Continued from Notes on Jail, Part 1: Damn, He Fucked The Shit Out Of Me!
“Don’t! Don’t you fucking do it! Don’t you fucking do it! I will WRECK YOU, bitch boy!”
Metallic clanging, guttural, wordless screaming. I turned over in my uncomfortable, hard-ass jail bunk, climbed out to see what in the world was going on.
“Wreck! Wreck! WREEEEEEECK!”
This is the kind of shit you wake up to on a 300-man jail tier.
I’d changed cells some weeks earlier. Erin, my somewhat homophobic, virulently anti-”addiction as a disease” celly and friend, had gone home only about 10 days after I’d hit the tier and only a day or two after I’d gotten through the last of my acute withdrawals. Bowman was sent to the hole for his latest in-custody offense1An in-custody infraction or offense is generally just a disciplinary matter and unless particularly egregious and/or part of a chronic pattern, does not often result in an additional imposition of jail time or new criminal charge/case and, very briefly, I was alone in the hot-box of a cell. I moved my mat to the bottom bunk and put my collection of canteen2The jail-house store, from which inmates can order once a week if they have money on their books; also known as “commissary” or just “the store” items into the plastic tub Erin had left me upon his departure. Ah, yeah, this was the life.
Then I got my first new celly—Jaquan, a low-level dope boy with a “dealer’s habit” who had the additional undesirable character trait (from the perspective of a misanthropic hermit such as myself) of wanting to recount, multiple times daily when he could, the circumstances of the events that led to his arrest and solicit my eminently unqualified legal advice; he was less interested in my honest assessment of his chances at a favorable outcome than, to paraphrase Al Swearengen, being “told something pretty”—and shortly after him came our “floor boy” (third man in the cell), Nichols, a salt-and-pepper tweaker who combined the worst of Jaquan’s attributes (constant need for reassurance about court prospects) with the irritating tendency to burst into blubbering tears about wanting to see his kids and the unfairness of his general plight. Both frequently wanted to “borrow” food and bickered often with one another. And we all snored. Ah… this sucked out loud and was not the life. I needed a new living arrangement.
The situation on 217 as far as “moving” was somewhat esoteric and inconsistent; sometimes it was as simple as telling the deputy at the morning count that you wanted to move to such-and-such cell that had an open spot (or two, rarely), the deputy verifying that the current occupant(s) of that cell were okay with that and noting it on the cell assignment documents, then receiving a notification shortly afterward that you were approved to relocate—and sometimes you had to tell multiple deputies, possibly multiple times apiece, fill out a blue note3The in-house means of “speaking to the manager” about concerns/requests you may have; often, multiple blue notes are required for each issue, and you may never receive any sort of response—least of all a satisfactory response—at all, repeatedly assure deputies at post-move counts that you had been approved to quarter in your new cell and/or get marched back to your old cell, lugging your mat and other belongings with you, where you and your potentially bitter former celly (depending on how you guys left it when you parted ways) might have to explain jointly that another guard had okayed the move already. It really depended on which deputy you consulted, what he or she thought of you (if anything), and maybe some intangible like how the deputy’s shift was going and what the tenor on the tier was at the time.
Fortunately, I was generally on good, respectful terms with the deputies (with one notable exception, a Jamaican-American female deputy who seemed to absolutely despise me for no apparent reason), and I had a similarly well-liked prospective new celly, Clint, who wanted me to join him in his first-floor corner cell, the corner joints having the added benefits of being slightly larger than the other cells and, better yet, directly under the over-burdened AC vents, so they were actually cool much of the time.
One of Clint’s cellies had just gone home and the other was about to do so the day after I moved into my new digs, which would leave Clint alone and therefore, given his cell’s proximity to the door, make him a prime candidate for the deputies to assign one if not two of the next day’s new arrivals as new cohabitant(s). Our tier was adjoined by a pair of big iron doors to one of the two tiers on which newly booked individuals were placed prior to being sent to their more permanent homes (217 and 219, of the lower custody, regular tiers, and then there was a myriad of other tiers for higher custody, protective custody, work assigned inmates, inmates with medical issues, etc.), which allowed for communication (and passing of various contraband) from tier to tier, and the word was out that the aforementioned trans woman, along with a couple of other trans women and a handful of gay men were soon to hit 217. Clint was, while not as vocally and/or virulently homophobic as Erin, a bit less than comfortable with the idea of sharing a cell with an LGBT individual, and so was desperate to get a “normal” white guy in with him.
