Blog # 8, Part 1: State Prison of Southern Michigan aka Jackson Prison
Blog # 8, Part 1
State Prison of Southern Michigan (SPSM)
Jackson Prison, The Big House, Jacktown
When I finished my second stay at MIPC, I transferred back to the Michigan Reformatory (MR) MR was designated to house younger, inexperienced prisoners and it didn’t take the authorities there long to decide I may be young (20), but I sure wasn’t inexperienced. They quickly transferred me to Jackson Prison.
I had several brief stays at Jackson: in the Reception Center when I first came to prison; and then for a couple of days in the segregation unit where I awaited transfers to other places. I had never been in the main part of Jackson, and on the trip from MR I looked forward to finally seeing what all the cons were talking about. You see, at the time Jackson was the largest walled prison in the world, housing about 6,000 prisoners in 12 cell blocks. Built on 3,496 acres, the 34-foot cement walls containing 12 guard towers. Massive. A small city.
So far during my incarceration I had been at three prisons and on arrival at each I was unchained and escorted first to get a bedroll, then to my assigned cell block. Jackson was different. Off the bus, I was told to report to the Control Center and pointed the way. I walked unescorted and entered a large circular cement building called the Rotunda. The main entrance gates to the prison opened into the Rotunda, and the entire space was supervised by an armed guard from inside an elevated cement and bulletproof enclosure. The Control Center was a small part of the Rotunda, delineated by counters and containing CCTV monitors being watched by nobody. It seems that a place can have CCTV coverage up the ying-yang, but if nobody is watching the monitors they are useless. The rest of the Rotunda was empty and used to muster pre-shift roll call when the guards came on duty. I approached the Control Center desk and talked to a sergeant who gave me a slip of paper with my cell block and cell number and told me to report to the quartermaster for my bedroll, again just pointing the way down a sub-hall off the rotunda. I found the quartermaster and once I had my bedroll I just walked outside into the yard.
Jackson’s walls encircle 57 acres. I entered a section of the yard called ‘peckerwood park’ (in honor of the white guys that hung-out there), which took up less than a quarter of the entire yard. I looked at the piece of paper the sergeant gave to me and read I was assigned to 3-Block North, 4th gallery. I had no idea where my assigned block and cell were so I just started walking. Straight away I met a guy I knew and had done business with from Marquette and he asked where I was locking. I showed him the piece of paper and he pointed to 3 Block…I was walking in the right direction. He motioned for me to sit on a bench and talk, but I said I needed to report to my cell block before guards there started looking for me. He laughed and said nobody in 3-Block even knows I’m supposed to be there until I check in on my own. I was astounded by the freedom of movement afforded prisoners, and the lack of accountability for prisoner location. It wouldn’t be many years to come before this relaxed attitude toward prisoner whereabouts was a major contributor to the rape and murder of a female guard.
We sat relaxed and talked about what Jackson was like when he shifted the topic to when I was going to start up my drug trade at Jackson. I laughed and said, “Man, I just got off the bus. I don’t even have my property yet and you’re asking me when I’m going to get started?” He was black and explained to me that though the prison was full of drugs, the Mexicans had control and wouldn’t sell large quantities only to other Mexicans, that non-Mexicans could only buy small amounts at a time.
I asked him if he had money and he showed me three $100 bills. He was after marijuana and said it sold for $100 an ounce, or 140 tokens (prison plastic currency). I asked about the count and he said each ounce had 18 spoons (a regular kitchen spoon, filled level). Sounded good and I was interested. I asked him the name of the Mexican who had the stuff and he told me the guy’s name and the name of the dealer’s runner, both of whom coincidentally locked in 3-Block North. I asked my friend what it was worth to him if I could get him an ounce. He said two spoons. I told him to give me the money and I would talk to the dealer.
I entered 3-Block and reported to the guard at the desk; he said I wouldn’t get my property until tomorrow so I could throw my bedroll in my cell and go to the yard. Instead, after going to my cell, I found the drug dealer and introduced myself. His cell door was open and he was listening to the radio. Turns out he was also from Saginaw and his older brother was married to one of my cousins. Immediate rapport. He asked if I was interested in making money and said he could put a little something in my hands. I told him I was no petty dealer, didn’t care to take risks for little gain, and that I had a deal for him. I said I wanted to get an ounce and asked him what he would give me to sell such a quantity. He immediately said 4 spoons. I asked about the count and he said his packages were supposed to have 18 spoons, but that they had 22 because his wife did the packaging and was too generous. He added he didn’t want to take the time and risk to adjust the packages. I asked if the dope was poor quality and he said it was excellent Mary J. I added up in my head that I would make $100 for selling the ounce: Dope goes for $10/spoon, the bag is 4 spoons heavy, the dealer would give me 4 spoons for selling it, and the buyer would give me 2 spoons. He gave me an ounce of weed and I said we would settle-up what he owed me later. I immediately went to my cell and removed 4 spoons from my bag and tried to hide it in my empty cell.
