The prison bars echoed throughout the hall as they slammed shut behind the newest inmate at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta. Paol Joonter shuddered at the noise, which resounded with finality, as if they couldn’t be more sealed had they been welded in place. It was fitting for someone who truly believed that the judicial system had let him down harshly, had ruined his life. He had no reason to believe anymore that it would see justice through in the end. In the last few weeks, he had become calloused and bitter at having been thrown on death row as a first time criminal, convicted of a crime he did not commit! And what about his family? They were suffering even more than he. Their sobs for justice were callously denied by a flawed judicial system which has locked up an innocent man, and ceased investigating the real perpetrator of the crime.
Paol turned to look out of the cell. It would be his only view for most of the day. Nonetheless, he needed to see it now, as the prison guards retreated down the long corridor, leaving him alone to his new surroundings.
“Well, I say,” a voice said behind him. “You ‘da most odd character I ever seen in this cell, and I seen some doozies, let me tell ya’.”
Paol didn’t know how to respond, or who to respond to for that matter. Gazing around, he finally spotted an inmate similarly attired as himself in a very unfashionable orange and green jumpsuit sitting in a back corner of the cell with a rather large book in his lap. He was a thin black man with a very long face, and very short spiky hair. Paol would’ve guessed his age at around 35, but that was because he would have failed to factor in the decade of aging that occurred to his new acquaintance on “the streets.”
“Fo’ ‘xample,” the voice continued to reminisce, “there was Hans Van Kemp, the Strangla’. He never did like it when I suggested that his first name shoulda been Hands instead of Hans.” He made himself laugh heartily, baring a full set of yellow teeth, which contrasted vastly against his skin. The joke was lost on Paol, who was certainly in the least humorous attitude of his life. “Then, there’s Luke ‘Skeleton’ Stilton. Tall and skinny, but when he stared at you with those gray eyes, why you’da thought they’d start to burn a hole right through you.”
“But that Rall McHerd character…” At this, Paol’s cellmate shivered. “Just thinkin’ of that dude is frightful. He was 6-5, weighed 350 pounds in the least. And hairy? Why he looked more gorilla than man with all that long, mangy hair runnin’ down his face and body. He sent couple inmates to the hospital with who knows how many broken bones each. I’s glad that it wasn’t me, and that they moved him off to solitary real quick like after the second attack. They should’a done it sooner, ‘xcept there was no room in the schoo’.”
At the pause, Paol asked, “Schoo?”
“Schoo’, or S-C-U, Special Confinement Unit,” offered his chatty companion. “That’s the joint where they have them padded 6- by 9-foot boxes they use to keep the really nutso jobs from hurtin’ others and themselves.”
With a low whisper, as if he were divulging a secret that Paol should never reveal, he leaned towards Paol and continued describing the SCU. “I hear that when ya’ go to one of them boxes, ya’ never come out the same. And fo’ the good of society, ya’ done better not be let loose ever ‘gain.
“Of course, I never knew nobody to be released that ever spent any time in solitary,” stated the inmate as he returned to his previous posture and demeanor.
At this point, the man placed his book on the cot he was seated next to and stood to reveal a tall and lanky frame. At six feet, three inches tall, he weighed no more that 190 pounds. It’s no wonder he was afraid of McHerd. Judging by the description offered, the violent character could’ve snapped this jail bird in half.
As he created images of McHerd and the damage he could have done to himself, Paol inquired, “So, this McHerd character was your cellmate, and he never touched you?”
“How long did you two spend together?”
“I reckoned ‘bout sixteen days.”
“And in those sixteen days, he thrashed two different inmates?”
“But not you?”
“Even though he had more access to you, I trust, then he did to anybody else—what being your cellmate and all?”
“Well, then, educate me.” Paol got to the point. “What do you do around here to preserve your—um—health?”
“Well, sir…” the inmate started, but was interrupted by Paol.
“By the way, the name’s Paol, Paol Joonter—not sir. Judging by the way you and I are dressed, I suspect we’re pretty much equal around here, so I think formal titles can be dismissed.”
“Blade Slater,” Blade introduced himself by extending his hand.
Paol received his hand and was surprised at the strength of the grip for such a scrawny frame. “Well, Blade, I’m glad to meet you. I think if you can avoid the McHerd treatment, you can certainly teach me a thing or two about self-preservation here.”
“Well, ya’ just have to find the right balance of avoidin’ confrontation without demonstratin’ weakness. Fo’ ‘xample, don’t get in no ones’ way, and definitely, don’t get in their faces, meanin’ don’t yell at ‘em, don’t call ‘em names, don’t be goin’ insultin’ ‘em or nothin’.”
“But, what if somebody tries to start something with me?”
