My Life in Jail

Sometimes murderers turn out to be the nicest guys. Or those accused of murder, anyway. Really.

And you know what? Carjackers, armed traffickers, and stickup men aren't as bad as I expected, either. Especially up close.

And I should know. I spent last season locked up in the Miami-Dade County Stockade. That's right. In the slammer. On ice. In Cell No. 6, C Block. A 32-by-24-foot concrete box jammed with 34 very bad men.

And, no, I didn't do it.
Okay, so I did. Which brings me to the first of jail's Golden Truths: They all did it. Or something close. Or more likely, something worse. Much, much worse.

There are no innocent men in jail. Period.
If you're on ice, you probably turned the thermostat down yourself. And you'd better put on a sweater, baby, 'cause it's cold inside. Ice cold.

The unofficial average temperature in each of the Stockade's cells is approximately 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week. On purpose. In fact one day a loose-lipped corrections officer let slip the diabolical plan: "If it were up to me," he said, "I'd keep it at twenty degrees so you guys would never get outta bed." The theory being that a cold con is a calm con. And the deeper the chill the better the behavior. Call it temperate sedation. So if he could freeze-dry the bad guys, he'd do it. And who would blame him?

My own experience in Miami-Dade's very own gulag began back in '92 over -- what else? -- a dame. In town with four hours to kill between planes, two unwitting Canucks cabbed their way to South Beach and somehow got involved with my chick, which in turn got me involved with them.

It was late, way late, prime time for trouble. My chick was trashed and sassy, with a mind bent on gratuitous instigation. And her charms emboldened her new pals. Behind a locked door, her locked door, the fast friends attempted a united front, telling me to "get lost" or I'd "be sorry." Old-fashioned hot-tempered fellow that I am, I responded in the only stupid way I knew: with fists and a blackjack. And a little blind-side ingenuity.

To get the creeps out into the open I set off the fire alarm in the hall. Then when the first foe stuck his head through the doorway, I clobbered him (bam!) with a blackjack crack that knocked him straight to the ground. Instinct and adrenaline propelled me five quick steps into the apartment, where I let fly a flurry of fists that surprised me almost as much as it did foe number two, whose head began to wobble like a dachshund in the rear window of a Falcon. Then I grabbed the unfortunate interlopers, Three Stooges-like, and kicked both in the butt, chased 'em into the street, and vowed to rip them into proverbial shreds should I ever see them again.

The entire episode lasted maybe three minutes. But it was a ferociously enjoyable three minutes.

My opponents disagreed. Not being gentlemen enough to take their lumps and leave, they ran down the block and called the cops, something I never in a million years expected because it's something I'd never in a million years ever dream of doing.

But the cavalry they did call. And what a terrifyingly tall tale they must have told, because when the Miami Beach Police Department's response team arrived on the scene, they were armed and braced for bigger bear than I. The ten-man force seemed almost, well, disappointed that their prey appeared to be nothing more than an outcast from the Bing Crosby Open. That, however, didn't stop them from flexing the strong arm of the law.

I was promptly thrown facedown on the floor, frisked, disarmed, refrisked, cuffed, and frisked again, then unceremoniously led from the building and tossed headfirst (and hatless) into the back of a squad car. (No matter how many times you've seen the procedure depicted on television, nothing compares to the blunt brutality of your own arrest. Nothing.)

Thus began my bout with the law. Although I had come out on top in the brawl (my two opponents weren't that tough, really), post-fight was another battle altogether. Behind bars for the very first time in my life, I was charged with two counts of aggravated battery, two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, and get this: armed occupied burglary, one of Florida's most serious offenses (think home invasion). To exacerbate this sordid affair, I was denied bond. Me, Mr. Clean! It was a long, long night.

Superb legal counsel enlisted by my girlfriend of all people not only got me off the most alarming charge, but my fast-talking mouthpiece somehow managed to persuade the judge to be lenient as well. The result: Rather than the potential lengthy prison sentence, I caught a measly six months of probation. A cakewalk, right?

I soon remembered just how difficult it is for me to do what I'm told, when I'm told. My first violation of probation led to reinstatement of that probation. My second violation led to community control (super-strict monitoring). And my third V.O.P. induced me to head for the Big Bad Apple, where I took it on the lam and once again began to live lawfully and, most important, unfettered by government paper of the probation sort.

