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  • Writer's pictureMichael McConnell


One feature of jail life I find most interesting is the area of inmate communication. In any sociological setting, the act of communication, whether it be spoken or written, danced, sung, beaten on drums or waved with signal flags is the way that we get a message across. Be it direct, suggested, subtle or simple, and regardless of which side of the locked bars you find yourself on, that message might as well not exist without an effective transmitter and a receiver with the ability or, at least, the interest required to understand it. Failure to communicate is commonplace. Success is often elusive. To have mastered the rules of a language is not the same as having the ability to express it masterfully. Communication within the walls of a jail is vastly like communication in any other setting. It succeeds or it fails; but whether it hits or misses, Jailspeak is as dependent as any other language on the desire to be understood.

Jailspeak is not a literary form. Except as it exists in tattoos, the written word, as a means of communication between inmates, is practically absent. The reasons, as far as I can figure it, are three:

  1. Paper and writing implements are comparatively unavailable in jail. It’s not that we don’t have them, but they generally have to be special ordered through commissary, and they are inconvenient to lug around. Further, pencils are of the putt-putt golf scorecard variety, and the pens have the average life span of a mayfly.

  2. Educational deficiencies, while certainly not universal, exist to the extent that you don’t want to risk embarrassing a buddy by assuming that he is fluent in standard, alphabet skills.

  3. Since the person with whom you want to communicate is likely available face-to-face for a majority of the daytime and evening, writing, for the most part, is simply not necessary.

While that leaves speech as the prime component of communication, to think of Jailspeak from the standpoint strictly of a spoken language would be to say that mathematics is strictly about numbers. A communicative medium that exists of, by and for vernacular expression, Jailspeak, part English-based patois and part performance art, is, rather, an ever-evolving organism.

An integration of sound and movement, it is informed way less by rules of grammar and syntax than by emotional color, imagination and repetition. Successful delivery is rhythmic. It has the compelling energy of drums, ancient and modern, the manic clarity of a long tap dance solo. It is musical, employing elements of everything from hip-hop to gospel and jazz. It is Leontyne Price spinning an arching line in a Verdi aria into a yearning torch song. It is guilt and it is redemption. It can be like thunder from a mighty pulpit, and it can be as gentle as a snowfall. Its glory is not to be found in its breadth of vocabulary but in an infinite variety of intonation, volume and contour. It can go from subtle to tsunami in a heartbeat. It is whitewater rafting at its most turbulent when everything else is a toy sailboat on a duck pond.

Forgive the gush, but my flight into the rhapsodic is an accurate if still somewhat incomplete description of Jailspeak it at its most vivid and exciting. It is a living medium, and, as such, its strengths are best appreciated when realized by skillful and inspiring practitioners. As would be the case in other arenas, the kitchen for one, the practice of Jailspeak also has a preponderance of hacks. Give ten cooks the same menu, equipment and ingredients, and the results will separate artisans from the ranks of the mere. Likewise in the realm of communication, where excellence is often determined by the ability to work with the available expressive devices (however limited), it requires plenty of talent and skill to hold the interest of a listener while propelling a story forward. In conveying a single thought, anyone can repeat a word for emphasis. Show me a guy who can squeeze ten levels of meaning out of ten repetitions of a single word when (as is so often the case with Jailspeak) that word is “dude,” “man,” “shit” or “knowahmsayn,” and I’d call him gifted.

In my brief time here, I have been witness to many occasions during which I have been absolutely bowled over by the creativity with which a single word is employed over and over again. It is remarkable, the versatility, subtlety and shadings of expression and meaning (not to mention the sheer number of times) that a word or words and/or variants can make an appearance within a single sentence.

There are many experts in this particular area of repetitive creativity, but I’d have to say that, day-to-day, in terms of both consistency and dazzle, my friend, Sonny, is probably our reigning champion. In the high school yearbook of our particular cellblock, Sonny would be extravagantly featured. Too much the natural trouble-maker to be student council material, his leadership skills combined with a physical grace and innate athletic prowess would peg him more in the mold of the traditional varsity quarterback who is likely also captain of the baseball team. Not beefy or rugged, and not exactly handsome, Sonny’s foxlike features and huge brown eyes, nevertheless, would probably get him close to being voted Best Looking, and he has the most beautiful hands I think I’ve ever seen, hands that belong in the Croupier Hall of Fame. At his best, Sonny has an easy, low-key personal style that, in balance with his skill with a set of clippers makes him the more popular of the two trustees whose responsibility it is every weekend to trim our hair.

