[ 1 ]
Sixteen years hadn’t even done a good job on my voice. It cracked in my head as I tried to explain away the police car driving my one hundred and twenty-six pounds to the Fairfax County Jail. Everything near enough for me to touch gleamed with the color of violence: the black of the deputy’s holstered guns, the broken leather of the seat I sat on and the silver of the cuffs that held my hands before me in prayer. When I closed my eyes I thought about the way the gun felt in my palm. I tried to remember what caliber pistol it was, but couldn’t. It was automatic and weighed nothing in my palm, and I couldn’t figure how something that weighed nothing could have me slumped in the back of a car driving me away from my life. My wrists almost slipped through cuffs that held me captive as jailhouse dangers swirled red in my head.
I want to tell you that I could talk tough, that I was going over every way I knew to say fuck you. But I wasn’t. There were titles of movies and books on my mind:Shawshank Redemption; American Me; Blood In, Blood Out; Makes Me Wanna Holler; Racehoss; The Autobiography of Malcolm X.Every movie or book I’d ever read about prison bled with violence and I knew the list I was making in my head could go on forever. Stories of robbery, rape, murder, discrimination and what it means to not be able to go home. Sixteen years old and I was headed to a jail cell, adding my name to the toll of black men behind bars. Not even old enough to buy liquor or cigarettes, but I knew I’d be stepping into the county jail in minutes and that my moms was at home somewhere crying.
When I tried to part my hands I thought about the violence, about how real it is when a cell door closes behind you at night. I thought about needing a knife, ’cause from what I knew everyone needed a knife. I stared at my shackled feet. I hadn’t seen my Timberlands since the day I was arrested, three months earlier.
I was getting ready to learn what it meant to lock your thoughts inside of yourself and survive in a place governed by violence, a place where violence was a cloud of smoke you learned to breathe in or choked on. Sometimes there’s a story that’s been written again and again, sometimes a person finds himself with a story he thinks will be in vogue forever. The story is about redemption, about overcoming. A person finds that story and starts to write it, thinking it will do him some good to tell the world how it really was. That’s not this story. This is about silence, and how in an eight- year period I met over a dozen people named Juvenile or Youngin or Shorty, all nicknames to tell the world that they were in prison as young boys, as children. We wore the names like badges of honor, because in a way, for some of us, it was all we had to guard us against the fear. And we were guilty and I was just like everyone else: I thought about the edge of a knife.
My world before incarceration was black and white. Suitland, Maryland, the closest thing to the black belt that I’d ever seen. And it wasn’t just that there were no white people in my community, it was that as a kid we always saw the white people around us as intruders or people looking to have power. Teachers, firefighters, cops or the white folks we saw on buses and trains who we imagined driving into D.C. from their nice neighborhoods to work. One night at a mall in Springfield, Virginia, changed my world. It only took thirty minutes. Brandon and I walked into a mall that literally had more white people in it than I’d ever seen at one time. And we had walked in looking for someone to make a victim. Both of us were in high school. We should have been thinking homework, basketball and pretty girls. Driving to the jail brought the night in Springfield fresh to my memory. Somewhere between pulling out a pistol that fit nicely in the palm of my hand, tapping lightly on the window of a forest green Grand Prix and waking the sleeping middle- aged white man with the muzzle of the burner, I committed six felonies. It was February of 1996 and I was a high school junior. I’d never held a gun before and was an honor student who could almost remember every time the police had spoken to me, but I knew none of that mattered as my face pressed against the window of the cruiser.
I wore a sweater of swirling greens and oranges woven and layered as collage; a cheap imitation Gucci that I had buried long ago in my closet. I remember when my moms bought it. I begged for the sweater, thinking if it fooled me it would fool my friends. I was dead wrong. The first time I wore it to school six people joned on me, cut me up so bad that I dumped it under a rack of old clothes and books. It happened a year before I got locked up, when I was in tenth grade and impressing the finest girl in my chemistry class ruled every other ambition. The sweater resurfaced when I needed court clothes. My mother told me that I needed something nice to wear to court. The judges were always white. There may have been black judges but I never saw or stood before one the entire time I trekked back and forth to court. The juvenile judge who watched me stand uncomfortable in the sweater I ended up wearing to the jail didn’t care how I looked. He stared at the charges before me and agreed with the prosecutor to pass me over to adult court before I could speak. It was all policy, a formality that my lawyer knew about. He told me, “Don’t worry. This was a formality I knew was coming. The law says that certain charges are automatically certifiable, and carjacking is one of them, but in Circuit Court the judge will have more discretion.”