I returned to the yard and sold my friend the dope and asked if he wanted more. He said, “Yes, wait here” and left only to return minutes later with three other guys in tow. I took orders from all of them (raising my cut from two spoons per bag to three) and returned to the dealer on fourth tier, secured the additional dope, and told him again we would even up later.
I was in Jackson about two hours and I already had $500, not counting the $300 the dealer owed me. I said to myself, “I think I’m going to like this place.” My new customers asked if we could make this business a regular thing and I told them I just arrived and we would see what the future brings.
The sun was out and the sky was an azure blue and the yard felt warm and comfortable. I lingered awhile thinking about my good luck and hoping it would continue. As I mulled over the possibilities I decided it was a waste of time to hope for something, that I had to do things to make what I wanted happen. I left the yard bench and went back to 3-Block and my Dealer/ “Homey” and ‘instructed’ him on what he owed me. He told me he didn’t have any more weed and he would have to owe me two ounces. I said that was unacceptable and that in any event I wanted the $200 cash, which I knew he had.
He said, “I need that green to make payments.”
I pushed his cell door completely open and walked in.
With a scowled face, and changing my tone of voice I said, “So your telling me you had me sell your weed when you knew you wouldn’t pay me.”
I read my anger and said he had a pound of weed coming in tonight and he would even-up with me tomorrow. This got my interest because I knew there was no way for him to get a pound in without staff involvement. I backed out of his cell saying that since we’re almost family I would wait until tomorrow on condition he give me the entire pound to sell.
“I have people lined up and I can sell it in one day.”
“The whole pound,” he said. “It takes my runner a week to do that.”
“That’s because your runner is a racist and will only sell to Mexicans. I sell to anybody. If the money is right, the money is right. But there is one condition.”
“If I sell the pound in a day, in the future you will deal only with me and cut your runner out.”
My Dealer agreed, but I could tell he didn’t think I could get rid of a pound in a day.
I left my Dealer’s cell and took to the yard having decided to walk the entire perimeter. I walked a casual pace, meeting guys I knew from other places as well as the guys I had previously sold dope to. When I got to the handball courts I realized this was the place the Hispanics hung out. There were five Hispanics and I stopped to talk with them when a mixed group of eight black and white guys approached us. The Hispanics saw trouble but I assured them everything was okay. I was gratified to see the Hispanics were not about to back down. The black guys asked if our deal included whites and I said no problem as long as the whites brought the green. The customers gave me $1,600 and I told them it would take me a half hour to get the merchandise. They agree. Total time in the yard: hour-and-a-half. I estimated that unencumbered, it would have taken me an hour to walk the perimeter.
Once I delivered the goods I returned to the Dealer’s cell and showed him the $1,600. I began counting out the $960 he owed me and he started talking fast on how he needed the money to pay off staff. He said he moved a pound a week and had two staff involved, a counselor in addition to the guard and, and that he also paid them off to move his green money out of the prison to his wife.
“Okay,” I said, “from now on we are equal partners and split the cost and profits.”
“My runner isn’t going to like this, but he has had an easy time of it for over a year.”
I said, “Do you want me to explain things to him in person.”
Homey looked at me and shook his head. “No, I’ll take care of it myself.
Jackson Prison was built in the late 1920’s near the heyday of the American Industrial Movement. The thought at the time was that many industries would locate at the prison to make use of prisoner labor. However, before the prison opened, labor unions gaining strength and had the political clout to nix the use of prison labor if it competed with civilian jobs. None-the-less, many “state” industries such as license plates, and printing and furniture making to be sold only to government entities, operated and still existed when I was there. Arriving prisoners went through a classification process where you were expected to hold a job or go to school. A full-time job would interfere with my business, so I asked for a “OO” classification, which meant full-time college classes. I figured I could go to school full-time and still have time for my enterprise.
Instead, I was classified to the Stamp Plant, which made plates and an assortment of metal parts. When I reported for work the civilian supervisor showed me the machine I would operate.
I asked him, “Where is the button that makes the machine work automatically?”
He replied there was no such button and I told him that’s too bad because a soon as college started I was leaving this assignment and if the machine didn’t work by itself, no work would get done.