Clint was a nice enough person: an HVAC4Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning, a skilled trade where one can make $28+ per hour worker from Powhatan, a rural and predominantly white working-class neighboring county, who had sunk into heavy drinking and Oxycodone addiction in the wake of a separation from his wife that had been quite messy and had led to her denying him access to their two young children. I played spades with him fairly regularly, but like a lot of the heterosexual men of his ilk, he had this strange idea that his mere presence would result in a nearby gay man or trans woman jumping his bones with or without consent and without warning. For his good qualities—a sense of humor, fairly easy-going under the circumstances of jail, reasonably honest—I would not describe Clint as either especially handsome or to the particular tastes of most of the gay men or trans women who would thereafter reside on 217.
So I moved in, we bade farewell to Jimmy (Clint’s short-timer celly I mentioned previously, a moody, barely over 5’0” coke addict who accused me of “making [him] crave” by briefly indulging him in a conversation he had both initiated and largely driven, following initiation, about our mutual enjoyment of crack) and life was pretty good for a time. We would “put up a flag”5Hang a length of toilet paper or a washcloth from our closed cell door to indicate someone within was taking a shit (or, less commonly, jacking off) on new arrival days to discourage deputies from placing a new floor boy in our cell, cook frequently with a few of our card game buddies (jail cuisine, and the creativity it entails, is a subject for another day) and mostly avoided grating on one another’s nerves. But alas, as the great Bruce Dickinson sang, “Nothing lasts forever but the certainty of change.”
The two most momentous arrivals on the tier, for the purposes of this tale, were D.O., who appeared shortly before my big move, and Sissy, the “passing” trans woman who had confused many a 217 resident sometime earlier when she’d been at the window with her associates from her former tier. But Sissy was also joined, at the point of her arrival, by Fox (another trans woman, somewhat less conventionally attractive but familiar to and with several men on the tier, and lacking nothing in the way of self-confidence), Cootie (the thin, incredibly handsome, flamboyant, brown-skinned ringleader of the LGBT “crew” that formed shortly after), Muffin (a short, soft-spoken, doughy little dark-skinned gay kid) and Ninja, the source of the guttural threats of violence with which we began. Now seems as good a time as any to dig into that.
Ninja was a white guy from Baltimore in his mid-to-late-20s who had a number of those big “gauge” piercings which, given the ban on all jewelry but simple chains and plain wedding bands (an inmate could wear one of each, maximum), he had to preserve with pen caps, wads of paper, etc. He had nervy energy and excitement about him that didn’t mesh well with the jail environment and was struggling to make friends. After doing one of his intense workout routines involving bounding up and down the stairs of the tier many times in short succession, doing pull-ups from a pair of looped towels that hung from the same steps, and duck-walking back and forth for a few minutes, he was slathered in sweat and decided that was a good time to hover about the big money poker game at the tier’s center table, where a few of the “tier boss” types were playing some convoluted variant of the game for the amount of canteen many of us might buy in a month, which drew both annoyed looks and casually menacing observations like, “I hate a nigga that stand behind me,” and, “Some o’ y’all need to hit that water ‘fo’ somebody drag y’all ass in there.” Ninja wandered away quietly.
He had been placed, along with Muffin, into a second-floor cell with some poor third party whose life soon became considerably more dramatic, as the two did not exactly become fast friends and were frequently heard to complain about one another to other people. Ninja was nothing if not outgoing. He approached yours truly in the chow line one day.
