‘IT’S ME AGAINST THE WORLD’ Part I
The Washington Post
January 30, 1994, Sunday, Final Edition
SECTION: WASHINGTON POST MAGAZINE; PAGE W6
LENGTH: 6860 words
(PART I OF II)
There were several guys crying in the holding cell where I was taken after being sentenced. All were black and all had gotten time. The dude with the lightest sentence, a tall, burly guy with greasy hair, was wailing loudest. He had a measly five years — the sentence I’d hoped for — and was boohooing like a baby. I wanted to strangle him.
We were issued thin mattresses and old, wrinkled jail clothes, and three of us were marched upstairs to a sixth-floor dormitory cell. When the guard closed and locked the doors behind us, I stood there and scanned my new home — I was in jail, the one place in America that black men rule. A gloomy mass of concrete and steel, it was one large open space that looked like an oversized lion’s cage. The largest area was a day room with two steel picnic tables. At eye level in front of the tables, an old black-and-white TV sat on a wooden stand mounted to the bars. Across the Across the room in the far corner were four fully exposed toilets. Another corner held an open area with two doorless shower stalls. Opposite that section was a sleeping area lined with bunk beds, like in an Army barracks.
The cellblock at the Norfolk jail held about 35 inmates. All of them were black. It felt like I was in the Motherland with all those black faces around there. Some guys sat at tables in the day room and watched TV, played cards and talked quietly. When we entered the cellblock, a few inmates glanced up at us, then went back to what they were doing. A few others watched closely in the way that jail house veterans study newcomers. I learned over time that seasoned inmates can tell a lot about a guy just by how he acts and what he does when he first walks in. They can tell if it’s his first time in jail or if he’s a regular. They can sense whether he’s scared to death or fearless. A new guy’s demeanor determines who approaches him, when, and how.
An inmate walked over to the three of us and motioned for us to follow him to the sleeping area. He showed us vacant bunks, then watched while we got settled in. I picked a lower bunk near a corner, flopped down my mattress and dived onto it. I stretched out on my back, put my hands behind my head, stared up at the ceiling and thought about my predicament. I thought, Twelve years. I’m never gonna make it. I couldn’t conceptualize it. Every time I tried to register the length of the sentence, my brain rejected it, spit it back out. I thought again about the trial. The judge had acted like he took it personal that I robbed that McDonald’s. I understood what that was all about: Just eight months earlier, I had shot and nearly killed a guy called Plaz, a black man, and got a 30-day sentence; I robbed a white business and didn’t lay a finger on anybody, and got 12 years. I got the message. I’d gotten it all my life.
I was startled by a voice nearby. It was the guy who had met us at the door. “Yo, man, what you in for?”
I answered without looking at him. “I got a robbery beef.”
“What’d you rob?”
“Oh yeah? How much time did you get?”
That was the wrong question. “Look, man, I don’t feel like goin’ into all that.”
I turned over onto my side, with my back facing him. He rose and left to interview the other newcomers. I lay there and stared through the bars at the ugly mustard-colored wall across the corridor. There were several long, narrow windows along the length of the wall. From my bunk I could see the night sky illuminated by thousands of speckled city lights. They were fluorescent street lamps and moving headlights from cars going back and forth over the Elizabeth River tunnel-bridge to Portsmouth. I thought, It will be 12 years before I go out there again. Twelve years! I couldn’t believe it. I went to sleep that April night in 1975 wishing I would wake up the next day and come out of this terrible dream.
OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, I noticed that something about this cellblock differed from others I’d been in. There was more order to this one. The inmate who’d greeted me the night before gathered the other newcomers, brought them over to my bunk and explained the workings of the place. He said the cellblock was reserved for “motivated” inmates. Unlike in the Portsmouth jail, where guys could stay in bed all day and sleep their time away, inmates in this cellblock were required to “program” throughout the day. Inmates who went through the program could earn “good time,” days subtracted from their sentence. It was something the jailers allowed to help control inmates, to provide an incentive for them to behave. “Guys from all over the jail try to get transferred here because we run the best shop in the house,” the inmate boasted. “We program hard.”
