The Marcy State Correctional Institution, in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, had been designed and built in the 1960s as a state-of-the-art facility for the rehabilitation and therapeutic treatment of adult female prisoners. The walls were painted bright but tasteful colors. The cells were spacious and airy and laid out on an open plan to improve social communication between the inmates. It had a psychiatric ward, a well-stocked library, three full-sized gymnasia, and 768 beds.
Forty years later, with a population of over 1,300, it always hovered one incident away from a full-blown riot. On March 7, that incident came when no one expected it—except those who had planned it out meticulously in advance.
Laura Caxton was at her usual spot in the cafeteria, over by the wall where she didn’t have to watch her back every second. She was eating soup. Everyone was eating soup—you didn’t order from a menu at Marcy, you sat down and waited for what they brought you, and then you ate it or you went hungry. She could look down the long length of her white Formica table and see women of every color and creed, but they all wore the same orange jumpsuit and they all were eating beef barley soup.
Her first indication that anything was wrong was when she heard a loud plunking noise and then a cry that was half the scream of an inmate scalded by splashing soup and half a chorus of barely suppressed giggles and curses.
Ten seats down, an overweight Latina woman was brushing soup off her face and her chest. A rock-hard dinner roll had been thrown into her soup bowl, hard enough to splatter the table and the inmates on both sides of her.
The inmate who had thrown the roll, a slimmer and younger woman, white, blond, glasses (Caxton made mental notes of everything she saw—it was an old habit, one that served her as well inside as it had in her life before), leaned back on the bench and gave an exaggerated shrug. “Sorry, bitch,” she said, laughing and turning away.
It had nothing to do with Caxton. She put her head down over her own soup and kept eating. She knew what to do if there was a problem. All the inmates had been drilled on what to do—you got up, went to the wall, and raised your hands above your head. The correctional officers would take it from there. She looked around, trying to find where the COs were. Three of them, wearing their regulation navy blue stab-proof vests and carrying batons, were over on the far side of the cafeteria, chatting among themselves. They weren’t paying enough attention, but Caxton knew better than to try to signal them.
The offended woman, the overweight Latina, rose stiffly from the table. No one stopped her, even though it was strictly forbidden to get up during meals. She didn’t look angry, particularly. She was breathing a little heavy, maybe. Without a word she grabbed the blond inmate and smashed her face against the table, shattering her glasses and breaking her nose with a sickening crunch. Then she pulled the blond’s head back again and slammed it down a second time.
That got the attention of the COs. The three of them split up and started working their way between the tables, moving carefully in case this was a setup. Before they’d covered half the distance someone had stabbed the big Latina with a sharpened toothbrush handle. Caxton saw it still sticking out of her side. She was pulling at it, trying to tear it free. Someone else had pulled the blond away from the table and had her down on the floor, either to protect her from further attack or just to kick her while she was down. Everywhere Caxton looked women were jumping up from the tables, grabbing their trays or reaching for concealed weapons, looking to defend themselves or to settle old scores while they had the chance.
Time to get to the wall, Caxton decided. She put down her plastic spoon and placed her hands on the table so she could slide out of the bench.
Before she was even halfway up, someone grabbed her ankles and yanked her downward, under the table. Caxton landed flat on her back with the breath knocked out of her lungs. The hands on her legs were like iron claws, digging into her skin. She was hauled down the length of the table past a double row of feet, all clad in the disposable slippers the inmates wore. Some of the feet kicked at her, maybe just on principle.
Her head smacked against a leg of the table and then she was pulled free and she was looking up at the ceiling. Hands—many hands—grabbed her and hauled her upright, then shoved her forward before she had a chance to see where she was headed. All she could hear was screaming, roaring, bellowing, the clatter of women being hit with trays, the noise of bodies hitting the floor. She smelled blood, but not from anywhere close by. Her face hit a door that yielded and swung open and she spilled through into the kitchens, where inmates with white aprons over their jumpsuits were clustered around the doors she’d just come through, all of them having tried to see at once through the tiny plastic windows.
“Get out of here, all of you,” someone said, kicking the doors open. One door slammed into Caxton’s side, making her wince. “Move this piece of shit out of view.”
Hands reached down and grabbed Caxton, hauled her deeper into the kitchen. She was rolled over on her side and then someone kicked her in the stomach. She hadn’t caught her breath yet and couldn’t ask any of the questions that occurred to her, couldn’t yell for help.
