My Life in Jail

There are plenty of wonderful places to spend the holiday season in South Florida. As the author explains, the Stockade isn't one of them.

Little wonder that when your PD can spare even a word, and that word urges a fella to take the time, the word alone comes as such a surprise and with such reverence and authority, that almost by design most offenders eagerly and naively do cop a plea, choosing to jump on the certainty of the state's offer rather than return to the bullpens and ride out a maybe.

But this time I didn't have the opportunity to jump on anything because, for whatever reason, the prosecutor wasn't ready to offer me a deal. A private attorney would've forced the state's hand, at least to the point of getting me back out on the streets until my next court date. With the state both for and against me, I was set off, silenced, and shipped away to another of Miami-Dade's criminal corrals, far, far from where decisions are made.

In addition to the monolith that is DCJ, the county has five other large receptacles for lawless men: the Glades-bordering megaplex known as Metro-West; the mysterious State Road 9 facility called, simply, North Dade Correctional; the civic-boostering tower of glass that is Turner Guilford Knight; its neighbor, the county's boot camp for youthful offenders; and its neighbor, the sprawling eyesore dubbed the Stockade.

For reasons unknown I drew the Stockade.

If you think the Stockade sounds like a place you'd never want to go, you'd be right. A collection of low-slung buildings located on the wrong side of Miami International Airport, it is the most notorious compound in the Miami-Dade jail system.

Surrounded by a creative collage of razor-studded concertina wire and old standby barbed wire, both of which crown a staggering network of fencing, the Stockade appears to be the world's most heavily fortified motel grounds, a kind of Motel 666, conveniently located and amenity-free. This being sunny South Florida, the place is peppered with palm trees. This being jail, the palm trees shade guard towers. But there ain't no sunshine or palm trees in that part of the Stockade known as the Blocks.

The Blocks is an illogically alphabetized series of two-story structures where Miami-Dade's not-so-finest await sentencing. It consists of four buildings -- A, B, C, and F -- each containing six to eight cells, each manned by a corporal and two guards per shift, except for maximum-security C Block, which gets an extra guard.

C Block has the dubious distinction of housing many of the county's absolute worst offenders, the creme de la creme of crime, those charged with murder, attempted murder, carjacking, home invasion, assault on a law enforcement officer, armed trafficking, and other sundry weapons-related infractions. These offenses, categorized "high risk," carry either an astronomical bond or, more often, no bond at all. In other words those in C Block had better stock up on Snickers because they're not going anywhere for quite a while.

As bad luck would have it, I qualified for C Block, not because I'm all that bad but because my original charges were. And because, as a chronic probation violator, I was being held without bail. It mattered not that the charges were nearly five years old, that I'd led an exemplary life since then (as far as they knew), or even that I was employed, and by this time three days late for work. My charges, which "scored out" to something like 36 to 60 months of possible prison time, demanded a certain level of redress. So until I got back before a judge, I would be on ice ... sweating.

But I quickly cooled after being thrown like some undersize fish into the shark tank that was my Stockade cell. Talk about being deep-sixed. A door was opened (solid steel), then another (bars), then bam! I was in the water. No formalities, no introductions, no flotation device.

Instinctively I stilled myself, daring not even a slight movement as the omnivores circled around me, sizing me up. Finally one of the head sharks swam up, pointed a five-knuckle fin, and said, "Sleep there. After you take a shower." I then cautiously dog-paddled off.

Surprisingly, on this side of the arraignment fence, the inmates were keen on cleanliness, incarceration apparently having instilled in them a near-phobic obsession with germs. To combat lice and other vermin, everyone, without exception, is commanded to shower upon entering the cell, an ominous prospect that could put the fear of God into someone raised on Hollywood prison flicks. But the only real danger in dropping the soap here was the fact that it landed on the floor. Not even a bar of soap should be made to land on a jailhouse shower's floor.

Yes, even freshly scrubbed, a twice-daily ritual, a Stockade cell's bathing facilities remained unseemly. Even the fixtures, dulled to a Crayola Sea Green, provoked a flinch when handled. And what passed for bathroom tiles looked to have been dipped in swamp mold then spot-dried with furry patches of hair and fuzz. And because nothing was touchable, the entire showering experience became a sort of balancing act. Imagine bathing in a communal-size Port-a-San with nothing but the thin rubber soles of your shower slides (flip-flops) between you and deadly contamination. Scary stuff.

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