Until, that is, some two-plus years later, when I returned to the town that made me a criminal, was picked up at my hotel on the warrant that had been revived in my absence, and tipped to my second jailhouse Golden Truth: The law never forgives a debt. Now I was gonna pay. The question was just how much.

Every Greater Miami Jail Tour starts in the municipality of the infraction. In my case it was swingin' South Beach, where the house that Miami Vice built looms almost as large (and inexplicable) as the legends that helped create it. Located smack in the middle of The Strip, amid all the nouveau glitz and glam, the Miami Beach Police Department headquarters on Washington Avenue seems perpetually posed for its closeup, forever primed for the attractive video feed should the international press corps again descend to cover another jet-set tragedy. It's Miami Moderne at its least finest: sleek, angular, superfluous.

So this is where Crockett and Tubbs brought all their bad guys, I think. Mind if I say, Wow? Forget that it's monstrous. This is show biz! Eyesore or not, Miami Beach's cop coliseum boasts some of the cleanest cells in this or any other jurisdiction. And though I spent less than three hours as their guest, the Beach crew's cleanliness was a fond fact that would continually run through my mind as I sank further into the darkness of Dade.

Next stop: the proverbial downtown, where the Beach's television gloss quickly fades before the grimness of the Dade County Jail, or as they say in the trade, DCJ. This is where the shock and the horror and the disbelief finally kick in, like a fist. Forget the Hollywood illusion of that cop shop across the causeway and say hello to savage reality. DCJ is ugly, foreboding, and quite simply, filthy. And that's just the outside.

Easily spotted from State Road 836, adjacent to the county's criminal courts, DCJ inside is a fluorescent inferno that would give Dante pause. From the minute I enter the remote-controlled foyer by the transport officers' firearms drop, where the newly incarcerated are made to stand against the wall and wait, it's obvious I'm about to take a heat-endurance test: physical, mental, and emotional.

From the vestibule vacuum, I'm uncuffed and ushered into the glare of the booking area, a sort of assembly-line processing center, where I'm positioned against a wounded wall (How many heads have been hit here?) and instructed to take off my shoes and place the contents of my pockets on a gut-high table. Immediately my smokes and my matches are scooped into a trash can (tobacco is contraband in the county's jails), my shoes are turned inside-out, my money is counted and returned, my watch is catalogued and enveloped, and just in case I'm really slick, I'm shoved against the wall and frisked for the umpteenth time.

Satisfied that I'm now without weapons, drugs, or nicotine, I'm led over to another table for fingerprinting, which, unless one's fingertips are abnormally disfigured, no longer consists of black ink, a roller, print cards, and Handi Wipes. Now John Law has at hand a federally linked, computerized scanner, so I'm spared the old-fashioned mess in favor of large screens and Windex. After being cybertagged, I'm booted to yet another wall (this one charmingly stenciled with a height chart) and propped up in front of a massive Polaroid for a quick mug shot, then it's around a corner to a telephone. Whether or not I've decided to ride out the night without an attorney, there's no way I'm gonna miss a chance at outside communication. So I call a chick ... and get a machine. Then another ... ditto. And finally a pal of mine. And just as he answers the phone -- no machine! -- a guard grabs the receiver from my hand and says, "Time's up." Ouch. Now I know I'm no longer a mere arrestee, I'm again a bona fide inmate.

Now booked, it's off to a holding cell -- three walls, two benches, and one classic jail door -- designed for six people but containing ten, twelve, or fourteen. Immediately I'm struck by the clamor of doom: Hysterics moan and wail, middle-aged drunks shed audible tears, and young veteran toughs (called jits or jitterbugs in the trade) shout out to their pals on both sides of the bars. Even the stoic and silent are possessed of a despair that's almost deafening. It's the racket of crime and its urban solution; the asphalt-jungle cries of capture and confinement.

With that noise comes the stench, a tangy smell of fear, the gamy scent of the mock-brave, the pungent odor of the gutter. Imagine spoiled milk, rotten eggs, rancid meat, and desperation. A suffocating abundance of aromatic badness. In such way-too-close quarters hygiene becomes moot, a bare memory. Even if you had just emerged from a long, hot shower (unlikely) and doused yourself with a liter of jail-issue de-licing fluid, you'd still end up reeking of the man to whom you're handcuffed.

