May 1st, 2011 Comments Off on Chapter Nine
This time around Ernesto felt no fear at entering prison. He’d been there before, knew what to expect, and was quite sure he could survive. The State Prison of Southern Michigan at Jackson, known as “Jacktown” to its many Black inmates, was much bigger than the penitentiary in Lincoln, thanks in large part to Henry ford’s decision to mass produce automobiles in Michigan, not Nebraska. The prison at five thousand inmates, compared with Lincoln’s seven hundred. But as Ernesto expected they would be, the dynamics between the guards and the guarded were similar in both places, antagonistic. Where the prisoners from the two states differed most, Rodriguez soon learned, was in their backgrounds. Most of the inmates in Michigan would not have known the differences between a prairie dog and an armadillo, but they could smell a fix or the fuss a mile off. Most of the Michigan inmates were urban felons, not farm boys or cattle rustlers.
State Prison of Southern Michigan at Jackson
Admission procedures, once he had made his way through a maze of electrically operated barred doors, were simple and quick. The prison officials filled out his “rap sheet”, as it was known, noting his crime and sentence. When the clerical work was completed all of his clothes and personal possessions were taken away from him and he and other entering convicts were herded into a shower. After the shower they were sprayed for lice, crabs, or any other creatures they might have brought with them. Next they were issued white prison gowns, given several shots, and a scalping or white wall job by the barber. For ninety days Ernesto would be in what was called quarantine, the period during which the authorities decided upon the most suitable prison in Michigan for the offender and what work he would do.
What struck the young Mexican most about Jacktown was the number of guard towers dotting the imposing walls and roof tops. There wasn’t a square foot of space within the walls that wasn’t within line of sight of one of the towers, each manned by rifle toting guards. Even in the mess halls there were armored apertures through which, if need be, the guards could fire down on the inmates.
The first building in which he was housed was called the reception center, or seven block. It was a monstrous building accommodating seven hundred prisoners under one roof on five floors, or tiers. The ground floor was the base floor, known as base, and four tiers rose above it, each consisting of nothing but individual cells.
Prisoners entering the reception center, or seven block, were given a battery of tests and then issued their blanket rolls, bedding which consisted of one blanket in the summer, two sheets, and one pillow case. A second blanket was issued in winter time and the sheet that wasn’t in the laundry was used to cover the mattress.
After they were issued their blanket rolls they were measured for clothes, but they wandered around the huge cell block for almost a week before they received their prison-issue apparel. The shoes, either hightops or oxfords, were made at the prison, shirts and trousers were made from what Ernesto refers to as “bull-shit khaki”. Besides their underwear and socks they were also issued blue denim jackets and khaki overseas caps.
During his quarantine period, his first week, Rodriguez discovered that meal times were always interesting occasions. They were made so by the birds flying around loose inside the cavernous cell block where the prisoners ate. Some of the birds were pigeons and their number made Ernesto wonder whether there was a statue in the building of the first warden or some other important person to attract them. Their droppings occasionally garnished the prisoners’ food trays, but when the pigeons struck there was no turning back for a fresh tray because there were too many people to feed.
All incoming prisoners were given a battery of tests to determine their I.Q.s and aptitudes. Ernesto went through all the tests but it was more than thirty days before he appeared before the testing and classification board. There, a pitch was made to the prisoners about the benefits they would derive if they worked for one of the prison industries. Working, each prisoner was told, would look good on his record, and could very well make the difference between his serving the minimum or the maximum of his sentence. The parole board viewed prisoners who had a good work record with great favor.
During the orientation sessions the various rules and benefits of the institution were explained to the new inmates. One of the correction officers advised Ernesto and his colleagues, “Do your own time. If you see a guard hitting an inmate, don’t worry about it. Do your own time. Don’t get involved.”
“When I appeared in front of the board,” Ernesto recalled, “I was afraid they were going to send me to the reformatory in Ionia. I was still a pretty young guy, only twenty-two, and I didn’t want go to no goddamn reformatory again. Too many fights, too many hot heads like Hedin, y’know. There was older guys at Jackson, more stable. No, I didn’t want to go to no bullshit reformatory again.
