February 21, 2020
Friday, 9:30 p.m.
Letter #485: If He’s Saul, Why Do I Have to Be Steven?
The past few days have been some of the most dramatic, surreal days I’ve experienced in my life, and I felt God walking with me every step of the way. But before I get to what happened on Tuesday night and then what happened last night, let me give you a bit more of my interactions with the guy I’m calling “Saul,” because I know God wants him to be a Paul someday. (Spoiler Alert: Remember what Paul used to do to Christians when he was Saul?)
Saul approached me in the dayroom one day and asked, “Christopher, how long has it been since you’ve been punched?”
Now, that is a very simple question to answer when you have only been punched once in your lifetime, so I could’ve blurted out “Ten years,” but I’m not a complete idiot, so I played it a bit more strategically. I looked up, squinted my eyes, and slowly shrugged my shoulders as if about to give an answer.
Saul jumped in, “Well, if you can’t remember right away, that means you’re overdue.” He flexed his right hand then curled it into a massive fist.
“Really?” I asked in a sarcastic tone. “Is that how it works? There’s an expiration date of sorts on punches and they lose their potency over time?”
“Yep,” Saul grinned before tagging my left bicep and added, “Now you’re up-to-date.”
“Thank you,” I mock-gushed. “I so appreciate it.”
The next day, I was leaning on a half-wall at the entrance to someone’s dorm I was waiting to talk to, my left arm being what I had placed on the wall. Saul sauntered past and tagged me in the same spot, this time with an obvious knuckle doing the bulk of the work, making it feel as if my bicep was now a tricep … or forcep? He knew he’d really got me good, and he gave a nervous, “Haha … not too bad, right?” to which I shot back, “Really? With a knuckle included, and it isn’t too bad?!?” and laughed. He laughed too. I knew I was passing whatever tests he was giving me, but they hurt.
He then finished what he was doing and called me over. “We’re all going to watch a movie at 10,” he said, “Join us!”
I’d seen the gatherings in the building on other weekends, and I’d taken a pass, not really wanting to watch a movie or television show I knew nothing about. I said, “Thank you, but I’ve got a ton of stuff to do.”
He didn’t let up. “C’mon, it’s sometimes good to relax and spend time with people who may ‘have your back’ if you get into trouble someday.” He paused, then looked me right in the eye, realizing he’d just stated that he’d protect me if someone tried to hurt me. “And that’s the most real thing I’ve ever said to you, Homeboy.”
That last bit wasn’t an acknowledgement that I was homeschooled but a part of Saul’s network in some way. I said, “Awesome. I caught it. I’ll join you for the movie.”
He grinned. “That’s right, Friend.”
I replied, “And with that comment, you topped yourself.”
I made him a snack for the movie and delivered it to the table he was sitting at in the dayroom with guys he typically hung out with. I was testing him. If he ate what I gave him, he’d be making a statement to the others that he didn’t have an issue with me. If he let it sit and dealt with it later, I’d know he was still divided on how he actually felt about me. He ate it.
One night, he and I were up late, sitting at a table in the dayroom, working on some writing projects he needed my help with. He described in great detail how he’d been used by staff to help convert the prison from General Population (GP) to the Non-Designated Yard (NDY). He would be called out to stand by a gate where guys were arriving for the first time to the prison and were about to enter the yard. If the new arrivals were former Sensitive Needs Yard (SNY) inmates like me, they would usually just agree to stay on the yard peacefully. But if the new arrivals were former GP inmates, they often did not want to be put on a yard with SNYs and GPs together—a NDY like we have here at all six yards at Avenal. They fear that their reputation as hard-core gang members will be tarnished if they stay, the equivalent of “dropping out” of the gang. Thus, as soon as they’d arrive on the yard, gang policy is that they must leave the yard within 24 hours or be forever thought of as “no good.”
The way to leave the yard? Fight the first inmate you encounter. Unfortunately for the new arrivals to Avenal State Prison, the first inmate they’d encounter was 6 ‘4″, 285 lb. Saul, part of what officers called “The Welcome Committee.” Saul told me about more than thirty fights he got into just last year with guys who wanted to leave the yard as soon as they arrived. They often left by stretcher, some by ambulance.
He acted out one of his signature techniques on me, with no warning, grabbing the back of my head with a huge fistful of hair. He then pantomimed mashing my face with his other fist as he held on for about ten long seconds. He said, “I do this because, even if you’re being pepper-sprayed or blood is in your eyes, you can always find your target, no matter how much they’re moving around. You just have to connect your fist to your hand—something we all can easily do.” Great tip, eh? You’re welcome. I just listened attentively, knowing he was testing me again. This time, it was to see if fear registered on my face. Nope. In fact, I’d had my glasses on as he first grabbed me by the hair, but I removed them in case he wanted to punch me in the face.
One day, he motioned me over towards the bathroom entrance, a long narrow row of sinks, the back of which was out-of-sight of the officers working that day. He put up his fists and backed all the way inside, his massive frame filling the space as he used his fists to motion for me to join him at the back. I smiled and sauntered in, pushing up the short sleeve on my left arm to reveal my bicep. “I think I’m getting sick,” I said, with a serious, concerned look on my face. I looked down at my arm, ignoring the hulking figure in front of me. “I’m breaking out in these big blue spots,” I deadpanned, revealing the magnificent bruise the size and shape of a hotdog bun on my arm.
“Wow,” Saul said appreciatively, “How’d you get that?” A smirk showed on his face.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Ever since I came to prison, I’ve had really selective eyesight. There’s a lot of things I don’t see.”
Saul grinned. “Nice,” he said, “Maybe it was one of these,” and yep, punched me for a third time in the same spot.
“Maybe. Seems familiar,” I said, as I turned and walked out ahead of him. Another test passed … God, give me wisdom. Reach him for You.