Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison
Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison
Descarga (epub, 645 KB)
Send-to-Kindle or Email
EPUB, 338 KB
EPUB, 1.13 MB
Copyright © 2013, 2016 by Drop a Gem Publishing, LLC
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Convergent Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
CONVERGENT BOOKS and its open book colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Originally published by Drop a Gem Publishing, LLC, in different form, in 2013. Selected material originally appeared on the author’s blog at medium.com/@shakasenghor.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.
eBook ISBN 9781101907306
Cover design by Christopher Brand
Cover photograph by Northbound Films
About the Author
To Ebony, thank you for everything you do to support
my dream and vision. You are my rock, and I deeply appreciate you for being the rare jewel of a woman that you are.
You truly are my everything, and it’s an honor to be sharing
this journey with you.
To my children Lakeisha Todd, James Angelo White II, and
Sekou Senghor, I love you more than words can express.
To my parents James and Marie White and Ronald (RIP) and Arlene Howard, thank you for your love and support.
To my brothers on lockdown who are working hard
to make a difference and transform their lives,
you inspire and motivate me.
To the victims of crimes throughout the world,
your pain will never be forgotten.
The unexamined life is not worth living.
—Socrates, Plato’s Apology
On July 1, 2012, the MIT Media Lab announced that we would be creating an Innovators Guild—a team of scholars, executives, and designers that would go to communities around the world using the power of innovation to help people. Our first focus was Detroit.
Three weeks later the Knight Foundation, which was funding our trip, organized a meeting with the city’s community leaders. We gave presentations about MIT and the Media Lab and about how we had come to Detroit to explore how we could create innovative solutions to long-standing problems.
Then, during the Q&A, a tough-looking Black man with dreadlocks stood up. “Many well-meaning people come to Detroit with a missionary mentality,” he said. “Then they get discouraged when they realize just how tough our problems are. If you want to make a real impact, you have to go out among the people in the communities and not buy into the romanticized view of Detroit based on midtown and downtown.” Although there were other comments expressing skepticism toward our efforts, this one stood out. We realized we were staring reality in the face.
After the meeting, the man introduced himself as Shaka. He said that if we were willing he would show us the real Detroit. We immediately accepted the offer. On our next trip, we avoided downtown altogether and went straight to Brightmoor on Detroit’s West Side, a neighborhood full of burned-out, vacant homes and liquor stores fronted with bulletproof glass. Shaka told us stories that had none of the romance, but they were true.
We quickly realized that we couldn’t just fly in, do good, and go home. We needed to introduce ourselves to the community, learn about the people who lived there, and build trust. If we wanted to have a positive impact on Detroit, we had to be there for the long haul.
In the following weeks, my team from the Media Lab and creatives from the design firm IDEO flew to Detroit, working with Shaka and others to come up with a plan for how we might be able to join the community and work together. We then invited Shaka and the Detroit team to the MIT Media Lab to meet students and faculty and see and learn about what we do. Bonds began forming between the Lab and the Detroiters.
In October, we all converged on Detroit, setting up a base at the headquarters of OmniCorpDetroit, a vital local organization. We were an eclectic group of community leaders, chief innovation officers, students, and designers. Each team started working on projects ranging from solving the streetlight issue to urban farming. Shaka emerged as our natural leader, keeping the energy high and the teams working together.
By the end of an insanely productive three days, I had a plan. I would make Shaka an MIT Media Lab Fellow. He’d be our man in Detroit—our connection to the incredibly important world he represents. Since then, Shaka and the Media Lab team have started to work together extensively, and Shaka continues to inspire and challenge us.
In December, Shaka e-mailed me that he had a rough draft of his memoirs and asked if I was interested in reading it. I read the entire book in two sittings. Shaka is, among his other talents, an amazing storyteller. The book is funny and moving and astute, and by the end I felt as if I had been the one convicted of murder, as if I’d spent seven years in the hole, and gone through the dramatic transformation from angry, scared young boy to enlightened teacher and leader.
And by the end, I could begin to see how a generation of bright children full of promise are channeled into a system that sees them as little more than felons-in-waiting. Yet again, Shaka has inspired me to help right the wrongs, in this instance by helping him write the wrongs.
The book may be about Shaka’s past, but it points to a future in which we all take the next step to build a more just society.
Director, MIT Media Lab
OAKS CORRECTIONAL FACILITY
I stared at the mirror, watching the tears roll slowly down my face, each drop carrying the pain of my childhood. I was on my second year of a four-and-a-half-year stint in solitary confinement. It was my deepest moment of reflection, a sacred moment of clarity when I came face-to-face with true forgiveness.
I walked over to the steel sink-toilet combo that was next to my cell door. The cell was spartan in appearance, with a brick slab and a plastic green mattress for a bed. The mirror was a sheet of polished steel, because in prison they didn’t allow real mirrors.
I stared at the battle-scarred image in front of me and knew I needed to begin the long, tedious process of making peace with my past. I opened up deep wounds that had been stuffed with the gauze of anger and self-hatred. I forgave all of the people who had teased me in my childhood, making fun of my jack-o’-lantern-sized head by calling me Pumpkin. I forgave everyone who had made fun of my gap-toothed smile. I ran my hands through my long dreadlocks and forgave everyone who ever called me nappy-headed, making me feel insecure about the crown my Creator had bestowed upon me. The words from my past ricocheted around in my mind like errant bullets, hurting no less now than they had back then.
I forgave my mother for all of the ass whoppings she gave me, remembering the fire of the belt cutting into my tender flesh. I forgave her for all of the moments she wasn’t there when I needed her. I forgave the guy who shot me when I was seventeen and made me feel like I had to carry a gun. I forgave my siblings and homies for abandoning me at the lowest point in my life.
The levees broke, and I began sobbing harder than I ever had before. But I could also feel a deep, abiding peace rushing over the toxic hatred from my past.
People had told me about the healing power of forgiveness, but it had taken me until now to understand that forgiveness wasn’t only about letting other people off the hook. It was about me. I had to free myself from the anger, fear, and hurt of my past. I had to forgive the people I hated. Most important, I had to forgive myself.
This was one of the hardest things I had ever done, because I didn’t feel I was worthy of forgiveness. I was a murderer. Guilt from the destruction and disappointment I had caused clung to me like a sweaty T-shirt, but I knew in my heart that if I wanted to make things right with others, I had to make them right with myself. In order to feel like I was capable of forgiving them, I had to release myself from the burden of all the hurt I had brought into the world.
James Allen’s book As a Man Thinketh had helped me to see that I was responsible for my thoughts and the feelings that they produced. It didn’t matter what other people had done to me; ultimately, I was responsible for my anger, and for the actions that I took in response to it.
All of which brought me to this moment, staring at a broken man’s face in the scratched steel mirror of Cell 211, in the solitary confinement wing of a correctional facility in western Michigan. It was the beginning of a journey that would culminate eight years later, when I wrote a letter to the man I had killed.
By then, I was finishing up a therapy course for violent offenders and preparing to see the parole board for the second time, to make the case for my release. But I realized that if I wanted to move forward with my life, there was one more thing I needed to do. I needed to come to terms with the man I had taken out of this world. (Out of respect to my victim’s family and their privacy, I have changed his name.)
Dear Mr. Clarke
I am writing this letter to share with you what has been on my mind and heart for several years now. For the last few nights, I have stayed awake writing this letter in my head, and each time, I found myself mentally balling up the pages because I couldn’t find the right words to convey how deeply sorry I am for causing your death. Somehow, no matter what words I use, saying I am sorry for robbing you and your family of your life seems too small of a gesture.
Every time I think back to that night, I find myself asking the question, “Why didn’t I just walk away?” When I finally found the answer, I understood for the first time the true meaning of the words “weakness” and “strength.” See, all my life, I had confused their meaning. I thought walking away from an argument would make me appear weak and make me a loser. But in reality, it takes strength to walk away from conflict. Back then, I didn’t have that strength. I was afraid, and I allowed my fears to dictate my actions. Sixteen months prior to the night I shot you, I too was shot in a similar incident. I survived, but I became consumed by fear and paranoia. I thought it could happen again at any given moment. I became desperately angry, because anger was the only emotion that could conceal the fear.
When you and I encountered each other, I was already programmed to kill. I had convinced myself that it was better to shoot than to be shot; that the handgun in my pocket was the only thing that could protect me. In my mind, it was easier to shoot than to walk away, and I have spent the last 17 years learning just how wrong I was.
For years, I blamed you for making me mad enough to shoot you. Now I realize that no one can make me feel anything I don’t want to feel. I blamed your death on the fact that we were both intoxicated, but now I recognize that the instinct to shoot anyone I perceived as a threat had been planted long before we met. Even though I pled guilty in court, I blamed everything and everyone but myself. Pleading guilty was easy because I knew I had violated the law, but it didn’t mean I was taking full responsibility for having caused your death.
It wasn’t until I was ten years into serving my sentence that I began seeing things differently. My healing started when I learned to begin forgiving myself for the wrongs I had committed. However the real change started a year later, when my eleven-year-old son sent me a letter that said he had found out the real reason I was in prison. Knowing my son would see me as a murderer made me face up to the fact that my thinking and my choices had caused your death and led to me losing my freedom.
Today, when I look back, I wish I could change the past. I wish I could restore your life so that your children could have known the safety and security of having their father in the house. I wish I could bring you back to life so that your wife could enjoy the presence of her husband and your parents could see you reaching for your dreams.
I’m sorry. Please forgive me.
I know that saying I’m sorry can never restore your life. But I believe in the power of atonement, and I have taken responsibility for my actions by dedicating my life and talents to making amends for the pain I have brought into this world. For the last five years, I have been actively involved with anti-violence organizations that work with at-risk youth. I have used my talent as a writer to share my story—our story—so that others may learn from it and make better choices with their own lives. It doesn’t change what I did, but I want you to know that your life was not, and will not be, in vain.
