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Sticks & Stones

Sticks and Stones Kindle Ready Front Cover JPEGI was hoping to have this out for Christmas but we ran into a few post-production snags with Create Space so it looks like this one is going to be a New Year’s baby. Probably for the best since the novel takes place in 2018 anyway. It’s about a former KGB agent who gets abducted by aliens… definitely not. Come on, it’s a Malcolm Ivey novel. You know what to expect: crack pipes, syringes, sex, violence and dialogue slathered with f-bombs… That’s actually not true either.

This one is not even about a prisoner. It’s about an ex-prisoner. And it’s PG-13! Or at least as PG-13 as I get. After spending two years writing On the Shoulders of Giants, I wanted to shift gears and do something outside my comfort zone. Something challenging. And believe me, writing about the free world when you haven’t experienced it since long before the advent of Facebook, Netflix, or the smartphone is definitely a challenge. In addition, I plan on posting a new chapter to this site every Tuesday and Friday and my devout senior relatives and sheltered Christian nieces don’t need the harsh reality of prison life shoved in their faces twice a week.

But the main reason for this stylistic pivot is my great-nephew Jude, a special needs child from Charlotte, NC, and one of fewer than 100 RHIZO kids worldwide (to learn more, click on the “Incredible Jude” tab on this site). I’ve been wanting to do something special for him since With Arms Unbound, but there is an element of darkness in each of my first three novels that felt incongruous to his innocence. Not so with Sticks & Stones. It’s full of love and light and laughter. At least I think so. Hopefully the perfect fit.

So all the profits from this one will go to Jude. Judging by the torrential success of my other novels, this means I will soon be sending him a check for a whopping $62.75! But that’s sixty-two dollars more than I’ve been able to send him during his first three-and-a-half years of life. I’m just happy to be contributing. And you never know… we live in a world of infinite possibilities, right? Happy New Year everyone.

Fixing a broken prison system

An inside perspective…

Part 11 – Not long after I began working on this series, I noticed an interoffice memo in the shakedown room at the visitation park at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, dated July 2015. It stated something to the effect of “The culture of abuse that has plagued and permeated the Florida D.O.C. for decades will no longer be tolerated…” The memo was signed by the newly tapped secretary, Julie Jones, the first female to head the department in its 150-year history.

It was ironic reading a memo like this at Santa Rosa Main Unit. The place where the show Lock Up was filmed, where close management wings are painted with slogans like “No guns. Just guts. Toughest beat in the state.” And the sidewalks are stained with inmates’ blood.

I did what I assume most other convicts did – as well as tenured employees from sergeants to wardens to regional directors when they saw this memo. I smirked. Did this lady really believe she could eradicate the systemic evil and good ‘ol boy modus operandi of the D.O.C. with a mere memo? Unlikely. The culture of abuse she cited was as Floridian as orange groves and the Everglades. The prison system didn’t earn its Department of Corruption nickname for being humane and transparent.

Turns out it was more than just a memo. In her first few years on the job, Ms. Jones has backed up her vision with cameras in every dormitory, plus audio in every confinement unit. The training emphasis seems to have shifted from force to empathy, many of the issues raised in this series – tablets, technology, mental health, better food – have been rectified under her stewardship and there are rumors of new rehabilitative programs on the horizon.

Winston Churchill famously once said: “This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps this is the end of the beginning.” Fixing a broken state agency is no small task. It all starts with a leader. Just as perennial bottom-feeder NFL teams are transformed by forward-thinking general managers and downtrodden companies are reinvigorated by visionary CEOs, the Florida Department of Corrections needed a trailblazer to lead the way out of the wilderness. I believe they found that person in Julie Jones.

[This is the final post in the series Fixing a Broken Prison System, which has its own tab on this website where you can read parts 1 – 10.]

Fixing a broken prison system

An inside perspective…
Part 10 – I did my first bid in the Florida Department of Corrections during the 1990s, a grueling 10-year odyssey that began at age 18 and ended at age 28. I didn’t have to serve all those years. With gain time I could have been home after serving less than half of my sentence. But I was young and hard-headed and I liked to smoke pot.

