The Virus

Nonfiction by Juan Francisco Mejia

The criminal is an essential part of society. It is a much-needed tool in any town, city, and nation. The world needs a bad guy. Society needs the criminal more than it needs pastors and churches. There would be no police, preachers, politicians, if not for the criminal. Who would the senator fearmonger about to get you to vote for him, who would the lawyer defend, who would the cop chase, who would the enormous criminal justice system process? Who would you point at to call yourself good? You need me. But the truth is more complicated—society builds its prisons away from itself. Society wants to hide those titillating “bad” people, and make believe they don’t exist. But they do, and I’m one of them.

The bad guy is not born bad—“criminality” is not innate. Violence and hate are viruses that we spread knowingly and unknowingly. I caught the virus myself in a prison that I called home for many years, in the dusty arsenic-laced land of the Kern Valley, California's manure pond. Miles and miles of fruit, almonds, and all the vegetables you can think of. Billions of dollars in agriculture, yet driving through the streets you see nothing but stray dogs, lost-looking children and men, a liquor store and a church on every corner. You can get shit-faced drunk and repent on the same block. Poor people and our resourcefulness.

Kern Valley State Prison was my home. I lived in Q block, cell 104. There, my celly was mixing the mustard-smelling tar heroin, and my butt cheeks were squeezed together in anticipation. The urge to shoot up was so bad I was turtle-heading. I lunged over to the toilet and yanked the courtesy curtain closed. “Hurry the fuck up!” I yelled. As soon as I said it, a small dark hand appeared under the curtain with a syringe full of heroin. Sweet relief. I was a professional and could shoot up without even tying off. I pressed the needle against my skin and slipped it into a vein, emptying the plunger. It was warm and wonderful, starting from my feet and vibrating its way across my body. I wiped and stood up. When I turned, I saw a face in my four-inch by two-and-a-half-foot security window. The guy smiled. He had a missing tooth and always reminded me of Roger Rabbit, “What’s up, vato?” I said. The guy actually was called Rabbit, and he was a runner. He sold drugs in prison and got a cut from his suppliers, guys like me. I had been doing business with him for over a year. The market was good, dope that cost five dollars in the streets was worth a hundred in prison. I would get drugs to his girl, who would pass them along to him, he’d sell and bring me the cash, and I’d return his cut. I made good money; he used most of his. Rabbit was a 35-year-old man who’d spent most of his life in juvenile hall, then the youth authority, and finally, in prison. He had bad ADHD and schizophrenia. He seemed different today. He was high, but it wasn’t that. When Rabbit was high he was the happiest guy around. He looked into my eyes and I saw it before he said it. “I’m gone.”

“What you mean, ese?” I asked.

“Fuck dog, I fucked up. My bitch lost a half ounce of black, and that shit belonged to that foo Diamond and you know that foo ain’t gonna let that go.” Rabbit looked like all the air had been sucked from him.

“How much is that?” I asked.

“Naw, you ain’t gotta do that shit. I fucked up, I’ll handle it.” Rabbit said and pulled out a prison shank. “I’m gonna do that foo before he does me.” Lifeless, defeated, scared, and angry, he looked like a demon had possession of him.

“Hey foo, don’t trip. I got you. You my boy, that ain’t shit. I’ll talk to that foo.” I said, feeling good. Heroin made the whole world feel small. I felt like anything was possible.

“Contreras! Find your fuckin’ cell.” The CO yelled through the loudspeaker.

The next morning the doors opened for breakfast and I saw Diamond, who lived in cell 101. I caught up to the massive man, his eyes red from the weed he constantly smoked. “I gotta holla at you about some serious shit.” I said.

Diamond took a step back and I felt his body language turn defensive. “Naw blood, it ain’t even like that.” I said, and I began explaining the situation while we walked towards the chow hall. Surprisingly, Diamond was understanding. We agreed that I would send him a thousand dollars, and he would squash the deal he had with Rabbit.

Satisfied, I headed over to work. I was a barber at the prison, though I couldn't cut hair if my life depended on it. I walked to cell 110, where Rabbit lived, and pulled him out for a haircut. Once outside, I told him what went down with Diamond. “That’s fucking firme, but what do you want for it?” Rabbit asked.

“Look foo, I ain't tripping, but you gotta make it right with me. Just give me the half ounce you were supposed to get to him. Can you do that?” I asked, and we were both suddenly serious.

“Aight, I can do that,” he answered, and we went back to doing what most convicts do in prison, nothing. Just talking shit and getting high whenever we can.

A few days passed and early one morning I heard the CO knocking on my door. It was only 5 A.M. and there were no programs going yet. I opened my eyes, “What’s up?”

