There isn't much that we can do here in a Level 5 maximum-security prison—which is where they send us unmanageable inmates, to seclude us even further. So I write, read, watch TV and occasionally look out my window, watching the prisoners from the other part of the facility out on the yard: their gatherings, their ball games, the new faces.
All of this I do to pass the time before “the Rush.”
You'd think the Rush would mean gang jumpings, stabbings, someone sneaking up you, etc.— which all happens, but that’s not what I’m talking about. No, this is about officers obsessively writing tickets. These are the little infractions that keep us in line, the same as the parking or speeding tickets that police stop civilians for. If you’re not liked—ticket. If you move the wrong way—ticket. You look the wrong way—ticket. Breathe—ticket. And instead of paying a fine or fee to the court system, we lose our appliances and our right to participate in all activities.
Summer is ticket season, and I try to be prepared.
I walk out of my cell as cool as can be. I don’t sweat. I don’t reflect. I’m the unit’s porter, so I have to set a type of example, or at least that’s what the officers expect of me.
A conversation is going on:
“That shit was crazy,” an inmate says.
“What’s good, QB?” I say.
“They packed up Enoch just now.”
“He was in the shower and they yelled over the intercom, ‘Get the fuck out the shower,’ so he did, but then the C.O. asked if he had a problem and he said, ‘Naw, do you,’ and they got him for that.”
“Damn…” All I can do is shake my head and scuffle back to work.
A class-one ticket often means time in the hole—the jail inside prison. For a class-two ticket, it’s confinement to quarters, extra work, and/or lost privileges, and a class-three just leaves you with a temporary loss of privileges, which they can extend if they please.
But after awhile, we forget about it. We start watching the basketball game (the Bucks and Toronto), with money on the line. We laugh at the jokes being cracked, do a little shit-talking, and for once, no one is going at each other’s neck over food or phone time or ego or pride. We’re just men making the best out of nothing.
The next day, at 9 a.m., names are being called like at an auction, one by one to the chopping block.
“What’s that one for Sunny?” an inmate says to a guy coming back to his cell.
“A fuckin’ excessive-noise ticket, class 3!”
“I got the same shit.”
The officers wrote seven tickets last night, no warning, just came through writing guys up in a fit of excitement. That means no phone time, no email access, no yard or gym for them—just 30 days, 24 hours a day in a hot cell.
After they round up all those guys’ TVs and JP5 media players, they open my cell door to let me go use JPay, our for-profit email system, which always breaks down after like four people use it.
I log on and see a few messages. I open the first one from my step-sister, and see just a few words: “Sometimes I don’t have time to write to you … I got a family… Also, unfortunately, your father died yesterday.”
I suck in my breath.
I wonder for a moment how it happened: cigarettes and drinking, probably.
I open the other message from my step-sister. It says he died of cancer and has been battling it for awhile. My pops and I had been estranged for quite some time. We rarely saw each other when I was home, because us in the same room was a catastrophe in itself. Still, I may have resented him for not being there back when I needed him. Now all I want to do is talk to him, badly.
Before I can reply, my time is up. I hold my head. Be cool. Be smooth. No choice but to be.
The next day I want to write back, but JPay is down. A fight breaks out before they pass out chow, and the water fountain breaks.
“What happen?” I say to QB while getting buckets of water ready for showers, which is another part of my job.
“Dog took off on Dude and they got to tussling and fell on the drinking fountain.”
“Damn.” I shake my head, yet again.
A week later, there’s a new electronic water fountain, which I wander over to as I mop the floors. I ask the officer how much it cost, and he says something that almost makes me lose my cool:
“A thousand dollars.”
“But the muthafuckin JPay barely work!” I say.
The officer looks at me, his face as red as a cherry blossom. “I could write a ticket,” he says, nodding his head like he’s really considering it.
Now isn’t the time to catch a ticket and get sent to the hole. My father is dead, my mother getting sick too last I heard. But I’m cool. Right?