But beyond the racket and the stink, one of the more unsettling aspects of DCJ is its color. Yes, color. Or I should say "color tones," because there is not a color in the natural world that even vaguely corresponds to the shades coating the walls of this infamous South Florida institution: nauseous, far too pale, eerily murky. Where the hell does this paint come from? What sadist selects these shades? Has research proven that these putrid hybrids are psychologically immobilizing?

So I cover my ears, hold my nose, and close my eyes. And then I realize that the assault on my senses is the least of my worries. I'm in jail, man. Not at some tacky resort. Tossed in the hoosegow amid some of society's worst. And I'm griping about the color of the walls? I'd damn well better start worrying about survival. I'm below bottom now, buried alive and out of sight, with who knows how long before I get anywhere. So I fasten my seatbelt and begin the slow crawl of the incarcerate.

Like jail systems all across America (or so I've heard), Miami-Dade employs a very special brand of barbarity: bullpen therapy. Basically a program designed to teach a crook a lesson, this treatment consists of being bumped from one overcrowded cell to the next for no apparent reason. And then when you're sufficiently disoriented, left in limbo. It's kinda like having your psyche repeatedly shuffled, punched, kicked, and thrown off a cliff.

But it's the bullpens themselves rather than the periodic shuffling between them, that are most punishing. Crammed with a minimum of twice the maximum inmate capacity, each and every cell is a study in human depravity.

Despite the occasional once-over with some gut-wrenching disinfectant, the floors are caked with layer upon layer of impregnable filth, equal parts mold, dirt, sweat, and spit, though more often than not they're so littered with sprawled bodies it's hardly noticeable. And let's not forget the remains of the day's feeding, a meal that morning, noon, and night consists of four pieces of stale white bread, two slabs of often grossly discolored mystery meat, two slices of orange, and oily squares known as sandwich slices (none dare call it cheese).

This being not the most mannered of environments, much of what is meant to be ingested ends up on the floor. And it stays there until the roaches or mice cart it away, which is quite often. Add to this a motley array of men on the wrong side of the law who've no room to breathe, much reason to worry, and no concern for each other, and you have a scene worthy of H. Bosch, a masterpiece of bottled bedlam.

This is where I stayed, hour after hour after hour, until the longest of nights became my day in court.

Ah, court. The place where hopes are dashed, or worse if you're without private representation. If that's the case there's little hope anyway. On your own you're nothing but a maybe, your future dependent upon someone appointed by the state to do a job that's but a step to another job.

That's not to say public defenders are incompetent, mind you. In any other line of work, they'd rank well ahead of the pack. But no amount of competence could possibly compete with the insane workload strapped to the backs of big-city PDs. And just because your PD can't remember your name doesn't mean he or she doesn't care. These people care as much as anyone burdened with the weight of a violent age; they're just pressed for time. Unfortunately it's your time. So forgive them if they inadvertently send you up the river without a paddle. At least they gave you a boat.

Until this latest arrest my experience with public defenders had been peripheral. I had always managed to hustle up enough loot to get my own attorney into the courtroom. Yet even at a distance the woes of those at the mercy of state-appointed defense had been frightening. It was the legal equivalent of "Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am," a Tex Avery version of ready, set, next: name called, charges cited, deal proffered, plea. All in a nanosecond. But it's one thing to watch someone else drown. It's another thing entirely to go down in the same damn rip tide.

Figuring that my arrest was a mere formal, if pointed, request for me to officially answer for my actions, and assuming that the state couldn't possibly want much of me after all these years, I opted to ride out my court appearance without the usual hired gun.

Big mistake.
Putting faith in the fickle hands of state-appointed fate is like careening out of control in a car without a driver. You're betting on the slim-to-none chance that the vehicle might miraculously right itself. But it's a bet placed with someone else's money on a track slick with grease. Fast? Yeah. And suicidal.

The courts are designed to expedite matters, and they do it with incredible (and surprising) flourish. In truth they're too expeditious. Things just go too fast. If you blink, you'll miss it. And if you miss it, you'll have to go back and start all over again. In 21 days, maybe more.

That's how it was with me. A clerk called my name, a prosecutor mumbled something about violation and bond, the judge said set it off, and it was, or I was. Set off, that is. To be continued in three weeks. My "attorney" said nothing, I said nothing, and nothing seemed to happen. Except in that flash of an instant I lost something -- a three-quarter-month chunk of my life.