A guy called Chicago ran the cellblock. He was a tall, muscular guy with a thick Southern accent, and he was very articulate. The jailers addressed him by some alias, but the inmates had named him “Chicago” because that’s where he was from. The word was, he was a street-gang leader who had gotten busted in Norfolk for robbing a bank. Unlike me and my Portsmouth stickup partners Nutbrain and Charlie Gregg, he was supposedly a black revolutionary who had done it for a cause. Like me, most of the guys in the jail had never spent time around a revolutionary before. We all hated the white man, but few were committed to fighting him in an organized, disciplined way.
We had meetings in the cellblock, and when Chicago spoke, everybody sat quietly. He talked about what was going right and wrong in the cellblock. He talked with such authority that you assumed he should be in charge. Everybody paid attention, from the hardest-nosed thugs to the most bombed-out junkies. I learned over time that he knew his stuff. He was well versed in philosophy, politics and law. He knew how to organize against the system. I’d never seen a black man who could handle white people so well. He spoke to white jailers like he was their equal, like they weren’t keeping him locked up so much as he was letting them detain him for a while.
Chicago had real power in the jail. When he summoned guards to the cellblock, they came. He could have inmates shipped out of the cellblock at will. He had special arrangements with inmate workers in the cafeteria to get the best food. Anybody less dynamic than Chicago would have been rousted by guards at night, taken to a solitary cell and given a thorough ass-whipping to mull over. But if they’d done that to Chicago, it would have started a riot in the jail.
There were no whites in our cellblock. There were so few whites in the jail that the administrators were careful about where they placed them. I think the jailers knew it would have been unwise to put whites in our cellblock with Chicago around. When he preached about the legacy of slavery, he got inmates so fired up that they wanted to strike out, and whites in the cellblock would have been convenient targets.
Chicago also directed our daily “therapy” sessions. The sessions were designed to encourage self-improvement, but he used them for more. He talked about the double standard of justice in America, how blacks regularly got big time for petty crimes and how white boys routinely stole millions and walked. Chicago also rapped about the need for us to challenge inhumane conditions in the jail. He tied the two topics together so eloquently that it made me feel like I was a political prisoner rather than a two-bit stickup man.
We also took time in those therapy sessions to talk about ourselves. Each prisoner took turns on the “hot seat,” where he talked about his background and answered probing questions from other inmates. The object was to get us to look within, to talk honestly about the personality problems and distorted views that landed us in jail.
I learned through those sessions that most of the guys in the cellblock had grown up poor in and around the Church Street area of Norfolk, where my pal Shell Shock and I had done many of our stickups. Many were so poor that they lacked money in their inmate accounts to order toothpaste and other essentials from the canteen. They gambled with cigarettes and bartered to get what they needed. A lot of them were in jail with small bonds that required only $ 100 to $ 700 to get out, but they remained confined for months because they couldn’t scrape up the chump change from family and friends. Few had made it through high school, and a lot of them were functionally illiterate.
The majority of the guys had been arrested for drug-related crimes, but the criminal charges ran the gamut from flimflamming to drug dealing to murder. Many of the guys were longtime hustlers who knew each other from the streets and had previously done prison time together.
THE MOST POPULAR old-head in there was a likable junkie in his early fifties who had been in and out of prison all his life. His name was Moses Battle. He was the elder statesman of the cellblock.
Mo Battle came to my bunk one evening after I’d been on the hot seat. He introduced himself and said he was curious to know how someone who had spent a year in college had wound up in jail. He called me “Youngblood” because I was one of the youngest guys in the cellblock. “Youngblood, you say you from Cavalier Manor?”
“That’s a nice neighborhood . . . I know some people from Cavalier Manor.”
We started talking, and I became as intrigued with Mo Battle as he was with me. “Youngblood, you say you been to college?”
He said, “I got my GED. In the penitentiary. I took some college correspondence courses too.”
Well-spoken and shrewd, Mo Battle was a born teacher who read a lot and loved to share his wisdom with younger guys like me. We spent long hours in the evenings, sitting on our bunks, talking. His favorite subject was philosophy. He saw philosophical meaning in everything. If two guys got into a rumble over food or cigarettes, Mo had a theory about why they’d bumped heads. He theorized a lot about jail guards, whom he hated. He said the difference between guards and inmates was so slight that if you took away the guards’ uniforms you couldn’t tell them apart.