Since the introduction of the random urinalysis program in 1994, the department of corrections has aggressively gone after incarcerated drug users. The penalty for a failed urinalysis carries 60 days in disciplinary confinement and 180 days loss of gain time. I failed a total of seven drug tests over that decade, costing me 1,260 days. In other words, I spent three-and-a-half extra years in prison because I stubbornly insisted on smoking marijuana despite the mounting negative consequences (cue the definition of insanity clichés). Then I got out and graduated to bigger and better drugs.

Today, I am 13 years into my second prison sentence. Substance abuse is no longer an issue. Writerly aspirations have transformed me into a paranoid hoarder of my remaining brain cells. Still, every few months, my name is called for a random urinalysis. My biggest worry is no longer failing one of these things, but rather failing to submit in the rigidly allotted one hour. This is considered refusal and thus carries the same penalty as a sample that comes back dirty.

Here’s the rub: no one ever tests dirty anymore. Not because the entire prison population has experienced a spiritual awakening, not because we’ve been rehabilitated, not because we now refuse to indulge in counter-productive, self-destructive behavior. But because the most popular, most prevalent and most dangerous drug in Florida prisons doesn’t register on the urinalysis. I’m talking about spice (See my post titled The truth about spice).

Once legal and deceptively marketed as “synthetic marijuana” because it mirrored the effects of THC and was sprayed onto a green leafy substance, the drug has morphed into something far more potent and sinister. Think PCP, acid, meth and roach spray. Every day I watch my fellow inmates vomit, seize, flop, howl, and bang their faces against steel and concrete on this scary and highly addictive substance. This is the state of the Florida Department of Corrections, 2017. The new normal. You never see or smell marijuana anymore. Even its nickname is telling. Nobody calls it weed or pot or reefer or bud these days. They call it “180” for the amount of days one loses if he fails a urinalysis. Why even bother when you can smoke spice?

But again, this is not some harmless, synthetic marijuana we’re talking about. People are dying after smoking this stuff. Two in the last month at my prison. It’s gotten so bad that legitimate epileptic seizures are being scoffed at by responding staff who assume that a convulsing inmate is merely high on spice. Gangs are now battling to control the lucrative market, there are more assaults, more thefts, underpaid officers are being persuaded to supplement their income. Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Corrections doggedly continues its random urinalysis program, spending untold amounts of tax dollars on archaic five panel track tests each year while catching no one. The only inmates ensnared in this trap are those who can’t urinate in the designated hour. Mostly awkward, shy bladder types and old men with bad prostates. The spice smokers show up wasted and pass with flying colors.

I bet the department longs for the days when its biggest drug problem was marijuana.

[This is Part 10 of an ongoing series, Fixing A Broken Prison System, which has its own tab on this website, where you can read Parts 1 – 9.]

Fixing a broken prison system

An inside perspective…
Part 9 – For all the murders, rapes, untreated mental illness, rampant drug abuse and historically inhumane treatment of human beings over its 150 year history, one problem the Florida Department of Corrections hasn’t shared with other bloated prison systems across the U.S. is gang activity. Aside from the obligatory hate groups masquerading as religions, the Sunshine State’s inmate population has always divided itself along county lines as opposed to America’s more color coordinated criminal empires. Dade rolled with Dade, Broward with Broward, Duval with Duval. That’s about as organized as things got. For all their notoriety, the gangs of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles could never seem to gain a toe-hold in Florida. All that has changed over the last ten years.

When I look around my dorm, I count members of six different gangs. I would name them by organization but I prefer not to be jumped, stabbed, or “buck-fiftied” (the facial slash that is growing in popularity in Florida’s correctional facilities). And since I’m a neutron – meaning neutral, non-affiliated – this could happen without repercussion. Maybe I should join a gang. I’m being sarcastic, of course, but for the hundreds of young men being bussed from county jails into Florida’s four reception centers every day, this is a very real dilemma.

Prisons make for fertile recruiting grounds. Every yard is full of inexperienced twenty-somethings with time to do. Many are hundreds of miles from home, broke, scared, surrounded by strangers in a hostile environment. This year, at the facility where I’m housed there have been more than 20 stabbings. Gangs offer safety in numbers, provide brotherhood, demand respect, and give an identity to those struggling to find themselves. Many have prominent rap stars as the faces of their respective franchises. Plus, gangs control the flow of dope into most institutions. For the average street kid coming into the system, the decision to bang can be a lucrative one.

