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In the Face of FEAR

Updated: May 30, 2023

I'm a 44-year-old incarcerated man in South Carolina. In November 1999 I was convicted of 1st degree murder and given a prison sentence of 35 years to serve day for day. Two years prior to the day of my guilty plea, I sat in the County jail waiting for my day in court. I heard a lot of stories about prison life. The violence, the intimidation tactics and how one had to build a reputation of violence in order to keep the predators at bay and your manhood intact. I would hear stories about how seasoned convicts will roll on a new arrivals and put a care package of snacks and hygiene on their bed. Dudes be like, "don't take or use any of that stuff because as soon as you do some hardened convict would roll on you with a shank demanding you to give him that same candy bar and honey bun back. Some guys even suggested, as soon as you hit the yard you need to run up on the biggest dude you see and lay your hardest punch on him, square in the eye. Try to knock him out cold. That was, supposedly, one of the most effective ways to establish your rep that you were not to be played with. I was advised to get a knife as soon as I arrived at the compound.

When my time came to be shipped from the County to Kershaw C.I. I had anticipation of the worst and fear of the unknown. I didn't seek out the biggest dude on the yard to attack, although, I did consider it. The forces of anticipation and fear prompted me to develop some survival strategies, a series of pre-planned responses to every hypothetical threat I had running through my mind.

I was all too familiar with being in hostile environments and being prepared for combat and the likelihood of being tried by those looking to build a reputation of toughness at my expense. It was a very delicate line to toe, out on the streets, and in a lot of ways, an even more amplified situation in the confines of prisons. The strong prey on the weak back here and those responsible for our safety could care less about anyone getting hurt or potentially killed. The attitude of most prison COs is you should've thought about your safety when you were out there selling dope, breaking into people's houses, shooting up the neighborhood and the various crimes for which we are imprisoned. Most people in society hold the prevalent belief that criminals should face hard time for their crimes. So, when a convicted criminal is violently beaten, stabbed or rapped, we are rightfully getting our "just desserts". The aforementioned attitudes have left many incarcerated men to believe, in order to survive our sentence of imprisonment, we must adopt violence as a way of life, a way of resolving conflicts and an acquired attribute of our character.

Fear is a powerful emotion that can seize a person, taking control of their life and leading them to do the unthinkable and cross the threshold into extreme, inhumane and irrational behavior. It is an emotion that causes 1 of 3 responses, fight, flight or freeze. I have been a victim of all three at one time or another. I am aware of the heightened rush of adrenaline that prepares one to respond to potential threats. Knowing the level of anxiety, I would experience when constantly thinking about protecting myself in a hyper-masculine, ego-driven environment, I knew others had similar angst which could potentially move them to various extremes of violence.

The living unit was like a powder keg waiting to explode. One gesture of disrespect from one prisoner to another could start off as a typical fist fight and lead up to a thick melee between two or three regional factions involving 20, 30 or 50 people. Most one-on-one altercations would lead to gang clashes. No slight disrespect could be taken lightly and no conflict, no matter how trivial it might seem, could be underestimated or taken for granted. Tension was always high, even when things seemed calm, anything could pop off at any moment except while on lockdown and even then, you're not totally safe. After only a couple weeks of being in prison, I witnessed several brutal beatings and stabbings, more than I had ever seen play out on the streets with such levels of savagery and barbarism. In a prison fight you could see any form of raw material fashioned into a weapon used to maim, scar or kill a man. After witnessing the aftermath of several bloody conflicts, I decided to procure a menacing weapon of my own, not for a means of starting trouble, but to finish it.

I was not oblivious to where I was. I made the costly choice to commit the crime that got me here. I had to do what I felt was necessary to survive. The most daunting fear of an incarcerated person I surmise would have to be dying back here. I was young and although I was looking to spend most of my vital years incarcerated, I wasn't looking to accept my life and chance at freedom being cut short at the hands of another reckless, homicidal inmate who had long ago given up hope.

Being a young man seasoned in the street-life I honed the skill of navigating through tense situations. I learned to disguise my feelings and anxiety blending in with the scene, building alliances while standing on my own two feet. I observed early in my bid that prisoners put a lot of stake in their reputation. This is the reason why no one ever wants to be put in a situation where they had to set an example of some form of disrespect. To leave any slight unchecked could lead down a slippery slope of being disrespected and taken for a joke in the future. I had to walk a tightrope of being taken seriously and at the same time not stepping on anyone's toes provoking a conflict. No matter how hard I tried to avoid an altercation, I knew it would eventually come. It was the nature of the beast. Everyone had to look out and be ready for their day to be tested and be prepared to handle themselves. Every day I stepped out of my cell, I felt like a platoon scout sent out to spot any dangerous traps or ambushes in the battlefield.

