Sentenced without Sound.


An excerpt from the forthcoming book, I Love Prison.

In March of 1999 I arrived at M.C.I. Concord Facility in Concord, MA.

After 6 months of awaiting trial at Worcester House of Correction I finally was given my gift of 4 to 6 years in a state prison. I say gift because nobody gets 4 to 6 for “Mayhem”, which usually carried a 35 year sentence.

In my old cell I had a television set, an AM/FM Walkman, and magazines to stay up on current events on the outside (television shows and music being the events most cherished).

I had to leave my collection of Jennifer Anniston photos when I moved to M.C.I. Concord and was only allowed to bring one book. I chose the Joseph Heller novel Catch 22, which seems ironic looking back.  But then I picked it because it was the thickest book in my collection.

The lack of entertainment is unnoticeable at first as there was too much to focus on: learning your new cell, the hiding places, the view out your window, figuring out how not to die, and, most important, your cell mate.

Concord was a classification prison meaning you were only there until the system moved you to another facility, depending on your behavior. The place you did NOT want to go was the Shirley Supermax, which was based on an Israeli prisoner of war camp. However, a good roll of the dice and a 14 month wait could land you in Gardner, a bearable prison with ice cream served in the summer month and bingo for real money played on Sundays.

After my initial holding cell I was moved to the East/West Building, an ancient structure that was built for breaking souls. E/W was also disgustingly hot in the summer (which I was right on-time for) and frost bitingly cold in the winter.  The E/W stress box is necessary because not everyone can go to Gardner, so they need a few fighters to send to the Supermax.

Since all inmates are in a transitional period they have no property. No special clothing, no electronics, no nuthin’.  Inmates keep each other entertained with jokes, stories, tricks, and pain.  For some reason whipping someone with an extension cord or throwing a cup of piss on an unsuspecting person really makes the time go by and builds bonds with other inmates.

You do not notice the lack of music at first. When an inmate is not talking, he is singing his favorite song all the time. There must be some sort of animalistic correlation behind it.  Like bullfrogs, or birds, if they stop making noise, other inmates would see them as weak.

Drumming on the doors and footlockers became a pastime.  Add the drumming with the singing and you have the most gangsta barbershop quartet you have ever seen!  I can personally remember singing the Beastie Boys “Get It Together” song and in place of ad-roc, q-tip, MCA, and Mike D’s names, I would say “Hepdog.”  Every other inmate thought I made the song up and word was spreading through the camp that I had a sick flow… but I only knew one song!!!

It became evident that on our tiers, the music catalog ended in mid-1998 when most of us first got popped.  There was a lot of DMX and Big Pun.  I liked “Ghetto Superstar” but could only remember Mya’s verse (picture me singing that in a shower with eight dudes and only two shower heads).

As the months proceeded and our same lame songs (that we were making up the words to) got older, we started to hear news from the outside. Apparently my friend and inmate, Mark Peterson, had to go to court, which meant he took a van that would have a radio.  He came back with wondrous tales of pop music we could never have imagined.  As we crowded his cell Mark sat high on his pulpit, the top bunk, and he began to describe the song he heard twice in the same day on the radio.  Our inmate math told us this was the most popular song out there and we needed to know it.  Apparently a guy named Ricky Martin was the only thing happening on the outside, and I was not the only one learning Spanish because of it.

By breakfast the next morning, you would have thought every inmate was given a “La Vida Loca” single before bed.  We were all singing it, to our own tunes of course.  You might be laughing, but the way these inmates adapted and still got to be into what they wanted is inspiring.

Before I was shipped off to a Texas jail, I was asked to go to “West Up” to get some forms.  Inmates were not authorized to go into buildings freely, but I had a pass.  I walked across the quad to a door I had seen a thousand times but was never permitted to enter.  I went upstairs to an unfamiliar office, where I could hear a strange tinny monotone noise.

It was music being played and I knew the song!  Sarah Mclachlan’s “Adia,” “cuz we are born innocent/believe me Adia.” I am not sure Sarah Mclachlan’s biggest fans felt the way I did at that moment. The sound felt like a soft drug as I waited outside the office hanging on every note.

I was finally called in given the papers and signed something. While in the office a new song with a beat I never dreamt of, with a voice I couldn’t identify, came on the radio.

Could this be?  A song from the summer of ’99! What was she saying?

Genie in a what? Rub who?  The office was crowded and the clock radio didn’t exactly sound like a Bang and Olufsen.  I got a solid minute of “Genie in a Bottle,” with a few random lyrics I was forcing myself to memorize instead of enjoy.

I imagine it is how a photographer must feel when a once in a lifetime opportunity presents itself. The photographer can either personally experience the moment, or focus on capturing it on film and only seeing it through a tiny viewfinder thus missing the bigger experience.

I was trying to memorize every word from this heavenly angels mouth, who in my head looked like Elizabeth Shue.  Not Leaving Las Vegas Elizabeth Shue, more like Adventures in Babysitting Elizabeth Shue.

“HEPPLER!  WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU STILL DOING HERE?!!” was the last lyrics I heard from the sergeant’s mouth.  I returned to the block like I had killed a moose and was now going to feed it to my family. I told them everything I could remember which was surprisingly a good amount!

Someone made up a beat on a footlocker to what they interpreted what the beat to “Genie in a Bottle” to be. “If you want to be with me/baby, there’s a price to pay/I’m a genie in a bottle/you gotta rub me he right way.” Who knows what that enigmatic statement could ever mean, we might never know.

But five inmates without adding to the total sales charts, concert tour gross, or even a ring tone, felt that song that day, and they made a wish.

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