“Happens all the time, especially to new guys.”
“Like me,” Paol’s voice quavered as he looked towards the ground.
“No!” exclaimed Blade, calling Paol back to attention with a start. “Mistake number one: weak voice. Mistake number two, lookin’ down. What ya’ just done, man, is exactly what ya’ need to not do. Yer response should’nt’a been, ‘like me.’ It shoulda been ‘LIKE ME!’”
Paol turned around to see if Blade was starting to draw undesired attention to the conversation with his strong voice, but since their cell was at the corner of a hallway, all he could see was the long hall leading to the exit of the ward and the bars of cells lining that hallway. This gave him comfort as he realized that he wouldn’t have to confront other inmates in conversation of any form while he was in his cell.
“I follow you,” nodded Paol approvingly of his new education.
With the pause, Blade accepted an opportunity to change the conversation. “By the way,” Paol asked. “I trust that ‘Blade’ is your nickname?”
“True ‘nough.” Blade chuckled. “The real name’s Thomas—you know, like from the Bible. Seems like nobody gets Bible names these days, but Momma liked ‘em better than the names we hear now ‘days.”
“I don’t suppose Blade has reference to the reason you’re in here, does it?”
Slater chuckled heartily. “Not at all. My Momma caught me playin’ with a knife when I’s three years young. She says I’s pretty good wieldin’ the blade, and didn’t even nick myself. She started callin’ me Blade, and—well—it just stuck I s’ppose.”
For the first time, Paul lifted the corner of his lip into a smile. There was something heart-warming and genuine about his cellmate that some of the anxiety and tension were starting the melt away.
“Whatcha in fo’, Paol?” he inquired with an inspectful gaze. “Ya’ don’t look like ya’ belong here.”
Looking down again, Paol was brought back to the remembrance of his situation. Lowly and bitterly, he spat, “I was convicted of a crime I did not commit.”
Paol’s head snapped, and he looked deeply into Blade’s eyes to correct his mistake. “I mean,” he scowled, “I was convicted of a crime I did not commit.”
“That’s better,” Blade encouraged. “What crime d’ya not commit?”
Blade took a step back and furrowed his brow. “Murder? You don’t look like no murderer to me.”
Paol nodded facetiously. “Great… why weren’t you on my jury?” The quip was received with more robust laughter from the veteran inmate.
With a deep voice, Blade responded half-seriously, “They don’ let convicted felons serve on juries.”
Paol actually weighed the irony here. Rubbing his jaw he thought out loud. “You know, they probably should. I mean, who better to spot a criminal than another criminal. If I would’ve had a panel of felons on my jury, I bet they get the case right!”
“I dunno, Paol… sounds like yer plan has a logical flaw.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s chicken-‘n-eggish, ain’t it? A real Catch-22. I mean, how d’ya ever convict a felon, if ya’ already need twelve of ‘em to judge ‘em by.”
Paol weighed this for a moment. In a fresher state of mind, he probably would’ve made quick sense of Blade’s logic, but in a few seconds the proverbial light bulb came on. “Oh, right. You’re talking about the very first criminal. In that case, there would be no previous criminals to create a jury out of, since this was first person accused of a crime. That’s downright sensible of you, Blade… very rational.
“Well, to solve that problem, I suspect you could wait for the first thirteen accused, and then have them sit through thirteen simultaneous trials, each one serving as a defendant in their own, and then as a juror on the other twelve.”
Blade frowned and shook his head. “Now what’s gonna happen in that case, Paol? They’ll all acquit each other, because they’ve all served as a team of jurors with every other accused criminal. They’re all cronies together, and they’ll all let each other off nice and easy. Then you’re just back to where ‘ya started—with no convicted felons to serve on yer jury. Don’t’cha see?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Paol brushed aside the criticism. “But, what if the judge mandated that at least seven of them—over half—had to be convicted?”
“In that case, I can assure you that they won’t convict seven… they’ll convict thirteen, sure enough.”
“How can you be so sure?” Paol drilled. “That wouldn’t be in their collective best interest. They would need to determine a solution that would let six of them off, while the other seven serve.”
“Paol, d’ya go to college?”
“Well, yes,” answered Paol, who was rather interested to see where his colleague would take him with his reasoning.
“D’ya study math?”
“Well, if you’d’a paid attention, ya’ might’a learned ‘bout game theory, boy?” Blade was starting to get rather animated, pacing up and down the cell throwing his hands in the air and shaking his head.
At this revelation, Paol was rather dumbfounded. He was actually enjoying the logical exchange with his partner, but he assumed that it was his street-smarts that gave him his ability to solve the problem. At this statement, Paol realized that his cellmate actually knew the mathematical branch of logic to which they had been addressing this hypothetical situation they had created.