Mo Battle taught me how to play chess. I’d never been exposed to the game on the streets. Like him, the other guys in the cellblock who knew how to play had learned on previous trips to prison.
One day, I made a move to capture a pawn of his and gave Mo Battle an opening to take a valuable piece. He smiled and said, “You can tell a lot about a person by the way he plays chess. People who think small in life tend to devote a lot of energy to capturing pawns, the least valuable pieces on the board. They think they’re playin’ to win, but they’re not. But people who think big tend to go straight for the king or queen, which wins you the game.” I never forgot that. Most guys I knew, myself included, had spent their entire lives chasing pawns. The problem was, we thought we were going after kings.
Mo Battle also pointed out the racial symbolism in chess. “The white pieces always move first, giving them an immediate advantage over the black pieces, just like in life,” he said.
The most important thing that Mo Battle taught me was that chess was a game of consequences. “Don’t make a move without first weighing the potential consequences,” he said, “because if you don’t, you have no control over the outcome.”
I’d never looked at life like that. I had seldom weighed the consequences of anything until after I’d done it. I’d do something crazy and then brace myself for the outcome, whatever it happened to be. I had no control over the outcome and no control over my life. When I thought about it, that was a helluva stupid way to live.
I was fascinated by Mo Battle’s range of knowledge. It made me wonder why he wasn’t doing more with his life than being a jail house sage. After I got to know him better, I asked him about the contradiction I saw in him: “Yo, Mo, if you got all this knowledge, why ain’t you runnin’ the country?”
As always, he came at me straight. ” ‘Cause, Youngblood, I’m one a those dudes that got all the knowledge in the world while I’m locked up, but I can’t execute when I get out.”
“Why can’t you execute?”
The sparkle in Mo Battle’s eyes dimmed. ” ‘Cause, man, I’m a junkie.”
By his own admission, he was a slave to heroin, which he and other junkies pronounced “her-ron.” He’d already written off his life as a failure. “I’ve already blown it, Youngblood. If I had gone down a different road, I think I could’ve been a college professor or a lawyer. But I got dealt a different hand. I’m a junkie. I got to have that her-ron.”
He’d say to me, “Don’t be like me, Youngblood. You got a chance, man.”
I seriously doubted he was right about that.
ORDINARILY, after being sentenced, guys are shipped away to some prison, but the system was so overcrowded that we in the cellblock had to wait for openings at prison compounds. I spent six miserable months in the Norfolk jail, and after a while the days and nights merged into one continuous run, measured by the meals we ate and the routine we followed. For me, the toughest days were weekends, when I normally would be out partying. I’d lie on my bunk and listen to tunes playing on a portable radio in the cellblock and wonder what was going on in the free world. The singer Minnie Riperton had a hit song out that depressed me. She’d sing, “Lovin’ you is easy ’cause you’re beautiful . . .” I thought about my girlfriend Liz every time I heard that song. It seemed that deejays played it 50 times a day, just to mess with me.
I marked time and kept up with what was going on outside by the letters I received from Liz: I learned that a popular guy in Portsmouth named Sweetwolf got 40 years; two guys I grew up with got life sentences for robbery and murder; Shane got into a fight at Nick’s pool hall downtown and went back and shot out the windows; Cooder caught a robbery charge. It seemed that guys I knew were going to the penitentiary and getting killed like there was nothing to it.
Despite the many ways I learned to keep busy, time dragged by slowly. I spent much of that time in denial, believing that something would happen to get me out, that some high-level white people somewhere were going to review my case and realize that the punishment was too harsh for the crime. I had Liz and others write the judge, and even the governor of Virginia, asking them to reconsider my case. But time passed and nothing happened. When reality hit me, I settled in to do my time.
I was lying on my bunk one Wednesday, flipping through a magazine, when a guard appeared at the cell. “McCall, front and center! You’ve got a visitor!”
I jumped up, rushed to the sink for a glimpse in the mirror and went through the opened gate. The guard escorted me to the tiny visiting room. When I stepped inside, I saw Liz and my parents on the other side of a thick glass partition that separated us. Bampoose, my grandmother, appeared from behind them and waved.
I waved back and took a seat between several other inmates who were talking quietly through telephones to family members and other loved ones. I lifted the receiver and spoke to Liz. “Hey, baby. How ya doin’?”