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.

As ordered, I braved the elements, and actually found the water to be refreshing. After two days at the wretched DCJ I'd have welcomed a mud bath.

Relatively cleansed I then had questions: When do we eat? When is lights out? What's up with the telephones? The TVs? I knew that every cell had its own rules and regulations, and I also knew that even divine intervention wouldn't be of much help to the man who broke them. (Ironic that habitual rule-breakers become strict disciplinarians when they get behind bars.)

The houseman, the cell's dominant alpha male, was snoring loudly back in his bunk under a mound of blankets and amid a haze that clearly signaled "do not disturb." With nothing posted anywhere, and not a helpful information booth in sight, I unrolled my "roll" (a towel, two sheets, and a rotting, synthetic blanket), made up my bunk, hoisted myself up (fresh fish never get bottom bunks), and I sat. And stirred. And I began to realize what the term "stir" really meant. Then I wondered just how long it would take for me to go stir crazy.

As it happened, not long. Between the constant not-so-quiet roar of my cellmates, the flanking blare of the arc-welded televisions (one English, one Spanish, both rigged in perpetuity to "on" and "full blast"), and the ricochet of disbelief in my skull, I realized I was on the nearside of losing it, paradoxically thought-drunk and sense-pummeled among the thoughtless and senseless. And I realized too that succumbing to worry over an increasingly volatile sense of doom would've been not only futile (like banging my head against a wall to get some answers) but dangerous. Any evident slip would have been immediately perceived as a sure sign of weakness, a perception I would go to great lengths to avoid.

Jail is no place for the sensitive man. Visible signs of worry, concern, despair, or compassion are viewed as unbecoming, frailties worthy of ridicule or attack. Displays of emotion, I quickly concluded, could get me killed. So I tried to distract myself by concentrating my attention on my surroundings.

Another big mistake.
If ever there was a mental exercise designed to drive a mind mad, taking stock of jailhouse surroundings was it. Compared with my previous quarters at DCJ, this cell was a veritable mansion. Though it did house nearly twice as many souls, here it appeared merely overcrowded, 34 in a space intended for, say, 20, rather than 20 in a standing-room-only space for 6 to 8. And rather than a mass of benches and bodies, here there were actual bunks, too close together, yes, but bunks nonetheless. No one was made to sleep on the floor. And a dining area as well, an actual place other than my lap to put my food tray. That the bunks were made of steel and bolted to the floor, and the dining set consisted of an immobile cement table and bench was of little consequence. This was almost livable, I shrieked (to myself).

Then I thought: Who the hell wants jail to be livable?
DCJ's saving grace (if you could call it that) was that it felt decidedly temporary. Awful? Yes. But it was just a stopover of fixed, endurable duration. The discomfort wouldn't, couldn't possibly last. On the other hand the Stockade, with its bunks and its bedding and its dining set, gave off a queasy air of near-permanence. Not of comfort, really, but still a settled-in-ness. Whatever it was, it was too close to comfort for me. What kind of man makes himself at home in Hell? In my eyes that would be tantamount to surrender, an invertebrate's acceptance of his unacceptable lot in life. To some it may have been simply a matter of going with the flow, but to me it was cowardice.

Of course this wasn't the case at all. I was in denial. But that was a lesson yet to be learned. Right then all I could think of was getting out of this hellhole with as much speed and as little damage to myself as possible. And until that time, in order to maintain a semblance of sanity, I'd intentionally drive myself to distraction.

I made note of the steel mesh over the steel bars that hid the already darkened windows, but that only made me wonder how much daylight I was being denied. I marveled at the craftiness behind the ripped-sheet string used to hang makeshift curtains between bunks; but that only made me wish for my own venetian-blinded room. I scanned the surfaces of the floors and the walls and thought how, despite their deplorable condition, they remained relatively free of pestilence; but that only made me long for the polished terrazzo and tiles of the Beach. Each attempted deflection ignited further reflection; everything bad I saw reminded me of something good. I knew I'd never find peace of mind in the nuances of a cell's interior.

So I switched my attention to my cellmates. And there, among behavior patterns of ghastly do's and grizzly don'ts, I began developing a morbid interest in the wickedness of man.

'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.

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.

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.

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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