What he was really saying was that nothing I wore mattered. Clothes could hide me no more than days of smoking weed made people think I was built for running the streets. The law said the gun, the carjacking, the robbery all made it an argument we couldn’t win. Three things that meant my past didn’t matter and certification as an adult was automatic. It’s like the car, the cuffs, the shackles and even the drive were as good as guaranteed when I pulled a pistol on that sleeping white man.
All I had with me was my body and a black trash bag that an officer took from me as they led me to a bench in a corner. On my lips and in my head was the start of a new language defined by the way words changed meanings, all because I’d decided to make a man a victim. New words likeinmate, state number and juvenile certificationhad crept into my vocabulary. An inmate is what I’d become as soon as the deputies picked me up from the juvenile detention center. It meant I was in the custody of the Fairfax County Jail, and the most important thing anyone needed to know about me was my state number. It was a five- digit number I soon learned meant more than my name. It said I was who I said I was whenever I walked around the jail with the band they attached to my arm.
At Landmark we weren’t inmates, we were juvenile offenders, which was a nice way of saying black boy in jail from what I saw, because that’s all we were at Landmark. Landmark Detention Center was a juvenile facility that housed boys and girls. Mostly the kids were in there for fighting or truancy or selling drugs. There was one white boy in there with us; everyone else was black. Four small units that were as secure as any prison. Everything was electronic and you could only move when told to. But you got to go to school, had to go to school, and the uniform was sweatpants and a T- shirt. That meant if you tried hard enough you could have imagined yourself at an extended camp. Unless of course you were me, given a single cell in the corner and a note on your door that said no roommate because you were waiting to be transferred to the jail.
It didn’t take long for me to move from inside the squad car to inside the jail. Voices jumped around me in a chaos that belongs to jails and prisons. The same officers who’d driven me to the jail were with me. “You know this jail isn’t like the place we’re taking you from. All you kids in there running around trying to be tough. Well, you’re going where they say the tough guys are.” The officer wanted to scare me. He was standing as I sat, looking down and probably imagining a scene from the nightly news of a gun- toting young black man gone crazy. He probably thought about the victim and what they say on TV about black boys who pull guns on people. Fear was a commodity everyone traded in. In three months I’d learned that everyone from lawyers to the judges to the other kids around me thought their power rested in getting someone to fear you. After the arrest warrant had been signed there was only fear and violence.
But there had been fear and violence in my life before. Fights in the streets when my arms stopped working after taking too many jabs, or afternoons I spent running from fights. It all caught up with me when I started believing that fear and violence were the things power was made of, and I wanted to touch it if only for a moment.
Thirty minutes changed my life. It took less than thirty minutes for me to find the sleeping man in his car, and it took less than thirty minutes for me to get to the jail. When I walked in, the rank smell of the place hit my nostrils like the fat end of a bat. It made me feel like a man who’d spent a week sleeping in his own piss and shit, breathing it until shit was the only important thing left in the world. Outside the sun lit up the sky but in there it was past dark. A toothless man in the holding cell across from where I stood drooled and yelled at the bars before him. I was embarrassed. It had taken thirty minutes for me to commit the crime that made me a statistic.Statistic—another word that took on new meaning after I found my hands in cuffs. I was on a bench in the basement of the Fairfax County Jail waiting for an officer to tell me what cell I’d be spending the night in. I was a statistic, another word for failure, and it hurt because no matter what the prosecutors thought, I not only didn’t want to be in jail, I really didn’t want to be the person pulling guns on people. The jail’s smell was funky, but since people were used to the smell eyes kept drifting to me, the young boy sitting on the bench in the corner. The smell was somebody’s breath after they’ve thrown up a plastic cup of Hennessy; piss saturated into someone’s clothes, into their skin; but not as noticeable to them as my shaking hands and fresh face.
