“Snitches get stitches.”
It’s principle number one of the Convict Code, the fabled law of honor among thieves. When I first entered the system, I figured avoiding snitching would be easy. How hard could it be not to betray your friends?
One day a buddy of mine named Koby assaulted Chris, a middle-aged man with a Hitler mustache, for changing the channel on the TV without consulting the so-called podfathers running the area. By the time Koby returned from the Hole—a.k.a. solitary—guards had moved Chris to another block.
“That bitch snitched on me,” Koby complained. His skin was sallow from months of sun deprivation. I snorted involuntarily. He glowered at me.
“That’s true, but I thought snitching was when we do something together, and one of us rats to get a deal from prosecutors,” I said. “I mean, you’ve been bullying the dude since he got here. Are you telling me you expected him to be loyal to you? After you broke his teeth out?”
“Nah, you got it all wrong,” Koby said. “Snitching is when you inform on someone. Period. If you get someone in trouble, that’s snitching.” The other men around us nodded, so I just shrugged. I could avoid getting anyone in trouble easily enough, and that snitch tag would follow Chris for the rest of his sentence.
I lived on a cellblock where homemade wine practically flowed from the faucets. Nearly everyone partook, including a man who had crazy, black-colored Einstein hair, a former sheriff’s deputy. Since the jail was run by his former colleagues, he openly conversed with them. One day he made a random joke about our block being a giant drunk-tank. That night, guards raided our illicit wine stash.
The next morning I overheard two guys loudly discussing it while glaring at Einstein, who avoided making eye contact.
Guy #1: “Somebody ought to beat his po-leece ass for snitchin’ us out.”
Guy #2: “But he’s a cop. What did you expect? We were slippin’ by sharing with him.”
Guy #1: “It don’t matter. He in here with us, he a prisoner just like us. We supposed to stick together. He violated the Code. He need his ass beat.”
They circled like that for an hour, until One had finally pumped Two up enough to beat the hell out of the disgraced deputy. But I’ve seen guys like One, who called themselves “rat smashers,” pick the wrong rat to try and smash.
On one occasion, two men fought in a cell while a third blocked the door as a lookout. He kept glancing back and forth, toward the guard booth and then into the cell.
Guard booth. Cell. Guard booth. Cell.
Suddenly a team of adrenaline-jacked guards burst through a side door and stormed the cell.
As they handcuffed the shirtless and bloody fighters, an officer spoke over his shoulder to Three. “Hell, man, I was in the booth,” he said. “If you hadn’t been looking back and forth like that, I wouldn’t have known. Next time, try not to look so fucking suspicious.” The dayroom got quiet as Three turned deepening shades of red.
“Damn, you dry-snitched on your boy,” someone hooted after the guards left. “Remind me never to let you be my lookout!”
Three pivoted toward the Voice, stomped over, and slapped the taste out of his mouth. “You ain’t about to pour salt on my name, you bitch muthafucka,” he said. “I keeps my face straight. If you see a snitch, beat a snitch.”
The Voice shied away from Three’s challenge, apologizing, and that snitch label fell away from Three like a wet Band-Aid.
The lessons were piling up. Inadvertently getting a guy busted could get you hurt and stigmatized. Your reputation—your “face”—is your ticket to inclusion. It determines how people treat you, whether officers, nurses, chaplains, or prisoners. Your face is your credit score, street credibility and cool points all folded together. Few things in here can make a man fight faster or damage his name worse than an acidic snitch sticker. An accused snitch can avoid it if he challenges and beats his accuser, and that guy might get slapped with the sticker himself if he doesn’t stand behind his accusation.
It was all a bit confusing, but I thought I had it: Don’t get anyone in trouble, even accidentally, and don’t accuse anyone of snitching unless you’re ready to be judge, jury and executioner. My primer in the quasi-moral Code stuck with me as I adjusted to life on death row.
“We police ourselves.”
It’s the death row party line. Since the crime rate on death row is lower than anywhere else in the prison, the officers give us room to breathe. We stick together and keep the peace. We’re a community. We live by rules. We have a Code. Like any man-made morality system, however, it is flawed. The corrupt element is inherent to its paradoxical nature.
“Sarge down!” several men shouted, including Lil’ Mike, a career convict with an angelic face and neatly combed, solid-white hair.
Guards had been monitoring two lovers who routinely snuck into each other’s cells. This time, the duty sergeant arrived early enough to catch them with their clothes still on. She let them off with another warning: Next time they’d go to lock-up. After the sergeant left, the more masculine lover raged.
“Why the fuck didn’t you say ‘Man down?’” he barked at Lil’ Mike, singling him out.
“I did!” Lil’ Mike said. “Several of us did! I can’t help you didn’t hear us.” He looked to the others, who were casually disappearing into their cells. Lil’ Mike was old and feeble. Lover was thirty years younger and athletic, with callused fists that were quick to fly.
“I did goddammit!” Lil’ Mike continued. “You was just too distracted to listen. And anyway, I shouldn’t have to say it. You supposed to be on point or post a lookout—”
At that, Lover went berserk, pummeling Lil’ Mike and easily dodging his lumbering swings.
A few days later, guards cuffed Lover and placed him in solitary while they “investigated” the incident. Someone had sent an anonymous note to the warden. Lil’ Mike said he got his bruises when he fell in the shower, holding up his cane to lend his story credibility.
“They’re blaming Danny, Lil’ Mike’s boyfriend,” a friend told me in the the chow line. “He’s been acting funny ever since the fight, but that don’t prove nothin.”
When Lover returned from solitary, he tried to scalp Danny with a homemade razor. Guards witnessed the attack, and he went right back to the Hole.
Danny refused to wear his bandages. He stared at everyone pointedly, brandishing the jagged stitches near his hairline like a gruesome protest sign that screamed, "This is what unity looks like?” Those vivid red lines cross-hatching his forehead signified the point of no return for me.
“We police ourselves” echoed in my head. I flung it away from me as I would a worm-eaten apple. I was disgusted. If not actively helping someone get away with something is snitching, how can I avoid it?
The scalping incident prompted an ongoing conversation. The consensus is, “We’re supposed to mind our business.” It’s convenient yet contradictory: How can we police ourselves if everyone is minding their own business? No wonder we have an anonymous note epidemic—what other recourse is there?
Despite the fake names, the fact no raids and no punishments will result, this essay is subversive. I’m throwing shade on the ruling authority: the Convict Code. The old guys say, “This place is going to shit. Stuff like that didn’t happen in my day.” I doubt the purity of their moral indignation. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about those good old days, of brutal rapes, robberies, forced servitude and deadly betrayals. I suspect their consternation stems from the fear they could be next. They need the younger generation to protect them.
Maybe the Code once managed prison’s savage elements, but some men weaponize it and wield it to maintain their influence. It provides a moral high ground to prey on the weak, to justify almost anything. The rules about snitching and minding one’s business are instruments in a primitive philosophy of survival: Might makes right; the strong survive.
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George T. Wilkerson, 37, is on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is awaiting execution for two counts of first-degree murder that he was convicted of in 2006.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.