“I’m all right. Monroe [our son, then 2 years old] is okay. Everybody’s doing fine. How about you?”
“I’m fine.” Actually, I was annoyed.
Liz picked up on it and said, “What’s the matter?”
I asked, “Why did y’all bring Bampoose? I didn’t want her to see me in here like this.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I know. But she wanted to come, so we couldn’t say no.”
We talked a few minutes more, then my parents took turns at the telephone. Finally, my stepfather helped Bampoose to the seat. I’d only been locked up a few months, but it seemed Bampoose had aged a lot since I had seen her. She looked frail and brittle. She put the phone to her face, smiled weakly and said, “Hey, boy. How you doin’?”
“I’m fine, Bampoose. How ’bout you?”
“All right. They treatin’ you good in here?”
“Yeah. The food ain’t great, but I’m all right.”
As I spoke, I felt myself choking inside. In all the other previous weekly visits from family and friends, I’d been able to put on a strong face, but the sight of Bampoose weakened me. I was ashamed for her to see me in jail. For all our lives, Bampoose had quietly set an example of hard work and sacrifice in our family. In her dignified way, she’d always been there to lend support to everybody and done what she could to help. Everybody wanted Bampoose to think well of them, and I was no exception. There was a song that reminded me of her. It was a tune by the Spinners titled “Sadie,” which was Bampoose’s first name. The song was about a woman who’d provided strength and support in her family. I thought about Bampoose whenever I heard that song.
Sadie, don’t you know we love you, sweet Sadie?
Place no one above you, sweet Sadie . . .
It bothered me to think that she might not live to see me get out.
I HAD KNOWN that with Chicago in charge there was always a possibility of trouble, and sure enough, the kettle blew. Fed up with deteriorating conditions, Chicago called for a boycott of activities until some of the problems were addressed. Under his instructions, no one would go into or out of the cellblock for anything until we got some results. We drafted a list of demands that had to be met: Concrete steps had to be taken to ease overcrowding, improve the quality of our food and give us prisoners more time to research our cases in the jail’s law library. Chicago had requested a meeting with the jail administrator, but the administrator refused to see us.
Then, in a show of force, a battalion of guards in helmets and riot gear stood menacingly outside the cellblock entrance, brandishing clubs. The floor captain called out to the inmates bunched up near the entrance: “You all gonna cooperate, or do we have to come in and get you?”
Chicago spoke for us. “What you think we gonna do? You got to come in here and get us. And don’t forget, you got to take some to get some.”
When it became clear that the inmates were solidly united, the floor captain tried the old divide-and-conquer routine. “I realize that some of you fellas probably don’t want to be in with the troublemakers . . . All those who want to go to another cellblock can step forward now and we’ll transfer you, no questions asked.”
For a long moment there was silence. Then several inmates stepped forward and walked through the cage leading to the door. In my heart, I wanted to leave too. I was afraid that if I took part in a riot, I’d lose my good-time or blow my chances of making first parole. But I couldn’t bring myself to punk out.
When the inmates who had chosen to had left, the guards prepared tear-gas guns to shoot into the cellblock. Following Chicago’s instructions, we all dampened towels and wrapped them around our faces to protect us from the gas. Just when it appeared the rumble was about to start, the administrator appeared. He pretended that he had just learned of the disturbance and asked what was going on.
Chicago spoke. “You know what’s goin’ on. We requested a meeting with you to talk about our grievances, and you sent your henchmen instead.”
“That’s fine,” he told us. “But I can’t have you taking over my jail . . . Get some representatives together and come on down to my office and talk.”
We picked Chicago, Mo Battle and a few others. They left instructions that if they didn’t return by the day’s end, we should tear up the place. With that done, the standoff ended.
As a result of the meeting, some of the demands were addressed. Inmates were reshuffled to ease overcrowding. Jail officials claimed to have improved the food, but I saw no noticeable difference. The most significant change was our increased ability to use the jail’s law library. At least once a week now, inmate representatives were allowed to go there for a few hours and do legal research for themselves and other inmates. Because I was considered “educated,” I was among the representatives chosen to do research.
Of course, the jail administrator won the final battle. Under the guise of easing overcrowding, he changed the makeup of the cellblock. I was sent to another cellblock down the hall. I don’t know what happened to Chicago, Mo Battle and the others after that. I never saw or heard from them again.
