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.

Until I had to do it all again four hours later on the way back.
And then again four times after that, each of them a repeat of my refusal to accept the state's prison-time plea.

Just as nothing compares to one's own arrest, the shock of not going home from court is brutal, the landing from such an altitude of high anticipation being particularly hard. The effects of the crash are compounded greatly when they are bookended by buses and bullpens.

On my fourth go-round, unable to handle further interruption of an already well-interrupted life, I, like many men before me, grew so tired of the wait I copped a plea. The result: 180 days, credit time served. Under the state's new 85 percent system, I'd do five months.

Back in maximum security for what I hoped would be my last few days before becoming a trustee, my cellmates congratulated me on my light sentence. "Five months?" they said. "Hell, you only have two and a half more to go. You're lucky."

It took about two and a half weeks for me to get to the other side of the Stockade mountain, a fabled part of the compound known as the Units.

Since nearly the first day of my incarceration, my fellow felons spoke of the Units reverentially, as if they were some kind of Xanadu. "You'll be eatin' lovely," said some. "You get time in the yard everyday," said others. "Easy time, man, easy time," said all.

A concentrated campaign of politicking with Stockade guards, especially a smart, tough, no-nonsense former schoolteacher named Corporal M. helped expedite my transfer to Trusteeville. Five, six, ten times a day, every day, I'd politely ask if anything had opened up across the compound. And five, six, ten times a day they'd patiently explain that I'd get there, I just needed to be patient. But let me tell you, patience is overrated.

Then it happened: "Hood, get your stuff." That's the second-best line you can hear in the Stockade, the first being "Roll it up," which means you're goin' home.

As I assembled my meager belongings, E. and my cellmates gathered around to razz me a bit about where I was going and to wish me the best. So there I was, surrounded by bad guys, real bad guys, who in nearly three months had become my friends, saying farewell. It was almost touching. But if bidding adieu to murderers didn't quite choke me up, the stars I got to see later that night did.

My escort departed at the gate and left me to find my assigned building. To my great surprise the door of Unit 4 was open. And it stayed open. Not only unlocked, but without locks. The windows didn't have bars, or even mesh. And they, too, opened. Same went for all the Units. No more clanging and banging. No more bars. And light pouring in, lots of light. After being locked up so long without movement or light, the transition threw me pleasantly off balance. I was dizzy.

Immediately after being issued my bunk assignment, I was approached by a white guy and given the lowdown on my new digs. Most important, how to stay outside them as much as possible through either work or school. As for work, my new friend recommended the afternoon shift in the kitchen. He was the boss.

Well, a boss, anyway. The Stockade kitchen is run by Stockade officers, of course. But beneath the uniformed hierarchy is another, more feudal, system, a system of "pushers."

So Keith was a pusher. Not of drugs, obviously, but of inmates in and out of the cafeteria. Or more accurately, a pusher of buttons. For there wasn't an inmate on the trustee side of the compound whose buttons Keith didn't gladly push. Again and again. But that seemed to be part of the pushers' job, the other part being a kind of inmate supervisor.

Keith was a typical Long Island loudmouth, the kind who likes to consider himself a New Yorker but who is betrayed by boasts. Real city folks brag by doing, showing, then reminding. Islanders just brag.

But I let him brag all he wanted. This was a white cat, man, and we were gonna look out for each other. I kept saying that to myself as I stooped, mop in hand, over a bucket in the Stockade kitchen.

Growing up I may have had a few jobs that lacked, say, glamour. But I never really mopped. I mean really mopped. It is a back-breaking chore of spirit-breaking proportions. And it's all the worse when done at the behest of a histrionic con. But I mopped and mopped, and at the end of the shift I was rewarded with not one but two trays of food. And one tray was shortline, a special concoction for kitchen workers only. And then they let me take it outside.

And that's when it hit me. Maybe it was the childhood aroma of freshly cut grass. Or the relative silence of the yard. Or even just the feel of the night air on my skin, my skin alone. But when I sat down with my food at the wooden picnic bench and saw above me the moon and the stars, I, Stockade tough guy, nearly broke down. Then, when I went inside the unit to get some water and was told I wasn't allowed back out, I nearly killed someone.

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