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Jul. 10, 2006
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal


Getting the best of prison inmate on his own turf a tall order

With newfound courage, R-J reporter Corey Levitan confronts the lifer who refused to obey his orders earlier in the day at the Southern Desert Correctional Center.
Photos by Jane Kalinowsky.

Corrections officer Rick Smith, center, unlocks the handcuffs that Levitan, left, placed the wrong way on an inmate.

Levitan checks the ID of inmate Ricky Dollar in the 40-and-older workout room of the Southern Desert Correctional Center.

Are you smiling at me?" the inmate asks as I pass him on the stairs leading up from the gym at Southern Desert Correctional Center.

Yes, I explain. I was being friendly.


"Do I know you?" he asks as he begins climbing the stairs alongside me.

No, I explain. It's my first day as a corrections trainee.

"Then who the (expletive) said you could smile at me?" the inmate barks as he overtakes me, then turns to block my exit from the gym.

My heart is pounding as fast as my legs would like to run.

My instructors — senior corrections officer Rick Smith, 48, and Lt. Robert Pierce, 59 — trail four lengths behind me. They're letting me handle the situation, just like I asked them to.

Damn them.

There are 1,646 inmates at the correctional center, a medium-security prison 40 miles north of Las Vegas. And only 45 of the 170 custody staff are on the day shift. That makes one officer for every 37 prisoners. (The ratio approaches 1-to-60 at night and on weekends.) And none of us has a gun. Our effectiveness — and personal safety — is based entirely on the threat we pose.

"If you think you're gonna get hurt in here, you probably will," Smith told me earlier. A Southern Desert Correctional Center corrections officer since 1989, the Illinois native was the victim of an attempted stabbing several years ago.

"The inmate pulls a shank out, it goes flying and another officer secured it," he said, adding that there was another attempted assault on an officer just a couple of days ago.

"You have to be of a mind-set that, by whatever means necessary, come quitting time, you're walking out the door," Smith said.

Why my proposal was accepted, I can't say. Before entering the yard, trainees are normally required to pass a six-week course up the street at High Desert State Prison.

"They've never allowed anything like this," Smith said.

My day begins smoothly enough. A "man down!" radio call turned out to be an inmate beaned in the head by a baseball at third base. (He was fine by the time we got there.)

Sure, before I searched another inmate's cell for drugs, I placed the handcuffs on him backward. But he was kind enough to instruct me how to start over and do it right.

I was about to report an incident-free shift until my exit from the gym, where I checked IDs in the 40-and-older workout area. (They need their own because younger men run them off the machines.)

"I ain't turning around!" my potential assailant continues.

Smith told me his favorite thing about this 40-hour-a-week job (which pays $36,000 to start) is that "anything can happen." This is not my favorite thing about the job.

The inmate is keeping me at the gym's entrance because it lies below an overhang, in the blind spot of the nearest of five gun towers. It's the most popular place for inmate fights.

"Put him on the wall!" Smith repeats his order to me.

The prisoner folds his arms, refusing to budge.

"You're not touching me!" he yells. He is trying to instill fear.

"If you're afraid to stand up to them," Smith said earlier, "they will call you out in front of other inmates, showing them that you're weak and they can get away with whatever they want."

The prisoner's plan is succeeding. I'm right back behind the sixth-grade cafeteria facing Charlie Greenvald, the bearded man-child who appointed himself my personal tour guide for the inside of garbage Dumpsters. (You may find this hard to believe, based on my ominous presence as an adult, but as a kid, I was frequently bullied.)

For the third time, I ask the inmate to face the wall. For the third time, he refuses.

"Move back!" Smith yells at the crowd. He and Pierce have decided to step in because 20 inmates have circled us, apparently to support the prisoner in whatever he decides to do to me. Smith and Pierce's bad reputations are starting to come on the line a little, too.

Pierce flips the inmate toward the wall and I administer the lightest frisking in the history of frisking, my hands patting like snowflakes.

Back at the command center, we discover that my new friend is serving a life sentence for sexual assault, burglary and use of a deadly weapon. If he punched me in the face — or worse, stabbed me with a shank easily crafted from a razor or sharp rock — he couldn't have gone to prison for it; he's already here.

He might have gotten himself transferred to a tougher prison, but his sentence would fail to increase; life plus whatever is still life.

"You actually said 'please'?" asks officer R.J. Colbert, jabbing an elbow into the officer to his left.

Oh yeah. I left out the part where the inmate demanded I say "please" before agreeing to be frisked. And then the part where I complied.

The story cracks up six of my co-workers who weren't there.

"I never have no problems like that!" Colbert says, slapping his knees.

More than two decades have passed since middle school, and not much has changed. I let myself get bullied again, and I'm enduring the laughter generated by my humiliation.

"Who's that?" multiple voices ask as I poke my head into the culinary building, where inmates dine 100 at a time. All chewing stops, all eyes lock on me. I feel like Carmen Electra.

"They're reading you," Colbert explains. "They want to know everything about the new guy — what you eat, what you wear, what cologne you use."

Prisoners keep a mental file on each officer, either to attempt psychological warfare or help curry future favor.

The official reason I'm here is to frisk exiting inmates for food items — crackers, salt, pepper — that they're not allowed to take to their cells. The unofficial reason is closure. Smith reports that my bully is inside. We lock eyes when he exits the building.

"You're still (expletive) smiling!" the inmate snipes at me, glowering. "I thought I told you not to smile!"

"On the wall!" I yell. This time, force drenches my voice.

To my surprise, he complies. I administer a frisking, full-strength. Then I demand an apology.

"Apologize?" he responds. "Have you lost your (expletive) mind?"

He gets up in my face. I hold my ground, sneering right back. Then I completely snap.

"You apologize to me right now or I'll make your life a living hell!" I scream, as my own life flashes before my eyes.

Joe Pesci would be proud.

The prisoner doesn't apologize, but I don't back down, either. I keep my angry stare fixed as he skulks off.

I finally did it. I finally stood up to Charlie Greenvald.

"You were a little too emotional, but you handled the situation," Smith tells me.

But I'm not done. Officers have the right to revoke work cards, rendering inmates temporarily unable to earn money. We can even place inmates in "the hole" — the prison within the prison where they're allowed out of their cell for only one of each 24 hours — until a disciplinary hearing is held.

"Can I haul him off?" I ask Smith, who doesn't answer.

"Can I do anything to him?" I demand to know. I'm pumped.

"Uh," Smith says, "I think you should let him walk away."

Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.




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