This is a dangerous situation. Dangerous to the non-affiliated inmate population who want to better themselves or just serve their time – even their life sentences – in relative peace, dangerous to the already outnumbered guards who work in Florida prisons, and dangerous to the society that is sending away these uneducated young dope dealers, drug addicts and small-time criminals, only to have them return to their neighborhoods a few years later as focused and fully indoctrinated organized crime members.

This recent rise of gang activity is a complex problem with no easy fix. One solution may be segregation, designate a few prisons for known gang members and give the most gung-ho guards in the state hazard pay to work there. This would at least slow down recruitment. Maybe have mandatory classes that show the catastrophic consequences of gang violence, i.e. children caught in drive-bys at school bus stops, illiterate teens in bandanas with AR-15s, reformed OGs with redemptive messages. Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries has done groundbreaking work in this field, the department could seek his wise counsel. Maybe men could earn their way out of a “gang camp” through good behavior, renunciation, and a commitment to speak out against gang violence.

As with any bold move, I’m sure there would be logistics to explore and legal ramifications to consider. But if the Florida Department of Corrections does not address this dire situation now, by the year 2025, Florida won’t have a gang problem, it will have a gang crisis.

[This is Part 9 of an ongoing series, Fixing A Broken Prison System, which has its own tab on this website, where you can read Parts 1 – 8.] 

The universe has a sense of humor

Besides my books, the crowning achievement of my middle-age years is the fact that I haven’t received a disciplinary report (DR) since 2009. A major feat, considering that my prison history is littered with rule infractions: contraband, fighting, multiple positive drug urinalyses, disrespect. I’ve probably been to the hole 50 times (my last stay was for eight-and-a-half months). I’ve lost all my gain time, been sprayed with gas, roughed up, cased up, stripped, shipped, and most painfully, had my visitation privileges yanked. It’s been a long journey.

And even when I started focusing on changing my thought patterns and behaviors, even when I committed to reinventing myself, there was still no guarantee that I could remain DR-free. The wrong guard in the wrong mood on the wrong day could result in a 30-day trip to the hole. There’s no such thing as innocence here. Every inmate is guilty “based on an officer’s statement.” This is not some injustice I’m lamenting. This is just part of the prison experience. This is life.

So it was a minor miracle that I made it seven years without incident. Unfortunately, that streak came to an end last month.

There’s this new rule designating the showers “off limits” from 7:45 to 8:00 p.m. for everyone except transgender inmates. Whether enacted from genuine kindness or some future lawsuit paranoia, I’m not sure. But even if it is a heavy-handed reaction to what’s going on out there in the real world, it’s probably a good rule. I mean, if it stops even one person from being assaulted or gives them a few minutes of peace and security in this hostile and violent place, it’s a good rule, right?

The reason I violated it is simple: I forgot. As I said, the rule is brand new and anyway, there were no transgender inmates living in the dorm. So at 7:55, fully soaped and mentally entrenched in the epilogue of my latest novel, I was confronted by a guard and informed that I was being written a DR for entering the shower during the transgender-specified time frame. How did he know I didn’t identify as transgender? Training? Expert analysis? He had a lip full of tobacco and a Confederate flag tat. I’m pretty sure he’s no expert on the subject.

But that’s not the story. Neither is the story my historic run of years coming to an end. The interesting thing about all of this is that the DR raised my custody level, which changed my housing level, which means I am now in a new dorm. My neighbors went from those with release dates within the next 15 to 20 years to mostly lifers. There’s an amputee to my left doing a mandatory 40, a blind man to my right who’s been in since 1986, and the dude across the aisle is fresh off death row. Ironic because the book I just finished writing includes an amputee, a blind man, and a death row subplot. Either the universe has a sense of humor, or its satellites are delayed. Where were these guys while I was researching On the Shoulders of Giants?

[This post originally appeared on http://www.malcolmivey.com in May 2016.]