“One member of the classification board wanted to know what the tattoo on the top of my left hand stood for. It was the cross the Pachucos had used when I was a kid, y’know. I told them it didn’t stand for nothing, it was something I’d gotten years ago, and that I didn’t belong to any gang. I told them if they gave me a razor I’d cut the damn thing off and they could put it in my file. That made one of them kinda snicker.
“One of the people began to read off all the stuff I’d done, the butcher knife in Nebraska, the fight in the theatre, and my troubles with Hedin.
“‘You’re a violent man, Rodriguez’, this one asshole said, ‘and I think you ought to be sent to the prison up in Marquette. That’s where people like you belong. Up there you won’t think you’re so touch.’
“I didn’t want to go to Marquette. That’s where they had all the guys who had started the big riot in Jackson in 1952. That’s where they had all the real bad individuals, I’d heard that everybody up there was in maximum security and most of them walked around with shanks in their pockets. The guards didn’t stop them. I wanted to stay in Jackson. It was close to my family, and I wanted to go to school, not do no work unless I could go to school too. Figured I had a better chance of doing it at Jackson then Marquette.
“They said, no, they was going to send me to Marquette, that I was a real violent individual. But I pleaded with them and they finally listened, said I could stay at Jackson if I didn’t cause no trouble, y’know.”
Anyone who knew Ernesto would certainly have predicted that if his stay at Jackson was in any way dependent upon his keeping out of trouble his time at 4000 Cooper Street in Jackson would be short indeed. To lifers at Jackson there were two ways to get out, as the saying went, “over the wall, or out the back gate”. Dead. To men like Rodriguez it was “Over the wall, out the back gate, or parole”. But nothing in Ernesto’s career up to that time indicated he’d win such sympathy from a parole board. He was rebellious, truculent, and despised people who had chosen a career in the “corrections” industry, people who kidded themselves into thinking they were rehabilitating others.
Ernesto remembers one funny episode that took place when he wa sstill in seven block. “I think it was in the afternoon when a guard’s voice came over the P.A. system and bellowed, “Now hear this! Now hear this! There’s not going to be any recreation period today until all the toilets are cleaned, the bunks made, and your cells dusted. No recreation until they are all done. Let’s move. Get those toilets clean!”
Ernesto laughed at the memory. “There was a voice you could hear over the P.A. system screaming ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’ a couple of minutes later the building was a goddamn mess. Water and shit everywhere. When seven hundred toilets were flushed at almost the same time they overloaded the sewer and the fucking thing backed up. Hell of a mess, yeah. It was dripping from one gallery to another.”
When he joined the general prison population, as it was called, Ernesto was assigned to five block, one of the better cell blocks because two of the top guards, men named Casy and Berkheimer, were lenient with and friendly to the prisoners. And it was when he was in five block that he began his first art correspondence courses with Famous Artists, Inc., a school founded by Norman Rockwell and several other famous illustrators of the era. Tuition for the program was seventeen dollars and fifty cents a month and twice during the course of his study with them he was unable to pay the costs. Rather than lose him as a student, Famous Artists awarded him scholarships. Lencho, who had visited his son in the Mason County Jail, had given Ernesto enough money with which to get started but after that it was up to Ernesto himself to scrounge up the funds. Now, rather than drawing dirty little books for the guards’ amusement, he was painting in the numbered spaces. It was the beginning of an interest in art he never lost.
Almost as soon as he was moved to five block he clashed with the authorities. They wanted him to work in the textile factory but he wanted no part of it. There were several reasons he objected to working for the prison. One of them was that he wanted to continue his education. He was twenty-two years old, hadn’t finished grade school, and they had schools at Jacktown. Another reason had to do with the type of work, operating a loom, he was asked to do. Ernesto objected to all the lint floating around in the air and he knew that operating a loom was something he’d never do when he was released from prison. It would be useless experience. But his real reason for not wanting to do the work requested of him was the one he felt the strongest about.