I first learned about the power of forgiveness from your godmother, Mrs. Weaver, who started writing me five years into my sentence. She wanted to know what had happened that night—why I had shot and killed you. It’s one of the hardest questions I’ve ever had to answer, but I knew that I owed your family closure. I told Mrs. Weaver about our dispute, leaving out the fact that it was started by a drug transaction because I didn’t feel that it was necessary for them to be exposed to that part of your life. I told her that you didn’t deserve it; that I wished more than anything else in the world that I could change what happened on that night.
She wrote back two weeks later. She said that she forgave me and encouraged me to seek God’s forgiveness, and I took her words to heart. It would be five long years before I reached the point when I could truly forgive myself. But I did, and today, I can’t help but wonder if your godmother’s care was the first real step in my transformation.
I know that even though I have evolved and taken the necessary steps to right my wrongs, I still have a lot of work to do. But each day I am blessed with life, I know that I now have the will to live with meaning and purpose.
WAYNE COUNTY JAIL
September 11, 1991
The sound of sirens burst through the quiet morning air, startling me awake. I crawled from beneath the scratchy wool blanket, rose to my feet, and approached the door to my cell, where a chubby roach was navigating its way across the cold, gray bars. I hollered down the tier, trying to figure out what was going on.
“Yo, Satan, what the fuck they hit the siren for?” I asked, wiping the crust from the corner of my eyes.
Gigolo, whom everyone called Satan, was one of the few cats I spoke to on a regular basis. In jail, friendliness was frowned upon, so I didn’t talk to anyone unless we had something in common beyond being locked up. Gigolo and I were from different cities, but we had grown up in similar environments and had formed a bond during the time I’d been in county jail.
“I don’t know, homie,” Gigolo yelled back from a few cells down. “You know how they do around here. They probably hate that they ass can’t get no sleep, so they fucking with us.” A few other inmates laughed.
Gigolo’s statement expressed the sentiment of most of the cats on lockdown. We had come to believe that the deputies would do anything they could to make our stay as unbearable as possible. They would bang their keys on the bars, turn the bright lights on in the middle of the night, and hold loud conversations during hours when we were trying to sleep. But if they had intended for this to intimidate us, it didn’t work. Most of us had come from environments where disrespect, violence, and abuse were the norm. We were used to it—and besides, you can’t change a person for the better by treating him or her like an animal. The way I see it, you get out of people what you put into them, so the officers were only making their jobs harder.
Another inmate called from farther down the tier. “They might be coming to get y’all and take y’all to different county jails,” he yelled.
“Come get us for what?” Gigolo asked, a bit irritated.
“Man, they take that escape shit serious. Ain’t nobody tried to pull off that shit y’all just tried,” he said, alluding to the escape attempt that had landed Gigolo and me in the hole.
Another voice hollered from the end of the tier. “Bitch ass nigga, mind your business ’cause you speaking on shit you don’t even know about. You working with the police or something, saying some shit like that? You don’t know if them brothers tried to escape or not. You trying to get niggas indicted around this bitch?” Everyone burst into laughter.
“Man, I was just saying,” the first inmate stammered.
“That’s the problem now, so shut the fuck up!” This led to more laughter.
I sat on the corner of my bunk and listened to the inmates argue back and forth as the sirens continued to blare. It felt odd, listening to two strangers speak with so much authority about something I had been accused of doing. It had been a week since Gigolo, Gee, White Boy, Jabo, and I were placed in the hole and charged with attempting to escape from the sixth floor of the Wayne County Jail. With no evidence other than a confidential statement made by another inmate, we were found guilty and sentenced to fifteen days in solitary confinement.
Two days after being thrown in the hole, we were each called out by an officer from the Internal Affairs Division. He threatened us with lengthy sentences and then promised us the world if we snitched on one another. One by one, we refused to answer any questions regarding the escape attempt, and the matter was dropped as far as Internal Affairs was concerned. But the Wayne County hearing officer, who was basically an internal, autonomous judge and jury, found us guilty. It was an irony that vexed us to no end. In jail and in prison, when a confidential informant makes a statement against an inmate, it’s enough to find him or her guilty of any charge. But when we have witnesses who are capable of exonerating us, their testimony is no good.
The Wayne County Sherriff’s Office had suffered great embarrassment from our almost-successful escape attempt, but it turned out that the sirens had been sounded for a much more sinister occasion.
After half an hour of blaring, the siren suddenly cut off, leaving an eerie silence in its wake. Within moments, we could hear keys jingling and the urgent crackling of deputies’ radios. For us, those noises would become the soundtrack of chaos.
A team of deputies, better known as the goon squad, burst through the door of our tier and began snatching us out of our cells, one at a time. The officers wore an assortment of expressions: astonished, sad, angry. The officer who came to remove me was one of the few we all considered cool. Unlike most guards, who thought it was their personal duty to add to our misery, he understood that for the most part we were all miserable, and he would come to work cracking jokes and talking shit to lighten the mood. Some days, he would leave the entrance door to our tier cracked and turn on the radio to FM 98, Detroit’s hip-hop and R & B station. It was a small gesture, but it went a long way to break up the monotony of the hole.
But today was different. When he ordered me to step out of my cell, he had a look of total disbelief on his face. I could sense that something was seriously wrong, so I asked him what was going on. He hesitated before he spoke.
“Somebody shot and killed Sergeant Dickerson,” he responded solemnly.
“Do they think we had something to do with it?” I asked, trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.
“No,” he whispered as another officer approached with handcuffs. “They’re just taking precautions.”
It wasn’t until later that we would find out what had happened, and when we did, we were as astounded as the officers. By the administration’s account, an inmate had attempted to escape by smuggling a gun into the county jail. Allegedly, he had thrown a handmade rope out of the window and gotten someone on the street below to tie a gun to it. Then, later that day, he was on his way to court when he pulled out the gun in an attempt to liberate himself. A scuffle ensued, and when the dust settled, Officer Dickerson lay dead.
I had been at Wayne County Jail for six weeks, following my arrest and conviction for second-degree murder. In those six weeks, I had witnessed everything from rape and robbery to murder, and this was one more reminder that inmates had no shortage of creativity when it came to inflicting harm on other men. Little did I know, this was just beginning my education in the true meaning of violence.
Six weeks earlier
Six weeks earlier I was sitting in a dingy cell at the police headquarters on Beaubien. It was my second arrest as a young adult, and by far the most serious in my short career as a street hustler. The days of going to the precinct or youth home only to be let right back out were over. This wasn’t a drug rap or assault charge—the kind of thing I was used to getting into. This time, it was murder.
One month after my nineteenth birthday, I had officially graduated to the big leagues. There would be no more slaps on the wrist or warnings from an irate judge, no bailouts from a counselor who saw potential in me. If I lost this one, it could cost me the rest of my life in prison, but that was a reality that my young mind wasn’t ready to accept.
The sound of bars rattling made me snap to attention. I removed the shirt that had been covering my head, and a light-skinned officer was standing at the cell bars with a no-nonsense expression on his face.
“Get up and get dressed,” he barked. “You’re being transferred to the county jail.” He turned and walked down the tier, repeating the same order to a handful of other unfortunate souls.
“Wayne County Jail”: three words every hustler and street thug in Detroit feared hearing. The stories of violence, corruption, and desperation in WCJ were legendary. The seven-story building on St. Antoine looked inconspicuous enough, but inside, the law of the jungle prevailed. In the early eighties, during the heyday of Young Boys Incorporated—one of Detroit’s first major drug rings—the jail’s reputation for violence skyrocketed. Among the tiers named after characters from the Transformers TV show, few inmates could count themselves safe from unprovoked attacks, mostly from other inmates. From robberies to beatings and rape, anyone entering was considered fair game.
I pulled myself up from the small, cramped bunk, slipped into my shoes, and walked over to the bars. I looked out onto the dusty tier as I slipped on the shirt I had been wearing for the last three days. I smelled like I had been sleeping in a garbage Dumpster.
The sound of clanking metal shot down the hall as officers opened and shut the cells of other inmates, herding the guys down the tier and into a holding cell, in preparation for their transfer to the county jail.
Soon, it was my turn. The officer opened my cell, and I shuffled down the hallway slowly, holding up my shorts and doing my best not to lose my shoes. (They had taken my belt and shoelaces when I entered the precinct—their way of making sure we didn’t hang ourselves or choke someone else.) When I reached the intake desk, they returned my shoelaces, belt, and the knot of money that had been in my pocket when they arrested me. The thick wad of hundred- and twenty-dollar bills was a reminder of the city streets I had left behind, and the weight of it in my hand made a current of excitement shoot through my body. But the feeling soon evaporated as I realized I might never see the streets of Detroit again.
At the end of the tier, an officer pushed me inside the holding pen, where a dozen or so other inmates were waiting. Most of them were in their early to mid-twenties, and from the looks on their faces, it was clear that they were thinking the same thing I was thinking. How had our lives come to this? And what would we find waiting for us on the other side?
As I stood there in cuffs, my thoughts wandered back to my childhood. I thought about the first time my mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had told her that I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to help people get better, to mend their broken bones. I wanted to be the kind of doctor who gave children balloons and lollipops anytime they had to get a shot.
But the image of me with a white coat and a stethoscope faded as my thoughts returned to the present. I stood with my back against the wall of the dingy pen, wondering if there might still be a way out of this. All I needed was one more shot at freedom, one more chance to turn my life around.
It wasn’t the first time I had told myself that. There was the time I was charged with felonious assault and drug possession and sent to the Wayne County Youth Home. I promised my father that I would turn my life around when I got out, and for a few months, I did. I went off to Job Corps in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, got my GED, and started working as a carpenter. But I hadn’t relinquished my old ways. The entire time I was there, I sold six-dollar joints and ran a loan-sharking ring. When I was caught, I was sent back home on the next Greyhound, to my father’s great disappointment.
Then there was the case I had just beaten in Monroe County. I had been driving back from one of my drug-selling trips to Ohio with a car full of cash and a trunk full of guns when a policeman pulled us over and arrested us for receiving and concealing stolen property. After the arrest, I told myself that this was it. I was tired of the streets and all that came with them. But as soon as we beat the case and returned to Detroit, it was business as usual.
