Michael Jackson is in a good mood. It’s a muggy Saturday afternoon downtown, and he’s just been released from jail at Front and C Street after six months inside. “I was in for narcotics. My friends are dealers. I was just standin’ [on a street corner] with a beer and my friends ran. The police found dope ten steps away from me and charged me because my friends ran. It was crack cocaine and a little PCP. It wasn’t even my drugs. I work — I don’t sell dope. It was at 33rd and J, where the police got knocked out two weeks ago. Since they did that, the police say they’re takin’ all the people that know those guys to jail.”
Jackson’s charges were dismissed the day before his release. “I beat it in court. First I had a public defender, then my mom got me a paid attorney. It cost $1000, and that’s how I got free. With the public defender I woulda been doin’ two years. I was charged with the sale of narcotics without them even seein’ one transaction. All they seen me doin’ was put a beer up to my mouth, and I was in the wrong for bein’ on private property. The judge set bail at $65,000. I fought it and didn’t make no deals, and that’s why I was in for six months.”
At 5´6˝ and 120 pounds, Jackson is small but taut. He smiles a lot and gesticulates with his hands for emphasis. In spite of his long stay before dismissal, he shows no signs of bitterness. He often laughs as he describes his life behind bars. “It stinks, man, because of the bums inside there. The clothing stinks. You only get to change every four days. It’s hard to sleep at night. The food is shit.”
Jail time is structured into a routine — a routine made easier for Jackson as a trustee. This earned him the privileges of the laundry and kitchen. “They wake you up at 4:00 — I was a food server. I’d pull the trays in, make sure everybody’s up, feed everybody. I ask ’em one time, ‘Do you want it? If you don’t want it, it’s mine.’ After breakfast, the rest of the inmates go to their bunks, and we sweep the floors. We put the cleaning materials back, sleep three hours, and then they wake us up at 8:00 and let us watch TV. Lunch is at 10:00. Then we do the same thing after lunch. Recreation time comes at 1:00. I’d do a lot of things — cut black peoples’ hair. We get to play games — Yahtzee, checkers, chess, dominoes. I’d gamble at dominoes to get more food, but my favorite game was Scrabble.
“Dinner is at 4:00. We play dominoes and watch movies until 10:00. Then lights out. But they never turn the lights out. They just dim ’em to medium. I don’t even sleep. I just kept wakin’ up. I have to get up a lot at night and tell people to shut up. The guards won’t do anything. They’re out of the room and it’s just us.”
Most of Jackson’s recreational time was spent trying to build his case. “Tryin’ to find a witness is hard. I was tryin’ to find someone that seen me or seen that officer or seen those guys run. I’d hustle friends, makin’ sure these witnesses really seen it. I don’t want no lyin’ — ‘If you didn’t see it, just stay away.’ A judge can detect that. Any slip-up and I’m through. My mom hit the street and we got one — an old lady. The cops didn’t even know the lady was right there in front of the house. They didn’t care. They said, ‘I know this ain’t your stuff, but you know ’em. I seen you guys sayin’ “Hi” to each other.’ I said, “Well, I’m in the ghetto. When people walk by, I say “Hi” just so they’ll keep goin’!’” Jackson laughs.
At the Wendy’s on First and Broadway, Jackson muses about jail food. “It’s fuckin’ slop, man. You get, like, five fries with some raggy meat. Shitty dinner, lemme tell you! It’s like a Chinese plate, and it looks like there’s four turds in there and four little potatoes that’s been tore up in a microwave, and that’s it. People get sick off that, man. I lost ten pounds. I gained five back when I started gettin’ stores.”
“Stores” is jail slang for commissary goods. “You can order stuff throughout the week. It’s good, but it’s expensive. Out here, you can get ten soups for a dollar, but they charge $5 for 12. Kool-Aid is outrageous. They’ll fill a cup for four bucks. But the jail food — you get this ‘shit on a shingle’ with some fuckin’ meat that looks like diarrhea!”
Almost everything in jail is more expensive, even phone calls. “That’s another thing the law should know. They charge, like, $3 or $4 to get in, and you get billed $200 for a week of calls. It’s not like on the outside. There’s only four phones, and you have to wait. There’s so many Mexicans in there, and they might start trouble. There’s only a few blacks and whites in there, and all the Mexicans hog the phones.”
According to Jackson, racial tensions are most contentious with Mexicans. “They’re a bigger [population] than us. They see two whites or two blacks, and they just wanna rush ’em. I hate that! There are gangs. That’s how we come together. If they see us together, they’re not gonna take over.”
There is no love lost between Jackson and the guards. “They’re assholes. There was this time when there were more blacks in the tank and about three whites. So we asked the whites if they wanted to watch MTV, or whatever they want to watch, but the deputy don’t know that. We got this thing goin’ on where we let them have the TV when they want it, and we watch BET [Black Entertainment Television]. So this white deputy saw that we had BET on for two hours, and we were about to let them have MTV for two hours. So he turns it on country music and just left it. And the whites didn’t even want it on country music. He said to them, ‘They’re tryin’ to take over,’ and they said, ‘No. They’re givin’ us two hours and we give them two hours.’ But he said, ‘No, they’re just tellin’ you guys that.’ So he kept it on for four hours, and I wrote him up.”