He was in prison against his will and he felt disinclined to make it cheaper or easier for society to keep him there. He really didn’t want to perform work upon which the prison made a profit. Because working in or around the kitchen offered an opportunity to steal food that sort of work was marginally acceptable. But he refused to do any other which if not done by the prisoners would have to be farmed out and paid for. The warden and his gang could sweet talk most of the inmate into working by promises of early parole but Ernesto wanted no part of it. He was uncompromising and unrepentant by nature.
The deputy warden called in Rodriguez and told him he could have any job in the prison he wanted and that if he’d work at it for a year that He, the warden, would see that he got all the schooling he sought.
“What about what I won’t learn during that year I’m working?” Ernesto countered. I need an education. I’m entitled to an education, and I want it.”
It was either work for one year or no school and neither man would budge. Unable to reach agreement, the deputy warden ordered him to report for work in the laundry. Like most of the prisoners at Jackson, Ernesto had found himself a weapon, this time an ice pick, and he took it with him when he reported to a Mr. Raney who ran the laundry operation.
Ernesto made a pretense of doing what he was told to do with one of the washing machines but his mind wandered and rather than push the buttons on the machine he sauntered over to the window to watch the prisoners down below. They were doing their weight lifting in the yard.
“You think you’re pretty cute, don’t you?” a voice from behind him said.
The voice belonged to a three hundred pound Black man, a faggot, named “Mama” Maxwell, who acted as one of Raney’s supervisors. He was a huge, very homely man known to be active in the prison’s homosexual set. If you were a “catcher” or a “sissy” you didn’t have to be pretty.
Ernesto spun around, fingering his ice pick. “You get your ugly, Black faggot ass out of here or I’ll throw you out this fucking window. Get the fuck away from me and stay away!”
“You don’t scare me none, Mex.”
“You’re sure as hell gonna be scared just before you hit the ground. Beat it asshole!”
Mama Maxwell complained to Raney about Rodriguez not doing any work and Ernesto found himself again in the hole, this time in Michigan. The hole at Jackson was much better than the one in Nebraska; each cell had a toilet and wash basin of its own. There was a blanket for the bunk and prisoners received three meals a day. The hole was in what the administration called, Fifteen Block, a four story building made famous by the violent prison uprising and riot in 1952.
This time around Ernesto’s stay in the hole was for only a few days. The officials came around after three days and asked him whether he was ready to return to work at the laundry. “My Daddy always told me, ‘Son, you tell a damn fool anything he wants to hear….’ So I did,” Ernesto said. He told them he was ready to return to work at the laundry. He told them he was and two days later he was returned to five block, where because of some clerical error they forgot about him for six weeks. They were a good six weeks, ones in which he socialized with the others, painted, and played poker, making a few dollars. When the system did finally catch up with him he was told to again report to Mr. Raney at the laundry.
Ernesto returned to work, but told Raney he didn’t like the work, the working condition, and wasn’t going to have any part of it. Once again he was thrown in the hole. This time when he was released he was put on a different laundry crew. Raney always kept four crews, a day crew, a night crew, and a standby crew. There was a fourth crew in the hole because the work was extremely disagreeable and the men fought against it. But this time he was put on the standby crew, which meant he could loaf around until he was called.
“I was called off standby after a week or two,” Ernesto remembers, “and told to report to the laundry again. This time I really had it out with Raney. I didn’t like him, he didn’t like me, and I’d heard quite a bit about him He was a mean, bitter, son-of-a-bitch, y’know.
“Mr Raney,” I said, “you don’t like convicts. You don’t like them because your wife ran off with one, a guy who took your car, your clothes, your money, and your wife. So you’re taking it out on me and the others. No matter how hard I work, no matter how good a job I do, you’re going to give me a lot of shit I don’t deserve. You got it in for convicts and I’m not going to work for you.”
“‘Where’d you hear that? Where’d you hear that?’ he screamed at me. ‘That’s not true! That’s not true! Get out of here and don’t you ever come back, you Mexican son-of-a-bitch!’
