Saturday, July 30, 2016

CRAIG EDWARD KELSO, Down In a Hole With Jay-Z

Lost in the maze of the state’s prison system, we found ourselves in the dreaded Hole. The Hole is the prison’s prison. It’s where the intransigent, the unredeemable are sent. It is the definition of fucked up. I was thrown in The Hole by mistake.

Prisons aren’t really all that "in" to due process, and so guards don’t pay particularly close attention to investigative clues. If there’s a disturbance, a ruckus, and you’re ANYWHERE near the scene … you’re going to get swept up. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s all.

Longest six days of my life, fool.

If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you son. 

In The Hole, Jay-Z’s classic poetry came from the air vent in my cell. The words were accompanied by thumping on the stainless steel basin, keeping perfect time. It would start and then stop. Repeat. A dude on the lower tier was trying to figure who was now above him, and what better way to smoke someone out then to spit a bit of street cred in the form of reasonably well-known rap tunes.

The dude was basically ringing my door bell, prison style. 

His voice kept matching the flow of Brooklyn’s famous son. Even the little whispers Jay does on some tracks came through the impromptu sound system crystal clear. 

… go and brush your shoulders off. 

 Boom, skip, boom-boom, skip, boom. His voice was getting louder, and he seemed to be going through Jay-Z’s early catalog. He wanted my attention. I was either going to tell him to cut it out, or I had to finish the verse. My reaction would tell him a lot about me.

The Hole is part of the Administrative Segregation Unit, and it sat on the yard as a constant reminder to not slip. Watch yourself. Know where you are at all times. Friends are not friends, they’re alliances. All this I’d learn the hard way.

Friday night. About midnight. Two guards rush my bunk. GET THE FUCK UP! they shout at me, waking the entire cube. Our cube was considered the gladiator cube, where dudes went to settle scores and act hard. It was flooded with prune-o, the jailhouse version of alcohol made from fermented rotten fruit. It was also home to various other contraband. I never partook, of course, because I wanted to go home, and each of the violations carried a minimum of six months added on to the time we were already doing. The guys in the cube respected my stand, and for the most part left me alone. I was resolute. But it also didn’t stop them from hiding MASSIVE amounts of crazy shit under my bunk. In the sweep, I got caught up.

In only flip-flops and pants, no shirt, I was handcuffed and dragged across the yard in the wee hours.

Into the Sergeant’s Office. The interrogation was comical. Though the viciously cold air snapped me awake, it had also been a long day and I was still a little asleep. 

Questions. Allegations. Shouting. Yelling. Posturing. Accusations. 

I denied it ALL because I hadn’t done anything wrong. After what seemed like hours, the Sergeant said the Captain would be back on Monday to sort it all out. In the meantime, I’d be sent to The Hole for the “safety and security of the institution.” 

Damn. I was terrified. Oh, and by the way, could I sign this piece of paper authorizing this move? Fuck that shit, George. No. I won’t sign a thing without a lawyer present.

Door flings open, and I am lifted out of the chair and shoved into the medical center. There, a nurse asks me how much heroin I’ve done. I laugh. She asks if I am drunk because no one laughs on the way to The Hole. Oh, and by the way, could I sign this form authorizing this move? Um, no.

Shove out the door.

Long walk, being dragged really, through the cold night’s air. The walkway is covered with reclaimed water from the sprinklers spraying in crazy directions. 

I am officially freezing.

Thrown into a gorilla cage for processing.

It’s dead quiet. Everyone in the unit is asleep.

Guard walks me up the stairs to cell 241. 

No blanket. No pillows. 

Just a soiled mattress and five or so white jumpsuits. The amber light buzzing gave it an other worldly feel. The cell smelled of feces and vomit. 

As I turned around to ask for basic linens, the guard is long gone.

I was so tired I rolled up the suits and collapsed.
Smash-cut to the crack of dawn. The serenade looped back to the first line. It was my turn to do something or nothing.

If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you son … he sang to me again.

 I got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one … I responded, loudly, into the vent.

He laughed, and the thumping on the basin stopped until he collected himself. I heard him say OH SHIT to someone near him (he was in a two-man cell, I was in a walk alone).  

He and his partner started up again, booming the beat and flowing through different verses to see if I’d follow. Even I was now curious about what they’d cook up next. 

NOT GUILTY … he who does not feel me is not real to me. Therefore, he doesn’t exist … he rhymed.

So, POOF, vamoose, son-of-a-bitch! …  I shouted into the vent, summoning old Jay-Z lyrics from a very back part of my memory.

They were clapping in pure ecstasy! Hahahahaha. Laughing and laughing they went into yet another Jay song, boom, clap, boom.

… go and brush your shoulders off … they sent into the air.  

You gotta get …  that …  dirt off your shoulders … I laughed back. They were hooting and hollering at my response. So funny.

They returned to 99 Problems, and the scenario where Jay gets pulled over by a cop:

[in a whisper] So I, pull over to the side of the road. I heard, ‘Son, do you know why I am stopping you for?’ he chanted.

My turn. ‘Cuz I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low. Do I look like a mind reader, sir, I don’t know. Am I under arrest or should I guess some more?

Him. You was doin’ fifty-five in a fifty-four.   

We were laughing and laughing and laughing after that, causing quite a stir in the unit with all our noise and carrying-on. The guard on the top tier walked by my cell and doubled checked my last name (it was blasted on a piece of paper stuck to the wall by the night guard). He peered in, and yelled at me to not communicate with other inmates until I was officially cleared.

I protested a little, asking what the problem was.

You guys could be in the same gang and/or under investigation. You could be conspiring. Just shut the fuck up and do as you’re told! He ordered.

The dudes below kept at it, begging me to continue. 

No way, Jose. I was scared.

When I was finally released from The Hole, I was paraded in front of the entire unit by accident (they’re not supposed to do that). Up until that point, no one had seen me (all our cells face the same direction). The dudes in the cell, the ones trading Jay-Z riffs with me, stuffed themselves close to the door to get a look at me. 

WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT? They yelled. A white boy! They laughed.

I smiled and looked back at them, over my shoulder, as I entered the yard … toward the general population of inmates.

It was a hellish experience, and a lot of it I cannot convey well enough in writing. But having that little interchange, that small back-and-forth, gave me some kind of strange hope. It allowed me to focus on what was happening in the NOW rather than worry about what might happen in the future. I try to use that “skill” even these days as I find my way in this new world of mine.

Crazy, huh?

And I mean it.


Originally published January 2014

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