by Brian Knippers
I went through intake at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center on August 24, 2011. I’ll never forget that day. Pete Bardzik and I received transfer orders to be removed from custody at MCI-Norfolk. We were being transferred to Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. Pete and I were woken up around 6am and escorted to booking by two Inner Perimeter Security Officers (IPS). Once there, the IPS told us we were being transferred to Souza. Pete and I both had Level-A, or “escape risk” designations. We were the first two prisoners from Norfolk to be transferred in lieu of the updated M-DOC (Massachusetts Department of Corrections) CMR(s). They’d instituted security guidelines that required all prisoners with escape risk designations to serve their sentences at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center until removed from Level-A status.
After the van ride to SBCC (Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center), Pete and I sat in booking waiting to go through intake. There’s this big plexiglass window in the holding tank that allows prisoners to see out, and the prison guards to see in. As we’re sitting there, we keep hearing emergency codes being broadcast over the intercom.
“Freeze all movement, secure all areas, clear all airways!!”
Minutes later, a prisoner was wheeled by us on a stretcher. He was unconscious and his face was a cluster of bruises. Within an hour, another prisoner was wheeled past us with white gauze bandages dotting his chest covering numerous stab wounds. This image still haunts me. I still see all those splotches of blood seeping through bandages…his unsecured head lolling back and forth on the gurney. “Welcome to gladiator school.”
That’s what we call it , “gladiator school,” because that’s what it is. You’re not leaving SBCC without getting tested. You anticipate getting jumped, stabbed, or getting into a fight. We call one on one fights “fair ones.” You’re lucky if you get a fair one. Most fight at SBCC are two on ones, three on ones, etc.. About half the fights that take place at SBCC are off camera. Prisoners get away with most of the off camera fights. If you get stabbed, get a black eye, etc…you’re expected to stay in your cell until you heal up. This allows you, and the person you fought with, to avoid detection.
From the moment you arrive at SBCC, you know what it is. It’s only a matter of time before it’s your time.
Pete and I didn’t know it then, but there’d been a gang war raging in Souza for days. The Superintendent, or Warden, locked down the entire prison. After many hours of sitting in a cell, we were finally told we could leave. Pete and I are both big men. We threw our bedrolls over are shoulders and walked towards our new lives.
We entered the orientation unit — Unit H-2 — to echoing catcalls. Whenever new prisoners come onto the block half the prisoners in the unit scream, “IIInnnnnn-Cooommmiinnngggg!!” There’s a method behind this madness. If you’ve got smoke with someone — from the street or in the joint — you wanna’ know when they hit the block so you can handle that. Screaming the word, “incoming,” is a way to alert everyone of a potential problem. Whenever you enter a new unit you’re a target. Guys want to know what you did, who you know and where you’re from. If you’re going to, “get moved on,” it usually happens in the first 24–48 hours. After that, most guys fight over gang shit, money & drugs.
When you walk into a unit in a maximum security unit and you’ve got 30–40 prisoners screaming, “INCOMING!!” I don’t care who you are, it rattles your nerves. You see the silhouette’s of peoples faces behind the glass, but you can’t really see them. You feel predatory eyes following you as you walk over to the desk for your cell assignment. If you’re fortunate, you know someone living on the unit. You hope that someone yells out, “Yo’ Nipps!! What up? I’ll holler at you when the doors crack.” Then everyone knows you have an ally.
The entire unit watches you walk down the tier. You hear shit like, “Yo’, who dat nigga?,” or, “what a big, dumb, ugly lookin’ motherfucka you are.” They watch you out of a vertical window cut into the center of a large steel door. You try to stay calm as you walk to your cell. You shuffle down the tier while every prisoners in the unit sizes you up. They’re watching to see how you carry yourself. If it’s your first time at Souza, the whole process is intimidating. This is the prison everyone tells horror stories about. This is the prison that houses Massachusetts most violent offenders. In a state that’s known for crime and extreme violence, that’s a serious claim.
Eventually, you get the hang of doing time at the max. It becomes familiar, and your new life slowly takes shape. But your first couple months there, damn!!
When I walked into the cell there was blood spatter all over the walls. The cell smelled like urine and feces. A deck of cards had been strewn across the floor, and a number of cards had blood on them. There was trash everywhere. The cell door slammed shut and I yelled, “Hey C/O, can I get some chemicals in here?” But that boat had sailed. He was already walking back to the desk.
There’s little room for doubt, that no human being — regardless of their crime — should ever be treated the way Pete and I were treated that day. After 12 hours of being transported, contained, ignored, and shat upon, we were both thrown into filthy cells with nothing. Nothing!
That’s not entirely true, we had something. When you come into prison, or you’re transferred between prisons — you’re given two towels, a face cloth, a set of sheets, some toiletries, a pillow, and a narrow, lumpy mattress in booking. You can easily roll up all of your worldly possessions and throw ‘em over your shoulder.
I didn’t know where to set down my bedroll. That’s how filthy the cell was. All I could think was “burn it.” Instead, I took my brand new face cloth, wet it down, and began cleaning. Whenever the cloth would turn red with blood, or black from grime, I’d rinse it out and continue. It took an hour to clean the cell from top to bottom. To this day, that was the most disgusting cell I ever moved into.
