In Memory of Dickey
A renowned political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington invited me to speak to his class. The occasion took me back in my memories to the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the era of student protest. I briefly traced my path from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to the Black Panthers, and my days as an outlaw.
Dr. Allen Saxe, teaching a course in Contemporary Studies, asked me to compare the movement then with the Jena 6 movement today. But then came the question about my years in prison, Saxe asked: How did you guys survive in prison?
This is not a question to ask unless you are prepared for the answer. I could have easily said, “By the grace of God” and then launch into a sermon. But that would be void of details of what prison life was really like. So my answer was this: “We trained to survive.”
Somehow the picture is still not clear by what I mean when I say “we trained”. In an environment of the survival of the fittest, it is the best trained that are the fittest to survive. That I made it home all the way back from hell speaks for itself.
I was trained by the toughest, most brutal men on the planet, bar none. Not that I glory in violence except to add the fact that I hated every one of my trainers in prison. They put me through much pain, teaching me how to fend myself in naked, cold, eyeball-to-eyeball combat, hand-to-hand duels to the death.
To learn how to block a knife, one of my trainers would stab me with the back end of a dull spoon, and it hurt like the devil. My rib cage stayed black and blue. So did all the other parts of my body and some bones never repaired straight. Then one day I stopped the spoon. From then on it was relatively easy to fend off the knife, the club, the gun, and any other weapon aimed against me.
As they broke my bones, so I learned how to break bones with the heel of my hand, especially the bones in a man’s face. Thereafter, I never had to carry a weapon, because I could do with my hands what most men could not. I could put a man into a coma for a day, a week, a month, or have him on life support for a year. This was the threat I conveyed to a fellow inmate when a fight presented itself to me.
The men in prison died all around me. At least once a month, somebody was stabbed to death. Not everybody was meant to survive. And, those who died did not know how to survive to the end. It should suffice to say that I survived by the grace of God, because I was not as tough as I thought I was. One mistake put me in the clutches of death. But I escaped with my life. Not so, the fortunes of others. I saw the angel of death carry them off the stage, one by one.
Thinking about Dickey
Dickey has been dead now for over 25 years, but I will never forget him. When the brothers in prison had a memorial service for him at Leavenworth in 1981, we made a vow never to tell how he died. We all admired and respected Dickey as a hero, never a more gallant and brave man in hand-to-hand combat.
He was a jet black man with blue silver hair, shoulder length, like General Custard. He was one of the best martial artists in the joint, and he also never carried a weapon. He also believed in giving a man the first punch before killing him. He would take a knife to the gut just to get a good kill shot to a man’s face. This was how he taught me.
I knew Dickey when his hair was all black. Seeing him again almost 10 years later at Leavenworth, I was amazed that his hair had changed overnight. Bumping into him for the first time in years, I asked, “What happened to your hair, Dickey?”
He gave me a painful expression and answered, “My kids.”
I knew exactly what he meant. He was talking about his Moorish brothers, whom the FBI called the “DC Gang”. Keeping them under control was a burdensome task for Dickey. He was a peacemaker among prisoners. Whenever a fight would break out or a rumored hit, Dickey was always one of the first to go in and try to restore peace, which was not an easy job when men are determined to kill each other.
The warden at Marion once got angry at us over a work stoppage and told us that if he had his way he would give us all knives and let us kill each other off. We didn’t need any more help in doing that. Prison officials were already pitting prisoner against prisoner. And, we decimated our own ranks in senseless murdering rages.
An inmate disrespects another inmate on the basketball court, so “Money” goes, gets a knife, stabs the guy in the stomach, and then drags the knife from one side of his belly to the other. The wounded inmate folds the two parts of his stomach together and calmly walks to the prison infirmary, not leaving even a drop of blood on the gym floor.
This was the first time I became aware of the extraordinary power of the human will. The guy simply willed himself to not bleed. I also saw a man will his heart to stop beating. He was declared dead and then escaped from the morgue.
This was gladiator school where every man tried to exceed human capabilities. My Leavenworth roommate Moe was a 150-pound man who could walk away with 1200 pounds on his shoulder- a weight lifter with extraordinary power.