“Good luck, kid.” The female officer shook her head as my escorts left. Maybe she heard my mother crying. I watched their backs and only knew they were leaving the drabness of the county jail, walking outside, not even twenty feet, to where the freedom I couldn’t touch shone bright under the sun. I was falling deeper and deeper into a hole I’d dug myself into but couldn’t dig myself out of. If I’d seen that hole three months before, I would have run away from the man sleeping in his car. As I looked around the jail, I realized that my days as a juvenile were done. And they were. Once you were in the system there wasn’t anything saying you came in as a kid. You were just in, shut out with the light of day. All I had behind me were the snatches of small talk exchanged with guards before court dates, where they heard twelve million black voices crying out to a juvenile court judge for mercy. They were tired of the parade.
[ 31 ]
When I looked up again, I’d turned twenty- one and got one birthday card. It was handmade, a black man on the cover raising a black fist. From my folks Freddie and Joel in the block next to me. Freddie and I went back to the hole at Southampton. I hadn’t seen him in years when one day he showed up with a black trash bag full of his property. The cards my family sent to me got there days later, maybe the next week. I was missing years. I’d turned seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty and then twenty- one in prison with nothing to show for it. I’d spent over a year in the hole, read more books than I could count, and watched the hairs on my head begin to turn gray. One morning I noticed a gray eyelash, a gray groin hair. My spirit was anchored to faces that floated behind my eyes when I thought about what time meant: my mother crying, my little sisters seeing me for the first time in years in a visiting room.
Once, I’d argued with someone on a legal issue and decided to take a paralegal course. My mind was working in echoes. I remembered Terrence Johnson and told myself that I’d be the lawyer that he wasn’t. It was about proving something at first. I asked my mom to help me pay for the course. In ten months I’d finished with straight A’s. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t an official accredited course, which meant the classes weren’t recognized by the body that certified paralegals. But it didn’t matter. I’d learned some basics of law. How to research cases and write briefs. And while I was learning the prison system was shaking up. People were getting transferred every day.
I’d finally been out of trouble long enough to think I could get transferred and I was ready to leave. After a while, there’s nothing to do but get vexed at prison’s monotony. I was developing a stack of memories that all had to do with Sussex. People I knew who had died from cancer. The boy with AIDS who was waiting to die. Jones putting the sweetest crossover I’d seen since ninth grade on Steve. I could recall when my cousin was in the visiting room talking to me. A little youngin, Malcolm could have been but thirteen when I last saw him. Then, just as I was ready to get transferred, we were writing each other. He was locked up, certified as an adult for a murder that resulted from a robbery.
Malcolm got thirty- five years. I told myself he wasn’t following the legacy I laid out, but I was the first person on my mom’s side of the family to go to prison. For a while, some of my folks thought I was away at college. Or they just thought I’d disappeared. Or they thought I was the victim of some foul plot by the state. They thought someone snitched on me. It was a gumbo of rumors and maybe if there had been more truth Malcolm would have gone a different route. He was only fourteen when he got sentenced. I felt like my family was getting branded. Like there were certain families that did some things, like go to college and become doctors, lawyers, teachers, and then there was my family: not a college graduate in sight, not a father in sight. Pity is a terrible game to be playing from prison. But when I started to write Malcolm, that’s the game we played. It was pity on paper, and clinging onto the only thing that had given us a rep, the few wild nights in the street, the insanity of what led us to prison.
I was twenty- one and was getting letters from my cousin and one of the childhood friends I hadn’t talked to in years. Both of them were questioning my voice. Tommy, the cat I’d gone to high school with, the brother that was my right- hand man, right there when I lit the first blunt behind the Penn Station apartments. He told me he’d beat a manslaughter rap. That he’d beaten someone to death in a fight outside of a club. It was hard to hear. He’d beat a body, but the real thing was that the kid I remember making a joke out of someone offering him weed was deep in the streets. We’d changed without knowing how or when and we didn’t have a language to talk about that. Instead we talked about words. How I saidcatinstead ofyounginand sometimes I wrote outson. He thought I was trying to sound like I was from New York. Somewhere along the line our identities were lost in the slang we sung and the way we wore our clothes and even in prison I couldn’t escape it.
And just as I read his letter I read my cousin’s letter. Who told me I wasn’t on that thug shit anymore. That I sounded soft. He was on his way to a quarter century in prison and he was telling me that I sounded soft. One of my closest friends from prison had a life sentence.