ONE NIGHT, the familiar sound of jangling keys echoed outside my new cellblock. I looked up and saw two white men walking briskly down the hallway. One was a jail guard. The other, walking a step or two ahead, was a tall, influential-looking man who appeared to be in his fifties. Wearing an expensive suit and a white shirt unbuttoned at the collar, the man looked like he had just ended a long, tiring business day. When the two reached the entrance, the guard opened the door, let the man inside, then closed and locked the gate. The man stood there for a long moment, sighed wearily and scanned the room.
By now, everybody in the cellblock had turned to study the newcomer. There were a few other whites in the cellblock, but he was different from anybody I’d seen come through those gates. Everything in this man’s dress and manner suggested that he came from the upper reaches of a world I had only read and talked about. He had that saunaed, pampered look about him and seemed to be the kind of white man who was unaccustomed to being inconvenienced, let alone locked up.
Apparently unnerved by the prisoners’ glares, the newcomer turned around, leaned his head against the cell bars and stared out into the empty hallway. The guard returned minutes later and handed him a mattress and a set of crumpled jail clothes. A white inmate walked over and steered the new man to an empty bunk. They chatted quietly a moment, then the inmate walked away, leaving him there to get settled. I learned later from that inmate that my initial take on the newcomer was on the money: An executive at some high-powered business firm, the man had been busted for a white-collar rip-off.
He sat on his bunk and looked around, bewildered. For him, the world had turned upside down and inside out: Black people were in the majority, and they ran things; white people were in the minority, and they were oppressed. Clearly, he had never dreamed he’d spend a minute even passing through our world.
He stayed anchored to his bunk the remainder of the night and part of the next day. He was still glued there that afternoon when we gathered in the day room to begin our group therapy session. Just as we were about to start, a guy called Titty Head (his head was shaped like a woman’s breast) shouted to the newcomer: “Yo, Mr. Executive! I know you ain’t used to bein’ told what to do, but you gotta bring your pompous ass out here just like everybody else!”
The man’s pasty white face turned beet red. With all eyes on him, he rose, walked slowly out of the sleeping area and took a seat at one of the steel tables. We started the session, sending inmates to the hot seat. After several guys had spoken, Titty Head turned to the newcomer. “Okay, Mr. Executive, it’s your turn to bare your soul.”
I knew what Titty Head was doing. Everybody knew. He was taking a rare chance to strike back at somebody who represented the system that made his life hell. This was his once-in-a-lifetime shot, a chance to get even, and he intended to milk it for all it was worth. We asked the man a lot of offensive, deeply personal questions, and he responded, trying to hide his resentment. Titty Head in particular hit him with a lot of questions framed more in the form of accusations. “I bet you dog niggas out on the job every chance you get, don’t you?!”
Throughout the grilling, the few other whites in the cellblock kept quiet, taking care not to jeopardize their own fragile safety. I sat watching, enjoying the hell out of it, loving the sight of a powerful white man squirming in the clutches of powerless blacks. I suspected he felt indicted by his whiteness as never before, and I hoped he felt at that moment the same way I’d felt for much of my life: like an alien in a hostile world where he couldn’t win; like the victim of recurring injustices against which there were no appeals.
THERE WERE MOMENTS in that jail when the confinement and heat nearly drove me mad. At those times, I’d slap-box with other inmates until I got exhausted, or play chess until my mind shut down. When all else failed, I’d pace the cellblock perimeter. Sometimes, other inmates fighting the temptation to give in to madness joined me, and we’d pace together, round and round, and talk for hours about anything that got our minds off our misery.
Eventually I noticed that some inmates broke the monotony by volunteering for certain jobs in the jail. Some mopped the halls, and others worked in the dispensary or the kitchen. When the inmate librarian was released from jail, I asked for and was given his job. I began distributing books on the sixth floor as part of a service provided by the Norfolk Public Library. A couple of times a week, I pushed a cart to each cellblock and let inmates choose books and place orders for literature not on the cart. I enjoyed the library work. It gave me a chance to get out into the halls and walk around, and to stick my face to the screens on the floor windows and inhale fresh air.