When possessed of a darker mood, however, the instant-on anger issues that got Sonny the domestic violence conviction that is soon to take him upstate for no more than six and no fewer than ten years (and for which reason we are all glad that the trustee barbers are not allowed scissors) come easily to the fore and are, no doubt, partially at the core of his brilliance in the repetitive dazzle of the Jailspeak arena. Here, unfortunately without the also-dazzling corresponding physical, tonal and volume elements, I can give you the still-impressive, close-to-actual, paraphrase of a recently heard rant:

SONNY (overheard in a phone conversation with his sister, Willa): Why in the motherfuck, did the motherfucking asshole leave my brand new motherfucking bottle of motherfucking conditioner in the fucking shithole-ass-motherfucking shower after lock-in, when the motherfucker knew, Willa, the motherfucker fucking KNEW I would motherfucking want to use that shit on my OWN motherfucking head during my OWN motherfucking shower, and especially, motherFUCK it, since his OWN motherfucking bottle of MOTHERfucking conditioner got its OWN motherfucking self ripped-the-motherfuck-off just day before yesterday, motherfucker; why did it not occur to his MOTHERFUCKING ass that mine would too!?

An equally blinding diatribe (key word, Bitch) inspired by Sonny’s negative assessment of the disappointing ratio of phone calls answered to calls sent to voicemail was directed moments later at his mother, but you get the general idea.

In the course of my time here, I have become, if not a skillful interpreter of Jailspeak, at least a competent one. I have yet to achieve anything like fluency as a practitioner, however, and it is unlikely that I ever will. My cultural background, frankly, is entirely wrong; I’d never be able to pull it off convincingly. Proud as I am of my increasing comprehension skills, it’s much better to leave the kind of dazzling execution I see around me every day in the far more capable hands of those who have a gift for it. And while that gift is not entirely based on ethnicity, it is rare to hear the ring of authenticity in Jailspeak when the practitioner happens to be as white as, well, as white as I am.

That is not to say, however, that white guys cannot achieve an impressive level of fluency. My friend Phil, for example, shifts seamlessly out of the stodgy Caucasoid by which we communicate, and, as the occasion demands, glides seamlessly into what my ears and eyes define as convincing Jailspeak. A linebacker type with a German-Irish background, Phil, who is in his midforties, is totally down, not only with the requisite vocabulary and syntax of Jailspeak, but also with its fluidity of body language and wide-ranging, subtle uses of volume and intonation. Perhaps most telling, he exudes an insistent, unspoken demand to be, in the eyes of his audience, the single focal point of the exchange. That last characteristic is, by the way, like talent itself, something that cannot be taught.

Too, it is in Phil’s favor that he is a big guy with a big face and the natural, up-front vocal placement that gives him the capability to produce a wide range of sound at extremes of volume. I have heard his voice in action many times, and almost every time, I remark to him (as soon as my ears stop ringing) that under alternative circumstances, in, say, a parallel universe, he would be a leading Heldentenor on the international operatic circuit.

I’ve seen a lot of inmates of all colors with more jail time than Phil whose Jailspeak chops pale in comparison, but it has probably been a boon to his fluency that Phil has spent close to a decade of his life as a resident of the criminal justice system. In the final analysis I think that the secret of Phil’s success lies in the fact that he does not show-off. Always respectful, never patronizing, he realizes that he comes as an outsider, a guest into the Jailspeak milieu, and he will always favor the deliberate clarity of a highly educated, respectful foreigner over a potentially clumsy attempt at a native authenticity he can’t quite pull off.

My friend Justin, an all-round good guy of about thirty who came in about a week after I did, is another natural in the art of Jailspeak. Also a white dude, also a virgin incarceratee, Justin has a refreshing lack of self-consciousness and an open-faced sincerity that, while inspiring (for reasons I cannot imagine) an instant dislike in most of our guards, puts the vast majority of our inmate colleagues immediately at ease. Perhaps because he lacks the obvious defensiveness of the typical inmate, it is easy for others to lower their own defenses while opening channels of communication that might, against a more threatening presence, remain clogged by suspicion.

