As Scared As I’ve Ever Been

When I got out of the military I moved to Reno, NV. I had always liked the town, and thought I would enjoy living there.

I left Ft. Hood, Texas, and drove straight through to Northern Nevada. There were a couple of incidents along the way that were quite interesting, however telling them now is not the right time. Maybe one day I’ll get around to sharing the stories of those people and places that marked the journey forever in my memory. For now, though, I want only to write about a part of my first year in the Biggest Little City In The World.

After arriving in town, and getting settled into a small, furnished apartment, I went in search of a job. In those days, employment was easy to find, even though it might not be exactly what a person had in mind. Casinos were everywhere, and they were constantly looking for help.

I took an entry-level position with one of the larger establishments downtown in order to make ends meet. My goal was to secure a position in law enforcement. What happened, though, changed my mind forever about becoming a police officer.

That first month in town was eventful, and hectic. When I wasn’t working, I was pounding the pavement in search of a position that would lead to a career as a law enforcement officer. It was a time of high inflation, with unemployment rates twice what they are today. Needless to say, I was not having much luck when I came across a want ad that grabbed my attention.

About 35 miles south of where I was living there is a maximum security prison. It’s on the southern end of Carson City, and with both cities being much less crowded than they are today it was a rather quick drive. I presented myself to the prison HR office, and filled out an application.

In a couple of weeks I was contacted by a recruiter who wanted to meet me. Three days later I was in his office answering questions about why I wanted to be employed as a prison guard, and about my past employment. Since I had just gotten out of the Army, I was a much sought after commodity, so the process did not take long. After a quick background check I found myself in their six-week academy as a new guard at the toughest prison in the state.

Unlike a few of the other candidates, I breezed through the classes, especially the ones that relied on physical fitness. My three years as a member of the armed forces paid off. Although I did not finish at the top of the class, I was far from the bottom. My scores were high enough that I finished in the top 5%, and was able to pick my area of assignment. There was an open position in the kitchen, so I grabbed it.

I had heard that watching the inmates prepare the daily meals was a plum job. I didn’t want to work too hard, but I figured what I learned would help me with an application with the city police, or county sheriff, when they opened up recruitment again.

When I reported for my first day on the job I was assigned to the butcher shop. That was not what I had in mind. Prisoners who worked there had access to knives, very large, and very sharp knives. It was not what I would call an ideal situation. A guard had to be alert at all times, and me being the cautious type did not enjoy a relaxing time while on duty.

You have to understand that at that particular time in history, the maximum security prison in Carson City was the largest in the state. It housed the most dangerous prisoners, and death row was constantly over-crowded.

In the prison butcher shop, three guards oversaw six prisoners. Every knife was accounted for, and we kept a close eye on the men who sliced, and diced the meat that went to the cook staff to prepare for the meals served within the concrete walls of that structure. We did not want any of those sharp objects to be misplaced, and wind up in the hands of a dangerous man who would not hesitate to use them against us.

I was still on probation when word came down that the butcher shop was going to be downsized, and most likely closed. The Department of Prisons had just signed a contract with a company that would supply pre-cut meat to the kitchen. The prisoners who worked in the butcher shop were not happy. They would lose their easy job. It was one of the most coveted positions, and these men ate well. We guards would overlook a missing hunk of beef or pork, and sometimes even a whole chicken in order to maintain a harmonious working environment.

A prisoner in possession of a nice cut of meat had bargaining power. He could trade it for cigarettes, drugs, contraband of all sorts, and even sex. These guys who I guarded, and got to know, loved their job, and their position within the ranks of the cell bound. One thing they did not want to do was lose the status they had spent years building up.

As the day for the closure drew near, the prisoners working in the butcher shop became more agitated. I was worried. Sharp objects, and dangerous men do not mix. Three days before the place closed down, it all boiled over. It’s a day I have spent my life trying to forget, but one I will always remember.

The two other guards I worked with were built like me, but shorter, and older. One of them had been on the job for 23 years, and had seen, and experienced many things while working behind the walls of the prison. One time, he was even held as a hostage, and he assured me it was something I did not want to be a part of. As an employee of the prison, one of the first things you learn is that there is a no hostage edict that is firmly adhered to. The guards know it, and the prisoners are aware of it. During riots, though, I don’t think they care. The guards do, but the prisoners don’t.

Of the six prisoners who worked in the butcher shop there was one who reminded me of the big Indian in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. You know the guy. He’s the one Jack Nicholson tried to teach basketball. I think the actor was Will Sampson. He was my favorite character in that movie, so I had a soft spot for the prisoner who reminded me of him.

Anyway, on the day the prisoners decided to take over there was not much us guards could do except pray, and hope to survive. In retrospect, I must say they went easy on us. It could have been so much worse, but at the time I was more frightened than I had ever been in my life. I thought my year in Southeast Asia was bad, but this was even worse. It was up-close, and personal.

The six prisoners, armed with very large knives, and meat cleavers quickly took control. We three guards barely had time to radio for assistance, which did not arrive in time. We were locked in a small dry-storage room where we could be easily controlled. The prisoners barricaded the entry door to the butcher shop, and settled in for a long siege.

