The Jaws That Bite,
The Claws That Catch
Conversations in Prison
Gary Brooks Waid
The penalty for the possession for Crack Cocaine is loosely termed the “hundred to one law” in prison. This description refers to the inordinate amount of time our young people are receiving in federal court.
I’ve been an inmate in the United States Federal correctional system for a little more than six months now and have just recently finished my introduction and training. I was captured and arraigned, pled guilty and went to my sentencing and through all of it listened closely to my many advisors. In this system of laws and legal opinions in which I find myself, I have been schooled and have learned that it seldom pays to buck the suits. If you anger the prosecution you may never recover. Just one case in point is the trial and conviction of inmate #______: Mr. Jerome Street.
Street is here in pod H-s of the Seminole County Jail in Sanford, Florida on what is called “rule 35.” That means he’s testifying against someone or actively working for the feds in return for some time off the twenty-three year sentence he received three years ago for his involvement in crack cocaine. Time will tell if his efforts merit any consideration, but I pity the poor guy he’s going to testify against, because Street has twenty-three long reasons to say what he’s asked to say in court. He’s only twenty-two years old now and has been inside three years, which means if he must do all of his sentence excluding good time, he’ll have been completely acculturated into the federal system and virtually worthless to society. He was just beginning his adult life when the shit hit the fan and, like so many young men in here, knows almost nothing about what it would be like to live and work and go about the general day-to-day banalities of everyday existence on the outside. In the catch-22 that is the federal court system, the most ignorant are the most endangered, and Street, at age nineteen, was and still is a perfect example.
When I first arrived in H-3 a few months ago and began meeting all the inmates, Street was a guy I pointedly avoided. A large-framed, overweight man with an old-fashioned afro, his very dark pigmentation exaggerated an intense, practiced lack of expression. The folds of thick skin around his eyes seemed to enhance and perpetuate a squint of disdain or disrespect, and the fearful image he projected was aggravated by his poor vocal skills.
I was frightened by his looks, and didn’t understand him when he talked, which made us both uneasy and mistrustful of each other. To add to his already unbecoming appearance, the skin on his neck and upper arms was affected with psoriasis or some similar nervous disorder which gave it a scaly, alligator appearance and made me want to step back to avoid contamination. I freely admit that my prejudice was based solely on appearance and miscommunication. His angry shell was impenetrable to someone like me who had only befriended Blacks who were amenable to my friendship. As a final backhand to my sensibilities, Street, in order to arm himself in the often cruel environs of confinement, practiced the jailhouse hobby of growing his fingernails out in long, ridged blades which he used as tools as well as weapons. The effect was ugly and lethal and managed to alienate him further from my attention.
During my first month inside I watched a fight involving Street and another inmate and the viciousness of his attack was frightening. One moment the prisoners were arguing about a baseball game and the next, someone had crossed an invisible line. In only a few seconds, the air in the pod became charged with Jerome’s overpowering rage and, like a pressure drop before a storm, the quiet afternoon was transformed into something swollen and menacing. In a slow, articulated series of freeze-frame pictures, I witnessed what was, for me, a totally unreal spectacle. I watched as Street stalked the other prisoner, circling silently and with deadly intent, his breath coming in forced explosions of control as he planned his destruction.
I was new to all this and could not then and cannot now hide my overwhelming reaction to the violent collage of heat and power that infected the room. Faster than I could follow, Street lashed out and bloodied his adversary as someone might swat a mosquito. In a perfect swell of color, like a flower blooming, there appeared gouged, parallel furrows of viscid pink arcing across the man’s cheek and down his neck. With a frantic, panicked lunge, he fell backwards over himself in his effort to get away. Then, as quickly as the fight began, it was over. Like a breeze from the sea, the charged air cleared and all the men in the pod turned away in exhalations of relief. Inmate Street is a dangerous, volatile person, I remember thinking. I would stay away from him at all cost.
For weeks I avoided any contact with Jerome but, as I began to understand a little of what the Black inmates were saying when they spoke to me and as they began to come by and tell me things or ask something, I was occasionally able to decipher more of Street’s words and could pick out meaning where before there was only monosyllabic nonsense. My problem with the younger Black guys was I needed them to slow down when they spoke but was too timid to ask. Street was the fastest talker of them all. He could blurt something out much quicker than I could comprehend it and, like an idiot, I would smile and shrug my shoulders and generally act like a fool. You have to understand that there’s always a black/white thing, a friction in here, and I didn’t want to risk offending this explosive man. Then something happened. As I became entrenched in a cowardly dismissal of Street and his young black friends, circumstances lent a hand in my institutional education and cleared the pathway I needed for understanding. I was granted an interpreter.
A housing pod in the Seminole County Jail is a cluster of two-man cells surrounding a common room - the whole thing accessed through steel doors and accented by windows of bullet-proof glass. We, as prisoners, are subject to the rules of the institution, including provisions for dress, cleanliness, decorum, etc. One day, during cell inspection, my roommate of the moment was caught by the sergeant without his prison-issue "reds" on. Instead of the maroon uniform we're all required to wear during certain hours, he was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. For breaking the rule, he was sent to the hole. Almost immediately, I was assigned a new roommate. Alvester Scott, or "Zeus" as he is called, is the biggest guy in this pod. His legs are like oak trees and his chest is sculpted with bumps and bulges of muscle that most of us have never seen before. He's bald and Black, and when he smiles, his chicklety grin takes over his face like the chrome bumper on a Buick. From the very first day, we got along great. He didn't talk to me in ghetto-speak but enunciated his words carefully in deference to my skin color and generic education. I, in turn, tried very hard to make him comfortable with me and worked at giving a good impression and an open account of myself. Before long he would come to me for all manner of small things he didn't understand. "Hey, Roomie, what do that mean?" he would ask, and I would try to help with whatever it was he wanted to know. On the other hand, with his quick, unobtrusive translations, Zeus was able to help me understand more and more of the Black inmates including Street. My own fear was soon a non-issue in day-to-day dealings with any of the men, and I felt more at ease with even the most obtuse of the younger prisoners, white or Black. Pretty soon, I became a better listener, and they began to trust me a little.
One evening after lights out, Zeus and I were sitting on our bunks talking and Street came down to get a drink of water at the fountain in front of our cubicle. He stood there for a moment and then, out of the blue, began to tell us his story. Although he was addressing Zeus, it seemed important to him that I listen. He began to slow his speech and pronounce his consonants with deliberate care so that I could more easily understand. In his whole life, no white man had ever mattered much to Street, so I took it as a compliment that he would choose me to open up to. I was very careful not to interrupt and to display all the right emotions at the proper time. In the end, I was moved. What emerged was a painful allegory of the federal system as told by one of its victims. Here is his story.
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