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Prison: One of the few places on earth where sharks sleep, and where "you reap what you sow."
The note that prisoner Jamel Ross attached with his (so-called) urgent request to see the prison psychotherapist was supposed to appear desperate: "I need to address some serious issues because all I can think about is killing two people when I leave here. Can you help me!" And that's all he wrote. But, even more than the anger, revenge, and redemption Jamel was ready to bring back to the streets, he also had the prison's psych as a target; a target of his lust. And that was a more pressing issue at the moment.
"As far back as I can remember life has been about growing pains," he told her. "I've been through the phases of a liar in my adolescence, a hustler and thug in my teens, and an all-out con man in my twenties. Maybe it was just my instincts to acquire what I considered resources -- by whatever means necessary -- but it's a shame that once you get away with all of those behaviors, you become good at it, like some twisted type of talent or profession. Eventually even lies feel like the truth...
"I had a good thing going with Superstar. The magazine. The cable television show. Meeting and commingling with the big-name celebrities and all. I was positioned to have the biggest multimedia company in New York, the biggest to focus on black entertainment exclusively. BET was based in Washington at the time, so I had virtually no competition. Jamel Ross, the big fish in a little pond...
"And of course I got away with murder, figuratively, when Angel -- yes, the singer with the TV show and all her millions of fans -- didn't go along with the authorities, including her mother, who wanted to hit me with child molestation, kidnapping, and other charges. I was probably dead wrong for laying with that girl before she turned eighteen. But Angel was a very grown-up seventeen-year-old. Besides, when I hit it she was only a few months shy from legal. So gimme a break.
"In a strange way, fate came back to get my ass for all of my misdeeds. All of my pimpmania. That cable company up in Connecticut, with more than four hundred stations and fifty-five million subscribers across the country, was purchased by an even larger entity. It turned my life around when that happened; made my brand-new, million-dollar contract null and void. There was no way that I could sue anyone because lawyers' fees are incredible and my company overextended itself with the big celebrations, the lavish spending, and the increased staff; my living expenses, including the midtown penthouse, the car notes, and maintenance for Deadra and JoJo -- my two lovers at the time -- were in excess of eleven thousand a month. Add that to the overhead at Superstar and, without a steady stream of cash flowing, I had an ever-growing monster on my hands.
"One other thing, both Deadra and JoJo became pregnant, so now I would soon have four who depended on me as the sole provider. Funny, all of this wasn't an issue when things were lean. When the sex was good and everyone was kissing my ass. Now, I'm the bad guy because the company's about to go belly-up."
With a little more than two years left to his eighty-four-month stretch, Jamel Ross finally got his wish, to sit and spill his guts to Dr. Kay Edmondson, the psychotherapist at Fort Dix -- the federal correctional institution that was a fenced-in forty-acre plot on that much bigger Fort Dix Army Base. Fort Dix was where army reservists came to train, and simultaneously where felons did hard time for crimes gone wrong. With so many unused acres belonging to the government during peacetime, someone imagined that perhaps a military academy or some other type of income-producing entity would work on Fort Dix, as well. So they put a prison there.
The way that Fort Dix was set up was very play it by ear. It was a growing project where rules were implemented along the way. Sure, there was a Bureau of Prisons guidebook with rules and regulations for both staff and convicts to follow. However, that BOP guidebook was very boilerplate, and it left the prison administrators in a position in which they had to learn to cope and control some three thousand offenders inside the fences of what was the largest population in the federal system. It was amazing how it all stayed intact for so long.
"On the pound" nicknames were appreciated and accepted since it was a step away from a man's birth name, or "government name," which was the name that all the corrections officers, administrative staff, and of course, the courts used when addressing convicts. So on paper Jamel's name was Jamel Ross. On paper, Jamel Ross was not considered to be a person, but a convict with the registration number 40949-054, something like the forty thousandth prisoner to be filtered through the Southern District of New York. The "054" ending was a sort of area code in his prison ID number. He was sentenced by Judge Benison in October of 1997 and committed to eighty-four months -- no parole, and three years probation. The conviction was for bank robbery. However, on appeal, the conviction was "adjusted" since there was no conclusive evidence that Jamel had a weapon. Nevertheless, Jamel certainly did have a weapon and fully intended to pull off a robbery, with a pen as his weapon. So the time he was doing was more deserved than not.
