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What It’s Like To Get In A Prison Fight

Fighting in prison is bloody, brutal and ubiquitous

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(Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso/Vocativ)
Jan 19, 2016 at 11:36 AM ET

A prison fight is nothing like the UFC or boxing. It’s straight-up bedlam. Anything that can happen, will happen. Locks in a sock, shanks and mop wringers are all game. You can’t get a fair fight, but you can get a square one. You just have to know the rules. And the rules vary.

The universal rule is that fighting is part of prison life. You either fight or lose everything. Heart checks are mandatory. It’s called being “on the count” and if you aren’t present, you’ll get checked into the hole by your own boys.

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“Whenever you are going to do any type of fighting in a penal institution what rules you go by are determined by where you are at,” said Kevin Smith, a 47-year-old penitentiary veteran from Fort Worth, Texas who has done 10 years in federal institutions, three stints in the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) and multiple stays in county jail for a variety of charges including meth distribution and manufacture, gun possession, conspiracy to rob a bank and assault.

The TDC is one of the more notorious prison systems in the country. They got a saying when you walk into a Texas prison, “You gotta fight, fuck or bust a 60.” The first two are self-explanatory, the third means paying someone off for protection.

“In TDC they make you fight right when you get there.” said Smith. “It’s a heart check. They want to make sure you’re going to fight because when you go to TDC you’re going to war, just like in the feds when you get to the higher levels. When you’re in a constant state of war you want to make sure your fighters will fight.”

If you have a problem with another prisoner there’s no time to talk about it. Convicts will tell you straight-up, ‘I don’t argue.’ It doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong. It just matters who wins.

“When you have a problem they tell you to ‘Lace up or catch a square,’” said Smith. “When they tell you that it means you go and get boots and your gloves on and you go toe-to-toe, usually in the bathroom. If it’s between races the different groups will go together and let the two guys fight one on one.”

The etiquette in TDC takes on its own nuances from there.

“Once you get your fight on, after a guy drops or he’s bloody, he doesn’t get stomped out,” said Smith. “They pretty much pick him up and ask the guy that just got dropped if he wants to continue and he generally does, giving up too quickly means you lose face. But if he gets dropped again then it’s over.”

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Fighting can get you your respect, even if you get your ass beat. Assuming you follow the rules. Everything is regulated because in prison your flag is your skin color and race riots can jump off over any violation of the rules. That’s why when you take it to the bathroom, you leave it in there.

Either way, simple disagreements aren’t the only reason why prison fights happen.

“I’m from Texas and when I got to USP Beaumont the shot-caller told me I’m on the launching pad,” said Smith. “That means that the first guy that shows up dirty from Texas I get.”

Smith didn’t have to wait long to put in work.

“There was a guy that showed up and he was dirty, he told on somebody,” Smith remembers. “I saw the paperwork and we were drinking. I ran up in his cell while my homeboy held the door and I hit that snitch with three shots to the head and he fell down like a bitch. I stomped him a couple times for good measure and told him to check in. Then I sat back down in the dayroom like nothing happened and continued drinking.”

In the penitentiary, convict justice is swift and brutal. A snitch can get respect if he fights, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a snitch. He can just be a tough snitch. A lot of fights in prison are over paperwork, but convicts also fight over drugs, money and even a seat in the TV room.

“In FCI El Reno there was this dude Rebel, he was one of those Aryan dudes,” said Smith. “He thought he was running the TV room. He was just a big 6-foot-5, weightlifting, 26-year-old kid that had been picking his marks and beating people up for sitting in his seat.

“He tried that with me one time and I told him he could go fuck himself. I had been drinking of course and he tried to sneak me. I saw it out of the corner of my eye as he threw a right. I ducked that weak shit because I’m from Fort Worth, Texas and we box all the time. You never throw a right first.

“When he threw it he was way over extended so I hit him with a left jab right in the jaw and he was already doing the dance. I hit him twice more and he fell down on his chair knocking it over. He got up, came at me again and threw another right. I ducked that again and threw a left hook and he fell into some other guys sitting there watching. He got up and didn’t want no more and everybody was looking at me all astonished because this 40-year-old man had blood all over his shirt, but none of it was his.”

Rebel didn’t want any more problems with Smith after that.