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.

Fortunately cooler black heads prevailed and Spirit was made to understand the ridiculousness of his intervention in another man's (not too mention another race's) beef. And there was also the risk to himself should the incident escalate. Spirit would be on his own.

Among the chicos, was a standard-bearer of a drug peddler called Malpasso ("bad stepper"), an up-and-coming, husky twenty-year-old who forever seemed to have a candy bar wrapped in one of his beefy, scarred-knuckle fists and a shank shoved in his oversize waistband. Locked up for a catalogue of drug and weapons charges, Malpasso's family legacy (his father and brother are convicted dealers) gave him, almost like Spirit, a peculiarly grown-up angle on incarceration. "Everyone has to do his own time," advised his ex-con father. That statement may ring of oversimplicity but it speaks volumes about the manner in which one should conduct himself in jail.

While Malpasso stuffed his face full of commissary and made nice with his neighbors, a much more sinister chico kept to the sidelines, smiling the most accomplished fake smile I'd ever seen. They called him Nica after his birthplace country, which was kinda like calling Marilyn Manson "Florida." It meant nothing.

Granted, he possessed the ruthlessness of, say, a contra commander or a death-squad leader, but that's where the conventional Central American comparisons ended. Smooth, educated, and debonair, Nica came off as someone from somewhere a little further south, a little more sophisticated. Somewhere on the far side of 35, he projected a kind of big-screen Latin charm. It was just this refined exterior that made Nica so spooky. Unlike the cast of obvious miscreants -- the bullet-brazed gangbangers, the psych-ward alumni, the extravagantly pumped prison-time bandits -- his was a façade of carefully applied gloss.

Occasionally Nica's finely tuned cover would be blown and the mania would burst forth, most notably when television news reported a cop killing. For some hateful reason a cop coming in harm's way provoked in Nica a resounding cheer followed by a cackle eerie enough to give pause to even the cell's hard-core denizens, who would steal furtive, puzzled glances at this unmasked lunacy.

Danger permeated the very fiber of Nica's being, but it was most alarmingly evident when he spoke of his wife, who, according to him, was the primary cause of all his woes. He had spent seven of his last ten wedded years behind bars for numerous offenses, most of which were of the domestic-violence variety. In fact he was facing trial this time for throwing his beloved out a second-story window. But don't think that in any way put a damper on her love. Each and every Saturday Nica's Aventura-babe wife would make the 8:00 a.m. pilgrimage to the Stockade, stand across a fenced moat called the chute, and listen to his abuse for two straight hours.

Then one Saturday she missed her visit, which made Nica lethally livid, so much so that when she returned the next week, guards had to interrupt their visit and escort him back to his cell, where he continued to berate her in the vilest terms. Her excuse? She had left town with their son to avoid answering the State Attorney's Office subpoena for her to testify. Against him. Then -- the nerve -- she'd gotten stuck with car trouble somewhere upstate.

Last I heard, Nica had his release carefully planned: stick up a 7-Eleven, spend a couple of days with some hookers, do some coke, kill his wife, and settle down. In that order.

Also among my esteemed cellmates was Country, who, unlike most of his black brothers, was a study in contrasts. Extradited from the Georgia hills to face a bevy of very serious Sunshine State charges, including capital murder and carjacking, he was a disarmingly mild-mannered might-be murderer. From up close he was meek, almost gentle, with a slow, simple, Southern way about him. Except for his imposing bulk, he looked more likely to be threatened than threatening. But his naivete was hardly what one would call childlike. One day, while en route to the law library, he took me aside:

"Hood," he said, "I need your help on some research."
"Sure thing, Country. What kind of research?"
"Statute of limitations."
"For what crime?" I asked.

For nearly three months C Block was my home, where I lived the life of the unsentenced incarcerate, a question mark among men. My previous stays on the county cuff had been brief interludes that landed me back on probation. But the government had no more paper for me.

Twenty-one days into my stay I was slated to see a judge. Well before the usual 4:00 a.m. wakeup call for court, I had showered, shaved, and slipped into my best street gear, all performed in a heightened state of excitement over the prospect of going home. I'm outta here, I thought. Yeah! So the shackle shuffle to the pitch-black bus, the wrist-wringing handcuffs, the creepy hot ride across the county to DCJ, and the hurry up and wait of the bullpens and hallways and catwalk didn't phase me in the least.

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