That was the routine. As long as there was a threat to my freedom, I acted like I was ready to change, but the moment I got free, I didn’t care anymore. It would take ten years and a lot misfortune for me to understand that real change comes only when you are completely and thoroughly disgusted with your actions and the consequences that they produce. As the Honorable Elijah Muhammad once said, “One hundred percent dissatisfaction brings about one hundred percent change.” And in 1991, I was only about 40 percent dissatisfied.
I loved living in the streets. I loved the fast money, fast cars, and fast women. Above all, I loved the reputation I had earned in the ’hood. People knew me as a crazy motherfucker who would shoot as soon as I detected the slightest threat to me and my crew. When I drove or walked around the ’hood, people acknowledged me out of fear or respect, and that was the greatest feeling in the world. It was the one thing that made me feel like I was somebody, like I had power, like I had control over my life. I was the embodiment of what noted Black psychologist Amos Wilson argued: that the young Black male has perfected the art of being the best at being the worst.
Back in the holding pen, I was pulled out of my train of thought by the feeling that I was being watched. Sure enough, when I looked up, a tall, slim guy was staring at me. I returned his stare, then went over to ask if he had a problem. That’s what you did in the ’hood, jail, and the prison yard. If you and another male exchanged glances, you’d better be up to the challenge, or you would be considered weak. And in our world, the weak became prey.
When I walked up to the guy, a smile creased his face, and he told me he remembered me from over on a street named Savannah, where my sister had lived back in the day. His name was Jimmy, but I barely recognized him because he had grown several inches since I had last seen him. We kicked it about the old neighborhood for a minute, then he told me that he had overheard the officers talking about my charges. They were disturbed that such a violent act could have been committed by such a young kid.
Some of the older brothers nearby began to sidle up, listening to snippets of our conversation. They were intrigued by my youthfulness and the callous manner in which I boasted about how I was going to beat a murder rap. In a twisted way, all of this attention made me feel like a celebrity.
This kind of thinking is common among marginalized Black and Latino males. In the ’hood, the villain is the hero, the guy people look up to. So we hang out in front of liquor stores with plastic bags in our boxers and semiautomatics tucked into our waistbands, living out our version of the American dream.
Jimmy and I continued to talk about the old days until two deputies came and took us away. They herded us out of the building and into a white Wayne County Sheriff’s van along with eight other inmates. On the drive to the jail, most of us grew quiet and looked down at the van’s metal floor. We all felt the same nervous energy, but we kept it concealed under the stoic masks we had worn standing on the corners in our respective ’hoods. From the streets of Detroit to the organized-crime families of Chicago, from the dirty South to the gang-infested neighborhoods of L.A. and New York, we all wear the mask. It is the one that says, “I am fearless, I don’t care, and I will destroy anything in my path, including myself.” But all of us know that beneath this mask is a vulnerable boy whose heart has turned cold.
THE NAUSEATING SMELL of spoiled ass, funky armpits, and crusty socks punched me in the nose as soon as I stepped into the cramped bullpen at Wayne County Jail, where intake processing was underway. The stench made my eyes water, and the antiquated ventilation system was doing nothing to help. Before me was a hodgepodge of inmates from all walks of life. I saw veterans of lockdown who had grown accustomed to life behind bars. I saw heroin addicts sprawled across the hardwood benches and urine-soaked floors—some curled in a fetal position, others shaking like scared puppies as they fought the pain of withdrawal. And I saw a few young brothers like me, wide-eyed and waiting for whatever would come next.
Every ten minutes or so, deputies would call another three or four guys into a room and make them exchange their street clothes for the vomit-green uniforms of the jail. Meanwhile, I leaned against the wall in the back, listening to the inmates tell stories—stories in which the storyteller always happened to be the hero. To hear these guys talk, no one here was an addict, and no one was a cheat or a failure. They were badass drug lords. They were the ruthless titans of whole cities who didn’t have a worry in the world.
There’s a reason why so many inmates use storytelling as a coping tool. Being in prison and stripped of your freedom is painful and degrading, and each day is a fight to maintain your sanity. In order to cope, some inmates make up entirely different lives for themselves, saying anything that might help them seem different or one notch above the rest of us poor, wretched souls. Some have perfected the art of bullshit to the point where they could probably convince George W. Bush that he was Black and only made it through college because of affirmative action.
As I listened to the tales going around the room, I would have traded anything to be back in the ’hood, hustling and drinking with my homeboys. But my reverie was soon interrupted by the sound of an officer calling my name. It was my turn to get dressed out in Wayne County’s finest.
I stepped into the hallway with a handful of other inmates and followed the deputy to the dress-out room, which smelled like an ass had just exploded. As I entered, I nearly buckled under the stench.
We were all placed in a line and told to strip. The deputies ordered us to hand them our clothes one article at a time, and when we did, they shook each item methodically, searching for contraband.
Once we had stripped naked, we were ordered to raise our hands above our heads, then lift up our nuts, turn around, and spread our ass cheeks. It was then that I understood why the room had such a horrible smell—it must have been subjected to the exposure of thousands of unwashed assholes over the years. (And I’m not just talking about the officers.)
Soon enough, I was handed my county greens and returned the underwear and socks I had been wearing for days. They were the only personal clothing items we were allowed to keep, and putting them back on reminded me of how much of my life I had forfeited. But the chipping away at my humanity had just begun. Like Dante journeying through the inferno, my life would forever be changed by the things I would witness and take part in—the violence of oppressed against oppressor, predator against prey, and the insane against the criminally insane.
The slamming of the steel doors was a signal that the iron monster had once again been fed. My journey began.
East Side Detroit
1986, five years earlier
“Come up off that shit, li’l nigga!” Tiny raged, holding the nickel-plated pistol to my head.
My heart fluttered like the broken wings of a bird. I was terrified. The cold, steel barrel pressing into my temple pressed into my consciousness a colder reality—at fourteen, I was about to die. The odor of the streets poured from Tiny’s body, mingling with the sickly sweet smell of Wild Irish Rose wine, and I struggled to breathe as Tone, Tiny’s partner-in-crime, wrapped his crusty arm around my neck. Tiny gripped the gun with his right hand, which was bloated with open sores that bulged with pools of festering, greenish-brown pus. He was a heroin addict and a crackhead, a dangerous combination in a stickup man.
On the streets, it was a well-known fact that dope fiends wouldn’t hesitate to kill in order to get their next fix. When crack was added to the mixture in the 1980s, it gave birth to the super-predators who roamed inner-city jungles all around the country, filling the newspapers with stories of unspeakable violence.
The fact that I was young enough to be these guys’ son didn’t matter to them. All they cared about was the small, white rocks concealed in my underwear. Murdering a child would have been all in a day’s work if that’s what it took for them to feed their addiction.
Only weeks into my short career as a drug dealer, I had made several crucial mistakes. For one, I had let Tiny and Tone convince me to come outside the safety of the crack house. I had been crazy to trust someone who was one of many victims of the most potently addictive drug at the time, and I hadn’t paid attention to my gut instinct, which whispered Danger, Danger, Danger. Now I was at the mercy of two desperate men, too numb with fear to scream or plead for my life.
When the initial shock passed, I went into survival mode. I retrieved the plastic bag from my underwear and handed it to Tiny. He then reached into one of my pockets and retrieved a small knot of cash, nearly ripping my pocket off in the process. He stuffed the crack and the money into his pocket and gave Tone the signal to let me go.
I knew what would come next. They were going to shoot me and push me down the basement steps. A week later, one of the tenants would find my decomposed body when the smell became too strong to ignore. I could see the headline of the Detroit News: 14-YEAR-OLD FOUND DEAD IN CRACK HOUSE ON JEFFERSON AND CHALMERS.
But instead, Tiny led me to the door of the building, prodding me forward with his pistol. “Get your punk ass away from here,” he ordered, shoving me out of the door and onto the cracked sidewalk of Chalmers Street.
A flood of emotions overtook me. I was relieved that I hadn’t been killed, but my thin teenaged body trembled with fear as I walked to the Coney Island restaurant on the corner of Chalmers and Jefferson. I was disoriented, unclear as to what I should do. I felt like everyone in the restaurant could sense what had just happened to me. I looked from one unfriendly face to the next, hoping that someone would see the fragile child I was. But all they saw was a designer-clad kid trying to act grown before his time. As I look back on that day, I wonder if what I read as angry glares was really the puzzled faces of people wondering why I didn’t have my ass in school.
I wanted someone in that restaurant to stand up and rescue me from the streets. I wanted someone to see a lovable, smart little boy who was hurting inside. I wanted to cry out, but I knew I couldn’t because I had vowed never to allow anyone to make or see me cry again. Deep down, I was ashamed of my own fear.
I left the restaurant and walked a couple of blocks, stopping at a phone booth on Kercherval. By the time I dialed my boss’s pager, I had convinced myself that anger was the only emotion I felt. There was no way I was going to tell Miko I was scared. I couldn’t let anyone in our crew know that the prospect of dying in a urine-soaked hallway didn’t sit well with my young mind.
Death wasn’t something I had bargained for when I decided to sell dope. I had thought about other things: the money I would make, and all of the clothes I could buy with it. I thought about being able to buy a Honda Elite 150 with a state-of-the-art stereo system. I thought about being able to buy happiness, love, and a safe place to lay my head, but I hadn’t thought about the other side of the bargain—the possibility that I could die or forfeit my freedom over a thousand-dollar bag of rocks.
Miko returned my call and told me to meet him back at the original spot on Marlborough and Jefferson, the large white house I had come to loathe. When I got there, the front door was ajar and the smell of decay poured out of every crack. The house had always made me uncomfortable, not in the least because the narcotics unit had made a daily routine of parking a couple of houses down. Some days, they were bold enough to pull directly in front of the spot.
The other reason I didn’t like the house on Marlborough was that it was unfit for human habitation. The paint was peeling, and the roof sagged as though it was ready to cave in. The bathtub was full of shit, piss, and dirty clothes. The toilet overflowed with wrappers from the nearby Coney Island, and roaches crawled across the floors and walls in droves. The whole scene was depressing, and the thick stench made me nauseous. In many ways, the house on Marlborough reflected the mentality of the people in the streets. Little did I know, this same sickness was soaking into my pores.