“Money tried to cut me open like a can of beans,” the inmate whined to me, wanting me to take the hit off him. But I was not altogether sympathetic. He had it coming. He disrespected Money while he was refereeing a basketball game. In prison, one man does not disrespect another man, not even the referee. There are consequences for every word and deed in prison.
Nevertheless, we were surrounded by strong willed and angry men, and death was a sometimes a more pleasant escape hatch. Then there were men like Dickey, hard to kill, with an untimely rendezvous with death.
I knew a man who once laughed about getting stabbed in the back. And, it turned out to be a funny story after all, even to me. The guy had obviously been marked for a penitentiary assassination- one man would bear hug him from the front, while another would stab him in the back.
That was the way the hit went down. But the knife went all the way through the body of the mark and pierced the stomach of the man who was clutching him. The only proof of his wound, in the aftermath, was an bandage wrapped around his midsection, no stitches, no surgery, just a bandage.
Then there was the inmate hit while sitting in a barber’s chair. The assassin walked into the prison barbershop, took a pair of scissors, and stabbed the man in the neck. The blade severed the jugular vein and blood gushed up to the ceiling like a broken water main. How they saved him, I don’t know. They say a doctor pinched the veins and stopped the bleeding. In any case, he too survived.
These were the type of violent events occurring everyday in prison when I went in. It was not a pretty sight. Some of us brothers took it upon ourselves to stop this kind of internal violence. So we put ourselves on the line as peacemakers. Dickey had his hands full with the DC brothers. That’s why his hair turned silver overnight. He had spent too many years disarming combatants, getting stabbed, and taking on two and three inmates at a time.
Now in his old age, he was surrounded by peace, because no one went against his word. But then no one defied him either. At his command was an army of inmates that could rip the guts out of the prison system. And, they did.
Whenever I talked to Dickey in his old age, we talked as if we were looking down at life from the spirit world. There were several of us Old Soldiers that could see violence coming before it came. We were at the nerve center of life and death.
Dickey died, not from combat, but from drugs, but not like you think. He was too smart to use drugs, but he was available as a “mule”, a human transporter. A “mule” in prison is an inmate who goes into the visiting room and swallows balloons of drugs and transports the drugs back into the prison inside his body. He is usually paid in drugs, which he then can sell for commissary and cigarettes, which is the legal tender throughout the prison system.
One night after returning from the visiting room, Dickey had a body full of balloon-filled cocaine pouches. Sometime in the middle of the night, one of the balloons bust. Dickey leaped up from his bunk bed, only to utter, “Uh!” Then he dropped to the floor like a sack of flour- dead- frozen by the cocaine from the inside out.
I could hear his cellmates trying to revive him. “Come on, Dickey. Get up.” Over and over, they begged, “Come on, Dickey. Stand up. Walk.” But it did no good. Dickey was gone.
“Man down!” one shouted. “Man down, I say!”
It was an alert to the guards to send help immediately. But help was a long time in coming. Finally, they opened Dickey’s cell door, and the brothers carried him out stiff.
I watched his body passed before my cell on the second tier. When I saw his lifeless body, I broke down. My knees buckled from under me and I found myself sliding down the bars like melted chocolate. There was no more strength in me. I could not stand, and I could not stop the tears from flowing from my eyes. Dickey was a good soldier.
I was the only “outsider” allowed to join the Moor brothers in the chapel for Dickey’s memorial service. Every man who had sometime to say came forward and told the amazing stories about Dickey and his role as a penitentiary gladiator. He rescued an inmate who was heavily outnumbered, covered in blood, they battled in the duel to the death.
But I personally remembered his painful experience of having to give up one of his own men to the assassins. It was a black-on-black inmate, justifiable revenge killing according to the Law of the Jungle.
But no man cheated death more than Dickey. Nevertheless, in prison, a man can only cheat death so many times.
[This series is devoted to parents who wish to save their children from going down a dead-end road to prison, written by a man who has been “to the end of the line” and back- Eddie Griffin]