By Eddie Griffin
Friday, January 23, 2009
I cut my teeth as a penitentiary gladiator, not by choice, but by being thrust into hand-to-hand combat to survive. I bear witness that there is a God somewhere, and that He watched over me and delivered me from hell. So, I’m not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation.
Don’t get me wrong and think, for one second, it was not an easy conversion. I lived and breathed combat while in prison. But this one thing I always remembered: Thou shall not kill. I never took the blood of the innocent, and neither have I taken the life of the guilty. I was a man who hated bloodshed. The very sight of blood made me want to throw up.
So, you know how I felt going into a meeting with a Mafia don who wanted to whack a black inmate.
Word came to Akinshiju that the don wanted to speak to the brothers. There was a general rule in the penitentiary that a white inmate could not kill a black inmate without permission. Otherwise, it would set off a race riot.
And, so that’s what the Mafia don wanted to avoid. We, on the other hand, represented the brothers, the black inmates in the prison. There, I found myself seated at the negotiation table, five of us, three of them. Two bodyguards accompanied the old Mafioso. They stood at his shoulders like two muscle-bound angels. And, I imaged wings upon his shoulders, like a bird colonel. He was a man with power and authority in the joint, a man worth millions on the outside world. But he was not in the side world. Here, we were all the same, all equal, but we had the more deadly force. We had the numbers.
In his raspy voice, he explained the offense of the “maricon”. The black inmate, new to the environment, had taken liberty with the don’s property, to wit, a candy bar.
Akinshiju blurted out, “You mean that you want to kill a brother because he stole a candy bar.”
Thou shall not steal. It could cost a man his life, or the rest thereof.
The don explained that it was a matter of respect. In Italian culture respect comes with a high price.
Looking around the room, Akinsijui blurted out again, “Can someone talk to this fool?”
My first instincts: “I will,” I replied, without hesitation. Damn, did I just say that, I thought.
It was now on me. The blood of this fool was now on my hand.
They gave me a message to deliver to the inmate, and a plan of what to do if he complies and what to do if he didn’t comply. But I was afraid that when I delivered the message, the fool would take a swing at me. I was trained but never tested. This would be my first true test. My mission was to save a fool from execution by two penitentiary assassins. I could not live with myself if I allowed him to be killed without giving him a warning.
I found myself on the morning of the hit walking the young brother to the mess hall for breakfast. I whispered as we walk, “Check in, or you will not live the day out.” This meant checking into protective custody and being locked up in segregation for his protection.
He looked at me with a frown, “Nigger, who do you think…” He clutched his fist as if to prepare to throw a punch.
In a split second, I replied, “I am the messenger. You do not want to touch the messenger. You’ve been told.” Sweet to the letter, I rehearsed these words. Not even I knew when I was bluffing. Bluffing is half the psychological battle. Backing it up is the other half.
I was trained for this moment. But the punch never came. Instead, the inmate fled to the nearest guard and checked in. It was then that I learned the burden of being a peacekeeper in prison. Thereafter, men in prison reported to me ever blood curdling horror of fights, hits, and rumors of violence. Most of us just wanted to serve out our time as peacefully as possible. But sometimes violence erupted. We had to meet it head-on.