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.

The schedule in the Units was as follows:
4:00 a.m.: Wakeup
6:30 a.m.: Breakfast
7:30 a.m.: Out of the unit
8:30 a.m.: School (optional)
11:00 a.m. Lunch, back in units (optional)
11:30 a.m.: Back to school
2:30 p.m.: Back in units (mandatory)
3:00-4:00 p.m.: Yard (Monday-Thursday)
4:00 p.m.: Dinner

In between and around said schedule were an assortment of jobs (kitchen, maintenance, commissary, feeding the Blocks) and classes (GED, auto shop, carpentry, welding) that paid a whopping fifteen dollars per week. Library time and religious services were also available.

In addition to my kitchen shift I signed on for welding. As for books and the Bible, I did both, as often as possible, not for absolution but for action, any action. After the idleness of the Blocks, the subtle taste of trustee freedom got to me. I wanted to move.

And move I did. Madly. I'd be first up and first out of the unit in the morning, pumping a little homemade iron and reading a bit of my New York Times (I had it delivered) under the breaking sun. Then I'd trot off to welding class (all the white guys took welding), where I learned the art of acetylene arcs and the tricks of gin rummy (a person can't weld all the time).

I worked six days a week in the kitchen. Sometimes I'd even stay a little late and earn extra cake or cookies. I reorganized the Stockade's small library, identified the few hidden gems (some Dorothy Parker, some Thomas Pynchon, a Saul Bellow). I also initiated all the white guys into a meeting group I christened the Polar Bear Club. I worked the phones (trustees have far more phone privileges), contacting pals in New York and L.A. and on the Beach, and set in motion some action to handle upon my release. And of course I hustled.

Everyone who's anyone in jail has his own hustle. Mine was writing. I wrote furlough requests, filled in mitigation papers, and penned love letters (yes, love letters) for those who lacked the necessary skills. In return I was granted a modicum of respect and given the most highly praised item in jail: cigarettes.

My hustling must have reawakened my swagger because on a couple of occasions my words ruffled some feathers: once when I called a kitchen co-worker a "barometer of foolishness" and again when I suggested that one of my unitmates switch to decaf. The first merely provoked balled-up fists, but the second almost got me strangled. It must have been my attitude. I mean, since when did "switch to decaf" become fighting words?

But no crack-smoking, repeat offenders were gonna get me down. And the in-house guards and the rest of the unit weren't gonna let them get me down, either. I had become one of Unit 4's golden boys, a role model for do-goods and do-bads because I worked all the angles. And I kept my mouth shut when I had to. And (I'm not fooling myself here) because I had tons of extra food, a drawer full of commissary, and the occasional cigarette. All that hustle and bustle prepped me for release. Thricefold.

Then it happened: "Hood, roll it up!"
Of course, I already had it rolled up. I was ready, more than ready, and had been since my arrest December 7, 1997, a day that will live in infamy. I said so long to my pals and took my very last cross-county ride, this time in a suitably ventilated van rather than a broken-down bus. And I waited for the last time in my very last bullpen while the officers ran my name through the nation's federal crime computer.

And at five in the morning of May 6 in the year nineteen hundred and ninety-eight, after 150 of the longest days of my life, my name came up clean, my jailer said get lost, and I let the DCJ doors clang shut behind me for the last goddamn time.

I was free.

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