“They locked me in a tiny cell, made my life a miserable hell.”
The stone cold gray walls and unforgiving steps leading to Leavenworth Penitentiary spared no welcome to Luke Stone as he descended from the prison bus.
Iron ankle chains chafed his skin and the heavy handcuffs and belly chain bit into his wrists. He hopped from the bottom step to the ground and cast a wary glance at his destination.
The man ahead of him stumbled and fell to his knees. The guard quickly prodded him with his night-stick. “Get up, convict. No lagging behind.”
Luke gritted his teeth and tightened his jaw but remained in line.
The formidable steps grew as he went. Thirty-seven...thirty-eight...The chains gnawed at the skin around his ankles...number forty-two. The massive doors groaned open, ready to swallow his life as he passed through.
Guards escorted the prisoners through a total of six heavy metal doors leading deeper into the belly of the prison. They slammed shut with a deadly ring that echoed off the stone walls.
Jaw set, eyes as hard as the steel that held him captive, Luke shuffled forward.
Armed guards stood with pointed guns, ready to fire at any sign of aggression as they lined the new prisoners up in military fashion.
Luke glared as a lieutenant removed his chains. “Welcome to Leavenworth Penitentiary, boys. You’re in admissions and orientation.” A captain walked down the line looking each convict in the eye. “This is gonna be your home for a while, so I suggest you treat it as such.”
Luke didn’t blink when the man paused in front of him. He’d never think of this prison as home. Thoughts of his family back in Texas crowded his mind, leaving an incurable ache inside his chest.
How could he have let himself get so reckless and uncaring? He’d been a damn fool to get caught in the tangled mess that landed him behind bars.
Standing to the left of Luke, Tommy “Red” Johnson shifted from one foot to the other. The sheriff of Tom Green County had sneered when he announced to them that as rap partners, being sentenced at the same time for the same crime, they would cell together in Leavenworth.
It had been a long trip from Texas to Kansas. Luke hoped this orientation bullshit wouldn’t last much longer.
The words from the aging judge still echoed in his brain. “Luther Martin Stone, I hereby sentence you to twenty-five years in the federal penitentiary for armed bank robbery. This sentence is to run concurrently with the fifty year State of Texas sentence you already have.”
Shit! That was a lifetime. He longed for freedom and the open sky. His identity now consisted of a number, 87047-132. The last three digits indicated where the arrest and conviction took place. He guessed the first part of the number was simply the next available in line since Red’s was 87046-132. At any rate, the number would forever be branded in his DNA.
Red’s sentence, identical to his, put him in captivity alongside Luke. Now here they stood, like a herd of cattle at Leavenworth Penitentiary, on December 12, 1971.
The continuing nightmare unfolded one dreadful scene at a time.
Luke’s naked skin burned, as a blast from the water hose and the chemicals it contained hit him with force. Like the other convicts, he tried to dodge the onslaught. After gritting his teeth through a humiliating cavity search, a guard issued him a set of clothing consisting of khaki pants, a white t-shirt, and a button-up khaki shirt. Among too many things to name, he missed the blue jeans, boots and western shirts he’d customarily worn on the outside.
Once dressed, guards ushered the new inmates into a rectangular room where a lieutenant delivered further instructions. “You’ll stay in the admissions and orientation unit of this facility until you receive job and cell block assignments. Your personal belongings are being processed and will be returned to you once they are inspected and approved.”
Luke and Red followed the rest of the men into another long narrow room where twenty or more metal cots lined the walls. Coarse cotton sheets and a thin wool army blanket lay on each bed. The frigid December air permeated the stone walls, settling deep into their bones.
Luke located his prison number on a card attached to a cot and plopped down.
Red’s was the next bed down the line. He sat down, lit a cigarette, passed it to Luke and then lit another for himself.
“Well hoss, this sure ain’t no kind of a home and it’s damned cold here in this Yankee prison.” Luke took a long drag off his cigarette.
Red reached for the blanket lying on his cot, and wrapped it around his shoulders. “Fuckin’ cold for sure.” He lowered his voice glancing around. “I learned when I was locked up in Florida that kitchen duty is the job to ask for. We can get a hustle goin’ tradin’ shit to moonshiners for cigarettes and coffee.”
“At least it’d be warm in the fuckin’ kitchen. We’ll ask for it. We’ve gotta stick together.” Luke stood and spread the sheets and blanket on the cot.
A captain made his way down the row of beds. He paused to watch Luke haphazardly spreading the sheets. “Stone, that ain’t no way to make a bed.” His voice cut into Luke like a razor blade.
“What do you mean?” Luke struggled to keep his voice even as he turned to face the uniformed man.
“You’re supposed to make your bed military style.”
“Is that so?” Luke’s eyes narrowed.
“Don’t know what military style is?”
“The only military I’ve ever recognized was the Confederate Army and they didn’t have a damn thing except a blanket to sleep on the ground, if they had that much.”
The captain snorted. “I’m going to show you once how to do it. You need to bounce a quarter off the sheets.”
“No disrespect sir, but quarters ain’t allowed in here.”
The captain’s face flushed. He made the bed and tightened the sheets down, then bounced a quarter off them. “That’s the way it’s done, smart ass, and that’s the way I want to see it from now on.”
Luke lay back on the metal cot and the man moved on down the line.
Red attempted to imitate what the captain had done. “Hell, I didn’t know we were gonna to be in a military prison.”