I was nervous as I sat on the porch waiting for Miko to arrive. The sound of rustling came from an overgrown grass lot next door, and I jumped up, ready to fight. But when I turned around, I saw that it was only a stray mutt foraging through the garbage for something to eat. As I calmed my nerves, my thoughts turned to the day I left my mother’s house and the chain of events that had brought me here.
MY PARENTS’ MARRIAGE deteriorated piece by piece, like an arthritic knee. They would separate and get back together, then separate and get back together again, each reunion giving me a glimmer of hope that things would go back to how they used to be. Their marriage had never been perfect, but our house had always been full of family, food, and great music, and I yearned for those days when my parents were together and happy.
The first time my mom and dad separated, they called me and my three sisters into the kitchen of our nicely kept brick home on Camden Street. I knew something was amiss, but my eleven-year-old mind was not prepared for the devastating news that would come.
When I was growing up, my parents argued like I imagined any other couple did. But they never berated each other, and their fights never turned physical. So when they announced that they were separating, it stunned us into silence.
“You know things haven’t been going that good between me and your father,” I recall my mother saying, her voice cracking as she spoke. “So we have decided that it’s best for us to separate.”
I looked at my father for an answer. The corner of his mouth trembled, and his eyes watered as he looked back at me. Then he spoke.
“Even though things aren’t working out between me and your mother, I will always be y’all father,” he said, fighting back tears.
I didn’t understand what they were talking about. Did separation mean that he would be sleeping on the couch like he did sometimes after they argued? Did it mean he would go and spend a couple of nights at his best friend Clark’s house, or come to live upstairs with us? Never did I consider the alternative: my father living in a house that wasn’t ours.
When he finally explained that he would be moving to a place in Highland Park that coming weekend, all kinds of thoughts began flowing through my young mind—thoughts about my father and all that he meant to our household. I thought about the holidays and how he would organize us kids to put up the Christmas tree. I thought about how he would give us an allowance every other Saturday so that we could go skating at Royal Skateland. I thought about the sound of him pulling into the driveway each night at approximately 11:45 p.m. when he got off of work.
I was scared. It was as though everything that symbolized family stability had been sucked out of the room. My mother explained that my sisters and I would spend the summer, winter break, holiday vacations, and weekends at my father’s, and we would go to school from her house. The words “her house” stuck in my mind, driving home the reality that our house was no longer “ours.” And without my father residing with us full-time, her house could never be the warm, loving home we had once shared.
My father called me to join him downstairs in the basement. As I walked down the steps, my thoughts turned to the many ways our home had changed over the years. I remembered watching my father and uncles hang paneling on the walls while my mother and aunts painted each room, the sounds of Parliament Funkadelic blaring throughout the house. Our home was family central, and every one of my aunts, uncles, and cousins had lived with us at some point. But after that day, our family would never be the same again.
We began packing, and my father outlined what my responsibilities would be, now that he was leaving. He told me that I would have to cut the grass and wash the car for my mother. He told me that I was responsible for my younger sisters, who were three and eight years old at the time, and that I had to maintain my honor-roll status at school. We packed some of his records into orange and blue milk crates, each album cover conjuring up visions of the house parties that my parents had thrown in our basement. As he rifled through records by the Isley Brothers, the Ohio Players, the O’Jays, and Marvin Gaye, I took in the images of Afros, platform shoes, and scantily clad women. I thought about my uncle John rousing me from my sleep so that I could come and dance to the sounds of seventies funk while my aunts and uncles cheered me on. The taste of Schlitz Malt Liquor came creeping back as I remembered how my uncle Chris or uncle Keith would sneak me a li’l sip to make sure I went right back to sleep when the dancing was over.
I looked at my father as he stared absently at one of the albums. I could sense that he was experiencing the same, deep feeling of sadness. When he looked back up, his eyes were red, and the tears began flowing freely. He hugged me tight and sobbed quietly. His beard scratched my face, the smell of his cologne drifting up my nose as his body heaved with the pain of seeing his family torn apart. We both cried, clinging tightly to each other.
Thinking back, those tears might be the best gift my father has ever given me. He showed me that real men cry, especially when they love deeply.
We packed and cried, and packed and cried, until the crying gave way to laughter and joking. When we were done in the basement, he assured me that he would always be there for me no matter what. To this day, he has never let me down.
OVER THE COURSE of the weekend, we moved my father’s belongings to his new home on Pasadena Street in Highland Park. It felt like closure, but little did I know that that weekend would mark the beginning of an emotional roller-coaster ride for our family. After being separated for a little over a year, my parents decided to get back together.
When my parents told us they were reuniting, I was overjoyed. I imagined life returning to normal, and at first, it did. But after a few months, I noticed that my father had begun sleeping on the couch, like he had done before the first time he and my mother separated. They would go days without speaking to each other, and the tender kisses and affection that they had once displayed were replaced with empty stares.
My nights became restless. I stayed up late, waiting for my father to come home from work. I would listen intently when he entered the house, sometimes crawling from my bedroom into the hallway to peek down the stairs into our living room. I held my breath, hoping that instead of looking down to see my father asleep on the couch, I would find the couch empty. But night after night, I was disappointed to see him there, curled up in a ball beneath a blanket. I sensed it was only a matter of time before my parents would be breaking the bad news.
One day, I was playing football in the street with friends when my mother stepped onto the porch and called my name. I took a two-step drop-back, hurled the ball into the air, and yelled, “Terry Bradshaw!” I watched in awe as the ball spiraled down into the outstretched hands of my best friend, Steve, who cradled the cracked leather hide to his chest, ignored the stinging in his hands, and hollered “Lynn Swann!” as he slammed the ball to the ground. Like other kids on the playground, Steve and I believed we were destined for NFL greatness, and we would summon the names of the greats in hopes that it would make us play like them.
But now my mother was calling, and I sulked back to my house. How was I supposed to make it to the NFL if my mother kept breaking up my games to make me run errands? Didn’t she realize I needed to practice? But a little smile crept across my face as I realized she had seen me throw a perfect spiral.
When I entered the house, my mother was on her way upstairs to my bedroom, and my focus immediately shifted from football to my mother’s movements. Something was off—what was it? Maybe I was in trouble for leaving my room in a mess, or maybe the bathroom I shared with my sisters hadn’t been cleaned to her liking.
Her voice cascaded down the stairs as she called my name again. This was the melodious tone of voice that she usually reserved for special occasions, like when we had a house full of company, or when I brought home a good report card.
When I reached my room, she was standing with her back to me, looking at the walls where pictures of my sports heroes and dream cars were taped haphazardly. For a brief moment, I thought she was about to tell me to take them down. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to remove my posters of Tony Dorsett or the ’69 Cutlass 442. But when my mother turned to face me, tears clung to the corners of her eyes. She pulled me close to her, embracing me in a warm hug, and then inhaled deeply before beginning to speak.
“Pumpkin,” she said, using the nickname that my aunt Bebe had given me. “I want you to know, I will always love you no matter what happens. As you know, me and your father have been going through some problems, and we have decided that it’s best for us to separate again.”
I nodded my head to let her know that I understood, but as her words sank in, my heart began to crumble. I couldn’t believe my parents were separating again. They’d promised us that they had fixed things. I had noticed signs of trouble, but that didn’t make it any less painful.
And the bad news didn’t stop there. “You will have to move in with your father this time,” she continued. “I can no longer raise you. You are a young man now, and you will be better off living with your father.” With that, she turned away from me.
Those words shredded my heart. How could a mother give up her child? What was wrong with me that made her not want to keep me?
In that moment, I began erecting an emotional wall to protect me from my parents and any other intruder. I was done listening to them, done spending time with them, and done with letting them touch or talk to me. I was tired of being hurt and confused by two people I loved more than anything in the world.
MY PARENTS RECONCILED a second time a year later, but by then, a chasm had opened up between me and my mother. While living with my father, I started smoking cigarettes and developed a keen interest in girls. Because he worked all day, I was used to being on my own and doing what I wanted. I was fourteen now—no way was I going back to conforming to my mother’s strict rules.
The first weekend I returned home, I stayed out late at a friend’s party. The following morning my mother cursed me out. “Don’t bring your ass in my house again that late,” she yelled. “I’m not your father, and if you don’t like my rules, you can pack your shit and leave.”
Every chance I got, I defied my mother’s authority. It was my way of punishing her for rejecting me. My father tried to rein me in and support her in her efforts to bring me under control, but it was too late. I had developed an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. The way I saw it, if I didn’t care about anything, nothing could hurt me.
My mother responded to this behavior by beating me. I remember her calling me into the bathroom one day when I came home from hanging out with my friends. “Why didn’t you put up the dishes like I told you?” she asked—and before I could form a full sentence in reply, she slapped me in my face so hard I could hear ringing in my ears. She then made me strip naked and began beating me with a thick leather belt until my legs and back were full of welts. Her eyes were wild with anger as she swung the belt wildly up and down, tearing into my flesh.
On Sundays, when we went to church, my mother told me to pray to Jesus, and he would answer all of my prayers. Sometimes it gave me hope that she would change if I prayed, but she never did.
It wasn’t long before I reached my breaking point. At fourteen, I felt I was too old to accept another ass whopping, and having grown physically stronger, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before I lost it and returned the favor for one of my mother’s physical assaults. She made a habit of reminding me that I could leave if I didn’t want to abide by her rules, so one day, I took her up on that offer and left.
Even as I was leaving, I hoped that she would stay up worrying about me like mothers do. I wanted her to go around the neighborhood, searching for me with tears in her eyes. I wanted her to care for my safety and well-being; I wanted her to hurt in the way that I hurt.
But that never happened, so I turned to the streets.
WAYNE COUNTY JAIL
“Man, you ain’t gonna believe this shit.” My bunky turned to me, rolling a cigarette.
“What happened?” I asked, watching his methodical movements.
“This nigga in the bullpen raped a white boy this morning,” he said. He had a puzzled expression on his face, as if he was still trying to make sense of what he had seen.