“What’s up, bro?” he inquired after I accidentally made eye contact when trying to look around him to survey the progress of the line. I just sort of grunted, which was evidently encouraging by the standards of the responses he’d been getting. He told me he was from Baltimore and awaiting extradition by the Maryland D.O.C. for something stupid like attempting to elude the police and some kind of fraud—“free-banding,”6I’m not an expert on this by any means, but essentially this involves getting a supply of prepaid credit cards numbers illicitly—there are individuals who sell them on the black market in bulk—and tapping them out by buying large quantities of merchandise that you then sell for profit I think it may have been—and that he “missed that good Bodymore dope and scramble,” adding that he only mentioned Heroin because he’d noticed the then-terrible track marks on my arms and hands. We got our trays and he kept pace beside me en route back to the tier. He said he could tell I was a “chill dude” and, that being the case, I needed to be careful because there were lots of guys looking for trouble. Lucky for me, he then told me he liked to watch people’s backs and stick up for friends. It came easy to him, he said, because he was “ex-military,” trained in both boxing and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, and was thus required by state law to register his hands as lethal weapons whenever he crossed state lines. (I can relate because, as a sexy young fuck god, I have to get sex partners to sign hold harmless agreements prior to intercourse, in case I fuck them to death, which—I’m sorry to say—has happened on a number of occasions). So yeah, this guy was a fucking clown.
Muffin had, one morning when the two were at each other’s throats already, moved something of Ninja’s that Ninja had warned him not to touch. When Muffin persisted, Ninja, sensing that this was his moment to shine, began roaring in the aforementioned primal fashion, screamed, “I will WRECK YOU, bitch boy!” and went sprinting up the stairs, as in his workout regimen.
Contrary to the impressions of many on the tier regarding their supposed lack of masculinity/toughness, I have known several gay men—especially those, like Muffin, from rough neighborhoods where one imagines they probably took their share of lumps growing up, if for no other reason than for being different—who were among the fiercest fighters I’ve ever met. I wouldn’t quite put Muffin in that league, but as it happens he didn’t need to be, because it turns out that—like most people who have to tell you how tough, smart, good, cool, whatever they are—Ninja was hardly the fine-tuned killing machine he’d billed himself as being. Glad I didn’t require his protection, because he got stomped flatter than hammered shit by Muffin, who had to be pulled off of him by the deputies, laughing and talking all kinds of shit (“Yeah, bitch, what then!”) in the process. Ninja was dragged out looking like a cranky toddler in need of a nap, albeit with a budding shiner and bloody nose.
D.O. was among the many on the tier laughing, cheering and applauding the thrashing. As dearly departed Erin had predicted, no one made a peep upon his entry to the tier. He took his place at the big boy poker table and played regularly in the top spades game. He took over running one of the phones from a guy he still “outranked” in the eyes of the tier in spite of his being a viral sensation for what were considered, in those circles, all the wrong reasons. Most of the tough talkers on 217 even dapped him up and smiled in his face upon his arrival. So what gives?
It was, I think, much the same phenomenon as played out with Ninja and Muffin. Most of the guys on 217, for all their bluster and for having rap sheets as long as my arm in a number of cases, were not really particularly “serious” or “about that life.” Most were low-level dealers, petty thieves, guys with multiple driving-on-a-suspended infractions or who owed large amounts of child support, maybe the odd strong-arm robber or assault perp. D.O., like Six-Four, Stacy (a Randolph Court dealer a bit up the ladder awaiting transfer to D.O.C. to do a 10-year sentence; also, as it happens, cousin to Cootie) and Rah-Rah (a Blood who talked sparingly but had gotten in trouble earlier for assisting in a stabbing in the city jail), was a “serious” individual despite what anyone there may have thought of his recent viral celebrity, and to attempt to “step to” him over that or any other matter was still quite a bold move for some kid doing 90 days for selling a few grams of weed. There were some persistent rumblings about D.O., but they were almost entirely behind his back and viewed as idle talk.
Even still, D.O.’s next move was fairly bold, perhaps even brazen. Cootie (subjected more to a sort of gentle kidding than the more barbed disdain the others sometimes received, thanks to his relation to Stacy), Sissy, Fox, and a couple of the other LGBT individuals were sitting around both celebrating Muffin’s triumph and lamenting his being sent to the hole (the default for fighting, irrespective of the circumstances) when D.O. sauntered over and sat easily on the edge of the table, nominally to talk to Cootie but with one of his legs all but touching Sissy, who was sizing him up and being sized up herself. This was all in full view of the tier directly after chow, which I have to think was a conscious effort to basically dare anyone to say something—anything—about him or his recent past where he could hear.