I began developing a militant regimen. Working out constantly to build my body, self-defense training to increase my combat reflexes and fighting skills. I spent a lot of time and energy preparing myself for violence, energy fueled by my notions of fear. After a while, I started to notice how my mind became so consumed with thoughts of hurting those around me and how much more confident I was in my ability to do so, in a deadly fashion if necessary. Taking the life of another human being was the last thing that I wanted to do. The consequences that I was now suffering from my malicious acts of violence in the past were bearing a heavy burden that I struggled to carry. My own negative perception of those around me posing a threat kept my mind trapped in the survival mode mentality, which was rooted in the false belief that I was either predator or prey and violence was the way to resolve conflicts. The more I trained my body and mind to physically hurt someone, the easier it would be to do without conscience. One having this mindset often rationalizes acts of violence and victimization of others on the premise of kill or be killed, dog eats dog philosophy of life.

I was becoming a hardened soul unable to identify with the pain and suffering I brought on others while always giving in to the psychological defense mechanisms of self-preservation and survival by any means. Then there was a watershed moment that made me question my outlook on "prison life". Was my time to be spent in apprehension of everyone I encountered with the expectation of conflict or could I learn to identify the bridge between our common experience that allows people to empathize with one another in our struggles.

One morning after leaving the cafeteria at breakfast, it was 5am and still dark. Some dude about 20 yards behind me kept yelling my name. The strange thing about it was he called me by my alias I went by on the street. This set off an alarm in my mind that he was a potential threat. Somebody who had beef about my crime. I knew one of my victim's cousins just recently hit the yard. He was a dangerous individual known for his reputation for violence on the streets and in prison. He was no doubt a force to be reckoned with having little restraint when it came to issuing pain on an adversary. I turned around to see him in the distance accompanied by two other guys. I, along with my partner, who was with me proceeded in their direction. I was carrying two homemade knives at the time. I was determined to use them if the confrontation turned violent. My adrenaline was pumping, while at the same instant, my focus concentrated within the pupil of my eyes ushering in a calmness before the storm. As he walked towards me, his two companions stayed behind. I then motioned my hand for my man to stay back. I began to feel even more emboldened by a one-on-one engagement. Then we met each other about 6 feet apart. I could clearly see who I was facing, up close and in person. Standing at approximately 6 feet 2 inches, the intimidating figure no longer seemed intimidating. My mind replayed a statement I heard from an old timer who told me, "I fear nothing that I can see." After hearing about this dude's reputation for inflicting damage on his victims, now standing before him, I felt calm and focused on whatever came next. I spoke first, “What's up?!" "I know you killed my cousin." He said, "And I don't like the fact that we on the same yard. Being that you linked up with the Gods (5% Nation of Gods and Earths) I'ma let that ride."

His words hit me harder than any physical blow could. No enraged thrust forward with punches thrown to meet tender flesh. No scuffle to unleash deadly swings of shanks to tear through khakis and muscle tissue. No tasting or feeling my own hot blood trickle from a fresh wound. By the "code" of the streets and in prison he had all means to retaliate. If it was to be any confrontation that I had to fear and be prepared to deal with this, was it. The fact that he did not take a course of violence knowing his reputation was unthinkable to me. Hence the watershed moment.

Up until that point I imagined myself to be in the most extreme circumstances of threat which caused me to take extreme measures to protect myself from such imagined threats. While in reality it wasn't all that I had manufactured in my mind. Now looking at that incident, I can see how the fear mongering campaigns about "violent offenders" can cause society to never consider any other alternatives for dealing with us but extreme punishment when they are constantly being force fed negative portrayals of the incarcerated in lieu of stories of human growth and transformation. The context of my story may seem to add credibility to the negative portrayals of prisoners. It all begins with the half-truths that we were told upon coming into the system that gave birth to the false reality we perpetuate within ourselves allowing us to sabotage our own internal growth. It would take a few more years and blood shed before I could come to terms with my False Experiences Appearing Real and free myself from the cycle of violence.

Robert "Nadir" Johnson continues to inspire others to turn from violent ways and maximize their time. We look forward to future articles about his experiences and wisdom.

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