“We ain’t, stud. They can’t throw us out of here for not making our bed right, so fuck ‘em.” The rebel spirit he’d lived with all of his life rose up full force. What could they do to him? He was already in prison, so what else?
“Man, I don’t wanna get in trouble and be sent to the hole.”
“Shit, Red, we’re already in the hole.”
“Solitary confinement’s different. You’re in there all by yourself.”
“That sounds damned good to me. Think if I don’t make my bed right, they’ll take me to the hole?”
“I don’t know, man, but I don’t wanna go.”
The men lay on the hard cots and finished their cigarettes. The smokes would have to last until they could get some goods to trade for more.
Being a survivor, Luke Stone knew he could make it in prison. His size and toughness served him well on the outside and would here too. He’d never taken any shit off anyone and wasn’t about to start now, prison be damned!
He wasn’t sure about Red, but he’d protect the smaller man with his life. Hell, Red was like a brother to him. They’d been through a lot together.
A few days later, they received their cell assignment and started kitchen duty. The caseworker questioned both of them as to their reasons for wanting that particular job. It was common knowledge that convicts generally hated working in the kitchen.
Sticking to the plan, they proclaimed an interest in going into the restaurant business when they got out of prison. The caseworker bought their story.
It didn’t take long to figure out how to smuggle sugar, fruit juice, bread dough from the huge vat, tomato paste and anything else that could be used to make booze. They secured the loot in plastic bags and taped them to their legs inside the baggy khakis they wore.
Christmas Eve came and Luke discovered how little the holidays meant inside these walls. Not one bit of Christmas spirit could be found. The small aluminum Christmas tree with a couple of scraggly ornaments did nothing to help.
Luke and Red were invited by one of the Indian moonshiners who they supplied, to come down to his cell after count for a drink.
Having learned quickly the necessity of staying alert, Luke watched over his shoulder at all times. Men who let their guard down didn’t survive. In the short time he’d been there, he’d already witnessed one murder and several beatings.
When they reached the moonshiner’s cell, Luke shot a glance in both directions down the long tier, before entering.
Inside the cell, a tall Indian guy named Joe dipped a cup of what looked and smelled like throw-up out of a plastic bag he pulled out of his locker. He poured it into their cups.
“Thanks, man,” Luke said. He wondered what Joe’s crime had been but also knew that you never ask. The stench of the homemade tomato hooch almost made him gag.
Red took a big swig and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “This ain’t Jim Beam, but it’ll do.”
Luke forced a couple of sips and his stomach began burning as if a fire had been lit in it. He made polite talk, then excused himself and strode back to his cell.
He’d drank a lot of booze in his lifetime but nothing like this and decided that he’d rather do without than drink the haphazardly made hooch.
Two weeks later after their work shift ended for the day, Luke and Red made their way to the recreation room, where inmates could watch TV, play dominoes or cards.
A few older men with dull-eyed stares sat at the front of the room watching a small TV. Some black men sat behind them and farther back were the Indians and Mexicans. A re-run of Gunsmoke blared through the room.
The two men sat down in the back and lit smokes, of which they now had an ample supply from trading with the moonshiners.
After a few minutes, a large burly black man sauntered to the front of the room and changed the TV channel.
The older men grumbled loudly, but no one moved. Luke had no tolerance for bullying. He walked up to the TV and switched it back to Gunsmoke.
“Hey, motha’ fucker! What do you think you’re doing?” The black man yelled.
“I’m changin’ the TV back to the show these men were watchin’, asshole. I didn’t hear you ask anyone if you could change it.”
The man stood, legs spread. “Nobody pushes me around.”
“Show him what happens to whiteys in here that don’t mind their fuckin’ business, Eugene,” a man bellowed.
“If you don’t like it, come on and let’s do something about it, you sonofabitch.” Luke glanced around for anything that would serve as a weapon.
In the back corner of the room, he spotted a mop with a wooden handle in a bucket. He made a beeline for it and turned around as the man raised his fist to hit him.
A resounding crack filled the air as Luke broke the mop handle over the man’s head. He fell to his knees, flailing his arms. Luke continued beating him and kicking him until he sprawled on the floor in a puddle of blood.
Within minutes, a swarm of guards surrounded them. They quickly pulled Luke off the man, cuffed him, and requested a gurney for Eugene.
“What in the hell is going on here?” the guard holding Luke growled.
“This sonofabitch came at me. I had no choice.”
“We don’t tolerate fighting in here. I can send you to the hole for this offense.”
“Take my ass to the hole. I don’t give a fuck. From what I’ve seen so far, this entire place is a hole.”
The guard motioned to two other officers. “Get this man out of here!”
Inside the small isolated boxlike cell, Luke lay on the hard cot in the semi-dark. It was finally quiet. No noise from the hundreds of other men who shared the cell block with him. No radios, no yelling, no sounds of masturbating or rape. He relaxed for the first time since he’d been escorted through the doors of Leavenworth.
For a brief moment, he allowed himself to think of Darlina Flowers, the sweet lady he’d left behind in Texas. She had captured his heart completely and often invaded his thoughts in the wee hours of morning. The familiar floral smell of her silky auburn hair etched in memory haunted him. He ached for her touch, the taste of her warm lips and her sensuous body.
In anger, he pushed her out of his mind. He couldn’t let himself have a weakness for anyone or anything.
He knew the fight with Eugene wasn’t over. There would be retaliation.
Animal instincts were all he had to rely on in order to survive in this place and he’d use all of his senses to stay alive. He’d dared to dance with the devil and damned if it didn’t look like the devil was winning.