“Who got raped?” Gigolo asked, approaching our cell door.
“Come on, I’ll tell y’all what went down,” my bunky replied. He exited the cell and led us to the dayroom, where he lit up a cigarette and sat on the table out front. “This morning when we went down to the bullpen to transfer, this nigga named Seven gave this white boy his cereal and donut. We didn’t think nothing of it until we seen Seven talking to him in the back of the bullpen,” he explained as he took another drag of his cigarette.
“What happened, dog?” a guy named Twin asked as he walked up to the table.
“Nigga got fucked in the butt in the bullpen,” someone said. This sent a trickle of nervous laughter around the room.
It was the first time most of us had come face-to-face with one of the most brutal facts of prison life. We sat there in silence as my bunky continued.
“First, Seven asked the white boy how he was going to pay him back for the cereal and donut he had eaten. The white boy told him he thought he had given him the food because he wasn’t hungry and couldn’t take it with him. He said it half-jokingly, which seemed to give Seven some kind of thrill. He moved in close to the white boy, massaging his dick, and said that he knew how the white boy could repay him.”
I could see my bunky getting uncomfortable, but he continued telling us what happened. “A few motherfuckers started making jokes about how nothing in prison was free. But I don’t think they realized how serious Seven was until he put the white boy in a chokehold.”
My bunky took the last puff of his cigarette, then thumped the butt across the dayroom.
“He choked the white boy until his face turned blue and he passed out. I never thought he would take it further than that,” he said with a distant look in his eyes. “But he did. He dropped the white boy on the floor, rolled him onto his stomach, and pulled down his pants.
“He didn’t give a fuck that we were all sitting there,” my bunky said, shaking his head. “He pulled his pants down and started fucking the guy.”
“That’s fucked up,” Gigolo said.
“Why y’all ain’t stop the nigga?” someone asked.
“What the fuck you mean, why we didn’t stop him? Nigga, you know the rules to this shit,” my bunky responded angrily.
“Yeah, fool, you know the rules to this shit,” Gigolo said in my bunky’s defense. “Mind your motherfucking business.”
“What the deputies do?”
“I think they were as shocked as we were. They couldn’t believe he was raping the guy in front of us like there was nothing wrong with it. And the worst part is, the white boy was only going to boot camp.”
“That’s fucked up,” Twin said. “He should sue these slimy motherfuckers for putting him in the bullpen with that crazy nigga in the first place.”
I listened for a little while longer before returning to my cell to think. I had only been in the county jail for two weeks, but I had already learned a great deal. I thought about what it would be like to live the rest of my life around men who were capable of raping another human over something as insignificant as a bowl of cereal or a cigarette. I thought about the psychological breaking point that men in prison reach, and I wondered what kind of mental pressure it would take for me to become a savage, capable of the most reprehensible acts of violence and depravity.
In that moment, I made a promise to myself that I would not leave prison worse than I had entered. I had stood by as adult men and women let drugs strip them of dignity and decency, and I understood the serious nature of the crime I had committed. But I also knew there were some things I would never be capable of, and raping another human being was one of them. Becoming a snitch in order to gain privileges or favor from the guards was another.
Sadly, I would soon learn that not everyone can keep a vow once he finds himself behind bars.
THE COUNTY JAIL’S pecking order was as clear as it was unforgiving. From the lowest of the inmates to the highest reaches of the prison staff, life in jail was a real-life human experiment in the survival of the fittest.
A few days after being processed in, I was transferred to the cellblock where I would stay until I was sent up north to prison. As I stepped through the sliding glass doors onto 6 NW, a cellblock where they housed violent offenders, the dayroom grew silent. The only sound I could hear was the raggedy drone of a television that sat atop a metal table. Before walking the short distance across the room to my assigned cell, I scanned the room of black and brown faces, looking out for enemies from the streets or familiar faces from the ’hood.
It felt like every pair of eyes in the room was boring into me. Out the corner of my eye, I noticed a bald, dark-skinned inmate talking to a brown-skinned brother with a long scar on his face. They were whispering to each other and pausing every couple of seconds to look up at me.
My street senses kicked in. I knew immediately that if I was going to have a problem here, it would start with them. From the way the other inmates reacted to them, it was clear that these guys were at the top of the food chain, and I could sense that others in the room were waiting to see what they would do.
As soon as I saw them sizing me up, I returned their glares, sending a clear message that I wouldn’t hesitate to fight to the death if need be. But I didn’t allow my stare to linger. This was one of the many rules of engagement that I had learned on the streets of Detroit, where staring at someone or stepping on his shoe could get you shot or killed. It was important to let people know that you weren’t a pushover, but it was equally important to communicate that you weren’t a shit starter, either. It was a delicate balance, but it was the difference between life and death.
I entered my assigned cell and tossed my bedroll onto the top bunk. The only thing I wanted more than freedom was sleep and a hot shower. As I looked around the room, I felt a rising sense of panic. The walls felt like they were closing in on me. I couldn’t believe that my life had been reduced to a two-man cell with a toilet. I knew then that I had to figure out how to escape as soon as I could.
A dark-skinned, bald inmate approached my door. I had heard enough to know that the guys on the tier would beat your ass for recreation if there was something they didn’t like about you, so I clenched my fist and prepared to deliver the first blow if he got within arm’s length.
“You smoke?” the inmate asked as he walked past me to the desk in the back of the cell.
“Yeah,” I said, a bit confused, until it dawned on me that this was my cellmate. I had noticed that there were two bunks in the room, but it wasn’t like we went around wearing name tags that said, “Hey, I’m your bunky.”
“You might want to roll one of these up before they lock us down for the night,” he said, passing me a pack of Bugler brand hand-rolled cigarettes as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
I took the pack without knowing what to do with it. I had never rolled my own cigarettes; all I had ever smoked were Newports. I looked at the pack and then back at him as he rolled a thick wad of tobacco into the cigarette paper and left the cell. I followed suit, but my rolling skills were unrefined, and my cigarette came out lopsided.
I stepped out on the rock (our term for the cellblock where we lived) and got a light from the automatic lighter attached to the wall. I inhaled deeply and immediately began choking. The pungent smoke felt like it was ripping my throat to shreds. Everyone laughed as they watched me struggle with the cigarette. It was the worst thing I had ever tasted, but the rush of nicotine felt good, and I was grateful for it.
Moments later, a voice came over the PA system telling us that it was time for lockdown. We returned to the cell, and my bunky introduced himself.
“They call me S,” he said.
“Jay,” I replied with a nod.
“What they got you for?” he asked, leaning back on his bunk.
“Open murder,” I said, studying his face to see his reaction.
“Damn, homie, I hope you beat that motherfucker,” he said, leaning forward. “They hit me on a murder and sentenced me to natural life. But I’m about to give this time back.” His confidence made me believe him.
We talked deep into the night. S had been locked up for over a year, and he gave me some basic rules to follow if I was ever sent to prison. But he said he thought I could beat my case. I didn’t know what he was basing his opinion on, but it gave me hope at a time when hope was the one thing keeping me alive.
I washed my face and upper torso in the sink before hopping onto the bunk. As I lay down, my whole life began rushing through my mind in a violent stream of consciousness. My reality didn’t feel real. I couldn’t believe I was sitting in a cell with a stranger discussing the possibility of me spending the rest of my life in prison. I was supposed to be on my way to college. I was supposed to be following my dream of becoming a doctor—of becoming a healer, not a destroyer.
I thought of my girlfriend, Brenda. We had lived together for half a year, and she was about four months pregnant. I had a daughter from a previous relationship, but the mother hadn’t allowed me to be a part of raising that child. When Brenda told me she was pregnant, I was excited at the thought of being a full-time father for the first time in my life.
A deep sadness engulfed me as I thought about the baby growing inside of Brenda’s womb and the conversation we had the night before I was arrested. I had looked into her eyes and told her that everything would be all right, that we would get away from Detroit and get a fresh start. We would give our child the life we had dreamed of as children.
She laid her head on my chest and looked up at me with tear-filled eyes. I rubbed her belly, where our precious baby was growing.
“Can you feel it?” she asked as she guided my hand. The warmth of her belly coupled with the warmth I felt in my heart made me believe everything would be all right. I couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t be around to see our baby born.
I thought about the embarrassment and disappointment that I knew my father felt over my arrest. I hadn’t spoken with him, my stepmother, or my mother since that night; I had made a decision to live the street life, and I felt like I had to deal with the consequences on my own. I had no idea what it meant to be a parent. No idea how it felt to hurt because you knew your child was hurting. It wasn’t until years later that I would learn about the sleepless, tearful nights that my father endured during the years of my incarceration.
I couldn’t stop the flow of thoughts. I thought about how it felt to fire the shot that ended another man’s life. I thought of all the people who had betrayed me—the best friend who turned me in, and the people I knew who had made statements against me. As soon as I was arrested, my friends from the outside turned their backs on me. I hadn’t been gone a week, and they had already begun stealing my clothes and playing on the little money I had left.
Then I thought about the ultimate betrayal: my betrayal of myself. This was the hardest thought for me to deal with. I had given up on myself when I picked up drugs, alcohol, and guns. In fact, I had never even given myself a chance in the first place. I thought about every teacher and parent who had told me I was wasting my potential and asked me why I was doing it. Hell, even the officers who arrested me asked me why I was wasting my life. The very people who put me in prison believed in me more than I believed in myself.
But none of that mattered here in the county jail, a place that housed the broken dreams of people like me. The only thing that mattered to me was the threat of a life sentence hanging over my head.
As I drifted off to sleep, I could only manage one thought: It can’t end like this.
OVER THE NEXT few weeks in the county jail, I was given a crash course on how to survive behind bars. I learned to barter for food or cigarettes with services like making three-way phone calls for other guys or writing a letter for someone who couldn’t write. I learned that jail wasn’t much different from the streets; it was a power-based environment where the only means of gaining respect were violence and money. Every inmate had to prove himself at some point, and if you had money, you had to prove that you could keep it or find someone who could keep it for you.
