On the Violence of Prison

Date01 May 2022
AuthorKenneth E. Hartman
Published date01 May 2022
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2022, Vol. 38(2) 245 –247
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10439862221096738
On the Violence of Prison
Kenneth E. Hartman
I sat on the concrete benches outside of the counselor’s offices, on a terrace 15 feet up
on the second floor of a building looking out over the prison. It was my first day off of
Fish Row, my first chance to be out of my cell since the statewide bus had dropped me
off the week before. I was marveling at the goings on of the fabled big yard at Folsom
State Prison — more than two thousand men moving around, interacting, carrying on
the business of their lives constrained within the granite walls. Suddenly, I noticed a
distinct shifting of the traffic patterns, as a gaping hole in the crowd of men opened up
around one spot to the side of One Building.
A phalanx of guards came rushing out of the Yard Shack and formed a circle around
someone on the ground, blowing whistles, while a couple of them grabbed a gurney.
In a few minutes they came running by, pushing a white cart with the gurney on top,
an inert man bouncing along in it, the liquid crimson of blood shining in the sun.
As soon as the cart disappeared through the gate into Five Building, shouts of “clear
the way” echoing into the sanctum sanctorum of the bullet-riddled granite blocks built
in the 19th century, the public address system announced, “Play Ball.” And with that
all the previous movement resumed, as if nothing had happened, as if a human being
had not been murdered on the yard minutes before.
I was 20 years old then, sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, trying to
figure out how I was going to survive the infamous “Pit” that was Folsom. The mes-
sage I received that day couldn’t have been any clearer — violence is always around
the corner, always ready to dispatch you into that bloody gurney, and no one will lose
a moment’s sleep. In the five years I was imprisoned there, more than 1,000 men were
stabbed and more than a hundred died. They left nothing much behind beyond that
momentary break in the action before the call to “Play Ball” echoed across the yard.
Ultimately, I would serve 38 years inside of California’s prison system, and
throughout all of that time violence never disappeared. The structure of the society
inside that existed then and exists still rests on a foundation of incipient violence wait-
ing to unravel and swallow up whoever happens to be in the way. It is so intimately
entwined with prison as to be indistinguishable from the bars and the slamming metal
doors, and no less omnipresent.
While I was in Los Angeles County Jail awaiting trial, I was in a dozen violent
encounters that were nothing out of the ordinary for that place at that time. In about
half of them I was the attacker, in the other half I was attacked. There really weren’t
1096738CCJXXX10.1177/10439862221096738Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeHartman

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