Beyond the short stories I’d read in high school, I hadn’t done much reading. One day, shortly after starting the job, I picked up a book featuring a black man’s picture on the cover. It was titled Native Son, and the author was Richard Wright. I leafed through a few pages in the front of the book, and couldn’t put it down. The story was about a confused, angry young black man named Bigger Thomas whose racial fears lead him to accidentally suffocate a white woman. In doing so, he delivers himself into the hands of the very people he despises and fears.
I identified strongly with Bigger. He was 20, the same age as me. He felt the things I felt, and, like me, he wound up in prison. The book’s portrait of Bigger captured all those conflicting feelings — restless anger, hopelessness, a tough facade among blacks and a deep-seated fear of whites — that I’d sensed in myself but was unable to express. Often, during my teenage years, I’d felt like Bigger — headed down a road toward a destruction I couldn’t ward off, beaten by forces so large and amorphous that I had no idea how to fight back.
I read that book every day, and continued reading by the dim light of the hall lamps at night, while everyone slept. On that early morning when I finished reading Native Son, which ends with Bigger waiting to go to the electric chair, I broke down and sobbed like a baby. There was one passage that so closely described how I felt that it stunned me. It is a passage where a lawyer is talking to Bigger, who has given up hope and is waiting to die:
“You’re trying to believe in yourself. And every time you try to find a way to live, your own mind stands in the way. You know why that is? It’s because others have said you were bad and they made you live in bad conditions. When a man hears that over and over and looks about him and sees that life is bad, he begins to doubt his own mind. His feelings drag him forward, and his mind, full of what others say about him, tells him to go back. The job in getting people to fight and have faith is in making them believe in what life has made them feel, making them feel that their feelings are as good as those of others.”
After reading that, I sat up in my bunk, buried my face in my hands and wept uncontrollably. I cried so much that I felt relieved. It was like I had been carrying those feelings and holding in my pain for years, keeping it pushed into the back of my mind somewhere.
I was unaccustomed to dealing with such deep feelings. Occasionally, I’d opened up to Liz, but not a lot. I was messed up inside, empty and afraid, just like Bigger. Native Son confirmed for me that my fears weren’t imagined and that there were rational reasons why I’d been hurting inside.
I developed through my encounter with Richard Wright a fascination with the power of words. It blew my mind to think that somebody could take words that described exactly how I felt and put them together in a story like that. Most of the books I’d been given in school were about white folks’ experiences and feelings. I spent all that time learning about damned white folks, like my reality didn’t exist and wasn’t valid to the rest of the world. In school, the only time we’d really focused on the lives of black people was during Black History Week, which they set aside for us to learn the same old tired stories about Booker T. Washington and a few other noteworthy dead black folks I couldn’t relate to. But in Native Son I found a book written about a plain, everyday brother like myself. It inspired me to look for more books like that. Before long, I was reading every chance I got, trying to more fully understand why my life and the lives of friends had been so contained and predictable, and why prison — literally — had become a rite of passage for so many of us.
I was most attracted to black classics, such as Malcolm X’s autobiography. Malcolm’s tale helped me understand the devastating effects of self-hatred and introduced me to a universal principle: that if you change your self-perception, you can change your behavior. I concluded that if Malcolm X, who had also gone to prison, could pull his life out of the toilet, then maybe I could too.
Up to that point, I’d often wanted to think of myself as a baad nigger, and as a result, I’d tried to act like one. After reading about Malcolm X, I worked to get rid of that notion and replace it with a positive image of what I wanted to become. I walked around silently repeating to myself, “You are an intelligent-thinking human being; you are an intelligent-thinking human being . . . ,” hoping that it would sink in and help me begin to change the way I viewed myself.
Malcolm X made his conversion through Islam. I’d seen Muslims selling newspapers and bean pies on the streets, but I didn’t know anything about their religion. I was drawn to Christianity, mostly because it was familiar. I hadn’t spent much time in church. It seemed that all they did in churches I’d been to was learn how to justify suffering at the hands of white folks. But now there were Christian ministers active at the jail, and I became interested. They came around about once a week and talked to inmates through the bars, prayed with them and read Scripture. I started talking with them about God and about life in general.