Once I was settled in, I called Georgia, a lady from the block who I knew could help me connect with my family. She was like a big sister to me, and I could hear concern in her voice as she asked me about life on the inside. It was through Georgia that I talked to my family and the few friends I had left. She would make three-way calls or have the person I wanted to talk to come by her house.
The first day I called, Georgia went and got Brenda for me. I could hear the worry and the childlike vulnerability in Brenda’s voice, and a wave of guilt surged through me. I had never thought about the fact that by getting locked up, I was also imprisoning everyone who loved or cared about me.
For the first few minutes, we talked about what was going on in the ’hood. We talked about my defense strategy and what I needed to do to beat the case. We also talked about some money issues that she was facing, and I told her that I would talk to a few people to help her out. When I told her the date of my next court appearance, she started crying.
“My stomach is growing, and the baby is kicking,” she said.
“I’ll be home before the baby is born,” I said, my voice barely registering above a whisper.
“I need you here with me right now!” she wailed. “Why does God take everybody I love away from me?”
“I don’t know, baby.”
“You betta get your ass home,” she said. I could tell from her voice that a smile had formed on her tear-streaked face.
Brenda was a tough girl who had grown up in tougher circumstances, yet she had the most beautiful laugh that I had ever known. At the time of my arrest, we had still been getting to know each other. But as I listened to her on the other end of the phone, I realized that I truly loved and cared about her, and there was no way I could leave her out there to fend for herself and our child. She deserved to be taken care of, and she deserved to have the father of her child by her side.
She deserved for me to get out of jail, and I vowed that I would give her what she deserved—or die trying.
AFTER TALKING WITH Brenda, I was emotionally and mentally drained, and the last thing I wanted to do was talk to anyone on the rock. I was walking back to my cell when Twin commented on the call, which he had overheard.
“That nigga Jay just got off the phone sucker stroking,” he said with a laugh.
A few guys laughed at his joke. To openly express your emotions was considered a weakness, so whenever someone showed any feelings toward a female, be it love or anger, they would say he was sucker stroking. Twin was just joking, but I wasn’t in the mood.
“Stay out my business, bitch ass nigga,” I said, turning toward him. It was time to show that I could handle my business.
“Damn, nigga. I was just bullshitting,” he responded. The whole room grew silent.
“You don’t know me like that to be playing, so stay the fuck out my business,” I continued, my anger growing.
But Twin didn’t take the bait. I could tell that he was at a loss for words.
“Come on, homeboy, let that go,” an older cat named L said, guiding me toward my cell.
L was from the Cass Corridor, and he was one of the oldest guys on the rock. All of us respected him, and he was the go-to guy whenever we needed advice. He would sit and talk to us about life, the Bible, and prison. His advice was insightful and articulate, and he was genuine in his concern for us. He had been to prison before, and even when he was on the outside, he was a prisoner to a heavy crack addiction. Like many of the guys who find themselves in the penitentiary, L was at his best in an institutional setting, safe from the temptation of drugs.
When we reached my cell, L came inside and asked me what was going on. I gave him the rundown, and we sat around kicking it about life and the time we were facing. After about half an hour, Twin showed up at the door. He apologized for his comments, and I apologized for snapping on him. We were all going through some tough times, each of us coping in the best way we knew.
AFTER MY DISPUTE with Twin, guys on the rock started looking at me differently. They began to seek me out for advice, and I slowly emerged as a leader. Older inmates sometimes asked for my help with their problems, and they would defer to me when ever a dispute arose. L took this all in and gave me counsel along the way. He later told me that I reminded him of himself at an earlier age. He said that he had always been smart, but could never pull himself away from the allure of the streets and drugs.
Out of all the young guys, I developed the strongest bond with Gigolo, a brother from Inkster. We were a lot alike, except Gigolo liked to fight more than I did, which made a lot of the guys on the rock keep their distance from him.
Every day, Gigolo and I would sit in my cell or Twin’s cell and kick it about life and all the things we missed. Sometimes we would take turns peeking out of the spots in the windows where the paint had peeled away. If you looked at the right angle, you could see outside and catch a glimpse of the courthouse steps and hundreds of people walking by. Looking out that window made it feel like we were stealing a small sliver of freedom.
Each day, at approximately one o’clock, Twin’s girlfriend would come and stand outside where he could see her, a sign of her love for him. During that time, we allowed Twin to have the window to himself. In fact, it was our respect for Twin’s girlfriend that eventually led to one of the first physical conflicts I experienced in jail.
A tall, slim, brown-skinned brother from the East Side had moved onto our rock. He seemed cool, so we allowed him to play cards and shoot ball with us. Over the course of the next week, he started coming to our little counseling sessions in Twin’s cell.
One Saturday morning, we were all sitting around smoking cigarettes and talking about the court dates that some of us had coming up. We had all gone to the law library, but most of the books were torn up or outdated, so we relied heavily on the advice of L (who was familiar with the law from his previous stints in prison) and the advice of our attorneys. After talking about the pros and cons of taking a plea deal, we were getting ready to lock down for the afternoon count when Twin noticed that a picture of his girlfriend was missing. Gigolo, L, and I hadn’t seen it, so we began helping Twin look for the picture.
It was then we realized that the new guy was gone. I shot out of Twin’s cell and raced down to where he was staying. When I got there, his door was closed, and a towel was hanging on the window, to keep people from being able to see inside.
I told him to open the door. “Hold on,” he yelled back. By this time, Twin, Gigolo, and L had come down to the cell. We demanded that the guy open his door, but he told us he was using the bathroom. By now, the rest of the guys on the rock had come to see what all the commotion was about.
I told Gigolo to grab the sheet from his bed and pop the cell door open. We jimmied the lock, and by the time we got in, the guy was flushing the toilet. But even from the edge of the cell, we could see remnants of the picture floating in the water, and in one of the shreds, Twin recognized the dress his girlfriend had been wearing in the photo.
Before the guy could force out an explanation, I punched him in the jaw. I was angry he had violated our trust, and it was time to make him pay. He staggered against the door and tried to cover up as I delivered another punch, knocking him out into the dayroom. Before he could hit the ground, Gigolo and Twin started punching him in the head and face. The guy scrambled to his feet, rushed toward the cellblock door, and started beating on the glass, begging a deputy to rescue him.
His face was bloody and swollen, and L told us to let him be until the deputies came and got him. A deputy we called Tyson came to get the guy. He was one of the few officers who understood and respected us. He knew we had one of the more laid-back rocks and didn’t start shit unless we had a good reason.
When Tyson asked the guy what happened, we looked at one another and started laughing. Twin explained to the deputy that the guy had tried to jack off to the picture, and Tyson began laughing along with us. He turned to the guy and said, “I should send you back in there so they can beat your ass again.”
IN A COUNTY jail known for being a hellhole, we had managed to carve out a decent life for ourselves. But the following week, things took a somber turn as we were reminded of the reason all of us were there in the first place. A laid-back guy named G was the first inmate on our rock to be found guilty on the charges he was facing. He was convicted of posing as a police officer and robbing a couple of drug dealers, who had come to court and testified against him. The night before G went for sentencing, we had stayed up talking about the possibilities and what he hoped for. He knew the charge carried a life sentence, but he thought the judge would give him no more than ten years.
When he returned from sentencing and told us he had been given eighty-five years, we were stunned into silence. Each of us started thinking about the time we were facing. If they had given G eighty-five years for robbery, what would they give me for murder?
Later that night, I was in my cell kicking it with Gigolo and L when G came to the door to tell me he needed to speak with me. Gigolo and L got up and left so the two of us could talk in private. I could tell by the look on G’s face that something was troubling him.
After he pulled the door closed, he lifted up his shirt to reveal a steel pipe concealed in his waistband. “I know how we can get out of here,” he said.
East Side Detroit
I had been out in the hot sun on Newport Street for nearly an hour, trying to hustle up on a few dollars, but I wasn’t having any luck. Each time the wind blew, the stench from my body made my eyes burn. I felt ashamed of my dusty red Levi’s and grungy, days-old T-shirt. My hair was dirty from sleeping on the floor of my friend Ernie’s basement, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had showered or brushed my teeth.
It had been two weeks since I left home.
I watched a short, light-skinned woman leaving the grocery store on the corner of Harper and Newport. Her shopping cart was full of bags, and I wondered if I could convince her to give me something to eat. The only thing I had eaten that day was a piece of buttered toast that Ernie had smuggled me in the morning. By now, my stomach had passed the stage of growling and was barking like a full-grown dog.
When the woman stepped onto the parking lot, I approached her swiftly while her back was turned. She saw me out of the corner of her eye, but before she could protest, I retrieved two of the bags from her grocery cart.
“Allow me to help with these, ma’am,” I said, mustering as much charm as I could.
She turned around, clutching her purse and looking like she was ready to scream. I revealed my yellow, gap-toothed smile and proceeded with the bags to her car, where I waited for her to open the trunk. After a long moment, she relaxed and popped the back hatch, and I began loading each bag into the trunk.
When I was done, she reached into her purse and took her wallet out. “I don’t have much,” she said, pulling two shiny quarters from her purse.
I took them and stuffed them in my pocket, prepared to walk away. But she called me back.
“Here, take this and get you something to eat,” she said. She reached into her purse and pulled out a food stamp that was worth a dollar.
I took it with a smile and rushed inside the grocery store. I grabbed a grape Faygo soda, a bag of Better Made Hot! Chips, and a pack of cookies. When I came out of the store, I checked to make sure the coast was clear, then darted into the alley behind the grocery store. I kneeled down beside the dumpster and ripped open the bag of chips. The stench of rotted food coming from the dumpster wasn’t enough to spoil my appetite, nor were the maggots that were feasting on a pool of reddish liquid next to me. I greedily stuffed handfuls of chips into my mouth and chased each round with a gulp of the sweet, purple soda. I was so hungry, it felt like my stomach would start eating my spine if I didn’t get the food down fast enough.
Once my stomach started filling up, I stood and exited the alley. I knew Ernie would enjoy some of the cookies and the rest of the chips I had in the bag, but I had wanted to make sure I was full before I shared my rations.
