You Can't Have Him

Nonfiction by Anthony Brown

Anthony Brown writes from Spring Creek Correctional Facility in Seward, Alaska where he is serving a life sentence. Any comments about this essay will be forwarded to him by the editors...

Author's Note: The purpose of my writing is not to indict, but to educate about prisons and the lives of the imprisoned and their families by sharing the first-hand experiences of myself and friends. Therefore, license has been taken with specific details in order to protect all involved.

The killing was real. So are the nightmares.

He didn't know what it was about the footsteps that woke him up, but Jimmy Lee Vaughn snapped to awareness to their sound amongst the normal, subdued night noises. Living in dormitory conditions, with the entrance, stairs, shared showers, sinks and toilets at one end of the huge room, prisoners moving around at night was not so unusual. There were 60–75 men living on his floor, each with a bunk, locker, and writing desk in a space separated and surrounded by a four-and-a-half foot painted plywood partition, with either a swinging or a sliding panel for a door. The cubicles were all that passed for privacy in the "E" Unit, one of two housing blocks out of eleven with open dorms instead of cells at what was then, in the late '70's, called the Federal Correctional Institution at Lompoc, CA. "E" Unit housed all the prisoners participating in a long-term substance abuse program.

Glancing at the illuminated face of the clock, he saw that it wasn't Count time, but the footsteps were moving closer, pausing every few seconds, and they were somehow 'wrong.' Movement in the half-light caused him to look up just as the head and shoulders of a man appeared over the cubicle wall, stopped so their own could peer in at him, and then move on. It wasn't a guard. The head had a face belonging to Mansfred "Kurt" Kurtizt, and seeing it now could only mean that he'd thought of a solution to his problem.

In prison, problems were most often rooted in the perceived disrespect of one prisoner by another, an unpaid drug or gambling debt, the extortion of commissary, property, or cash, or an unwanted homosexual advance, even rape. But Jimmy Lee knew about Kurt's problem, and it was quite different and unique, in a macabre sort of way.

Kurt was a South African national serving a six-year NARA sentence for smuggling drugs into the United States. His problem was that South African authorities believed him to be a member of a communist anti-Apartheid organization using drug smuggling profits to help finance violent attacks against the government. During his trial he had been informed, in no uncertain terms, that upon his deportation back to South Africa at the end of his sentence, he would be executed. Although Kurt fully expected to be thoroughly interrogated (meaning tortured) before he was killed, the burly, red-faced, Afrikaaner police official had colorfully described the hanging of his "kaffir-lovin' ass" from the hatch of the plane the moment it touched home soil.

Nobody, at least nobody that Jimmy knew, was certain if Kurt was actually a Communist or an anti-Apartheid activist. Being seen as a race-traitor was no more popular in American prisons than in white-controlled South African streets, so it wasn't a topic that he would have discussed openly. But, no one doubted his fear of deportation. Kurt had peacefully and systematically lost every day of his "good time" credits in order to put off his release and deportation. Most youthful offenders sentenced under the Narcotics and Rehabilitation Act could have normally expected to serve two years inside the joint and four on parole, the felony conviction having been expunged from his record. But Kurt was serving every single day of his six-year sentence; he had no more good time to earn or lose, and he was getting short.

Jimmy Lee threw off his covers and stood up. Looking over the partition and a couple cubicles down, he saw Kurt turn to look back at him, but without a pause he continued to move down the cubes, peering over and into each one. Jimmy Lee wasn't sure what he should do, if anything. It wasn't a question of right or wrong, but of consequences. Interfere and he could get hurt or killed. Don't interfere and … his quandary was resolved when Kurt stopped in front of Robert Moore's cubicle and began sliding the plywood panel open. Bobby was Jimmy Lee's homeboy, a fellow Alaskan and contract state prisoner, exiled to the federal system because Alaska had no prison facilities for long-term prisoners.

Without concern for noise, Jimmy Lee slid his door open, stepped out onto the walkway, and moved toward Kurt just as he pulled a long, fat-bladed shank from his belt. Kurt stopped and turned to face Jimmy Lee, setting his feet and moving the foot-long killing tool down along his thigh in preparation, but he said nothing, just watched as Jimmy Lee approached.

"That's my friend. You can't have him," was all Jimmy Lee said.

Kurt stared at him for long seconds, then nodded his head once and, without a word, turned away to continue his search. Jimmy Lee pulled the door back across the entry to Bobby's cube and returned to his own space, but he continued to watch Kurt over the partition to be sure he didn't return.

Less than a minute later and four cubes further down, Kurt again slid open a door and this time moved inside. Jimmy Lee sat down at the edge of his bunk, and his heart pounded and stomach twisted under the adrenaline onslaught, his ears functioning with a terrible clarity that made denying his imagination impossible. He listened to the sounds of Kurt dropping onto the back of his sleeping victim, the grunt of startled response, the blade thudding again and again through the wool blanket and struggling flesh, the fearful, half-smothered, scream-turned-wail of understanding, the sound of Kurt's voice, clear, calm, almost conversational in tone and volume:

"Just roll with it, man. Just roll with it."

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