“I mean he was mad. What I said was true about his wife. I was put back in the hole but I didn’t stay there long, not more than a few days. They came to get me about two-thirty one morning and hustled me out of the hole onto a bus, a gray school bus looking thing that was headed for what they called the State House of Correction and Branch Prison at Marquette Michigan. They were through screwing around with me and decided I belonged there.”
On the Marquette bound bus there were about thirty-five convicts, all of them handcuffed together and attached to a common log-chain in the bus. The bus driver and guards accompanying them were separated from the prisoners by a heavy ceiling-to-floor grating. Rifles, handguns, and a sawed-off shotgun were available for instant use. One squad car preceded the bus and two more brought up the rear. Prisoners headed for the facility at Marquette were not men the state wanted to see running around loose again for a long time.
Almost three hundred and fifty miles from prison to prison, the journey was a long tedious one, punctuated only by stops for gasoline. “The Ducks” were passed around to prisoners needing to urinate and sandwiches were distributed at meal times. The trip was long and tedious, that is, until they arrived at Mackinaw City. The bridge over the Straits of Mackinac linking the Upper Peninsula with the lower part of the state hadn’t yet been completed and the trip between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, Michigan, was made by ferry. It was a new experience for Rodriguez and one he never cared to repeat.
For once in his life Ernesto was badly frightened, almost paralyzed with fear of drowning. He knew that if something happened to the ferry no one would turn the prisoners loose to save themselves. The guards would worry about their own necks. All thirty-five prisoners chained together in a battleship gray coffin would drown as a unit. It was an old ferry and its structural members groaned and complained loudly at the stresses put upon them by the storm lashed waves. And although it was only five miles across the Straits of Mackinac the trip took forty-five minutes because of the seas that were running that day.
It was the longest forty-five minutes of Ernesto’s life. The ship sounded as though it would sink with each new wave that hit. The ship pitched, yawed, and shuddered its way towards a dock the prisoners thought they would never reach. Ernesto knew how to swim. He wasn’t afraid of the water, but he was scared out of his wits by being in a situation in which he couldn’t protect himself; it was unlike any feeling he had ever had. It didn’t make any difference how quick and strong you were. You couldn’t sucker punch a ship or stick a shank into its vitals. Everything inside him “was jumping” and the feeling didn’t go away for several years. They couldn’t have forced him to go back to Jackson until the bridge over the Straits was completed.
Ernesto and his fellow convicts arrived at the Marquette prison by supper time and were checked into a place called A Block, now restored as a museum displaying prison relics of an earlier era. The building was old and of a vintage closer to the days of Jack the ripper than Charles Manson. Like Sing Sing and Alcatraz, the Branch Prison at Marquette, Michigan, had a spectacular setting but its massive prison walls blotted out its inmates’ view of the icy, deep waters of Lake Superior, the purest, most dangerous, and most beautiful of the Great Lakes. Unfortunately, camping and fishing were not encouraged.
The prisoners were escorted into individual cells, each with a bunk, a jar of drinking water, and a “Honey Bucket”. The honey bucket resembled a small mile can and was filled with chemicals and disinfectants whose odor clashed with the clean fresh northern air.
Marquette was for the hard core cases, the incorrigibles, and the atmosphere was entirely different there than it had been in Jackson. Most of the inmates carried shanks. It was safer to do so. The guards knew they did and figured it was part of staying alive. In many respects Marquette had fewer “Mickey Mouse” rules and the guards rarely interfered with the prisoners’ activities unless they had to. Many of the inmates had crudely fashioned hot plates in their cells. With a few yards of bell wire, a piece of heating element wire, and fireproof substance such as asbestos they were ready to cook the unending stream of meats, eggs, vegetables, and bread stolen from the prison kitchen. Those who preferred home cooking paid in cash or with cartons of cigarettes. Most of the guards sniffed the other way when they smelled something good cooking.