But regardless of Jamel's level of involvement, it was suddenly very easy for him to share himself since he felt he had nothing to lose. It was that much easier to speak to a reasonably attractive woman, as if there were good reasons for the things he did and why. So he went on explaining all of his dirty deeds to "Dr. Kay" Edmondson as if this were a confessional where he'd be forgiven for his sins. And why not? She was a good-listening, career-oriented female. She was black and she wasn't condescending like so many other staff members were. And when she called him "Jamel," as opposed to "Convict Ross," it made him imagine they had a tighter bond in store.
"So this dude -- I won't say his name -- he let me in on his check game. He explained how one person could write a check for, say, one hundred grand, give it to a friend, and even if the money isn't there to back up the check, the depositor could likely withdraw money on it before it is found to be worthless. It sounded good. And I figured the worst-case scenario would be to deny this and to deny that..."
"They don't verify the check? I mean, isn't that like part of the procedure before it clears?" Kay generally did more talking than this when convicts sat before her. Except she was finding his story, as well as his in-depth knowledge of things, so fascinating.
"See, that's the thing. If the check comes from the same region, or if it's from the other side of the world, it still has to go through a clearing house, where all of the checks from all of the banks eventually go. So that takes like a couple of days. But banks -- certain banks -- are on some ol' 'we trust you' stuff, and I guess since they've got your name and address and stuff, they do the cash within one or two days."
"Yup. They will if it's a local check from a local bank. And on that hundred grand? The bank will let loose on the second day. I'll go in and get the money when the dam breaks..."
"And when the bank finds out about the check being no good?"
"I play dumb. I don't know the guy who wrote the check. Met him only twice, blah blah blah. I sign this little BS affidavit and bang -- I'm knee-deep in free money."
Dr. Kay wagged her head of flowing hair and replied, "You all never cease to amaze me. I mean you, as in the convicts here. I hear all sorts of tricks and shortcuts and -- "
"Cons. They're cons, Dr. Kay."
"Sure, sure..." she somehow agreed.
"But it's all a dead end, ya know? Like, once you get money, it becomes an addiction, to the point that you forget your reasons and objectives for getting money in the first place."
"Did you forget, Jamel?"
"Did I? I got so deep in the whole check thing that it became my new profession."
"I'm for real. I started off with my own name and companies, but then, uh..." Jamel hesitated. He looked away from the doctor. "I shouldn't really be tellin' you this. I'm ramblin'."
"You don't have to if you don't want to, but let me remind you that what you say to me in our sessions is confidential, unless I feel that you might cause harm to yourself or someone else, or if I'm subpoenaed to testify in court."
"Hmmm." Jamel deliberated on that. He wondered if the eighty-four-month sentence could be enhanced to double or triple, or worse. He'd heard about the nightmares, how bragging while in prison was a tool that another prisoner could use to shorten his own sentence. "Informants" they called them. And just the thought of that made Jamel promise himself that he wouldn't say a thing about the weapon and the real reason he caught so much time.
"Off the record, Jamel..."
"Oooh, I like this 'off-the-record' stuff." Jamel rubbed his hands together and came to the edge of the couch from his slouched position.
"Well, to put your mind at ease, I haven't yet received a subpoena for a trial."
Jamel took that as an indication of secrecy and that he was supposed to have confidence in her. But he proceeded with caution as he went on explaining about the various bank scams, the phony licenses, and bogus checks.
The doctor said, "Wow, Jamel. That's a hell of a switch. One day you're a television producer, a publisher, and a ladies' man, and the next -- "
The phone rang.