“Look,” the Supervisor said, obviously in no mood to screw around. “You can make $300 a month on this job and there are a lot of guys wanting it.”
I almost told him I didn’t need the money but thought to myself, “why raise questions?”
He said okay and immediately wrote a memo to Classification to excuse me from the Stamp Plant since I’ll be going to college. During my entire time at Jackson, 1977-1979, I never had an official job.
The drug operation went smooth and the money rolled in steadily. One day my Homey said he wanted to show me something and he took me to the Paint Shop, which was clearly off-limits to prisoners who didn’t work there. The civilian shop supervisor was sitting at his desk, the only person in the place. We walked unchallenged past the supervisor to the back of the shop to where one of those pull-down ceiling ladders. We climbed the ladder into a storage area where a large moldy tarp covered a pile of something. The place had the pungent smell of stale paint because nothing else was going on. Homey pulled aside the tarp to reveal stacks of weed.
“Wow,” I said. “Why wasn’t this stuff being sold?”
Homey looked at me with a wry smile and said, “Guards and counselors quit, transfer, or get promoted or fired, so this is to last us until replacements can be found.” He then explained the entire smuggling process, but left out names, which was okay with me since I didn’t want to know the names.
Let the good times roll! The money flowed in and I spent it as fast as I could. T.V., radio, tape player, cassette tapes, dress boots, leather jacket, gold chains, rings (including a full caret diamond, which I bought off a guy who got it from his wife on visit---visitors would wear jewelry that they then passed to prisoners they were visiting). And the money it took to lead the good life required one hour a week of my time.
Jackson prison was a city: We had a huge theater (where a few years later a female guard was murdered then raped) and an outdoor concert stage; there were tennis courts, handball courts, basketball courts, and regular baseball diamonds. There was even an in-ground swimming pool. There were indoor and outdoor weight lifting areas, a closed-circuit radio station, and a regulation size boxing ring. There were several stores: A regular grocery store, a bodega that carried snacks like pop and chips and ice cream, and a newsstand for papers and magazines. What Jackson didn’t have was trees. I love trees and Jackson’s massive yard had one large oak and a few scrawny pines. The oak was in the corner of the yard and it was hard to get to the shade it provided.
By working my way into the drug business, I met others who were also moving drugs in Jackson: each guy had his own staff person to bring the drugs in. I spent the next few months associating with six major dealers and I didn’t like any of them. I thought they were all cowards. There was one guy, a major dealer everyone thought was dangerous, got his beautiful leather coat stolen. Instead of getting it back himself, he paid another guy a half-ounce of dope to get it back for him. All the major dealers were that way: They saw no reason to dirty their hands when they could hire someone. Frankly, as I got to know them better, I realized they didn’t have the heart to take care of their own problems, and deserved no respect from me. There is a big difference between looking a guy in the face when you stab him, and paying someone to do it for you. I think if a guy warrants being stabbed because of something he did to me, I wanted the satisfaction of doing it myself.
There was one guy I really didn’t care for and I told him so. His father was some big shot listed in 1977 by Newsweek as one of the top ten drug families in Mexico. The article said the dad even had soldiers guarding his dope fields. The son was no tough guy, though he talked a lot of smack.
One day I said to him, “What are you going to do the day someone slaps you around like a broad?”
He didn’t hesitate to say, “I would contact people outside and have one of my assailant’s family members hurt.”
I was upset and told him, “If I’m the one who slaps you and you go for my family, you better remember your still in here with me and nothing will save you.”
My college classes were going well. I kept my GPA up and I made Dean’s List my first semester.
I got appointed as Treasurer of the HASTA (Hispanics Striving Towards Advancement) and decided to run for President against another guy named Andres who had been in Jackson three years to my several months. He was well-known so I felt the need to buy votes, just like a politician in the so-called “free” world, say Betsy DeVos. You could buy anything in Jackson: For $50 you could buy a call-out to the prison hospital where civilian nurses would provide sexual services. It was just like hiring a prostitute out on the street except all these wore white nurse’s uniforms. You know, some of them were good looking. I was introduced to all the “service” nurses, but I didn’t engage. Honestly, given my crime, I thought if we got caught and one of them screamed rape (what else could she do?), nobody would believe it was consensual (let alone paid for) and I would never get out.