Sissy was not someone I got to know very well directly—nor, for that matter, was D.O.—but the arrival of Clint’s and my new celly, Malik, another kid who, like Bowman, had turned 18 only months before, did allow me some contact. One night, when a bunch of new arrivals appeared (one thing about 217 and Henrico County Jail, and by extension, most tiers in most metro area U.S. jails, is that there is always a steady stream of new grist for the mill), and Clint and I were in the midst of our standard pre-lockdown spades game, our “flag flying” gambit ceased to work. The jig was up. Or maybe its efficacy was always psychosomatic. Either way, Malik, looking like a lost puppy dog, sitting atop his rolled-up jail mat, dazed and confused, was positioned outside our cell, having taken note of the flag and respecting its sanctity but not seeking a home elsewhere even as the awkward minutes became hours. Finally, with lockdown looming, and over Clint’s protestations, I went to let him into the cell.
Bowman, for all his youthful impulsiveness, had been undeniably street smart, and more clearly “built for the life,” for better and certainly worse. Malik was much more clearly a “kid” in all that entails: homesick, prone to flights of exuberance followed by bouts of extreme depression and, occasionally, anger. He was biracial, with a white mother and a black father, the latter of whom he knew only by reputation, torn between his two racial identities and very much a mama’s boy but also bickering with her and his multiple siblings and half-siblings intensely. He had, in fact, been arrested for joyriding in his mother’s car and trespassing at a Northside apartment complex he’d been ordered to avoid. He was also a “returning guest.”
Being a returning guest is one of the more ignoble “honors” for an inmate on a jail tier, boiling down, basically, to having been released from custody only to return a short time later—generally just an interval brief enough that a good chunk of the tier population remembers you and was present during your previous stay, but the shorter the gap the more embarrassing your “encore” appearance is likely to be.7Some such return visits are natural, such as if bonded out until sentencing, these are not cause for mockery, and are not what’s spoken of here A number, and a not insignificant one at that, of 217 residents had suffered this indignity during my time there, and it was always grounds for boisterous ribbing.
Malik thought himself something of a lady’s man, and was always boasting to us about both his sexual conquests and, somewhat more strangely (at least from my perspective, which cares even less about this than about someone’s sexual experience or lack thereof), his extensive wardrobe and his “beautiful hair.” “I’ma let my hair get big—really big!” he’d begin, then become so delighted at the thought as to cackle giddily and start doing this odd little happy dance. “Bitches be lovin’ my hair, they always wanna touch it,” he assured us, often before imploring one or both of us to touch it, then calling us “fags” if we declined. This was, suffice it to say, a substantial departure from what had been the climate in our cell prior to his arrival. And this is putting aside the effect he had on our volume of social calls, including from Cootie, Fox, Sissy, et al.
As it happens, Cootie had been Malik’s babysitter when he was younger (not exactly a lifetime ago, given Malik’s age), and Fox was familiar to and with him. Sissy, though, would look at him and giggle like a schoolgirl and whisper to one or the other of the gang, then cover her mouth with a hand. They came over at least every other day either just to sort of flirt with/tease Malik or to gather my dirty laundry or return it once washed, Fox and “her girls” having a lucrative (as the item-based economy goes) laundry hustle, among a few other rackets in which they dabbled. Fox was really quite a sweet person, who took a matronly hand with the younger residents both LGBT and otherwise, and handled the occasional snickers she received with admirable grace. She wasn’t as delicate or aesthetically feminine as Sissy, and so did not as often occasion the sort of confused double-takes and worried, furtive glances as her “daughter,” but seemed to move more easily among the crowd as a result, something of a paradox in that way.
D.O. would occasionally poke his head in, generally only when Sissy was present, and there would be this sort of nervous air that was borne out of his presence. Naturally, we all knew of the video by that point, but it wasn’t that. It sounds ridiculous, perhaps, for any number of reasons, but it was like a suitor coming over to call on a new love interest, though this was never made explicit. He would sort of make a little remark, there might be some laughter and then there would be a little lull during which he’d linger, then drift away and, shortly after, Sissy would depart, usually with Fox or Cootie.
