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I will never forget this young man I met in prison


By Joe Sarnak

I was about 6 years into a 10.5 year minimum.

I was transferred to SCI-Huntington in Pennsylvania. This was a very old penitentiary, surrounded by a wall with blocks that were 3 and 4 tiers high. Even the top tiers only had a normal size handrail; needless to say, many people attempted to fly with some ugly results.

This prison was known as the last stop in PA. If you broke the rules in other prisons or happened to find yourself fighting too often, chances are you ended up in Huntington. I could write an entire novel about the characters that I came to know here, but I will just try and answer this question.

Living on my block, on the bottom tier (this happened to be my tier) was a baby-faced kid. I mean he looked like he was not even old enough to be with us.

I looked at his prison number (which is printed on all of our clothes). This is the quickest way to see if a guy is a “new fish” or if he has an “old” number. This very young-looking kid had the same letters that I had, which meant he came into the state system around the same year I did, so about 6 or 7 years ago. Turns out he was certified as an adult at 14 years old. This happens pretty often these days but, back in the ’90s , this was a rare event.

I noticed right away that none of the “chicken hawks” seemed to be pushing up on this kid. Chicken hawks are sexual predators who try to befriend young kids in the penitentiary — they pretend they are looking out for the kid but, in reality they are trying to turn the kid into a “punk.” They try and move the kid into their cell and, from there, I am sure you can use your imagination.

Back to the story, as I said he was not being bothered by these guys, and he was not really affiliated with anyone. In Pennsylvania, it is not mandatory to “pick” a car to ride with; I mean it pays to stick with your own kind and you will usually fall in with a “group” but people can and do serve sentences without joining a “gang.” It can lead you into some difficult situations if you don’t have people to watch your back but that is another story.

My first few months were spent sorting out my role in the place. I am one of those guys who likes to remain under the radar. I guess I have earned “respect” because of some things I had done in the other institution, but my “hobby” was watching other people, I have always been fascinated by human behavior, so I never forgot about this kid — in fact, we played softball on the same team.

I began to ask for information about the kid. Even though I was in a position to just pull the kid aside and ask him directly, it is always better to find out background some other way, then you don’t put the person in an awkward situation. Does he feel that he can just tell me the truth? Or will he feel like he has to put on a facade? etc.

Anyway, the kid was always looking for pets. He found a little baby rabbit in the yard where we played softball. He kept it in his cell for over a month until a guard saw it during cell searches. This was like the nicest kid, he never had a bad word to say about anybody. He always tried to make people happy.

Now, by this time, I know the kid is doing 30–60 years. As I said, to receive a sentence like this at 14 is a rare thing back then. OK, he killed someone, no big deal. One out of four guys in the jail were lifers. Many killers here.

Then I heard his sister was 12 years old and mentally retarded. Two high-school kids from his town gave his 12-year-old sister alcohol and raped her and left her naked on the street. She told him who they were. He did not say a word to his family. He took off with a shot-gun on his bicycle. He found the two guys playing pinball at the corner store. He walked in and made them kneel on the floor. He put the gun in the first kid’s mouth and pulled the trigger. The second kid just passed out from fear or stress and he shot him too!

As always, I never keep track of the characters I knew. I will bet money that if or when they parole this kid, he will never commit another crime, as long as no one ever hurts his family again.

Originally shared on Quora.

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