My Fila tennis shoes were on their last leg as I walked down Newport toward Wade. I had to walk with my toe curled to keep it from dragging on the ground through the hole in the bottom of my shoe. As I walked past each street, nearing the one where my parents lived, my palms started sweating.
The last thing I wanted was for my mother to see me in this condition. So far, she had been right—moving out was a bad idea. I hadn’t thought through my exit strategy, and by the time I realized it was extremely hard for a child to make it in an adult world, my pride and stubbornness wouldn’t allow me to go back. I didn’t want to hear her say, “I told you so,” and I didn’t want to return to a place where I felt unwanted.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I reached Camden and didn’t see anyone I knew. It was still early, so there weren’t many people out on the block. I looked down toward my mother’s house and saw her Monte Carlo sitting in the driveway. A twinge of sadness shot through my body as I thought about how my life used to be. But I stuffed that feeling back down and kept walking until I reached Wade.
Before I made it to the corner, I could see everyone was out at the house next door to Ernie’s. I groaned inside when I noticed a few of the older guys from my neighborhood hanging out on the porch. It was a ’hood custom for us to crack jokes on one another on the street, and nothing was off-limits. The more uncomfortable the target became, the more the crowd laughed. For the last week or so, I had been on the butt end of jokes about my clothes and hygiene, but the most painful part came at the end of the day, when the older guys cracked jokes about me not having anywhere to go. I felt like a bum. I tried to laugh along with them, thinking it would prove that their words didn’t faze me—but underneath, I was being torn to shreds. There were even moments when I got so angry that I wanted to fight, but that made everyone laugh harder because, at only five-foot-six and 110 pounds, I wasn’t going to beat any of them.
Ernie came to the door and let me in. I handed him the leftover chips and cookies and went straight down into the basement, where a mix tape was playing on Ernie’s boom box. A few minutes later, my friend Tommie Seymour came over, and we talked about our plans for the day. Tommie and Ernie were the only ones who seemed to understand what I was going through at home, and they had done everything they could to help me out.
By the time we stepped back outside, most of the guys next door were gone, so we went and sat on Kurt’s porch. After a few moments of sitting and talking, we heard the sound of deep bass coming from down the block. We looked around, waiting to see who would come driving by with their music thumping. It was the newest phenomenon erupting in ’hoods all across the city.
Our neighborhood was home to some of the most notorious drug gangs of the crack era. From the Best Friends and the Chambers Brothers to White Boy Rick (who grew up around the corner from us), our streets were flooded with these new neighborhood superstars. The sounds blaring from their fancy rides drew attention and envy from all the younger guys and girls in the ’hood. They would zip past in their Jeep Wranglers or Jeep Cherokees, the music thundering out of the back, and we would all stand around talking to one another about our dream rides. For the first time in our young lives, we saw guys our age living the American Dream, and we all wanted a share of it.
Moments after we heard the sound of the music, a small, white Dodge Omni stopped at the corner.
“That’s Miko,” Tommie said. He left the porch and walked over to greet the tall, muscular, light-skinned man in the driver’s seat. We watched from the porch as the two of them talked. After a minute, Tommie came back and told us what they had discussed. He said Miko was looking for someone to “roll” for him, which was code for selling drugs. He said Miko was paying up to $350 a week, plus $10 a day for food, for anyone willing to sit in one of his drug spots. The only catch was that you had to be willing to sit in the spot twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Ernie didn’t want to do it, and Tommie said he couldn’t. They both turned to me, and I already knew what they were thinking: rolling for Miko would be a way for me to get off of the streets. It was the lowest job on the drug-dealing totem pole, but it sounded like a good deal to me. All I could think about was having somewhere to lay my head and a way to feed and clothe myself. Without further discussion, I told Tommie that I would do it.
Tommie walked back to the car and told Miko I was down to roll. Miko called me over, and when I got there, he asked me my name. I told him that my name was Pumpkin, the nickname my aunt had given me as a kid.
“You got to come up with another name, li’l homie,” Miko said, taking in my unwashed appearance. “What’s your real name?” he asked.
“James,” I responded as I thought about a new nickname.
“You should call yourself Jay,” he suggested.
“Yeah, that sound slick,” I said, rolling my new nickname around in my head.
After talking with Tommie for a few more minutes, Miko told me to hop in the passenger seat, and we sped off with the sounds of Cybotron beating from the speakers. It was the perfect soundtrack for our neighborhood, with the fast-paced beat of techno-house music matching the frantic rhythm of our young lives.
“You had something to eat yet?” Miko asked.
“Some chips and cookies,” I replied.
“I’ma shoot up to Burger King before we go over to the spot.”
“All right,” I said as houses and cars zipped by on the other side of the window.
We reached the Burger King on Gratiot, which was a stone’s throw from the Ninth Precinct of the Detroit Police Department. Miko turned down the music as we pulled into the parking lot. When we got out of the car, a police cruiser pulled out of the lot, and I felt a nervous energy course through my body. I wasn’t thinking about what would happen if I were caught selling drugs, nor did I think about the fact that I could get killed or charged with any number of crimes that were associated with the business. All I knew was that it felt exciting to be rolling with a badass like Miko.
We grabbed some food and headed over to a street named Flanders, where Miko’s spot was located. The house was a dilapidated duplex that sat in the middle of the block, and it looked like it would fall over if the wind blew too hard. The splintered porch steps creaked as we ascended them, and a dark-skinned, slender woman greeted us when we reached the porch.
“Hey, Miko,” she said, opening the door for us to come inside.
“What’s up, Dee,” Miko replied. We stepped into the darkened living room.
The woman gave me a once-over and turned back to Miko. “Who’s the li’l man?” she asked.
“This my little brother, Jay,” he said, introducing me. “He gonna be holding down the spot over here.”
He retrieved a plastic bag from his underwear and walked toward the dining room table. “Where that mirror at?”
“I got it,” Dee said as she followed him into the room.
Miko held up the bag for me to see. “These are nickels,” he explained. “It’s a hundred rocks in this bag, and they go for five dollars apiece.”
“All right,” I said, nodding my head.
“How much does that come up to?” he asked.
“Five hundred dollars,” I said.
“Okay, li’l nigga. I see you can count. All the sacks I give you will be the same,” he said, “but it’s up to you to count them. That way, you’ll know I ain’t cheating you.”
Miko was teaching me an important rule of the game. In the world of dealing crack, no one is to be trusted. It is a predatory and parasitic environment, and nearly everyone is out to get over in some way, even if it meant cheating their friends and employees.
Dee returned with a mirror, and Miko poured out the contents of the bag, counting the rocks into piles of twenty. I watched his every move and did the math in my head. I was amazed that such a tiny bag could hold a small fortune.
“When you sell the first two rocks, keep that for your food and cigarettes or whatever you want for the day. When you get down to the last twenty rocks, call me so I can bring you some more, all right?”
“Yeah,” I said, and I took the bag from him.
“Keep the sack in your drawers, and don’t let anyone else hold it. When someone comes through, Dee will let you know if they are straight. Don’t show them shit until they show you the money. And don’t sit there and haggle with them over the size of the rock. This ain’t the store, and the customers aren’t always right. But at the same time, treat them the way you want to be treated.”
“I got you,” I responded. I was playing cool, but on the inside, the excitement of my new world was taking over.
“Let me show you where the heat at, in case somebody get out of line,” he said. He led me into the back room and pulled a sawed-off shotgun from beneath a soiled mattress.
I had never held a shotgun before, and I was intimidated by the menacing look of it. It looked like it would knock me to the ground if I pulled the trigger, but when Miko handed it to me, I took it and held it like I knew what I was doing.
“That button right there is the safety,” he said. “If a nigga get out of line, take the safety off, point it at him, and shoot. Trust me, this will tear they motherfucking head off.”
I didn’t know what to say. Somehow I hadn’t thought about the possibility of having to shoot anyone. I didn’t know yet that crack could turn people into stone-cold killers. I had seen people smoking weed and drinking, but the most that ever happened was a fistfight.
“I’m going to pick up your partner, Tee,” Miko said. “He good people, and he’ll have your back, but this is your spot. So run it the way you want it run.”
With that, he turned the spot on Flanders over to me. I was off the streets and open for business.
TEN MINUTES AFTER Miko left, my first customer showed up. Dee met him at the door and told me what he wanted. I came to the door, and he handed me a crumpled twenty-dollar bill through the bars of the Armor Guard. In return, I gave him four rocks. He looked them over and smiled before leaving the porch.
It was my first sale. As I looked at the money in my hand, it all started to feel so real. I was officially a drug dealer.
Within a few hours, customers were streaming through the door like water. My pockets were quickly filling up with five-dollar bills, until I had a fat knot bulging from my pants pocket.
The first week flew by, and I was excited when Miko came through to pay me. He deducted $75 for the rocks I had traded for clothes that some of the customers were selling. I felt rich holding the $275 dollars he had given me in small bills. That wad was the most money I had ever had. He told me to call when I was finished, and he would take me out to Eastland Mall to shop.
When we hit the mall later that day, I couldn’t wait to go to Foot Locker and cop a crispy pair of Filas, which at the time were the hottest shoes you could get. I felt like a king when I pulled out my knot of money and paid for the shoes. It was the first time I had been able to walk into a store and buy exactly what I wanted without having to worry about how much it cost. We continued shopping, and Miko bought me some other items to go with my gear. He seemed to be embracing me like a little brother, and he told me he always wanted me to look fresh.
I felt like a superstar the next time I walked down my block. At the age of fourteen, my wardrobe cost more than those of the adults in my ’hood. Like most teenagers, I wanted to be accepted and exalted by my peers, and when I came through wearing my fresh Filas, Ballys, and Jordans, I could hear the girls talking about how good I looked. The attention was every bit as addictive as the drugs that I was selling.