A tall, thin Asian woman knelt down next to Caxton and grabbed her lower lip. She yanked on it as if she might tear it off, and Caxton was forced to raise her head. The Asian woman had black tears tattooed underneath her eyes, four on one side, five on the other. Her hair stuck out from either side of her head in a long pigtail. “You’re Caxton, right? I’d hate to think we went to all this trouble and got the wrong cunt.”
Caxton didn’t answer. She didn’t see what good would come of doing so.
“That’s her,” someone else said. Someone standing behind the Asian woman. Caxton couldn’t see who the new voice belonged to—she didn’t dare break eye contact with her captor. “She’s a cop. Are you sure the pigs won’t—”
“Ex-cop now,” the Asian woman said. She didn’t smile. “The COs hate her more than we do, because she used to play for their team and then she fucked up.”
She turned back to Caxton. “I’m Guilty Jen. They call me that because there was another Jen on our dorm who used to tell the screws every night how innocent she was. If I’d tried that they would have laughed at me. I mean, just look at me. Guilty as fuck and it’s written all over my face.” She tapped the place below her left eye where there were only four tears. “Every time I finish a stint, I get a new one. Come next October, I get out and it’ll be number ten. See what I mean?”
Caxton tried to bring her knees up to protect her abdomen, but hands from behind grabbed her legs and pulled them back. Other hands grabbed her arms and her shoulders. Guilty Jen had a lot of friends.
“I don’t know you, ex-cop,” she said. She reached into the pocket of her coveralls and took out a cigarette lighter and a long iron nail. “I’ve got no history with you, and no beef. But as many times as I been inside, this is my first time at Marcy, and in here, now, I’m nobody. I need to make a name for myself all over again. Sucks, but that’s how we play. So I asked around and found out who’s tough in here, who people are afraid of. I got a pretty short list. Most of the names I could eliminate because they had serious protection. They were ganged up. But you—everybody hates you. Dyke ex-cop. No friends in here. I fuck you up and I’m looking at zero consequences, other than a couple days in a special housing dorm for violence.” She flicked on the lighter and held the point of the nail in the blue part of the flame.
“There are quicker ways to kill me,” Caxton managed to say. “I figure you only have about thirty seconds before the COs realize we’re in here.”
“Oh, I’m not going to go that far,” Guilty Jen said. “I’m just going to mark you. Put a J on you so you’re mine. You just lie there, stay quiet, this doesn’t have to go bad for you. Just tell me one thing?”
“What’s that?” Caxton asked, as Guilty Jen took the nail out of the flame. Its tip was scorched black by the flame.
“Left cheek, or right?”
Caxton stared at the point of the hot nail. It was beginning to turn red. She knew if she didn’t struggle, if she let this woman brand her, she would be marked in more ways than showed on the skin. She would be giving the prison population a signal that she was weak, and vulnerable, and could be preyed upon.
There were a lot of women in SCI-Marcy who would be thrilled to get that sign from an ex-cop inmate. This would be only the first assault of many.
She waited until Guilty Jen flicked off the lighter and scooted forward on her knees, ready to bend down and place the nail against her face. She waited for a second longer, until she could feel the heat of it near her skin.
Then she twisted her wrists simultaneously, slipping them free of the hands that held her, and brought her hands around to smack Guilty Jen’s hand sideways. The nail went into the calf muscle of one of the women standing over Caxton. That woman howled and jumped in the air.
The hands on Caxton’s ankles slackened their grip, just a little. Caxton had been expecting that—it’s hard to pay attention when one of your friends is screaming in pain—and she capitalized on it by bringing her knees up to her chest as fast as she could and then kicking out, knocking Guilty Jen backward and away.
In a second Caxton was up, feet spread on the floor, torso bent low with her arms up to protect her head. Someone tried to grab her back and she rolled into it, head-butting them in the stomach hard enough to make them let go.
She still had no idea how many assailants she was facing or how long she had to hold them off before the COs bothered to check the kitchen. She could try to make a break for it, run out of the kitchen and back into the cafeteria, but she figured Guilty Jen had to be organized enough to have someone watching the door.
Her other option was to fight her way out. She danced backward, trying to get a wall behind her, and let her eyes flick around the room, assessing. She counted six orange jumpsuits. Jen’s girls were a mixed set, black, Latina, white, and Asian. That was weird: prison gangs normally formed up on racial lines. It looked like Jen had found something else to unite them.
Excerpted from 23 Hours by David Wellington. Copyright © 2009 by David Wellington. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.