“You got a brother in prison?” she asked.

“Yeah, but he’s in High Desert.”

She smiled. “No he ain’t. 1 block.” 

“What the fuck!”

“I know we’re on lockdown, but I’ll take you to the chow hall to see him.” I couldn’t believe my luck, I almost began to cry. I hadn’t seen my brother in 10 years.

A week went by and Rabbit got hold of some meth. He sent me a couple of grams. I didn’t say anything because I was still hoping he’d make it right.

Two weeks later, Rabbit hit on some heroin for another guy and sent me a gram. Once I was able, I got a hold of him to discuss what he owed me. He was clearly loaded. His eyes were almost closed, he was so high. “So where’s my shit, Rabbit?” 

“Hey foo, I got you. You know I’m good for it, I just need a little more time.” Rabbit tried to sound convincing in the way all addicts do, not knowing they never fool anyone.

I acquiesced because I considered him a good acquaintance. In prison, you can never call anyone your friend. A man can kill someone for you; can share his food, soap, and clothes with you; when you’re threatened he can pick up a knife and win or lose with you, but you still can’t call him a friend. Prison damages trust. Most criminals will scrutinize the actions of the people around them for the rest of their lives, no matter how well they’re treated.

A few days later, I called my family to check in and learned they were planning a trip to come and see me and my brother that weekend. It was a beautiful thing to hear—visits keep you alive in prison. They help your heart stay open and strong. Getting to see my brother and the rest of my family was one precious gift after the next.

Soon enough it was Saturday morning, the day of the visit. I decided to shave to look nice for them, but because level 4 inmates aren’t allowed to keep razors in their cells, I had to find someone who had stolen one previously and stowed it away. I remembered I’d seen a razor in Rabbit’s cell, and as we were walking back from chow I hollered at him, “Hey foo, let me use your razor?”

Rabbit looked at me with an expression I couldn’t quite place. “Yeah don't trip. I got you foo.” He called back, and he slowed his pace so we could walk together to his cell. The COs stood about ten feet away. We reached his cell, 110, which he kept dark by covering his light. Next to him in 109 lived my old celly, Danny. I started a conversation with him about something or other—probably drugs—when suddenly I felt heat on my right cheek, then against my forehead, down my right eye, to my lips. I didn’t realize what was happening, but then I saw Rabbit run toward the COs and realized everyone was staring at me. I was confused, but then I saw Danny’s pale face and I knew. I touched my cheek, and it was wet. When I pulled my fingers away they were covered in blood.

The alarm sounded, and the COs shouted, “GET DOWN! GET DOWN!” But I didn't get down. My mind was blank and racing. I walked in a daze back to my cell and grabbed a bandana, which I pressed to my face. The cuts were already swollen from the dirty blade. I stepped out of the cell and finally lowered myself to the ground. Rabbit had already been escorted out of the building by the COs, some of whom then walked over to me and asked if I needed a wheelchair. I said, “I’m good.” But I wasn’t. In prison, when you get hurt—whether stabbed, beat up, or ill— you can’t take the wheelchair when the COs fetch you. Everyone loses respect for you. That was the absent thought on my mind as my eyes began to cloud over.

What I was feeling was unlike anything I’d known in my life. It was a violation, and it was personal. This was the man I had helped out of a jam. I’d paid his debt as a favor, I hadn’t threatened him when he didn’t square up. Well that was a mistake. He fucked with the wrong motherfucker. I wanted to hurt him, but I had to be careful. I could lose contact with him and ruin my business. In prison, if you stab someone or get stabbed, you’re separated from them forever, considered enemies. I just wanted to hurt him for what he did to me.

I arrived at the prison’s medical department and the COs had already called the goon squad (gang investigators) to interrogate me. “What happened? Why did he do this to you? We already know what’s going on, so you better just tell us.” In prison, no matter what happens, you never involve the pigs, but at that moment I wanted to hurt Rabbit however I could. This felt like a good option, so I threw away my prison morality. I didn’t care if I was found out. I would deal with that when I had to. But CO justice wasn’t enough. I needed to dole out revenge myself.

They transported me to the hospital, and as soon as I got there I was ushered into the doctor’s office. The people around stared at me like I was something horrific. I tried to pull the craziest look possible. Fuck ‘em. If they looked at me like that, I’d act like that. Once in the office, the doctor explained that he could take his time with some careful suturing to make my face heal as cleanly as possible, or he could use staples, which might leave more scarring.

“I don’t give a shit. Just do it.” I nearly barked.

