The Scepter of Power

In previous posts, I’ve given you a general idea of the layout of the common area in my housing unit – remember the TV viewing sections: Whites, Brothers, Latinos?

The organization of these sections is much more detailed than I previously intimated when I was constrained by hand-written letters. Now I have a word-processor (remember those?) which allows me to delve a little deeper into the intricacies of prison society without getting a cramp in my hand. (A word-processor is one of the few luxuries an inmate can own. I had to acquire one that met prison specifications through a supplier who is well-known within the prison system. Though I’m happy with my purchase, I paid an exorbitant price for mid-nineties technology, let me tell you.)

Upon arrival at the USDB, a member of the Whites section welcomed me and briefed me on the prison hierarchy. The Whites is the largest, and therefore most complex, of the sections. I’m familiar with all the sections, but have maintained my membership in the Whites, mostly for simplicity’s sake, so that’s the section I’ll describe.

Each inmate is issued a blue plastic chair. These chairs are organized into four rows in my housing unit (I hear some housing units have five rows). The front row, which is nearest the TV, is reserved for the “heavies” of the section; the center chair for the heaviest of said “heavies” allowing him optimal TV viewing. The second row inmates are the B-team, if you will, and again, the ranking starts at the center and moves to the outside. Each row’s center man controls the row behind him, and the heavies decide when a person has earned the right to move towards the center or nearer the front. Attributes that help you move inward & forward include, but are not limited to:

1. Personality

2. Ability to kick people’s asses

3. Special acts for the section

4. Plain old popularity

I was sort of lucky – as far as luck goes in prison, I suppose. My section disliked the inmates in the fourth row so much that when an opening became available just two weeks after my arrival, I was able to move to the third row. I was told, however, that this was not the norm.

I’m in a Minimum Security housing unit where the people seem more relaxed relative to the higher security housing units; there are less politics to deal with. Some of the guys I was in reception with went into Medium Security and they tell me about the craziness that goes on there. For example, in Medium Security common areas, fourth row inmates are not allowed to speak to first and second row inmates. The remote control to the TV is revered, like a scepter of power. The front row controls what is watched during peak hours through a democratic vote. If no one in the front row is watching TV, then the remote is handled by the highest ranking inmate watching TV at the time. New inmates are warned that many fights start from a newbie grabbing the remote and changing the channel without regard for the social hierarchy.

Lesson: just stay away from the remote.

But let’s say you don’t want to watch what’s on TV in your section, and notice that another section, we’ll say the Latinos, are watching the show that you want to watch. You can’t just pull your chair into the other section, even in their back row, to watch their programming. There is a protocol one must follow. If you’re a new inmate, you need someone from your section to ask the other section’s heavies if you can watch their TV. Negotiations ensue at higher levels and you’re told by your own heavy if, when, and where you’re allowed to pull up your chair in the other section. I don’t think I need to say it, but don’t even think about grabbing another section’s remote control unless you’re looking for a fight.

People with status and time in the housing unit will sometimes join another section to watch TV with no issue. For example, a heavy from the Brother’s section might sit in the Whites front row as a guest to watch whatever TV program the Whites are watching. The division of sections would seem to indicate that race is a major issue within the USDB, but that’s truly not the case. I suppose it’s sort of like the first day of grade school when all the boys would gravitate to one side of the room and the girls the other. People just sort of go where they feel most comfortable and, at least in my housing unit, there’s absolutely no rift or rivalry between the sections.

The programming choices are somewhat stereotypical. The Brother’s TV is usually on BET or ESPN (though they watch more westerns than one might expect), the Latino’s TV is often on Univision (Spanish language channel), and the White’s TV is a hodgepodge of trashy reality TV, sci-fi, and movies.

I’ve heard of extreme cases where a person is so disliked that they are kicked out of their section and forced into another. If another section is unwilling to take them in, then they could be banished from the common area and told to stay in their cell. In the most extreme of cases, an inmate could be told to contact the guard commander and ask to be put in to the protective custody housing unit to avoid an ass-beating. This is very extreme, though, since once you go into protective custody, you never come back out and you lose many privileges, the most devastating of which is the privilege to work off your sentence through the work abatement program.

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