Justin is facing a three to five year sentence at the State level for a burglary in which he was the unwitting driver of the getaway car (which, I realize, sounds absolutely bogus, but, given that it is Justin, his claim is completely reasonable). Justin shares Phil’s empathy as a conversationalist, and, in a very different way, his talent for Jailspeak. Justin doesn’t have Phil’s physical fluidity or, thank God, his decibel potential, but his spoken Jailspeak has, in a very short time, become far more functional, certainly, than my feeble efforts, and it has been great to have him around as translator when, as occasionally happens, I am stumped by the local lingo.

I turned to him for help just the other day when our conversation about an upcoming card game was overheard by Noodlz, a bright, thug-in-training of twenty-four, currently counting the days before his transfer upstate on a ten-to-fifteen year sentence for grand larceny.

ME (in passing): Justin, what’s the information on our card situation?

NOODLZ (with surprised delight): Hey! (high fives all round) Mike’s got liiiines.

ME (confused, to Justin): Huh?

JUSTIN (as dry as a U.N. translator): It’s a positive response to your obvious rhyming skills, an encouraging word in the event that, upon release, you are considering a career in hip-hop.

ME: Oh. Cool. Thanks.

(More high fives; Noodlz ambles off.)

ME (to Justin): Was he serious?

JUSTIN: He was. Don’t overthink it.

ME: Thanks for translating.

So, while I am a little envious of Justin and Phil for their Jailspeak skill set, there is one jail entity I (and, in fact, many of us) definitely aspire not to be. This is the white guy who is desperate to be accepted by the brothers as a fellow-brother while, at the same time, inspiring envy among the other white guys for his exalted status as an honorary brother. Never aware (somehow) of the snickers and rolled eyes that his brother-envy inspires in everyone else, this is the dude who insists on talkin’ the talk and walkin’ the walk, and, in so doing, is like the rooster that is so confident of his own supreme height in the pecking order that he struts through the coop without realizing that it is a pigeon coop.

I am never around one of these guys that I don’t want to walk up and say, 'Repeat after me: I am not black,' but to start an encounter that might escalate to the physical is something that I tend to avoid for two reasons:

  1. I’m chickenshit.

  2. In-clink fighting is a sure-fire way to get your sentence extended, which you would never want to do. If you don’t yet know the length of your sentence (as I don’t), you especially don’t want to risk getting it extended.

And anyway, to watch a brother wannabe is way more entertaining than to antagonize him.

The brother wannabe is an easy type to spot, and, in the brief time I have been here, there have been several excellent specimens. I’d have to say, however, the best example, so far, has been an inmate now removed from our midst. I will call him Jody. Jody was a tall, skinny white guy, somewhere between the ages of twenty-eight and forty-five (it’s really difficult to tell the age of a long-term junkie) whose go-to drug was heroin, but whose tastes, over time, had run the full, substance abuse gamut from amphetamines to Xanax. Jody was awaiting trial, not for possession and not for intent to distribute, but for second-degree burglary. Relatively speaking, that doesn’t sound terrible, but since in his case, the crime allegedly involved a large storage locker full of home electronics that were hot items to begin with and (it is probably salient to mention) weapons (also stolen, of the automatic variety) Jody was looking at some serious, upstate prison time.

Frankly, I didn’t much care for Jody. Within the first twenty minutes of our acquaintance, he displayed a compulsion to cheat at cards that was magnified by his inability to do so convincingly. He also had an annoying tendency to borrow things he had neither the intention nor the wherewithal to return. But holding Jody in open dislike was something I just couldn’t muster. I have never known anyone so obvious yet so convinced of his own subtlety. His was the mind-set of a deaf person exuberantly pleased that his compulsion to pass gas silently continued undetected, and that level of self-deception, I suppose, deserved some bit of perverse admiration.

During his brief stay on the third level of the South Tower, Jody was fond of singing several refrains that, to those around him, made his time with us seem very much like the opposite of brief. Here’s why:

  • Jody sang his refrains loudly.

  • Jody sang his refrains frequently.

  • Jody’s refrains, while appreciated as oldies, were not revered as goldies.

Jody’s tiresome refrains were:

  • They got nothin’ on me, man.

  • You’ll never catch me dealin,' dude. That’s for low-life druggies, man.

  • Dude, when that equipment walked, I was nowhere near the place, and, anyway, man, the cops had been watchin’ that unit for two weeks. Entrapment, harassment, false arrest. One, two, three, and bro’, I’m outta here, dude. Man.

