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Buy Me an Ice Cream: An Unlikely Case Study

Life lessons about interpersonal conflict sometimes come from unexpected sources. In this case, it's a maximum security prison.

My father spent more than twenty-five years as a corrections officer.

As a kid, I was always surprised when my father would assert that the work of being a guard was mostly “relationship management”.

Sure, things would boil-over occasionally. My dad was on the internal “emergency response” team for many years. He had plenty of stories about responding to highly resistant and out-of-control people and situations. However, he always insisted that most problems that eventually became physical were actually rooted in inmates or staff who simply didn’t know how to manage the stress, egos, and personalities that make up such an intense environment.

This led me to do some research into the experiences of inmates doing long sentences. In particular, I was interested in those who managed to complete their time without succumbing to pressures to join prison gangs, engage in further violence in order to survive, or otherwise “catch” new cases for various shenanigans endemic to prison life. One story stood out to me among the many I found.

Here it is in a nutshell.

“Billy” was admitted for a long sentence for an undisclosed crime. He regretted what he’d done and had every intention of doing as little time as possible, staying of trouble inside, and going home to his family in one piece.

That last goal, “going home in one piece”, was the hardest part, Billy explained. Sure, you could refuse to get involved in criminal activity on the inside, snub the prison gangs, and try to stay out of any drama. However, that can also quickly make you friendless and alone. And that, explained Billy, was a quick way to wind up dead.

No survives alone. He needed a few friends and a little respect, if he hoped to do his time in relative peace.

Billy shared a story from early in his sentence, that described how he survived and was eventually discharged without major incident many years later.

One afternoon he was standing in line at the commissary; the small prison store that sells snacks and other small items that inmates can purchase if they have spare cash.

Suddenly, a huge steroid-pumped dude covered in prison-gang tattoos gets in line behind him and says, “Buy me an ice cream.”

This, Billy realized, was a critical juncture. Nothing in prison is simple. Everything is a test, a message, or a risk. When a guy like this chooses to get in line behind you and demands that you buy him an ice cream, it’s not because he’s hungry. Nothing is exactly what it seems.

Billy had to think fast. Option one was to simply buy the guy an ice cream. The problem with this solution was that it would likely mark Billy to the entire population as someone who could be pushed around or extorted at will. At worst, it could signal that he could be abused in far more damaging ways by those seeking long-term “companionship” for the next twenty years. Neither of those scenarios was appealing.

Option two was to viciously attack, disable, or kill the guy on the spot. Win or lose, if he survived, this would send a message that he was no one’s easy prey. Problem was, Billy was facing a guy who’d probably already killed many people and wouldn’t hesitate to add one more to the list. Since the big dude initiated this drama and was clearly a “soldier” for an inmate gang, it was likely that he was carrying a weapon. Billy was unarmed. So, option two would likely end with Billy dead, seriously maimed, and/or with a greatly expanded sentence.

Not knowing what else to do, Billy simply turned to the guy and said, “No. That’s not happening.” Then, faking complete confidence, turned his back to the man and continued to wait in line.

Billy could tell from the shuffling, huffing, and puffing behind him, that the big dude had no idea what do. The response from Billy was not part of the script of how these things were supposed to go down. The big guy was ready for options one and two, but not the heretofore untested option three. Eventually, the guy walked away from the line and Billy bought himself an ice cream.

Then, Billy did the really risky, but critical thing. He walked straight the table where the big guy was seated with the rest of his gang, and most importantly the local “shot-caller” – the gang leader who gets to decide what happens when, who lives, and who dies.

More curious than anything else, the shot-caller just looked silently at Billy and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Well? Got something you want to say?”

Billy said calmly but matter-of-factly, “I’m here to do my time and nothing else. I’m not looking for problems, but I’m not afraid them either. So, if we have a problem, let’s deal with it right now.”

This scene was also not a part of the usual script – to say the least. The shot-caller, surrounded by a half dozen killers, simply stared expressionless at Billy. The rest of the yard watched. The staring went on for a while. Finally, the gang leader nodded at Billy and said, “No brother… We’re good.”

This wasn’t an invitation to be friends. It simply meant to all gathered, that this little beef was over – by order of the shot-caller. Billy was being tested and had made it out the other side alive. He managed to simultaneously avoid violence, while also signaling that he would be more trouble than he was worth to anyone who cared to test him again.

His unpredictable response probably also led some to think that he was either far more deadly then he seemed, or maybe more than a little crazy. Two things that are also more trouble than they’re worth to people accustomed to preying on the weak.

At the risk of drawing too many conclusions from a prison drama, here are the leading conflict principles that helped Billy make it through this test unscathed:

Billy realized that he couldn’t avoid the conflict or run away. He had to engage it.

Billy realized and accepted that his course of action might have serious unwanted consequences. He didn’t want further problems, but if they were unavoidable, better to choose the time and place yourself, rather than wait for the unexpected.

The truth was, Billy was crapping his jumpsuit throughout this episode. However, this was not the time to show it. He projected confidence when he was supposed be cowering. This unnerved his would-be assailant, briefly tilted the dynamics in his favor, and bought him time.

Other than concealing his fear, Billy said exactly what he was thinking. He didn’t want trouble, but he wouldn’t let himself be violated to avoid it. If there was a fight coming his way, he was willing see it through if needed.

Billy projected confidence, while also allowing the gang a face-saving “out”. He told the truth and took the consequences. He didn’t gloat or shame the other men. He simply walked away and went back to minding his own business – just as he said he would.

Nothing is ever guaranteed in life and all of this could have worked out much differently for Billy with a few changes in the variables. As with all advice for navigating high-risk situations, your mileage may vary.

However, his story is a good example of how mastering a few simple principles of human conflict can give you the edge when you need it most.

Hopefully, you’ll never find yourself doing twenty years in the joint. But when Brad the office bully from accounting gets in line behind you at Starbucks and says, “Hey man, buy me a latte…”, you’ll know what to do. Just sayin’.

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