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.

'Twas like something scribbled by Dickens and put to screen by Fellini. A cavalcade of cons, a who's who of whodunits. More than a few bad men. And I was one of them. But among this cesspool of heathens was an angel. A cat of my color, no less, whose brother I had counted among my few true friends. A man I'll call E.

Though E. wasn't yet a player when I first became acquainted with him on South Beach, his big brother's status and connections virtually guaranteed his eventual entry into the shadows of illicit high life. Unfortunately a rat got him caught and stopped cold his ascendancy. Nabbed in a narcotics sting, E. was looking at a mandatory ten years for armed trafficking and related weapons charges. By the time I landed in his cell, he had been locked up and riding out the state's plea bargains for eight months. In that time he had used to great advantage the prowess that helped make him a contender on the street, cementing enough behind-bars bonds to transcend his lowly status as cracker. That generally derogatory term for white boys almost became a sign of respect. A backhanded sign, perhaps, but a sign nonetheless.

That E. and I ended up together was sheer good fortune. Despite my status as an utter neophyte, my arrival resolved something very few people speak about: ethnic bonds among men, the intrinsic need to hang with your own kind, especially behind bars. Sure, the chicos (the catchall term for Latinos) and the blacks stick together, even through occasional internecine skirmishes, often gang-related. And it helps them that they have numbers on their side, great numbers. But what of the white folks? Few and far between is about the best same-race interaction available to whites. So having not only a white guy but a white guy from the same scene thrown into the same cell made E. and me very happy indeed.

The entire cell seemed to get a kick out of this new white duality. "Two white guys!" they'd shout. "You guys cousins?" And we'd laugh and they'd laugh, pleased with themselves for being one up on the sole representatives of the white minority.

Among my other cellmates was Black, one of the copycat Florida Turnpike tollbooth bandits, who had the distinction of being shot at while fleeing the scene of his last heist after strolling into a multidepartmental sting, the entire episode having been caught on tape by Channel 7. He got six years.

Black had family with him, a half-cousin known as T., who was a street-level gunman with a playfully macabre sense of humor. Etched on T.'s bicep was a target tattoo with four ink-splotch bullet holes, each representing not those he had fired and hit, but the times he himself had been shot. (T. was one bullet hole short on the count, having been arrested with a slug still in him but no tattoo parlor immediately available. He was dead set on an update as soon as he was released.) Like most of their brethren, T. and Black were seasoned veterans of the system, even though they were still shy of their 21st and 23rd birthdays, respectively.

Then there was Spirit, the pie-eyed, kind-hearted son of a preacher man, alleged to have attempted to murder a police officer by running him down with his car. (If he beats that rap and the various related charges customarily attached to such an offense, it's off to New York to face armed robbery.) At age 21, Spirit had a bearing well beyond his years, a kind of humble piety attributed, I suspect, to a devout and constant immersion in all things biblical; he led both the daily Bible-study class (which met in the bathroom) and a 2:00 a.m. five-minute prayer. But Spirit's holy zeal did not for a minute conceal his capacity for quick and certain retribution should he, a friend, or another black cellmate suffer some slight.

There was a reason he exerted such a calming influence throughout the cell: He exhibited a wonder-working combination of religious reverence and near-psychopathic menace. On more than one occasion, underestimating ne'er-do-wells found out the hard way that you don't wrong a bad man who holds the Good Book.

One night a middle-aged South American gentleman was robbed of his commissary (basically a collection of junk food goodies called "items" that in the joint are used as currency). Chico incidents are normally handled by the chicos themselves. But in this case the chico "lived next door" to Spirit (in the next bunk), which to Spirit was like a direct assault on his own house. He made clear his displeasure.

Suspicions led to accusations, accusations to threats, and the threats to a near race riot in the cell. Spirit got in the face of the prime suspect, a chico on his way back to prison after a failed stint on the outside. A couple of the more bloodthirsty chicos were brandishing shanks (a stabbing instrument made from anything sharp), ready to pounce. Because C Block is guarded from outside the cell rather than inside, and guards are summoned only by reaching through the bars of one door and banging on another with a sawed-off broom, there was little chance of officer interference.

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