“What the fuck is this Irving?! Is this Heroin?! Did you bring fucking HEROIN into my prison?!”
His irate voice was like Dave Chappelle’s white guy impersonation. It was a piece of tissue paper they’d given me to clean the ink off my fingers from the third set of prints they’d taken while I was being processed. He commands me stand with my hands against the wall before he strikes with his truncheon around my thighs and kicks at my ankles with his steelies to get me off balance. He’s weaving side to side behind me, delivering his tirade in my left ear, then right, then back again. I feel the light spray of spit on my ears and the back of my neck. I struggle to follow which questions required a response and which where rhetorical. It’s the basic tactics employed to disorientate their charges.
The prison officer was an out and out caricature, actually looking like Chappelle in a disguise for a Saturday night live sketch. A thick black coiffure of straightened Afro hair was greased over his head, boot polish black. His skin was white but features black. The extra thick lenses of his Buddy Holly/ 1950’s National health specs enlarge his eyes with alarming magnification.
“what the fuck kind of name is that anyway, Irving? Is that Scottish or some shit?” He sucked the S’s and spat the T’s.
He’s thoroughly rankled when he discovers I’ve been sent by immigration. Apparently immigration has been wasting the county jail’s resources, and he’s annoyed with me for having taken his valuable time roughing up someone who’s just not criminal enough. He gives me a shove in the direction of the holding area.
We new arrivals are held in a series of small cells that appear to have been deliberately fashioned far too small for the volume of prisoners they accommodated. I’m wedged into one of these sardine cans around the edges of an expansive hall, like trying to board a rush hour tube at Victoria. These holding cells do have a large perspex window to afford a view of an abundantly spacious central foyer that is occupied by a handful of officers. The psychology of the layout was extraordinary, as we observe the unoccupied area from a variety of contorted stress positions. One man is sat atop a narrow brick privacy screen that sections off the toilet, a functionless stack of bricks, as bodies are rammed around the wall, including a rather worse for wear looking man lying on the floor, wrapped around the latrine.
I’m in the Mecklenburg county jail, North Carolina, USA. I fought in Los Angles a few months ago, and managed to pull off an upset against an American middleweight champion. I had made weight at 155, but the card got shuffled thanks to the inevitable pullouts and problems with the commission, so I took a grab at the danger money for going up a couple of weights. The gamble paid off, so I sold every possession I had to purchase a flight back to America. I couldn’t raise enough funds to go direct to LAX, so I took a cheaper flight with a changeover in North Carolina. The day I chose to fly, a terrorist threat on the London airport had the provincial American security guards even more alert than usual.
My crop of prisoners is ushered through to be stripped and showered off, then taken to an internal holding cell.
“So what are you in for?” the old boy with the dreads asks.
“None appearance” He’s seventeen years old this boy.
“Yeah, I know, none appearance for what?”
“Held up a liquor store, it done got fucked up. When the cops came I ran down the road shootin’ at ’em. I ran into an apartment block, took some hostages, shot up the cop car out of the window”
Seventeen years old and this boys life is over.
The same question passes around the room, all the same responses. Assaults, GBH, murders and drug busts.
“What you in for White boy?”
How should I respond?
I’m the only white guy in the jail not wearing a uniform. The Jail is almost exclusively inhabited by black inmates, with a few Hispanic.
I’m in because officer Ajay of homeland security agent disliked my tattoos and wasn’t happy about me coming in to the US on a tourist visa. I was supposed to be catching a connecting flight to LA.
“Is this your gang?” Ajay asks with a thick punjabi twang, pointing to a photograph of a punk band I was in when I was younger.
“I’m not in a gang”
“Is this the symbol of your gang?” Pointing to a logo of punk band ‘The Misfits’, a sticker on some of my luggage and a T-shirt I was wearing in the photograph.
“I’m not in a gang.”
“Where are the rest of your gang?”
When I get to jail I’m allowed one phonecall. A local call, in North Carolina. I made a stopover because it was cheaper than a direct flight to LAX. I don’t know anyone in North Carolina. I ask to call the British embassy. The guards crease with laughter.
I haven’t slept for about 34hrs by the time I’m taken to a cell. I tuck my arms inside the sleeveless orange jumpsuit in an attempt to get warm. The bed is unpadded and the hard surface conducts the cold into one exposed shoulder, and the thin prison blanket scratches the other, it’s texture like the abrasive side of a Brillo pad. Although exhausted, I am unable to sleep, and lie there until the guards slam 3 times against the door and shout “Chow time”.
My notion of American prisons consists of the TV show OZ, the cash live album and a few movie scenes. The general theme of these movies goes as follows-
Inmates surround new guy.
Inmates take new guys food from his tray.
New guy sets about them with the tray.
All hell breaks loose momentarily. Guards fire a shot in the air and order is restored.
New guy goes to solitary with the fear and respect of his jailhouse peers secure.
But I’m in for visa inaccuracies. I was surprised to find myself in the jail at all. I had expected just to be held at the airport and bounced back on a later flight. Nobody cares to tell me anything, but surely it can’t take more than a day or two to resolve. Nobody knows I’m here though. How long will I end up incarcerated if I have to stick up for myself?
What if I sit on the wrong table, or in the wrong guys seat?
Fuck it, just keep your game face on and sit wherever you want.
The guy who sits next to me looks like Lennox Lewis, with his big dreads and big build. His shoulders and legs squash me over to the left as he takes his seat. Knocking him out with a swipe of an aluminium tray seems a little ambitious.
Fortunately for me the food was so bad nobody had the slightest urge to take from another man’s plate. It was so foul that it was all anyone could do to stomach their own portion of the execrable slop.
“DO NOT! Take more than one cup of the orange drink. IT IS… TOXIC! This shit ain’t Gatorade boys!”
The guard did not exaggerate. It was not a ploy to guard against excessive consumption of the juice. It tasted like an industrial cleaning product. I left mine on the table after a sip.
“I dun seen the bottle this shit come in, it’s got a damn skull and crossbones on it!” Lennox, the chap sat next to me has everyone laughing. He tilts his tray toward mine and gestures to something that looks a bit like carrots.
“You want these bro? I can’t eat this shit man”.