Within a few weeks, I had immersed myself fully in my new life as a hustler. The money came quick, but I found ways to spend it quicker. I decked myself in the latest gear, and I felt proud, walking around with a wad of money in my pocket. But in truth, I was overcompensating for the things that had been missing in my life—the most important of which were love and acceptance, things my new life couldn’t give me. I wouldn’t admit it to myself at the time, but I felt lonely. Tee was a few years older, so there wasn’t much we had in common besides making fast money, and I couldn’t relate to Dee or her husband because they were high all of the time. They never smoked crack in front of me, but I could tell when they were high because they would start acting jittery and paranoid.
One day, a customer named John came through to buy some rocks. John was what we called a “runner,” someone who would make a run to the crack house for a gathering of smokers who hung out at his house. They would give him their money, and he would find the best spot to get them what they wanted. John was a frequent customer, usually buying two or three hundred dollars’ worth of rocks at a time. But this time, after buying a hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of rocks, he asked if we would be interested in rolling out of his house. He told me he had a spot on Wilshire that he was interested in opening, and I told him that I would run it by Miko.
I called Miko to tell him about John’s offer, and he told me we could check it out. When he came to pick me up, Miko said he was proud of me for thinking of ways to expand the business. If things went right, he promised he would take care of me.
John lived three houses off of the corner of Wilshire and Chalmers. The street was lined with well-kept brick Colonials and Tudors, and John lived in a big, pretty brick house that was a stark contrast to our house on Flanders. Miko asked me if I was sure I had the right house, and I double-checked the address that John had written down and told Miko we were in the right spot.
John came to the door and invited us inside. We were surprised to find that his house still had the appearance of a normal home and not a crack house. There were relics of John’s former life as a middle-class family man. Framed pictures of his wife and children were hung on a wall in the dining room, and the living room was well furnished with a floor-model television and sectional couch. I half expected the woman of the house to descend from the stairs and ask if we wanted refreshments, but instead, we got down to business.
John told us the story of how he lost his job, his wife, and his kids as a result of smoking crack. He was in a desperate spot, and allowing us to sell out of his house would allow him to keep his home and support his habit. It was a good deal for us, so we took him up on it and moved in the next week.
DURING THE EMBRYONIC stages of the crack epidemic, my old neighborhood was still one of the nicer neighborhoods on the East Side of Detroit. Most of the houses maintained pristine exteriors, but on the interior, the families were being slowly consumed by the madness of addiction. The promise of the Black middle class was eroding as crack and all of its associated vices entrenched themselves deep into the heart of the ’hood. In the sixties and seventies, it was heroin that had wreaked the havoc, but the damage caused by crack would make heroin seem like little more than a footnote.
We set up shop in John’s house on Wilshire and quickly developed what would become the go-to business model for inner-city hustlers. We installed an Armor Guard door between the kitchen and the stairway leading to the basement, so that our customers could walk right in instead of clustering around the front door while they waited to be served. If a customer wanted to stay and smoke, John would charge them a couple of dollars or a piece of their rock. It worked to our benefit because some of the customers would end up staying down there all day, smoking up their entire paycheck in the basement.
John had a lot of friends who smoked, and most of them had steady incomes from jobs at the many factories throughout the area. Our spot was one of the first in that part of the neighborhood, a convenient spot for upscale clients like them. The only competition we had came from some guys who had a spot a couple of blocks over, but their rocks were small by comparison, so they didn’t pose any threat to us.
After a few days of working upstairs, I grew bored of sitting by myself and decided to venture down into the basement. That was my first time seeing anyone smoke crack. I sat behind the bar with the shotgun and took in the scene, which looked straight out of a movie. There were mirrors, razor blades, and pipes spread across the bar, next to a bottle of 150-proof Old Florida Rum, which the customers would use to make torches. I watched men and women smoke their pipes with such intimacy that it looked like they were making love. A look of ecstasy would come over them when they inhaled the thick, white smoke into their lungs, and I found it mesmerizing. I had never witnessed anything transform a person so quickly or dramatically.
What blew my mind was that the drug seemed to affect each of them in a different way. There were some who got so paranoid that they hid in the closet beneath the stairs or jumped behind the bar and sat curled up in a ball on the floor. The rest smoked and went into a trancelike state.
A week after my first trip to the basement, a lady who lived around the corner stripped all of her clothes off and ran out of the house naked. She said that someone was chasing her. John ran after her and eventually brought her back into the house, where she sat naked at the bar smoking. I tried not to stare at her breasts or the triangle of hair between her legs, but I couldn’t help myself. I was intrigued by the female anatomy, a fascination that was only just beginning.
Another day, I was down in the basement serving a customer when I noticed a man crawling across the floor, picking up every white speck he could find. The other customers told me that he was “ghosting,” meaning he had smoked all of his crack and was hallucinating that the floor was covered with rocks. This became a common occurrence in the basement. It was crazy, watching grown men and women on their knees, searching the basement floor for a crumb of crack. At the time, I was ignorant about their plight and the seriousness of addiction, so I laughed at them until my stomach felt like it was going to burst. I didn’t realize it then, but I was growing desensitized to the suffering of others and developing a warped view of adults and authority.
For our first month on Wilshire, the money flowed in a steady stream. Every personality type imaginable came through the door. Our clientele consisted of white people, Black people, men, women, and people from the suburbs all the way down to the ghetto. Some of the best boosters in Detroit would also come through the house. For just a few rocks, they would sell us leather coats and silk shirts that were worth hundreds of dollars. They sold me televisions, VCRs, and handguns for little to nothing. I wasn’t old enough to drive, but I could rent Cadillacs, Monte Carlos, and Regals for a couple of hours, all in exchange for a couple of rocks. These people ran errands for me, lied for me, and would have killed for me—or killed me. All for the love of crack.
Women would come over to clean up the house and wash our clothes for a rock. Things always started off innocent, but it wouldn’t be long before they were cleaning up naked. This was during the early days of the epidemic, when crack was still considered a glamorous drug, so the women coming through were still attractive and dressed with pride and dignity. Sex was there for the taking. Women who were married and had children older than me would offer to give blowjobs or fuck the entire crew in exchange for rocks. Within a few months, these same women would develop the visible signs of addiction—dirty clothes, bloodshot eyes, and muddled hair.
I was working one of our spots one day when a customer whom everyone called the “Head Doctor” came through. She was so proficient with her oral skills that she would offer you a money-back guarantee—and that day, she set her sights on me. There I was, fourteen years old, standing against the side of a crack house and getting a blowjob, an experience I had thought was reserved for grown men.
Like many women who came through the spot, the Head Doctor said all the right things, making me feel and think that it was okay to be having sex with a grown woman. I went along with it, unaware that beneath the excitement, she was a drug-addled pedophile who preyed on the raging hormones of young drug dealers.
Nevertheless, it felt empowering to be fourteen years old and have sexual command over grown women. They made me feel like my pleasure was the only thing that mattered, and before long, I couldn’t relate to girls my age anymore—they weren’t ready to do the things I was accustomed to doing. I had been raised to respect and honor women, but in this new world, those rules no longer applied. Looking back, I believe the crack epidemic is partly to blame for the misogyny in our community, and in hip-hop culture. When I was growing up, it was nearly unheard of for men to refer to women as hoes and bitches, but in the streets, these terms became the norm.
Day by day, we were all being stripped of our morals. It was hard to respect people who didn’t respect themselves, and disrespect grew in proportion to the deceit and manipulation that we experienced dealing with our customers. We learned through trial and error that no one was to be trusted.
The most important lesson I learned was that crack was nothing to be played with. It wreaked havoc in people’s lives and destroyed families. I witnessed people I had admired growing up fall prey to the pipe. Guys I once looked up to were now groveling at my feet, begging for rocks on credit. I saw women who were at one time beautiful teachers, homemakers, students, or store clerks reduced to strung-out crack whores.
Over the summer, Miko opened up a few more spots throughout our neighborhood. We operated like any other corporate structure, expanding into other areas at will and taking advantage of new clientele. At the time, I was making ten dollars off of every hundred dollars’ worth of rocks that I sold, plus an extra two dollars in tops—the street hustler’s built-in gratuity. Instead of selling five-dollar rocks, we were now selling bigger ones for twelve dollars. I went from making $350 a week to making $300 in profit from every thousand-dollar sack that I sold. On a good day, we could move three to four thousand dollars’ worth of rocks.
Miko was making a lot of money off of my hustling and dedication, but as I sat in his spots twenty-four hours a day, I never would have guessed that I was being exploited. All I knew was that I stayed fresh and my pockets were fat. I didn’t have long-term plans or an exit strategy. All I cared about were the shoes and clothes I wore and the things other people thought about me.
I was losing my focus, my respect for the community, and ultimately, my own identity. I began morphing into a callous, apathetic, coldhearted predator. Compared to the guys I ran with, I wasn’t as quick to get angry or resort to violence. But anger and violence were a necessary part of the dope game, and it wouldn’t be long before I would have to employ them if I wanted to survive.
WAYNE COUNTY JAIL
I stood at the front door of our small ranch home on Blackstone Street, the familiar surroundings filling me with anticipation as I waited for Brenda to answer the door. My heart raced as I listened to her steps approaching from inside.
Brenda opened the door with an angelic smile on her face, and rushed into my arms.
“I missed you so much,” she said, holding me tight and covering my face with feather-soft kisses.
“I told you I was coming home one way or another,” I said, wrapping my arms around her in a tight embrace.
SOMEONE TAPPED ON my cell door, and I woke up. Normally I would have been pissed if someone woke me from a dream like that, but this time, I was smiling. I knew I was about to turn my dream into reality, and it would only be a matter of time before I saw Brenda again.
It was two o’clock in the morning, and I knew that the shadowy figure standing on the other side of the door was likely to be Gigolo. He and I had developed a method for getting out of our cells whenever we felt like it, to smoke and use the phones. We would tie a knot in a sheet, slide the knot into the doorjamb, and shake it until the latch popped open. The deputies were never in the control center on our wing, and we had studied their rounds to the point where we knew when they were coming and going.
“I need to holla at you for a minute,” G said, sliding the knotted sheet beneath my door. We popped the door open, and I grabbed a couple of squares before walking with G to the dayroom.
“Wassup?” I asked as I fired up the square.
“I think Gigolo and Jabo want to roll with us,” he said.
“You talked to them