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Today the buildings of the Wyoming State Penitentiary sit abandoned amid the brown hills of Rawlins off Interstate 80. But when Jermaine Andre was sent there in 1991, they housed around 700 of the state's most dangerous criminals.
The majority lived in medium- and maximum-security units, but the most incorrigible were sent to the segregation unit, an area inmates called The Hole. The worst cells in The Hole were the Pink Rooms, where convicts were sometimes stripped to their underwear and denied bedding. The color scheme was ostensibly intended to be calming. It wasn't, of course, and even the guards knew that wasn't the point.
Only a few weeks shy of parole in 1995, Andre found himself confined to a cell with walls the color of Pepto-Bismol. He received his meals through a slit in the door known in prison parlance as a "bean shoot"; his best friend was his only visitor: a mouse.
Having served four years for armed robbery, virtually on the eve of his release Andre had decided to protest conditions at the prison.
"They claimed I created a major disturbance," recalls Andre, now 34. At five-foot-seven and 198 pounds he's seemingly all muscle, with a mohawk of dark dreadlocks that reaches halfway down his back and a face that rarely betrays his emotions. "What I did is organize."
What he did got him two more years of hard time, beginning with 30 days in a Pink Room.
"My whole life story has been about standing up for something and then getting punished for it," says Andre. "But I believe as a warrior you have to be brave."
Andre, who describes life as a game of chess, adheres to the Code of the Samurai, an ethos that in 21st-century America can make him appear at once admirable and archaic.
Former warden Scott Abbott estimates that more than 8,000 inmates passed through the penitentiary while he was there, but he remembers Jermaine Andre clearly. "He carried himself well, and he was outspoken," says Abbott. "If he believed something was right, he stood behind it." As far as Andre's position in the prison pecking order, Abbott says he doesn't recall him getting into too many fights. "That means he must have been doing pretty well," he says.
From the Pink Room, Andre was moved to the segregation unit proper, where men on (comparably) good behavior were permitted to leave their cells for one hour a day and open their bean shoots to talk to one another.
He saw a few men go crazy in The Hole, and saw others combat the monotony by pouring pee onto guards or setting fire to scraps of paper and throwing them out their bean shoots. But he resolved to spend his time more productively.
He devoted himself to practicing martial arts.
Growing up he'd learned some moves from his brother and an uncle and picked up others from books and movies. Most of what he knew he'd learned through trial and error, in street fights in the north St. Louis county.
"I won't say he liked to fight," says Sandra Easter-Carter, Andre's mother, smiling as though she knows that's not quite true. "But he was always man enough to. He was always a little superhero, defending someone else."
In his cell, Andre worked on kicks and jabs and shadowboxed. Sometimes men would peek through his bean shoot to find him meditating. Other times he'd demonstrate moves for them to practice in their own cells.
By the time he was released back into the relative freedom of maximum security, Andre had decided to start a martial-arts school. Granted permission to use the gym, he recruited nine students. In the morning they'd weightlift and run; afternoons Andre would teach them moves and they'd spar, without pads, bare knuckle. Outside class they called him by his nickname, Bamm Bamm, but in the gym he made them call him Sensei and bow to show respect.
The plan was that after they got out all the men would compete in at least one professional match. "Jermaine's the only one who kept the dream alive," says Ray Williams, who describes himself as a "real knucklehead" back then, when he was serving time for burglary. "He made me more humble and more respectful," says Williams. "He pretty much changed my life."
By Williams' count, Andre's prison class has enjoyed a respectable recidivism rate: Only two former students ended up back behind bars. Williams, now 32 and living in Maryland, was one of them. "The next time I was locked up, I didn't find anyone like Jermaine to mentor me," he says. "Finding someone like him in prison is really, really odd."
Within months of his release in 1997, Andre was in St. Louis, competing professionally in no-holds-barred "cage matches," in which fighters employed techniques from boxing and various martial arts. By 2002 he'd gone from earning a few hundred dollars a fight to making $20,000 for a bout in a league called the World Fighting Alliance. That fight, which won Andre a world title, lasted 21 seconds and ended when Andre broke his foe's leg.
Today Andre operates a mixed martial arts (MMA) school in O'Fallon. Recently he and a partner, Rob Evans, opened a second gym in St. Charles. He has also been training two students to compete in a new St. Louis-based league called MMA Genesis. The league's first fight, back in December, drew about 4,500 fans. The second event took place this past Saturday at the Family Arena in St. Charles, and drew even more.