As in most environments with strong masculine energy that lack much in the way of female presence—and, I’m sorry to say, the few trans women on the tier were not treated as feminine beings by anything like a majority of the tier—there was an uneasy relationship with the idea of homosexuality on 217. Sometimes it took the form of bigotry and more vulgar homophobia but mostly it was just a coarse brand of “picking” and crude late-90s/early-00s pseudo-homoerotic humor. PREA (the Prison Rape Elimination Act), for which every new inmate has to watch a video (often multiple times, as it plays on a constant loop while you’re waiting to be processed) and sign paperwork stating you’ve been made familiar with it, was a frequent subject of crass jokes. Someone might shout, “PREA!” when roughhousing with a celly or the like. I think for many people it was sort of like whistling past the graveyard. But there was also the curious sort of intimacy that comes with such environments; behaviors that might even toe the line of traditional homoeroticism, but which would be defended, likely to the death or close to it, as aggressively, 100% heteronormative if that were brought up, such as the frequent occasions when, after lockdown and late into the night, hyper-masculine, pathologically hetero young men would sit at the doors of their locked cells and rap and sing pop hits for one another’s enjoyment, taking requests and sometimes dueting.
Other times we would sit up deep into the night talking amongst ourselves or to those in the neighboring cells. As it happened, Fox, Sissy, and one of the other LGBT inmates were in the cell directly above ours, and the vents functioned much the same as the child’s tin cans and strings. Malik would sit at the vent, listening to their gossip and giggling, then interrupt with a come-on or a schoolboy-esque call for them to STFU, leading to playful bickering.
As time wore on, it became increasingly clear that her schoolyard flirtations with Malik notwithstanding, Sissy was involved intimately with D.O. It started with the interactions I’ve described, moved on to their sitting at the same table with one another at chow, and then to Sissy, Fox, Cootie, et al cheering him (and other males on whom one, some or all of them had crushes) on at the rec-time basketball games in which he was a fixture, and to their sitting off by themselves in a corner somewhere talking at great length, such that D.O. might even pass up one or more of his clicks8“Clicks” are a slang term for phone calls. The way the jail (and prison) phones operate, both in terms of their actual functioning and the way that functioning is prejudicial against poor and working class inmates and their families, as well as the rules of etiquette and occasional blackmail and violent dispute that surround access to the phones, is a subject for another day. One click is one call. on the phone he operated. Finally, they began disappearing into a cell together, locking it behind, which meant one of the members of Fox’s “family” would, always a good 15 minutes or so later, need to go to the window of the deputy’s booth and tell whoever was in there to pop whichever cell they’d gone into together. Each would straggle out in their own time, often looking rejuvenated or sometimes with matted hair, in Sissy’s case.
This did not escape much of anyone’s attention on the tier. Most said nothing; some, seemingly wrestling with being faced with something they found objectionable or at least difficult to understand, rationalized it, as the same sort had by spreading the story that D.O. had been paid for his “performance” in the infamous viral video and was thus in the clear, by arguing that he was simply getting a head start on what he’d be doing during the 5-year bid he was about to serve in D.O.C., or by assuming his “top” status in this dynamic and using the old “it’s not really gay if you’re the one doing the penetrating” logic. A few voiced real displeasure, focusing mainly on what they saw as D.O.’s and Sissy’s “flaunting it.”
It did seem, after a time, that a sort of tension was thickening and darkness was congealing in the stagnant summer air. Familiar, friendly faces were disappearing from 217. There was a rash of thefts from people’s boxes when the tier was empty for chow and—in the wake of those—a couple of quite vicious fights, including one where an individual was stabbed in the eye with a piece of sharp plastic. Fox’s “family” was broken up after it was found that they were making jail wine in the cell above ours. Fox went to the hole, Cootie was sent to another tier, and Sissy became more reclusive. Someone had also reported that there was sex and/or prostitution going on among the 217 crowd, and whether because Sissy et al had been implicated or because the deputies automatically assumed their involvement I don’t know—maybe both. Regardless, there was a palpable feeling that something bad was going to happen much of the time, and more often than not, it did.
