment from my peers if I chose to walk away, coupled with brimming rage at his audacity, overruled all sensibility as I foolishly followed him toward my possible demise, wearing Reebok shower shoes no less.
We headed toward an area where prisoners fought but didn’t make it 10 feet before I threw the first punch. My awkward and off-balance right hook crashed into the right side of his face from behind, barely stumbling him. From there, I seemed to go into autopilot. I took a stance that would help keep him away from my injured knee and threw a couple of followup punches just as he spun around.
But due to my imbalance and improper footwear, I ended up missing clean hits with both; my foot broke through my sandal and sent me tumbling to the ground like I was performing an Olympic floor routine. He landed a couple of free shots to my face, but they lacked power and I was able to spring from the ground like I had a rocket in my butt.
Fueled by fear of losing, I bull-rushed him, driving him back into a nearby wall. It was then that I remembered my size advantage and began to use it. I pinned him against the wall with my body and followed with a flurry of punches and a knee or two to his gut.
We tussled for a minute more before we ended up locked by the arms in a stalemate.
Everybody else in the dorm quietly watched as we duked it out—everyone except the C.O., that is, who suddenly appeared beside us and ordered us to stop or he’d mace us.
I issued a declaration of victory and warning as the C.O. placed me in cuffs and led me out of the unit.
However, I hobbled to the hole that night full of worry and shame. Aside from the beef with this man that would now be on my plate, I had overlooked the possible ramifications that this incident could have on my pending knee surgery. Even worse were the thoughts of how my lady friend now viewed me.
This is the cruelty of it: This type of thing happens every day—all day—in prison. One wrong step and the smallest of situations can be blown into life-altering events, even if you’re careful—even if you’re a human being about it.
Olethus Hill Jr., 33, is a writer who is incarcerated at the London Correctional Institution in Ohio. He is serving a 16-year sentence for burglary and kidnapping with a three-year firearm enhancement.
The Ohio Department of Corrections did not respond to requests for comment.