By now Ernesto had learned the facts of prison life. One didn’t mess with lifers. Lifers stuck up for one another and if you gave one of them a hard time another one of them would pay you back in spades. Sure, there were fights between lifers for financial, racial, or religious reasons but that was none of a guy’s business if he himself was in for only ten or fifteen years. There were two ways to go, as Ernesto saw it. He could be himself, or be a snitch and cooperate with the authorities, a role for which he was ill-suited. The decision was easy; double crossing the other prisoners, even the thought of cooperating with the authorities was preposterous.
He hadn’t been there for more than a week when he witnessed the Marquette jungle in action. It involved three people, all lifers. Two of them, men named Gisandi and Billy Hummel if Rodriguez recalls correctly, were very small, ex-jockeys. They had hung around race tracks, bet on horses, and one day made a killing, each betting five hundred dollars on the nose of a very high odds horse. When the horse won and they went to their bookie who, with his brother ran a Detroit area pharmacy, Gisandi and Hummel were told to beat it, that the brothers had no record of the bet.
What the two little men lacked in size they more than made up for in retributive skills. They returned a few hours later, each carrying two revolvers, and emptied all four weapons into the bookie brothers. Both convicted of first degree murder, Gisandi and Hummel were sentenced to two life sentences each and consigned first to Jackson and then to the branch prison at Marquette when they tried to escape from Jackson.
With Gisandi and Hummel in E. Block was another lifer named James Hudson, a sturdy, muscular black man who had been one of the ring leaders in the 1952 Jackson prison riot. When the riot had begun it had been Hudson who had succeeded in jumping a guard and taking away his keys.
“I got the keys! I got the keys!” he had yelled, running down the corridors and letting out the prisoners.
Hudson was serving life sentence for a first degree murder charge from Newaygo County, and had had been confined in the Ionia State Hospital for the insane. He remembers that he was a tough, arrogant man who had cause more than his share of trouble at Jackson. His reward, of course, was Marquette.
Gisandi, Hummel, and Hudson were all on the tier immediately below Ernesto’s. Rumor had it that the arrogant Hudson had spit on Hummel, an intolerable offense which in the prisoners’ code called for drastic action. News articles also claimed Hudson may have snitched on an escape plot by a lifer named Red McDowell, a week before he was set ablaze in his cell.
According to the grape vine, prison rumors, Hudson’s murder had been by prearrangement with other lifers, the guard on duty that day, a man named Sully, was called to the opposite side of the cell block. From where he had been decoyed he couldn’t see Hudson’s cell or what Hummel may have been doing. Quick as a flash the jockey moved in front of Hudson’s cell and sloshed the sleep prisoner, his bunk, and his cell floor with two gallons of paint thinner. Hummel completed his revenge by waking Hudson and tossing him a book of lighted matches. There was a loud ka-rumpfing noise and black smoke billowed up past Ernesto’s tier. One floor below him Hudson was being basted in his own saliva.
Murder really makes no difference to a lifer. There is no death penalty in Michigan. Murders in prisons were called prison homicides and inmates committing them were routinely given a maximum of fifteen years. To men such as Hummel, whom was already serving two life sentences, another fifteen years was a laugher. Being spit on wasn’t. At Marquette, prison homicides were not unusual events and the authorities looked upon them as actions the prisoners had probably had to take to insure their own survival. The ruthless dog-eat-dog brutality of prison created the climate in which manslaughter could flourish.
One of the lifers on the same tier as Hudson’s was a Black man named Reverend Ellis. The Reverend was at Marquette for having shotgunned two people to death. A huge, pigeon toed man over six foot three, he weighed almost three hundred pounds. His big rumbling voice had been useful for preaching the gospel on the street corners and it could still easily fill an entire cell block with its deep, carrying resonance.
Reverend Ellis was a friend of Hudson’s and a few seconds after the explosion everyone could hear Ellis’ voice beseeching, “Who did it? Who did it?”
But it was too late to do anything for Hudson when they finally succeeded in unlocking the cell door. He lived for about ten minutes after they pulled him in pieces out of the burning cell. The authorities quickly picked up Hummel, accused him of murder, and put him in “the canary”, which was Marquette’s name for the hole. Hummel stayed in the canary for a year or more, Ernesto believes, but was eventually returned to the general prison population because no one could prove he had killed Hudson.