"I'm sorry." Dr. Kay got up from her chair, passed Jamel, and circled her desk. It gave him a whiff of her perfume and that only made him pay special attention to her calves. There was something about a woman's calves that got him excited. Or didn't. But Dr. Kay's calves did. As she took her phone call, Jamel wondered if she did the StairMaster bit, or if she ran in the mornings. Maybe she was in the military like most of these prison guards claimed. Was she an aerobics instructor at some point in her life? All of those ideas were flowing like sweet Kool-Aid in Jamel's head as he thought and wondered and imagined.
"Could you excuse me?" Dr. Kay said.
"Sure," said Jamel, and he quickly stepped out of the office and shut the door behind him. Through the door's window he tried to cling to her words. It seemed to be a business call, but that was just a guess. A hope. It was part of Jamel's agenda to guess and wonder what this woman or that woman would be like underneath him, or on top of him. After all, he was locked up and unable to touch a female being. So his imaginings were what had guided him during these seven years. He'd take time to look deep into a woman, and those thoughts weren't frivolous but anchored and supported by his past. Indeed, sex had been a major part of his life since he was a teen. It had become a part of his lifestyle. Women. The fine ones. The ones who weren't so fine, but whom he felt he could "shape up and get right." Dr. Kay was somewhere in between those images. She had a cute face and an open attitude. Her eyes smiled large and compassionate. She was cheeky when she smiled, with lips wide and supple. Her teeth were bright and indicated good hygiene.
And Dr. Kay wasn't built like an Essence model or a dancer in a video. She was a little thick where it mattered, and she had what Jamel considered to be "a lot to work with." Big-breasted and with healthy hips, Dr. Kay was one of a half dozen women on the compound who were black. There were others who were Hispanic and a few more who were white. But of those who were somehow accessible, Dr. Kay nicely fit Jamel's reach. And to reach her, all he had to do was make the effort to trek on down to the psychology department, in the same building as the chapel and the hospital. All you had to do was express interest in counseling. Then you had to pass a litmus test of sorts, giving your reason for needing counseling. Of course, Dr. Kay wasn't the only psychotherapist in the department. There were one or two others. So Jamel had to hope and pray that his interview would 1) be with Dr. Kay Edmondson, and 2) that his address would be taken sincerely, not as just another sex-starved convict who wanted a whiff or an eyeful of the available female on the compound.
Considering all of that, Jamel played his cards right and was always able to have Dr. Kay set him up for a number of appointments. It couldn't be once a week; the doctor-convict relationship would quickly burn out at that rate. But twice a month was a good start, so that she could get a grip on who (and what) he was about. Plus, his visits wouldn't be so obvious as to raise any red flags with her boss, who, as far as Jamel could tell, really didn't execute any major checks and balances of Kay's caseload. Still, it was the other prisoners at Fort Dix who Jamel had to be concerned about. They had to be outsmarted at every twist and turn, since they were the very people (miserable, locked-up, and jealous) who would often jump to conclusions. Any one of these guys might get the notion, the hint, or the funny idea that Dr. Kay was getting too personal with one prisoner. Then the dime dropping and the investigation would begin.
From where Dr. Kay sat, there were similar concerns. You never knew with these guys. Prisoners were nothing but crabs in a barrel, all of them waiting their turn to get out, or to get eaten alive. And who knew what they were thinking deep down in their conscience, or what their motives were. Sure, she imagined that somewhere in their minds there was the thought of sex and that they'd desire her at some point or another. But she also considered that to be normal and human. And wasn't that her profession as a prison psychotherapist? To help men deal with such issues? And with that, wasn't there the danger, the intrigue, and a whole lot of head cases? This kind of thing came with the territory. So she accepted it.
"So...where were we?" Dr. Kay asked when the call was finished and the convict was back in the office with the door shut for privacy.
"I was tellin' you my dirt."
"Oh yeah," she said, then sort of chuckled. "I just...I'm just amazed at how you could go from one extreme to the next. At one point, so it seems, you're on top of the world. The next, you're practically sticking up banks with a pen instead of a gun."