I also ran for and was elected External Vice President of the Jaycees at a time when the Jackson chapter was ranked #1 prison chapter in America. I developed a variation of the “scared straight” type program for the Jaycees called JOLT, Juvenile Offenders Learn the Truth. Juvenile offender agencies throughout the Michigan sent young offenders to spend a day talking with a group of prisoners, all “Lifers” at Jackson. Unlike most “scared straight” programs, we didn’t yell at kids we just talked with them calmly. I liked to ask these kids, “What is it about Jackson you want to know before you get here.” They always were adamant that, “I’m not coming here!” and I would say, “You’re clearly on the right path, and personally I would bet it will be sooner than later.” Sometimes I would add, “You’re such a pretty kid someone is going to fall in love with you the day you walk in the gate…and make you his wife.”
Counties were touting the JOLT program as a great success, and maybe it was; after all, we treated the kids with dignity unlike other programs, and dignity goes a long way. All I know is that nationally these ‘scared straight’ programs were being found to be ineffective: Spending a day talking with convicts does not undo growing up in a culture of crime where so many family members are incarcerated that going to prison becomes a rite of passage. Politicians look for cheap, quick solutions to problems that have deep social and economic causes, solutions that are punishment oriented (for what else is being ‘scared straight’ than a form of punishment?) and appeal to their ‘lock ‘em up and throw the key away’ constituents. Correctional boot camp programs are another example of a quick-fix, band-aide, criminal justice fad that didn’t work because they don’t address underlying causes.
Anyway, judges liked JOLT and some contacted the Michigan Department of Corrections to see if they could help some of the prisoner program participants get out of prison. The Department powers that be didn’t like the judges’ meddling and ended the program.
Back to the HASTA election. Despite buying votes, I lost by three votes! Andres the winner was about forty-five years-old, quiet, and not into anything illegal. After the election, I took him aside and said I wanted him to resign before the next meeting, saying he found out he had a pending transfer.
His face registered surprise and he said, “I’m not a punk, I’ll fight!”
I told him, “I personally don’t care if you’re a punk or not, you’re going to resign voluntarily or otherwise.” Adding, as I showed him my knife, “It makes no difference to me.”
Andres resigned at the next meeting, locked-up for protection, and was transferred within a week.
HASTA held another election and this time an older Mexican, a four-time loser in his late 50’s, ran against me. Man, I lost again!
I went to the HASTA office to talk to this new guy; I knew a lot of guys didn’t like the way I handled the matter with Andres, so I decided to avoid offending others. When the newly elected President saw me coming his body tightened with defensiveness. I decided I wasn’t going to ask him to resign, and instead I asked if he would make the Vice President resign and appoint me. He immediately relaxed and said he could make that happen. He had been sitting behind a desk and before I left he showed me a baseball bat he had hidden. I laughed and he put the bat away.
I spent a year bouncing around doing it all: Jaycees, HASTA, college, my drug business, and a social life. I had three women visiting me. What most people don’t realize is that there are several different ways to have sex in a prison visiting room.
One day a black guy by the name of Andre Carter, a fast-talking very manipulative person, approached me with a proposition. Andre knew the Warden and wanted to get permission to run a radio talk show, with all kinds of guests from the outside coming in to be interviewed. I didn’t know the Warden and didn’t understand why Andre needed my involvement, but I thought why not? An opportunity is an opportunity. Andre had me attend a meeting with Warden Charles Anderson and the Deputy Warden William Grant and during our conversation I soon realized that I was there because I was the Jaycee Vice President running JOLT, the HASTA Vice President who got a Federal grant to establish a bilingual library, and a college honor student. In the end the Warden approved the program.
We invited State Representatives and Senators to our talk show, and they all showed up! We even interviewed Attorney General Frank Kelly, who surprised me by telling the Warden he had been interviewed by many radio shows and we were as professional as any of them. I enjoyed that, and so did the Warden. From the day of the Kelly interview on, whenever a radio or TV station came to the facility and the Warden needed a prisoner spokesperson, he called on me.
I’ve heard people talk about a “point in time” when their lives began to change. I don’t mean dramatic events, such as my coming to prison, but rather something subtler taking shape inside you without your full realization until suddenly there it is. One such “point” is when my business partner transferred to a Federal facility to serve out some time. I could have worked with a few other guys, but something inside me said I had to get out of the dope business. I decided I would focus on being a politician. I found I liked being called on to help solve problems, and really liked it when I came up with the solution.
I developed many free-world contacts through HASTA when sponsors would come to our meetings. I also met power people in state government through the talk show. I am still in contact with some of these people, though they are in their 70’s. In college, I completed my associates with honors and was signed-up to work on my Bachelor’s Degree through a program operated by Spring Arbor University. Things were going great until everything came crashing down.