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.”
“Write-ups,” another word for grievances, are not often filed against guards. Jackson soon found that his grievance would cost him. “[The guard] got in trouble, and the next thing I know I start gettin’ no letters.” Grievances are placed in a special box, but Jackson doesn’t suggest using it. “Don’t put the grievance in the box because they’ll tear it up. I folded mine in my pants and slept with it, and as soon as I seen a sergeant, I rushed at him with it.”
Guards, according to Jackson, have no qualms about getting rough with prisoners. “Just yesterday, as a guy was gettin’ released, they busted him up. It was a youngster. I almost cried, and I don’t even cry. He says, ‘Fuck you, pigs!’ and ten of ’em rushed him. They put a mask over his face, ’cause he was spittin’ on ’em, and tied it. He was turning red! We were sayin’, ‘Hey! Don’t kill him, man!’ and they were, like, ‘You guys shut the fuck up! You want to be next, asshole?’ I’ve seen ’em hog-tie people and hit ’em on the face. When your arms are tied behind your back, you have no control of your face. I seen the kid this morning. They busted his whole face. Before he came in, he was a perfect, normal gentleman, 19, 20 years old. Now his nose is broke, his eyes swollen, his lips busted, and they did that. And nobody will ever know. That’s why they fuck you up.
“Guards need to be checked,” Jackson continued. “I was scared of the one I wrote up. He was a bad man. He said he runs this jail, he knows how to lose you and how to fuck you up, and I believe him. I seen it with my own eyes.”
Despite the brutality, Jackson says a few guards are humane. “You can tell the officers that do like their job. They want to help you.”
Jackson is a San Diego native. “I grew up in southeast San Diego and went to Logan Elementary. Then my mom thought I was hangin’ out in gangs so she put me in Point Loma Cabrillo. Then I went to Dana and to Point Loma High. After I graduated I went to Mesa College for two years, then I got arrested for robbery, bein’ stupid. That was 1992. I got three years in Chuckawalla — that’s near Blythe in Riverside. I’d been out for five years before this.”
As a return prisoner, Jackson admits that conditions at the central jail have improved. “There’s no cells no more. Everybody’s in a dorm with 47 bunks. That’s one thing I’ll give the county — they stopped the fights. In the old county, you could rock and roll in there, get some bruises, and go to sleep. Now there’s full-time surveillance cameras, and whoever gives those bruises will be charged. There’s no more smoking in the corner.”
Smoking is prohibited in jail, and Jackson laughs as he says, “That’s the best rehab. I was fully a smoker, and I plan on resuming my habit right now! I can’t quit!” Reading is available to break the monotony, but materials are limited. “The stuff that’s there is bullshit and not good material. They should have more educational materials.
“More books than just fuckin’ crime books like, Jimmy’s Usin’ Dope or Timmy Killed John. They should have more intelligent reading. After readin’ all those books, I wanna get out and kill!”
There is no gym or weight room. “They snatched all that. The South Bay county jail is the only one that still gives you recreational space. So I do a lot of push-ups. When I worked out a lot, I was bigger.”
Tattooing is another popular pastime. Jackson opens his shirt and exposes an “S” and “D” in Gothic characters. “I just got these put on. That’s for ‘San Diego County.’” He also shows an older tattoo of a flag near his throat and explains how inmates tattoo each other. He holds up his Walkman: “This is a tattoo gun. You take the engine out of a Walkman, and you have a running engine. With the motor you get a piece of guitar string, and the guitar string is your needle. It’s the same as in a tattoo shop, but it’s a little bit better. You tie that engine up and have that motor runnin’, hook it up with these two batteries, get a piece of wire, and it just runs. We use India ink brought in by visitors. The police didn’t know that for a long time until snitches came along.”
Drugs are available for those who can pay. “Just shoot the word down that you got money. There’ll be a soldier that’ll come up and verify it. You’ll never know who he is. He’s the dope man’s runner. He’ll come through as a trustee, sweepin’ the floor. If you got 50 bucks, he’ll come back in two days. If it’s there, he’ll give it to you. If it’s not, then you gonna find yourself getting stuffed somewhere. You know what I mean?” Liquor is also on hand. “I make it. I take all the oranges and bread [let them ferment], and we get drunk on Fridays.”
Surveillance has also greatly reduced the problem of homosexual rape. “It was a problem. In the old county, you had fags comin’ at you in the stairwells, but they stopped all that. The gays is in one cubicle and that’s it. Some homosexuals get through that don’t look it, but when you see ’em you know ’em. We had three homosexuals in our bunk area. I just told ’em, ‘Don’t start that gay shit in here.’ I’ve heard that they do it by the toilets ’cause they’re off-camera.”
Upbeat about the future, Jackson is anxious to go home and get back to work. “I live in El Cajon. I was sure that I didn’t have no job now, but my boss said I can still come back to work.” His face beams as he praises his boss. “He was down with me from before. I was a trainer for telemarketing, and he kept me the job, man! I’m gonna call him and thank him for everything he did. I’m gonna go to work. He knew that wasn’t me with the dope. I had money.”
Jackson explained his job. “I train people how to telemarket, how to get on the phone and how to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes.’ People will say, ‘I don’t like telemarketers calling my house,’ and hang up. I teach ’em how to get into their pockets. It’s a technique. I never learned it in college or nothin’ like that. Growin’ up in the ghetto, I just always had the knack to sell somethin’.
“When I first did it, I just did it for the money, but then I seen how a person can tell you ‘no,’ and you can turn him around into givin’ you his credit card number! Over the phone! This guy was literally cussin’ you out and now he’s your friend. That turned me on, man. I love it.”
Another thing Jackson looks forward to is seeing his sons again. “I have one ten-year-old and one two-year-old with different moms. I’m not married. My ten-year-old’s mom went back to Mexico and tried to take him back with her. Her mom didn’t like that she messed with black guys, so I haven’t seen her for a long time. My two-year-old is with my mom. He can’t stay with his mom because she has another kid by another guy and says she can’t have two kids stay with her. That’s bullshit. So I keep ’em both. My mom helps me out, but I work two jobs and take damn good care of ’em.” ■