In the summer of 1990, I was incarcerated within the Arizona State Prison System. I was a 26-year-old fool who had gotten caught in the go-nowhere world of drugs, and, as most do, found myself in big trouble headed for what I view quite literally as hell on earth.
My second day at the Cimarron Unit in Tucson is one that Iíll never forget-nor the following weeks. It all started out innocently enough as we were let out of our cellblock for lunch. It was a mad rush, and being in a hurry myself I wasnít paying attention and ran into one of the biggest, meanest-looking guys Iíve ever seen. Needless to say I was scared to death. As I started to mouth an apology, I turned to find that he had somehow disappeared. That didnít seem too strange at the time, but looking back it is-in the prison, everyone ate at the same time or they didnít eat at all.
Anyhow, I forgot about this individual, and went about getting settled in, doing my time. Late one night, while watching television in my cell, I heard a tap on the cell door. In the viewing window of the door was the man that I had run into. This is strange, because all of us inmates were supposed to be locked in our cells for the night, and yet there he was, beckoning me to the door.
I went to see what he wanted. When I got to the door, he told me that Iíd best stay in the next morning because there was going to be trouble on the recreation yard. I told him thanks for the information, and he left. I then woke my cellmate up to tell him just what Iíd been told.
We sat up all night speculating on what was going happen, and why. We were both new to prison and pretty naive to the ways of the ďjungle.Ē When they opened the doors for breakfast and recreation, we were off the deep end, but didnít know it. After breakfast, we went straight to the field instead of back to the cellblock. Within about 10 minutes, all hell broke loose. I found myself in the middle of a full-fledged prison riot. Gladiators did battle with everything from trashcan lids and homemade knives to weight bars and rocks.
I didnít know what to do or where to go. I thought for sure that Iíd die that day in that recreation yard war zone. I was like a deer in the headlights, panic-stricken and frozen in place. All of a sudden that big, mean-looking guy who had warned me grabbed me, and forced me to a concrete picnic table near the entrance to the yard. At just that moment, the guards opened fire with non-lethal rounds, and the battle quickly ground to a halt.
There were 74 people on the recreation field that day; two men were killed and countless others injured.
We were locked into the yard with no way of leaving. The guards quickly cuffed everyone up, and one by one every inmate was taken off the field, the wounded first and then the rest of us. The two fatalities were the only remaining. I was the second to last to be led off, and nowhere to be found was the mean-looking guy whoíd warned me to stay clear. He wasnít one of the dead, and I watched every face as they went through that gate. It didnít dawn on me until later that this man had a full beard-no one had a beard in that prison because policy prohibited facial hair.
He was real and he saved my life, of this Iím sure. Who-or what-he was is beyond me. I only wish I could have thanked him for looking out for me when I wasnít smart enough to do it myself.
He never again appeared, and I know now that he definitely wasnít an inmate, as I went straight to the yard office the day we were let off lockdown, looking to find his picture on the roll call board. He wasnít there. I asked numerous guards and inmates, but nobody had ever seen anyone remotely resembling the man I described. Iím still baffled, but thankful just the same for that big olí mean-looking angel that was looking out for me! Godspeed my friend-whatever you are.
-John Cline, Largo, Fla.
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