“I’ll never drink from there,” I simply say, looking at that stupid drinking fountain.
The officer decides to let me go.
That night, I tell everybody about the new machine that spits water and probably talks. Compliments of the inmates ourselves, who are paying for it in restitution and fees.
My neighbor is a funny motherfucker, so he goes on a rant out the side of his door: “I gotta see this shit—you don’t got to touch it or press a button, just bend over in front of it and the water comes out?”
“Yeah. But don't use that shit yet. They writing tickets for that.”
“I’m going to the hole then because I’m drinking some of that whites-only water.” We laugh but not too loud. “If I walk by and that muthafucka get to talking, oh, I’m bugging out.” He does a robot-voice impersonation of the fountain’s voice.
We don’t care this time that our laughter is a bit too loud.
The next morning, they do their roll call of tickets. This time only three people got written up. One of the guys called out had been ticket-free for two years.
JPay is down again today, so I don’t know anything about my family. I watch the other side of the building have their yard time.
My mother is the pillar of kindness in my life, and the thought of losing her too is suddenly forcing me into those lonesome thoughts I try to never have. I’m still trying to feel my way through a world without my father, remembering how I needed him, how maybe if I’d gotten more of him I wouldn’t have had to become a man so suddenly.
Reality surges back as Harold yells in the hall, “They just wrote me a ticket for having a raisin cake on me!”
“A goddamn raisin cake,” my neighbor says. “What they think you gon do with the muthafucka, stab them with a raisin?”
I laugh to myself this time.
The officers do let us out for yard today, and I start my set of push-ups as cool and smooth as I can be. I wait for my homie Jeezy who just saw the parole board and got his recommendation to go home; he’s been down for 15 years.
But before he makes it through the doors, he gets stopped. I know he has food on him, but don’t worry too much about it, knowing how well he usually hides it. The female officer pats him down and tugs on his midsection. “What’s that?” she says.
“That’s all him, baby,” someone yells, and the yard erupts.
The comment and the laughter agitate her, and she sends Jeezy in.
As soon as yard is over we go inside and into our cells. Minutes later, inmates are shouting out the corners of their doors, “She sent Jeezy to the hole… Hatin’ ass bitch. He was about to go home…”
“For what?” I say from the back off my cell door at anyone who is listening.
“Disobeying a Direct Order.”
It hits me hard, the way your life is in the hands of an emotional human being. And why? We never heard her order him to do anything…
The conversation spreads—people start saying the officer knew he made parole and did it for kicks. I step toward the JPay machine, shaking my head at the craziness, but can’t wait to check on my mother’s health, to hear that she’s getting better and not joining my father in the ground.
“Gotta ticket here for you,” a sergeant suddenly says.
“Unauthorized communications. Jones said she observed you pounding on the window.”
“Accept the days. A ticket like this you can’t beat anyway. She observed you. Her words against yours.”
I feel like I’m fighting death every day, of my spirit, of my family. I return to my cell and tell my neighbor about the ticket the sergeant wrote.
“She crazy, bro. C.O.’s don’t even like her.”
I stay in my silence and realize that my father is really gone. I think about where he will be buried, and what will happen to my mother if she doesn’t get well, and what will happen to me if I lose everything. His voice breaks back in. “Yeah, you ain’t beating that ticket, though,” he says. “Nigga can’t even look out his window no more.”
Demetrius Buckley, 34, is incarcerated at Baraga Correctional Facility in Baraga, Michigan, where he is serving a 20- to 32-year sentence for second-degree murder and felony possession of firearms.
In an email to The Marshall Project, a Michigan Department of Corrections spokesperson called the writer’s allegations of excessive ticketing “the inmate’s perception,” writing that “[Buckley’s] Class I and II misconduct history has been consistent throughout his institutional history regardless of where he has been placed. The structure of the disciplinary process is one of progressive sanctions, with the maximum sanction reserved for only the most serious or persistent violators.”