“You know about game theory?”
Ignoring the question, Blade continued with his tirade. “Why in game theory, ya’ see one of the prototypical case studies is the non-zero sum game called the prisoner’s dilemma. In the dilemma, prisoners are given a chance to cooperate with each other, or to defect against each other. They all serve a lighter sentence if they all cooperates together, but the cooperative prisoner who is betrayed by a defectin’ prisoner will receive the harshest penalty, while the back-stabber gets off free and easy.”
“And if they all defect against each other?” Paol admired as he appraised the problem.
“Stiff sentences all around.”
Paol weighed the outcomes out loud. “So the best solution for any prisoner is for him to defect while all others cooperate, because he’ll be able to walk without any jail time, right?”
“I think you mean, yes, Paol.”
“So, the solution is simple! You have to join a pact with everyone to cooperate and make them understand that together, they will serve the lightest combined sentence. Then, in private, you turn against the others and defect, right?”
“What? Did I look down again?”
“No,” Blade attempted to clarify. “I didn’t mean ‘No, look up’, I meant ‘No, you’re wrong.’ Ya’ see, every mathematician understands that the best collective solution is fer all to cooperate. But the best individual solution is to defect.”
“Why?” Paol prodded.
“Because, ya’ can’t make a collective bargain with a bunch of prisoners and expect them to not turn and stab ya’ in the back, just like you’re doin’ to them. There’s only one state of mathematical equilibrium to the problem… everyone defects, because it’s in everyone’s self-interest.”
Paol was impressed. “So, tell me. Where did you learn about game theory?”
“In that seat right over there,” admitted the convict as he motioned to the seat that Paol found him sitting in when he first entered into the life of this enigmatic character.
Paol cocked his head and raised an eyebrow.
Blade understood the question.
“Have a seat, Paol.” Blade motioned to another hard wooden chair, sitting by the cot on the opposite wall of the cell. He returned to his seat as well. With the pair of odd-fellows seated, Blade continued.
“I grew up right here in Atlanta, Geo’gia—on the south side, in the ghetto… or I guess I should say, the ‘inner city.’ Momma raised me and my two sisters and two brothers in a small one-bedroom apartment. I dunno what happened to my Pa… Ma never would tell us kids. I remember wakin’ up in the middle of the night with the sounds of gunshots and sirens. It wasn’t much less rough durin’ the day, while we kids was outside playin’ in the alleys. Ya’ couldn’t make it on yer own. Ya’ needs support, ya’ needs to rely on each other. So, by the time I was ‘leven, I hooked up with a gang. I was pretty small fo’ my age, so I wanted some personal protection too—had my eyes on a long blade I saw in the window of a pawn shop just down the street from where I lived. But I had no money… couldn’t steal it, ‘cuz it was locked up in a glass case. Thought ‘bout breakin’ the case with a rock or somethin’, but I figured I’d never get away, and the ‘ol man in the shop was a big’un who’d give me a bruisin’ fo’ sure.
“Well, I’d heard some of my type in the gang was sellin’ drugs, so I figured I needed to also, so I could get me that blade. Well, it was darn easy money, so even after I bought it, I kep’ sellin’ the goods. Problem was, there’s this other gang who thought we was workin’ too close to their territory. So I had to use my blade to cut someone up.”
“How old were you?” Paol asked, fascinated at the tale.
“Fi’teen… and then I’s real scared when he got himself outta the hospital, but he never came after me. He had lots of problems with his Daddy beatin’ him, and finally, he was just gone.”
“What do you mean?”
“Disappeared. We suspected that he done run off, but nobody knows fo’ sure. Anyway, there’s I was in a real mess, sellin’ drugs and gettin’ in trouble. Ma knew what I was doin’, but she never said nothin’ ‘cuz I gave her some of the money she needed to help with the family.
“When I turned seventeen, my main bro’s on the street had this real dumb idea. They’s said, ‘Blade, get yo’ Momma’s car tomorrow fo’ some real business.’ I was the only one who could drive, ya’ see. Well, we was drivin’ along when Xavier tossed a handgun in my lap. ‘Fully loaded’, he said. ‘Just in case.’ He still never told me what was goin’ down when he had me stop the car along a store front. They strolled into the store, and was gone fo’ ‘bout two minutes when I’s heard some shots and then they come runnin’ outta the store. They jumped in the car and when someone else came limpin’ outta the store and started firin’ at us, I took off… a little too fast.”