After the peculiar silence, Jamel said, "Sounds pretty sick, huh?"
"And if you don't mind me saying, stupid."
There was some more silence as Jamel looked down through his clasped hands.
Reality check, he thought.
Jamel raised his head and when he did she got to see something else; something new and different. Was this a tear forming? Okay...
The crying wasn't what was unique; Lord knows she had witnessed these guys crying over and over again. Even if they came in and acted like they were hard, she could generally see through their act and almost count the minutes until the floodgates opened. But Jamel was different, indeed. There was something very real about Jamel; very basic and uncharacteristic. It seemed as if he was but so far from having the world in his hands, a world of awareness, of intelligence, and of control. Whereas most of the men were at a loss for some definition, direction, and sense of conviction in their lives, Jamel seemed to have all of that. Why did he fail? She was trying to dig for that knowledge. But his heart was one of the unconquerable ones. It was why Jamel appeared to be so "unchained" in this prison community, where everything else (including a man's thoughts) was on twenty-four-hour lockdown. Jamel wasn't the thug he thought he was; just a man with a bold, risk-taking, fearless heart.
With that trembling voice, Jamel offered, "Under the circumstances, I did the best that I could. The best that I knew how. I got caught up in a black hole of responsibilities, people who depended on me. My dream slipped out from under my nose. Everything..." The tears flowed now. "It was all lost. Here I am paying my so-called debt to society, trying to get myself right. I'm stressed out, I'm fighting for my life with other men...we act like thugs, goons, and gangsters all day. We're all actin' hard in here; wearin' it like a bulletproof vest, even in the shower. And we gotta do it like this twenty-four/seven...and...and then I come here for...for someone to listen and counsel me and you can just slam me like this? I'm stupid? I'm some goddamn freak to you? I'm not even human to you, huh? I can't make a mistake. I'm not under some major pain in my life? Do you have any compassion?"
The doctor tried to cut in a few times. Tried to right this wrong situation. But Jamel kept going on. She could feel herself becoming remorseful, feeling more compassion, but maybe it was too late for that.
"I can't believe you could hurt me like this," Jamel continued as he pulled a couple of tissues from the box on the table between them. There was a book there near the box, its brilliant green cover showing off atop the polished pine box. Black Firsts, the book was titled. It was a book that Jamel had flipped through before when the doctor took quicker phone calls, when she didn't excuse him from the office. Jamel blew his nose and there was time enough for her to jump in.
"I'm...I apologize if I've hurt your feelings, I never meant to...I'm just...how do you say...'keepin' it real' with you."
Dr. Kay watched as Jamel peeked up at her beyond his tears and the emotional turbulence that he showed. This had to be a first for him, too, to see the human side of her; to see that under all of the schooling, the training, and the experience with convicts that Dr. Kay Edmondson was merely Kay the woman. It was as close as she'd come to showing herself naked to a prisoner.
Wow, thought Jamel. This is working! It's actually working! Up until now, Jamel merely wanted to spend time with the woman, a black woman who could feel him and understand him and acknowledge his faults. Up until now, Dr. Kay was nothing less than an alternative in a community of men who had to jerk off in place of sex, or else lift weights to release tension. She was his outlet for relief, and his only connection to having a life on the streets. Essentially, speaking to Dr. Kay was an escape. It was freedom. But now there was more, and Jamel knew that what his heart was saying was the truth, even if he was doing a little extra acting. He'd had his way with women time and again back home in New York, so he could measure and assess just as well in prison. In here, even competing with the many fakes, phonies, and frauds who have no doubt walked through Dr. Kay's door with ulterior motives, Jamel suddenly saw possibility. And he couldn't be a hundred percent sure, but if he had to take a gamble, his bet was on the forthcoming, far-fetched physical relationship he would soon have with Dr. Kay Edmondson. Copyright © 2007 by G-Unit Books, Inc.