It wasn’t hard to accept the possibility that there was a higher force watching over me. When I looked back at my life, I concluded that there had been far too many close calls — times when I could have offed somebody or gotten killed myself — for me to believe I had survived solely on luck. I wondered, Why didn’t that bullet strike Plaz in the heart when I shot him? Why didn’t I pull the trigger on that McDonald’s manager when he tried to get away? And why wasn’t I on the corner the night my stick partners were shot? Unable to come up with rational answers to those questions, I reasoned that God must have been pulling for me.
ALTHOUGH I’D RESISTED the idea of marriage when I was on the street, near the end of my six-month stint in the Norfolk jail I was eager to take the vows with Liz. I came up with a lot of reasons to justify wanting to do it, but the bottom line was, on some level I wanted to make sure she’d stay around and help me do my time. Prisoners often cling to anybody they think can help ease the pain of doing time. I saw dudes in prison claim to fall madly in love with old women friends they didn’t look at twice on the streets.
When I raised the idea of marriage to Liz in a letter, she eagerly agreed. She’d wanted to get married before then. We’d gotten as far as the parking lot leading to the justice of the peace office once, then I made up some lame excuse to back out, leaving her in tears.
Liz and I got our blood tests and were moving forward with the planned jail house wedding ceremony when something unexpected happened. One fall morning in October, a week or so before the wedding date, a guard came to the cellblock entrance and shouted, “McCall, pack your bags!” It was my day to be shipped off to prison, and any thoughts of marriage were suddenly overshadowed.
I was handcuffed and shackled to several other inmates and taken to a waiting van that had thick mesh wire covering the rear windows and contained two wooden benches on either side of the rear loading area, where we sat. We rode through the Norfolk tunnel and into Portsmouth, then headed onto Interstate 264. Midway along the highway, I caught glimpses of Cavalier Manor near Victory Boulevard. It felt creepy riding past my old stomping ground. It was a painful reminder that my life was now controlled totally by other people.
We got to Southampton Correctional Center, 80 or so miles south of Portsmouth, and were taken to a reception and diagnostic center, a basement facility called the Receiving Unit. There I was assigned a prison number: 10-63-83. That number became more important to me than my name. It was used to identify my mail; guards addressed me by it when calling me to the visiting room; it was stenciled onto my clothes and stamped into my brain. Years later, when I got out of prison, I used part of it as my secret computer code at work, and I have used variations of it for combination locks and bank card codes.
Unlike prisoners in the general population at Southampton, who went in and out of their buildings every day, Receiving Unit inmates remained indoors round the clock, except at mealtimes. Each day we marched single file down the long sidewalks to the cafeteria to eat. Like clockwork, the established Southampton inmates lined up along the sidewalks at our evening mealtime to study us newcomers as we walked past. Some wolves whistled and taunted guys who looked sweet or scared to them. “Yo, hey, baby! Hey! What’s your name? You need some candy or cigarettes? You need somebody to take care a you?” Others looked for friends or relatives they’d heard were coming through the Receiving Unit. Several times, I spotted homeboys. We acknowledged each other with waves and nods, but we weren’t allowed to stop and talk.
Every other day or so, a handful of guys were shipped out of the Receiving Unit to other institutions or sent upstairs into the general population at Southampton. Administrators wouldn’t tell us in advance where we’d be shipped to serve our time. I wanted to stay at Southampton, where there were lots of homeboys from Portsmouth and Cavalier Manor. Eventually, I got my wish.
On the day I arrived on the yard, a group of the homeboys — Joe Ham, Bonaparte, Feetball, Marvin, Joe Burns, Pearly Blue, Tony Rome and Chilly Bear — were standing around waiting, eager to hear the latest word from the streets. Some of those guys had been locked up for years and had no idea how much the block had changed since they’d left. We talked for hours and caught up on each other’s lives. They offered to help me adjust in any way they could: choice food stolen from the kitchen, specially pressed clothes from the laundry. “Anything you need, homeboy, just let us know.” I went to my cell that evening riding a cloud.
EXCEPT FOR THE EVER-PRESENT iron bars and the tall barbed-wire fence surrounding the place, Southampton vaguely resembled a college campus. It had five dormitory buildings, a large cafeteria, an administration building, a canteen and a chapel, all of which ringed a huge courtyard.