One day during those dark times, the voice on the intercom called D.O. for “B&B,” meaning for the individual to bring his body and bed (and other belongings, if applicable; “body only,” the most feared words in jail, indicate the person involved has likely caught a new case—another frequent bit of gallows humor was to shout out randomly, “Powell! Body only to booking!” or whatever the relevant name may be) to the front door to prepare for departure. In D.O.’s case, he would be going to D.O.C., but the suddenness seemed to have surprised him. After he’d dapped up his buddies and given away the items he couldn’t take with him, he stood at the door, a clear plastic bag of toiletries, clothes, and items over a shoulder, his rolled mat, and sheets under the other arm. He looked, superficially, as comfortable and confident as ever, but there was an agitation about him. He looked around the tier with just his eyes, moving them from face to face, seemingly fully aware that nearly everyone was paying at least partial attention to him, waiting to see how, if at all, he would bid adieu to Sissy.
Events from my jail days that I can describe honestly as having moved me in any way are virtually nonexistent—as I said earlier, Nichols’ crocodile tears about “just wanting to see [his] kids” annoyed rather than touched me, and I went on a rare angry tirade aimed at Clint and Malik during one of many occasions when they moped in tandem about being sick of jail and wanting to go home, barking at them to stop using the fucking phone all the time and marking off days and urging them to get into “bid mode”9Briefly, “bid mode” is the process of getting into a routine, often focusing on self-improvement or just sleeping as much as possible, avoiding the phone, avoiding counting days, and just taking the days as they come rather than obsessing over the future, the past, what’s going on outside, etc.—but what I saw at that moment and those shortly after struck a chord with me then and still does now, years later. D.O. dropped his things, ascended the stairs in a few quick, large bounds, and took Sissy by the hand. They broke eagerly for her nearby cell, slamming the door loudly behind themselves. Stacy, D.O.’s friend and a young man who both commanded respect and who was himself very independent-minded, moved from his plastic chair at the door of his own cell, the biggest store of items on the tier, and leaned against the railing of the balcony, the message quite clear: “If anyone goes to tell, I’ll see.”
For a few moments, there was an uncharacteristic quiet for midday on 217. Then things gradually began to return to normal. The deputy came to the door, calling for D.O. Stacy walked down the stairs slowly and told him to pop the cell into which D.O. and Sissy had gone. Annoyed, the deputy remarked for everyone’s benefit that he was going to start “letting [us] motherfuckers stay locked in the cell” before going back into the booth.
When the buzzer went off, D.O. and Sissy emerged one after the other, in contrast to their established, nominally discreet staggered routine. Both were sweaty, jail tops untucked, a glow about them. She looked down, and suddenly he spun her round, threw his arms around her, and pulled her close. The deputy returned and called more forcefully for D.O., who ran down the stairs. He exchanged the jail clap/hug with Stacy, picked up his things, and then called up to Sissy, “Take care of yourself, baby, you gonna be beautiful!” before turning, briefly, to face us all, unblinking and undaunted, and then followed the deputy off the tier.
|↑1||An in-custody infraction or offense is generally just a disciplinary matter and unless particularly egregious and/or part of a chronic pattern, does not often result in an additional imposition of jail time or new criminal charge/case|
|↑2||The jail-house store, from which inmates can order once a week if they have money on their books; also known as “commissary” or just “the store”|
|↑3||The in-house means of “speaking to the manager” about concerns/requests you may have; often, multiple blue notes are required for each issue, and you may never receive any sort of response—least of all a satisfactory response—at all|
|↑4||Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning, a skilled trade where one can make $28+ per hour|
|↑5||Hang a length of toilet paper or a washcloth from our closed cell door to indicate someone within was taking a shit (or, less commonly, jacking off)|
|↑6||I’m not an expert on this by any means, but essentially this involves getting a supply of prepaid credit cards numbers illicitly—there are individuals who sell them on the black market in bulk—and tapping them out by buying large quantities of merchandise that you then sell for profit|
|↑7||Some such return visits are natural, such as if bonded out until sentencing, these are not cause for mockery, and are not what’s spoken of here|
|↑8||“Clicks” are a slang term for phone calls. The way the jail (and prison) phones operate, both in terms of their actual functioning and the way that functioning is prejudicial against poor and working class inmates and their families, as well as the rules of etiquette and occasional blackmail and violent dispute that surround access to the phones, is a subject for another day. One click is one call.|
|↑9||Briefly, “bid mode” is the process of getting into a routine, often focusing on self-improvement or just sleeping as much as possible, avoiding the phone, avoiding counting days, and just taking the days as they come rather than obsessing over the future, the past, what’s going on outside, etc.|