Teachers at USP were allowed to read the case histories of our students and other inmates with whom we dealt. Case histories were pretty depressing, but in most cases less colorful than the stories the officers and inmates concocted. The most bizarre story I heard was about Big Ed, a burly inmate who had supposedly killed his girl friend and kept her body in a freezer—taking her out for a drive in his car occasionally. In the official version, he met a woman in a bar, went home with her, had sex, killed her, and kept the body in the trunk of his car.
Big Ed was trying to get himself declared insane and moved to the State Mental Hospital in Provo by the disgusting technique of throwing urine and feces on officers approaching his cell. He applied for a job as a tutor for my students, but I hired a more stable inmate. The prison grapevine informed me that Big Ed had it in for me. I noticed he kept asking to come out into the visitors’ area to use the phone when I was teaching in his building. One day while he was out, the officer on the floor disappeared. Big Ed walked behind me and stood whispering hoarsely, “F__k! F__k! F__k!” while I collected homework from my students.
Was he trying to scare me? Would he attack? Big Ed was half a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than I was. Officers could see the visiting area from the control station, but I could be dead before they arrived to pull Big Ed from my battered body. Three students were working with me, but the first rule for prison staff is, “Never expect an inmate to defend you.” No, I couldn’t expect help from my students if Big Ed struck. They probably feared him as much as I did, and they had to live with him. I fought back hysteria that welled up in my stomach, advanced to my chest, and gripped my shoulders and neck. School was the only bright point of my students’ lives. If I broke and ran, they would have no class until the following week.
I stayed, hoping God would protect me since I couldn’t count on anyone else. I launched into my writing lesson, hoping my voice sounded close to normal. “Vincent, will you read this newspaper clipping?” Vincent read with great expression the news account of a man who was showing his young son how to handle rattlesnakes. The snake bit him and the enraged man put the snake’s head in his mouth and bit it off, but not before receiving multiple bites on his tongue and mouth. “Jeez! That guy was either drunk or crazy, “ Marco said. I agreed and wondered about the crazy behind me. Where were the damned officers?
I proceeded mechanically through the lesson. “Who besides the man might have seen this event?”
“Maybe his wife.”
“The ambulance driver.”
My students suggested several possibilities. Fortunately, this activity held their attention without much direction from me. Should I look over my shoulder at Big Ed or might that set him off? Should I move my students to another table? Would Big Ed follow?
I forced my attention back to my students. “Choose a person or animal that could have been there and pretend you are that person and you’re telling somebody else what happened.
“But snakes can’t talk.”
“Well, be the kind of snake that can talk. This is a freewrite, so don’t worry about your spelling or punctuation. We’ll write for five minutes.” And I hope I live that long.
I scribbled away wondering whether Big Ed’s venting was relieving his frustration or building it up to a fatal (for me) climax. After five minutes my students shared their writing. Big Ed continued to whisper, but did nothing more. Maybe the point of view stories entertained him. Maybe his blood sugar was down just before lunch and he didn’t have the energy to launch a physical assault. Maybe God does watch over fools and prison teachers. “Finish the packets at home and I’ll see you next week,” I said as I scooped books, packets, and papers into my bag. I moved to the outside door, and my students headed back to their cells. Big Ed followed them. Their door clicked open and they re-entered their section. When they were locked back in, the outside door clicked open and I escaped.
Once I returned to my office and collected my wits, I phoned the lead officer and told him I refused to teach in that building if they let Big Ed out while I was there. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Big Ed’s getting moved to Uinta 2.” In order to convince the staff he was insane, Big Ed had cut a vein and thrown blood all over his cell that morning. He was moved to Uinta 2, the most secure building, that week and I never saw him again.