“The light at the intersection was red, but I was lookin’ back in the mirror at the poor foo’ who my bro’s shot up. He was still firin’ at us, when I heard and felt a crash. We was hit on the passenger side by another car. My buddy, X, couldn’t get out, but me and Kojo, who was in the back seat, got out and ran off. Runnin’ down the street we heard a voice yell, ‘freeze!’”. I looked and saw two plain-clothes types runnin’ down the street towards us with their guns pointed at us. Without thinkin’, I raised my arm and shot while runnin’. I never used a gun befo’, so I was surprised when I saw one of ‘ems go down. We kept runnin’ but we was stupid, ‘cuz we’d never get away.”
“Xavier was trapped at the scene, and my Momma’s car would lead the cops right to her. I had no chance. My public defender tried to get me off as an accomplice to the robbery, seein’ how I didn’t know what X and Kojo was up to, but it was no use to try and lighten the sentence of an aggravated assault with a deadly weapon against a federal officer.”
“Yep, they was two feds who happened to be in the ‘hood that day. What luck, huh?”
“So, here I am serving 3 years as an accomplice, and 20 for takin’ down a fed… good thing I only hit him in the leg. I’d be serving 40+ if I’d’a wasted him.”
“23 years, huh?”, Paol shook his head sadly.
“Yep, and seven of ‘ems down, but I think I’ll be gettin’ sprung in another five or so—fer good behavior ya’ know.”
“But you still haven’t answered my question. How do you know so much about math?”
“Well, my Momma’s brother runs a car shop, and when I was startin’ to fall away, he tried to bring me back to an honest livin’. Told me how I was breakin’ my Momma’s heart, and if I wanted, he’d teach me to work on cars. I never took him up on it. I wanted to, but I was young and stupid and made all the wrong decisions. I had lotsa time to think ‘bout everythin’ when I was throwed in prison. After the first week, I thought so much ‘bout how I could be helpin’ my uncle at the shop, and how my Momma wouldn’t have to cry every day while I’m here in jail.”
“Then, I had an epiphany.”
“Yeah, ya’ know a precipitous manifestation of the essence or implication of somethin’.”
Surprised by this intelligent definition, Paol was knocked back in his seat. “Does this epiphany involve a vision of a dictionary?” It was an unexpected attempt at humor that even he wasn’t expecting from himself, but now that he was thinking more about the poor life of this kid, and was thinking much less about his own problems, he allowed his own cares to lapse if but for a moment and returned to his previous, jovial self.
Blade slapped himself on the knee and whooped raucously at Paol’s banter. “Aw, that’s a good one, Paol… you’re a funny man. No, it had nothin’ to do with a dictionary, but if ya’ ever need to borrow one, I got me one, right under here.”
Blade leaned down to point under his cot, and Paol craned his neck to discover a vast collection of books, large and small, under Blade’s bed.
“Have you read all of those?” Paol asked admiringly.
“Most of ‘ems. Ya’ see, the ‘precipitous manifestion’ that I had was that I could either spend a dozen or two years feelin’ sorry fer myself, or I could make somethin’ of the time. I mean, I’ll still be young enough to do somethin’ with my life when I bust outta here, ya’ know? So, I decided to read and learn, and ya’ know what?”
“I really enjoy readin’ and learnin’ ‘bout new things. It’s enlightenin’, invigoratin’, exhilaratin’, ya’ know?”
“Um… hand me that dictionary, would you?” Paol smiled for the first time, and Blade responded with his most hearty round of laughter yet.
After Blade regained his breath and wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes, Paol concluded, “So, this is where you’ve learned about mathematics?”
“That’s right,” Blade said excitedly. “Ooh, hang on just a moment.” He knelt down, and Paol watched him rifle through the books under his bed and mutter incoherently to himself. “Where is it now? I thoughts it was over there… Oh, that’s where’s I put ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’… been wantin’ to read that one… some good history there, I bet, just decent… ah, here ‘tis.”
Blade returned to his seat with a large hard-bound text book, titled, Applied Mathematics, Volume II.
Flipping through the index, his fingers raced down the page, “Aha! Prisoner’s dilemma,” he exulted. “There ya’ is, now.”
Paol shook his head as he saw the page titled ‘Case Study 2: Prisoner’s Dilemma’, and marveled at the highlighting and well-drafted handwritten notes in the margin.
“Blade, I’m absolutely flabbergasted.”
“Flabbergasted!” winked Blade. “To be overcome with astonishment or stupification.”
At this, Blade waited for Paol’s snicker—his first in weeks—before returning to his whole-hearted laughter. At this point, Blade himself had an epiphany. Perhaps it was the affable, easy-going nature of his cellmate that protected him against the most hardened. How could anyone not quickly grow to love this young man? Fate had handed him a bad lot in his wrongful conviction, but at least he was placed with one of the most decent men possible in this brutal environment.