The door to the room we guards were in had a small triangle window in it. We took turns watching what was going on in the larger room. We could not monitor the radio because it had been taken from us. As a matter of fact, the prisoners were well educated on what to do with a man in custody. They took our shoes, belts, and everything we had in our pockets. We were left to our concerns about our personal safety.

I was taking a turn at the window when Charlie, the older guard, said that he thought we could get out of there alive. That got my attention. More than anything, I wanted to get out of that little room with my heart still beating. Because of my time there, I think it led to me being very nervous of small, enclosed areas. It’s still something I struggle with today.

When I turned away from the window I saw Charlie and Ed, he was the other guard, staring up at a grate up high on the wall. The room had a ten foot ceiling, and the grate was near the top. Charlie pulled a dime out of his pocket. He said it was missed during the search of our pockets the prisoners conducted. He thought we could use it to remove the screws holding the grate in place, and then one of use could crawl the ducts to alert others in another room about our situation.

Ed and Charlie looked to me like I could fly up to the grate, and presto, perform a miracle. That was not going to happen. I might have been taller than they were, but I wasn’t that tall. Charle had a great idea, though. If he stood on my shoulders, he could reach the screws quite easily. The problem was that if one of the prisoners looked through the window in the door and saw what we were up to, we would not live long. They had sharp objects, very sharp objects, and there was no way we could defend ourselves.

Ed was assigned the task of keeping a lookout at the window. He placed his face close to the thick, tempered glass, and held his hands to the side of his face, like a kid looking through the window of a candy store. That way the prisoners could not see what we were up to. Charlie crawled onto my shoulders, and went to work.

He had been at the task for quite a while when he jumped down. I was very glad to get the weight off my shoulders. Charlie was not a large man, but it didn’t take long, and he became a heavy man. His fingers were bleeding, and he said he could not go on. He’d removed two of the screws, and had a third about halfway out. The issue was that they were large, long screws, easily four inches in length. The dime was getting the job done, but at a price.

Ed took Charlie’s spot on my shoulders, and Charlie manned the door. With my shoulders tender from holding Ed there was not much I could do but stand there and take it.

Ed got the third screw out, and while attempting to put it in his pocket he dropped it. It bounced around on the floor before coming to rest next to my right foot. Then, he went to work on the final screw. Once it was out we’d have to work fast. The grate would have to come down, and a man would have to go through the small opening into the duct. Then, he’d have to crawl his way to an occupied room, and summon help. All the while, us hoping the prisoners would not come into the room, and see the hole in the wall.

The final screw was about 3/4 of the way out when Charlie alerted us that two prisoners were on the way. Ed jumped down, and the two of us had just turned around when the door was flung open. Ed shoved the dime into his pocket, and I stepped on the screw he had dropped. A short prisoner, the one who appeared to be in charge, stepped in, and looked around. Apparently satisfied, he shoved Charlie out of the way, and slammed the door shut, wedging a broom into the handle to keep us from opening the door.

Charlie went back to looking out the window while Ed climbed back on my aching shoulders, and went to work on the final screw. When it came out, the grate slid down the wall. I caught it with my left hand while holding tightly to one of Ed’s legs with my right. I didn’t want him to fall. Not only would that cause a racket, but he would most likely be severely injured. Now came the tricky part.

We still needed to keep the window in the door covered, but at the same time get someone through the opening in the wall, and into the air duct. Charlie was the lightest of the three of us, so he was going through the hole in the wall. Ed went back to the window in the door, leaving me to push Charlie far up the wall so he could scramble through the opening and summon help.

Well, it took Charlie a while, but he found an occupied office where he alerted staff to our predicament. I’m sure they already knew, but the information Charlie supplied helped immensely.

It wasn’t long, and a member of our fast reaction team poked his head into our room, and dropped a knotted rope we could use to climb up the wall. Once we were in the shaft, it was a short crawl to safety.

Ed was the next one out of the room, leaving me to block the view at the window. Once he was gone and the rope was dropped back into the room, I had to be quick. If the prisoners looked in before I was in the air duct, I was a goner. I took a deep breath and ran for the rope.

I was pulling my lanky body into the small opening when the door to the room was yanked open. The prisoners were yelling, and rushing into the room, led by the big guy.

My upper body was in the duct, but my legs were still hanging down in the room. I was gripping the rope as tightly as I could, and yelling for the guy on the other end to pull with everything he had. I wanted out of that room, and fast. My heart was beating as fast as it ever had, and my hands were sweaty, making it hard to grip the rope. Just when I thought I might make it to safety, the inevitable occurred.

The big prisoner latched onto my left foot, the one I had cut when I stepped on the screw that had fallen on the floor, hiding it from the prisoner who looked in on us. I thought for sure I was a goner. The only thing going through my mind was that the next thing I felt would be a knife slicing through my leg, and I’d bleed to death in a matter of two minutes or less.

I was pulling on the rope with every ounce of strength I had while the big prisoner was pulling in the opposite direction. Every time I would gain an inch he’d pull me back two. Never in my life had I been so scared. That big guy kept pulling, pulling, pulling on my leg. Just like I’m pulling on yours.

Good night, Mrs. Jackson, wherever you are.