My new living quarters were in a long building painted an ugly lime green inside and lined from front to back with jail cells on two tiers. I was placed in a second-tier cell about the size of your standard bathroom. It contained a steel bunk with a paper-thin mattress, a small knobless sink, a metal storage cabinet and a seatless commode placed near the cell door in full view of everybody who walked past. The cell was cramped, but it was mine. After living in dormitories for half a year, I felt like I was at the Waldorf.
Inmates lived in two types of buildings. There were three C buildings, which had cells, and two R buildings, which had rooms. Southampton administrators had instituted a behavior-modification system where they moved inmates gradually from C-1 to more comfortable buildings and granted more privileges as inmates went for stretches of time without getting into trouble.
Inmates in C-1, where I started, were locked in their cells evenings and let out only to shower. Those who kept a clean record for, say, four months were “promoted” to the C-2 building, where they were allowed to play cards, mingle and watch TV. Most inmates worked to get to the top of the two R buildings. They got their own room with a key, and were granted more freedom to come and go as they pleased.
C-1 was the wildest building at Southampton. More than half the guys there were old-timers. Some of those cats had so much time to serve that they had no hope of getting out and no incentive to follow rules. They couldn’t care less if they got into a fight and made a short-timer miss parole. The hard-nosed among them walked around posturing like they were the baaddest niggers in the world, wearing vicious scowls and repeating Southampton’s macho credo: “If you ain’t no killer, don’t [expletive] with me.”
That bunch didn’t worry me. I knew many of them were frontin’, playing crazy-nigger roles to keep pressure off themselves. What concerned me most were the cats who were truly insane. Like the one inmate who walked around, eyes bulging, staring at the sky, and the many others who had that long-gone, faraway look. I wondered if one of them, in a fit of blind hysteria, might shank somebody out of the blue.
In those first few months in C-1, I spent a lot of time taking the pulse of prison life, learning to identify the wolves, the hustlers, the thumpers, the loudmouth bluffs, the thieves and the few progressive inmates in my building. From my second-floor perch, I saw all kinds of transactions among guys handing off contraband and paying off debts with cigarettes and cookies as they passed each other on the first floor.
By watching others’ mistakes, I also learned some of the do’s and don’ts of prison life: like, don’t be seen getting too chummy with administrators — it makes the hustlers paranoid. And don’t wear slingshots. That’s the prison name for men’s briefs. It never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with them until I saw a white inmate, a newcomer like me, walk past my cell on his way to the showers wearing Fruit of the Looms. When everybody started whistling at him, I got the message: Anything tight-fitting is an invitation to trouble.
I also learned that some prison guards preyed on inmates as much as prisoners preyed on each other. One night, I was reading by the light of the hall lamps. A white prison guard walked quietly to the nearby cell of a known black homosexual, glanced around nervously, then unlocked the door and let the inmate out. He escorted the inmate toward the solitary confinement cells. They remained there a good half-hour before the guard returned the inmate to his cell. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what they had done.
I spent most of my time reading, writing letters and memorizing new words. After struggling through Das Kapital, by Karl Marx, I realized that my limited vocabulary made me miss the full meaning of much that I read. I decided that whenever I came across an unfamiliar word, I’d stop reading, look it up in the dictionary, memorize it and use it in a sentence before I resumed reading. I then recorded the new words in a loose-leaf notebook and practiced using them in conversations. It took me months sometimes to get through a single book, but my speed and comprehension got better over time.
At some point in my reading, I ran across Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” which was so inspiring to me that I memorized and recited it as my mantra every day. It’s ironic that I got so deep into something written by a person who is widely considered a racist. But the poem has no racist overtones. In fact, it has a universal appeal. That poem challenged me to reexamine self-imposed limitations and encouraged me to fight nagging fears that I had ruined my life beyond repair. I recited it to myself sometimes after visits from Liz and my son, Monroe. I recited it when I felt discouraged or blue. Later, when I got out of prison and went through other hard times working with white folks and trying to find my way, I recited it to help me keep perspective. One of my favorite sections in that poem said:
If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same . . .
(END OF PART I)
NAME: NATHAN MCCALL
LOAD-DATE: January 30, 1994
GRAPHIC: ILLUSTRATION, AMY GUIP; PHOTO, MARY ELLEN MARK
Copyright 1994 The Washington Post