He put what looked like a dog’s flea collar around my face, grabbed the skin, and stapled it together. He put some glue on the cuts. I was driven back to the prison and taken to speak to the captain. I sat down in her small office handcuffed.

“Today’s your lucky day,” she said. “Usually you’d go off to the hole after an incident like this, but I went and spoke to your mom. I have kids too, so I’ll let you slide on this. I know it wasn't your fault, but I still can't let you get your visit. That sound good?” 

Punished by a dealer for helping him out, punished by the prison for getting cut. My family traveled all this way to see me, and were now being sent back.

“Yeah whatever. Can I go back to my cell?” 

“Yeah, get out of here.”

I stormed back to my cell, my face throbbing, my fists clenching along with it. My celly, a small guy, was staring at me, silent, and although he didn’t say anything, I knew he felt like a bitch because he hadn't helped me. I said nothing to him, just took the sheet off my mattress and looked for the hole I had made in it until I found what I was looking for: a big flat piece of metal I had gotten from someone in the kitchen. I told my celly to keep point and began to sharpen it. The task focused me. It felt difficult and rewarding, like I was working toward a goal. It took me a few hours to get it sharp enough.

The next day I went to work with my face bandaged up. A lot of people stared, but I was glad. “What the fuck you lookin’ at, punk?” I hurled at anyone who looked my way, hoping they’d say something back and give me an excuse to hurt them.

Later that day, my little brother sent me a kite from 1 block and told me that he felt that Danny, my old celly, should have helped me. That was what I needed—that sealed the deal. I had a cure, a direction for the maddening hate and desire for vengeance inside me. I was in the dayroom working. I called out to the tower officer and told him to pull out cell 109 for a haircut. The door slowly opened, and Danny came to the door confused. “What’s up?” He asked.

The tower officer had left. “Come out here and kick it.” I said, and Danny began to move toward me but he must have felt it, and he stopped. I pulled out the knife and said, “What’s up, puto? Come here, I’ma fuck you up.”

His eyes darted everywhere, but in prison there’s rarely a somewhere to run to. He put hands in front of his body and looked into my eyes. At that moment something shifted. I knew suddenly that it wasn't Danny. It wasn't Rabbit, it wasn't anyone. It was violence itself that had me feeling the way I was. This was how violence had managed to live so long, it was passed down from victim to victim, and me hurting Danny would only continue the cycle. So I chose not to. I was going to stop myself from passing this virus to somebody else. I put the knife back in my pocket and told Danny, “Get outta here.” I packed up my barber kit and headed back to my cell. I broke the shiv into three pieces and flushed them in my toilet. My celly asked me what happened and I tried to explain what I now understood.

Several years after this affair,  I was called to the program office at Kern Valley State Prison and informed I was being sent to the hole—temporary, non-punitive. In the cage was another inmate, a guy named Tricks. We got to talking, and it turned out that Rabbit did the same thing to him at a different prison. We were being held in the hole because Rabbit was being transferred back to Kern Valley, and since he was EOP (mentally ill), he had priority. They were moving the guys he’d had conflicts with. Everything was going normally; we were just waiting to get called to go to D yard that night. Hours passed and the COs came around to pick up all the guys going to A yard, then B, then C yard, where Rabbit was. They came to our door and called to Tricks, “Come on out.” To me they said, “Contreras, get ready to leave next.”

Tricks went to the door and asked, “Wait—where am I going?”

“You’re going to C yard.” the CO replied.

Tricks turned around and mouthed to me, “They fucked up.”

Two days later I was in the dog kennels, our yard, when I heard an alarm go off. A few minutes later, I heard a helicopter overheard. Someone was getting life-flighted to the hospital. That night, a voice in the pod shouted, “INCOMING”—a new guy coming to the hole. I got out of my bunk and peeked out the window to see Tricks. He caught my eye and winked. Later, I found out that Tricks had stabbed Rabbit so many times he’d left him near-paralyzed.

And this is what I understood that day I let Danny go: stabbing him wouldn't have made me feel better, because that wasn’t the comfort I needed. If I’d stabbed him, he might have felt what I felt, and done the same thing. This is the thing about criminals, we have stared morality down, have done bad and known good. You can’t know hot without cold. And maybe there are degrees of knowing, But if you know goodness yourself you don't need to point at others and say, “he is bad, and he is not me, so therefore I must be good.” I know that when I stopped myself from stabbing Danny I did good, permanent good because he will never feel what I felt. At least, not by my hands. I am a criminal who has been behind bars for twenty three years because I killed someone. I’ve known good and bad, but I have never had to point at anyone else to call myself good. I know by experience, by doing.