“What’s hard for people to understand about a prison like Marquette,” Ernesto tried to explain, “is that most of the inmates there were unusual or exceptional people. They were the leaders, the brains, not the everyday punks you found in the other Michigan prisons, a bunch of light fingered fucking accountants or something. These were very dangerous characters. If a guy spits on you and you don’t pay him back real quick the word gets out, gets out real fast. The next thing you know a guy comes up and grabs a pack or a carton of cigarettes outta your hands. And sure as hell, next thing a guy tells you to drop your pants or suck his cock. No, Hummel didn’t have no choice.”
Given his choice of being a “punk or a “bad ass”, as he described it, Rodriguez found it easy and quite natural to sip into the bad ass role. It would take a while, but he sensed that having a reputation in Marquette was even more important than it had been in Jackson. Other inmates had to learn not to mess with him.
Money became a problem for Ernesto. Winters were cold, very cold in Marquette. It was “like living on an iceberg”. In those days the snow stayed on the prison yard until it melted, all ten or twelve feet of it. Ernesto wanted enough money to buy his own long johns and his own winter clothing because the idea of wearing someone else’s underwear didn’t appeal to him. To buy luxuries he needed money. In prison, as it is outside the walls, making money is easier if you have it. Ernesto had five dollars in his prison bank account and to acquire more he stopped smoking and quit eating candy bars. He sold a painting of his to another prisoner for twelve dollars. Spending nothing on himself, he put every penny he owned out on loan. The interest rate was twenty-five cents on the dollar, even if the loan was only for a few hours. Cartons and packages of cigarettes were the equivalent of cash and the coins used were prison-issued aluminum stamping about the size of a silver dollar.
Ernesto’s natural perspicacity made him a successful money lender. The type of banking or loan sharking he did in prison required the guts of an enforcer and more “smarts” than one usually associates with bankers. An MBA would have been of no value to him. Collection methods varied, depending upon the individual who had borrowed the money. Some had to be faced with a knife, others with fists. The “punks” and “sissies” who borrowed money and did not repay promptly were usually “bitch slapped”. Bitch slapping consisted of grabbing a man by the collar and slapping his face hard and fast with both sides of an open hand. To be bitch slapped hurt and was very demeaning.
Twice a month the prison observed “script day”, the day in which the prison “funny money”, the aluminum coins, could be withdrawn as money from inmates’ accounts, and money which could be used to purchase goods from the prison store, and this money could also be placed in the inmates account if so desired. For the lone sharks, this was pay day, when debts had to be paid, or interest added to the loan.
Green money, as U. S. currency was known, was strictly contraband and if found was confiscated. Of course prisoners had large amounts of real money, but it was always well hidden from the guards, unless one was being bribed.
Prisoners were permitted to have as much as five hundred dollars in prison money or coins, but amounts over that were confiscated and put into a prisoners’ welfare fund. Because funny money was bulky and difficult to conceal the wheeler-dealers who had large quantities of it converted it to green money which was readily available throughout the prison. Some inmates sold large quantities of prison money for money orders mailed to relatives and to outside bank accounts. One the money orders reached the bank accounts, inmates inside the walls were given their funny money, which was also used to gamble with or to purchase sex from other inmates.
Hard drugs such as cocaine or heroin could not be purchased with cigarettes. Drug dealers demanded cash. An addict could purchase thirty dollars worth of drugs for a twenty dollar bill. Cigarettes were sold, thirty dollars worth for twenty dollars green money which was then used to buy drugs. All kinds of money including cigarettes were plentiful in circulation. “Money talks and bullshit walks.” Inmates lived by the golden rule, like everyone else, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Ernesto explained.
Money was smuggled in and out by visitors and concealed in the linings of clothes, or any place where its presence would be hard to detect. Ernesto hid his money, large bills, behind snapshots in photo albums and in tooth paste tubes, an especially useful place because even when he was in the hole, or the canary, they allowed him to brush his teeth with his own gear. And, of course, real money talked, even in the hole.