The ray of light at the end of the tunnel was a 750 page science-fiction novel I found under my rack. Remember, at this time, I had nothing in my cell but a bedroll. That book was a lifeline. I’m a self-proclaimed ADD/ADHD guy, and I can’t do long stints in a cell with nothing to read.
After finding that book, I followed a strict regiment. I allowed myself to read a hundred pages a day. No one knew how long we were going to be locked down? All we knew was that the entire prison was under lock down. I often read the same page two or three times. If I read to fast I’d have nothing to read. I also spent two hours a day working out. Pacing back and forth in the cell helps deaden feelings of anxiety that come with being stuck in a tiny box.
We were locked in for 11 days after my arrival at SBCC. After eight days of being locked down I found a biography written about a man named, “Steichen.” It was 800+ pages long and my second lucky break. Consider this, I’d gone from the open environment of MCI-Norfolk, a prison with virtually unlimited movement (during daylight hours), to being locked down 24 hours a day at the max.
Every third day of the lock down each prisoner’s allowed 15 minutes tier time to take a shower and use the phone. The door cracks and you jump the in the rainbox. If there’s any time leftover after your shower, you hop on the phone for five minutes. Then you’re right back in your cell. Hearing that cell door slam shut behind you becomes a horrible feeling after a couple years. It’s like listening to cops play with handcuffs. What an absolutely fucking awful sound.
My neighbor hipped me to the fact that we were going to have to wait for a shakedown before we’d be let out. A shakedown’s when the correctional officers go from unit to unit, shaking down every cell in the prison looking for contraband, i.e. shanks, drugs, paraphernalia and excess property. Once it’s over, the prison returns to normal operations.
And then — after the shakedown — our doors open and we’re free, in prison. We’ll just call it being released from a prolonged confinement.
When we finally came out, I realized I knew a couple guys from MCI-Norfolk. The three of us grouped together on the flats and started talking. Without any warning, a fight broke out. A guy picked up a phone and smashed another guy in the face with it Fists flew and before I knew it, both guys hit the ground. The screws started yelling, “LOCK IT IN!! LOCK IT IN!!” Over the intercom I heard, “freeze all movement, secure all areas, clear all intercoms.” I heard that declaratory statement a thousand times. I heard it so many times, it’s strange now not to hear it.
Depending on the the type of code, screws respond from different areas within the prison. They run as fast as they can — which isn’t so fast for the, um, heavyset ones — to assist in breaking up the fight, disturbance, or whatever. In a full out prison brawl, every available correctional officer responds. The only exception being screws who can’t leave their stations.
We all locked in. We watched from our doors as screws flooded the unit and broke up the fight. They threw handcuffs on the prisoners involved in the fight and walked them out separately. We were locked in for another three days. That brought my total up to 14 days of cell time. This was my first real taste of doin’ cell time at the max. I’d done plenty of time in seg, or the hole, but that was amateur stuff compared with this. This was the max, SBCC, Souza, where guys were found dead in their cells with their tongues cut out.
This was my screwed up introduction to Souza. Days later I watched as a kid had his eyeball kicked out of his head. I’d stepped into a war zone. Being a mild mannered kid from the burbs — South Portland, Maine — would do nothing to help me here. Even so, I refused to change the best parts of myself. Yah, I’d done some fucked up shit, a bunch of crimes I deeply regretted, but that shouldn’t be a death sentence for everything good inside me, right? I squared off with the max the same way I face everything in life, head on. You can’t circle around the inevitable. I wasn’t looking for a fight, but just the same, one would find me.
Prison’s a microcosm of society. Theoretically, prison’s just another ecosystem in which a broad spectrum of individuals attempt to survive We’re given a strict set of limitations and told to live by them. The difference being, this ecosystem is designed to be punitive. Everything around us is built to further our punishment. We suffer in ways unimaginable to the average person. Everything from standard of medical care to the food they feed us is awful. It’s impossibly to describe how difficult the administration in the M-DOC makes our lives.
This is especially true at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. During my seven year stint at the max, I feel as though I transitioned from being a well intentioned man to something more visceral. I’ve been at NCCI-Gardner for over a year now. I’m beginning to snap back to a semblance of my former self, but it’s a struggle.
My crimes were devoid of feeling and compassion. I take responsibility for my actions.
When the administration, the correctional officers, and the support staff inhale and exhale hostility, belittling you continuously, you begin to believe their rhetoric. Environments like SBCC perpetuate violence and crime.
The Massachusetts Department of Corrections has been running amuck for years with virtually no oversight. State officials breeze through the M-DOC Prisons, shake some hands, share a few laughs, and drive back their offices, “on the hill.”” Prison reform in Massachusetts is nothing short of a joke. How the Massachusetts Department of Corrections received an increase in both state and federal funding in 2021, I’ll never know. The one line item on the budget where Governor Charlie Baker could’ve made deep cuts, and he chooses to increase the budget instead? Why not send a couple thousand prisoners home on medical parole, and/or, offer early parole, and cut millions out of the state budget? Place prisoners with approved home plans under house arrest and funnel money back into the state budget.
Massachusetts spends more money housing lifers — prisoners serving life sentences — than Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York State combined. Are there that many homicidal 82 year olds in the Massachusetts DOC?