He came into the system and was christened Juvenile, because he was only sixteen when he got locked up. Years before, when my lawyer was telling me I’d be certified, I thought I was different. I thought I was the only one suffering like that. But I wasn’t. At every prison I met someone who lived under the same conditions. Juvenile had been in the system for ten years when I met him and still carried the moniker that marked him as different from the majority of people who called a jail cell home. One night we were in the cell talking about parole. I’d get so irritated at the way people wanted change but weren’t working for it. Somewhere along the way I’d forgotten how hurt will make you stop moving. I stood on the small bench that was by the even smaller window and looked out into the blackness as we talked. I was running down how he could make first parole when he stopped me. “You think it’s that easy? Right now three percent or less of the people that go up for parole make it.” What was in his eyes was the thing words don’t capture. Some of us weren’t going to go home, and if there is a chance that you won’t go home, that you will never relax in a living room with your loved ones, the world is a different place. And I realized he was a good man who carved his life into a moment he couldn’t escape from. That for months he’d been looking out for me and treating me like a brother with the world curved into a fist and pounding on his head.
I ask myself if it matters what he was locked up for, if society really cares about the blood that’s spilled when black boys turn the streets they ran as a child into a battlefield, if anyone understands that we don’t forget our victims. That the memory of the moment that locked us inside walls that cave our hearts in stays with us forever, and everyone we’ve ever hurt reminds us in our sleep. The truth is the names in this book represent real people, and whatever I say fails to open the cell doors that close behind them.
I wanted to explain some of that to Malcolm and Tommy. But I didn’t. The reality of what prison was had been twisted by what played on TV, or what was on the news. Prison was a multitude of grays that I didn’t describe because at the time I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to ask Malcolm what a thug sounded like, and to talk about the time and what it did to thugs and men alike. The truth was that I’d never been a thug, that it was a façade I wore for a while and got caught up wearing. But where did it come from? Some of us grew up in places that opened the realm of possibility to the insane and inane. To the things that we did at night that left victims and years haunting us.
While I was mulling this over, Juvenile was going about his days like the time wasn’t a bomb ticking in his ear. In a way he had more hope than folks sentenced under the new law. The new law was passed in the mid- nineties when many states abolished parole and went to what they called truth in sentencing. It meant you were going to serve eighty- five percent of the time you were sentenced to, no matter how you behaved, no matter if you were sentenced to sixty years. At least he had a chance at parole. One afternoon on the rec yard I was talking with Righteous, a cat from Newport News, and some guy who had just come in. I’d just finished doing push- ups and pull- ups. Twenty sets of ten pull- ups. Two hundred in all, more than anyone would think was needed but just enough to make us think about time a little less. The new cat claimed he’d gone to Suitland high school. He knew the names of the dudes I’d run with, he knew their stories, too. More than that though, he had twenty- five years in prison and there wasn’t much more that I could say to him.
I was thinking about freedom and he was just starting a life that was going to be about prison more than anything else. We stood by the fence, behind which stood the building that housed the death row inmates. From the windows that stared at us the people on death row could watch us walk a rec yard that they would never touch because their life was reduced to cells and the kennel- like cages reserved for segregated inmates. Righteous had by chance spotted someone in the window he knew. For a few minutes, the two communicated through a makeshift mix of lip reading and sign language. When Righteous asked the man in the cell when he was going home, it was like a silence took over the entire weight pile. I stopped noticing the people running laps around the gravel. I couldn’t hear the people still counting out reps. I watched the face behind the window. I watched him slowly mouth the words “I’m on death row.” I can’t explain the way Righteous’s face dropped into a sense of loss that was so profound he started looking around for a way out. On one side of me was someone I’d gone to school with but couldn’t remember to save my life, just starting a fresh twenty- five- year sentence, and on the other side was a row of windows filled with people on death row. There weren’t enough pull- ups to make sense out of that, and there weren’t enough pull- ups to explain why I hadn’t described this feeling to Malcolm before he caught his case.
In the end it didn’t matter. For weeks vans pulled up to Sussex 1 State Prison and dropped off the men who would walk around those halls for the next couple of years, until they, too, were transferred somewhere else. Among them were those who would take the jobs held by people leaving. Someone would be a houseman and clean showers and toilets for twenty cents an hour. Someone would be the block librarian. Some of them would be in the kitchen. I wouldn’t though, not anymore. One of the vans that dropped them off picked me up and drove me to Augusta Correctional Center. I was twenty- one years old and approaching my last leg. A short- timer with less than three years to up off my back.
Excerpted from A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison by R. Dwayne Betts
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