And, one, two, three, he was out of here; well, not so much out as transferred to a different area.

Removed from Tower life, Jody was placed in The Dorms with that section of the general population requiring medium security. It was an increase in security, but Jody was happy about the change. As it turned out, in fact, he had been angling for the transfer all along. Apparently he had considerable history in The Dorms, and actually preferred the tighter quarters with the walls of bars facing identical walls of bars. I guess he also must have preferred exposed toilets and an almost complete absence of quiet. Mostly, I think his hankering for the transfer, irrespective of whatever other conditions, meant not only that he would be back among a beloved coterie of “cool dudes” he was forever implying we would never be a part of, but also because he was dying to get back with “his boy.”

(SIDEBAR: His “boy,” in this context, meant a fellow inmate, probably younger, probably black, who acted as a gofer/personal assistant sometime go-between/whipping boy for an older, more experienced inmate from whom he could learn and who would provide, depending on his place in the pecking order, some level of protection. This is not necessarily a sexual relationship; in fact, it usually is not. If there is any connotation of endearment, it runs more along the lines of a brother-to-brother/camaraderie kind of bond than anything else. Also, it involved a lot of trust on both sides because a lot of boys will take a fall for their main man. That Jody would be tight with a bunch of “cool dudes” was, in itself, a stretch of the credible. That he would have “a boy” (or, anyone who would, in the first place, tolerate the fact that Jody referred to him as “his boy”) was even harder to believe. But, as I have said: shock and surprise are as commonplace as fake mashed potatoes around here.)

Anyway “his fucking transfer” and “his boy” had became such hot, Jody topics that we all dreaded that they would qualify as refrains alongside “They got nothin’ on me” and the rest of Jody’s Greatest Hits. You would think that being in jail would provide sufficient fulfillment for any and all possible levels of gluttony for punishment, but that did not stop me, one day just before Jody’s transfer, from instigating the following conversation:

ME: What boy?

JODY: You know . . . my boy, my shadow. You know, man.

(I played ignorant.)

ME: No, I really don’t know.

(Jody’s delivery, when standing, always came with a jovial, up and down on tippy-toes level of enthusiasm that also involved hip swivels in synch with pointed index fingers plus other elements reminiscent of Steve Martin’s “Wild and Crazy Guy” persona.)

JODY: He’s my BOY, man! You know.

ME: This is all kinda new to me.

JODY: Dude. You know. He does for me. I do for him.

ME: Like what do you do for him?

JODY (still bouncing): I protect him, dude. Man, he’s my boy.

ME: From what?

JODY: Bad shit, man.

ME: Cool. How old is he? Is he grateful? What’s his name?

JODY: I couldn’t say. But (still swiveling) he’s my main boy, dude.

ME: So, there are others?

JODY: No, no. Man, he’s, like, my main one.

ME: What does he do for you?

JODY: Everything. He gets me stuff.

ME: What stuff?

JODY: You know . . . good stuff, man.

ME: Like . . .?

JODY: You know, man . . . like, good stuff . . . like, from the kitchen, man.

ME (incredulous): You mean there is good stuff in the kitchen?

JODY (still with the bouncing, delighted that I’m finally catching on): Yeah, man. Good stuff, dude.

ME (thinking): I am not black. I am not black. (aloud) Like what good stuff does he get for you from the kitchen?

JODY: Like . . . brown sugar.

ME: Wow. What else?

JODY: (swiveling more emphatically) You know . . . like, brown sugar . . . and stuff.

ME: Cool. What do you do with it?

JODY: Dude. You can stockpile that motherfucking shit, man.

ME: And do what with it?

JODY: Trade it, man.

ME: For what?

JODY: You know, dude . . . motherfucking stuff, man. Dude.

So that was Jody. Actually, he wasn’t as bad as he sounds. And, really, I’m not trying to make him sound bad. Because, I guess, except for the black wannabe thing, he wasn’t . . . isn’t . . . bad. I guess. Dude.

It’s nice to have friends in jail, even if they constantly cheat at cards, and you need constantly to remind yourself not to trust them in any way. Jody was OK. And I hope he’s happy in The Dorms. And I hope that for however much longer he is spared the move upstate, he’s back with his boy. Actually, he could probably use some looking after, and, dude, maybe he’ll get some help with his Jailspeak.

Coming soon:




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