If a prisoner borrowed, say, two hundred dollars from Ernesto, he would ask the man to instruct his relatives on the outside to send a two hundred and fifty dollar money order to his girlfriend in Lansing. That money would go into his personal bank account.
To avoid being caught with more than five hundred dollars prison money, Ernesto employed flunkies to each carry around several hundred dollars for him, money which was to be given to him immediately upon request or when needed. The flunkies enjoyed carrying his money because it gave them an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with a rising member of the power structure for their troubles. They were also well treated and could use some of the money if they needed some, but limited, and had to be repaid.
Ernesto moved into the prison’s power structure when he had accumulated enough money to begin lending it to the prison bookies each time they needed large sums of money quickly to cover bets or losses.
Soon he was also buying and selling prison concessions from other prisoners and putting inmates to work producing souvenirs for sell in the prison’s hobby shop, which sold them to visitors. One item was a round wooden platform, well varnished, containing stones and a resting miniature pick and broken shackles reading, “Souvenir of Marquette Prison.” Another concession was an Indian Drum made from coffee cans, painted, and had an attached drumstick. And large quantities of leather goods, purses, wallets, pistol holsters and belts. The hobby craft shop took a small percentage of the profit and passed the rest on to the prisoners who produced the items.
His first two years at Marquette Ernesto refused to work at any prison job. He insisted he be sent to school but the authorities remained adamant in their insistence that he work. The net result of his rebellion was that he spent most of the first two years in his cell. He was permitted to mingle with other prisoners at meal times and the three daily recreation periods, but most of the day and night he was in his cell. He didn’t mind having the time to himself because he had become totally engrossed in his art studies and reading novels, philosophical books, and increasing his vocabulary.
Not so engrossed, however, that he used the growing and rather comfortable income from his loan sharking business to pay his tuition to Famous Artists Inc. They gave Rodriguez a scholarship because they knew he was a prisoner and had talent, but they didn’t know he was a successful small business man.
Asked how he could carry on a flourishing loan sharking business when he was locked in his cell, Ernesto explained that “hall boys” made the work easy. The hall boys, prisoners who kept the corridors clean, ran errands for the men in the cells and supplied them, for a price, with cigarettes, candy, speed pills, or anything else the prisoners could pay for. In fact, almost every inmate had his own “gig”, as Ernesto described it. They found some way to make money in the prison’s economy. Many of the ways were illegal, but they worked. Several of the top dogs, the lifers, became skilled leather craftsmen and they made such items as key holders, wallets, and rifle and revolver holsters for various prison officials who prized the workmanship. They were given as gifts to the officials who, in turn, were invariably grateful and usually showed their gratitude by smuggling in bottles of whiskey for the craftsman. Other men supported themselves at Marquette by stealing food from the prison larders and retailing it to the hot-plate-equipped convicts in their cells. Compared to Jackson, Marquette’s prison had very little heroin, cocaine and marijuana usages. An amphetamine called “speed” was the most popular drug at the time.
After two years, the Marquette officials grudgingly admitted that Rodriguez’ artistic talent entitled him to enter the prison art school. There were only three students in it, a Black man named Glanton Dowdell who was in for second degree murder and armed robbery, a white man name Gerald Witt in for burglary, and Ernesto. It was a school in which the three of them learned by doing and from each other, with all the books and art supplies paid for by the state.
Of the three, Dowdell was the most talented. He won a number of prizes for his paintings of churches and commissioned to paint a Black Madonna in a Detroit Church. 1967 was not a good time to be in Detroit. The city was about to erupt in riots and Dowdell did more than work on his paintings; he was picked up for bringing guns into the city. He was released with the understanding that after he finished the Madonna he would report back to the police for the disposition of his case. Given that break, he fled the country, and flew to Sweden rather than to risk prison again. He assumed, correctly, that Sweden would not extradite him and that he would find many people in that country who were as anti-American as he was.
Witt, the third artist, wasn’t as tough a man as Dowdell or Rodriguez. He had been badly scared in Korea and would never have had Dowdell’s audacity to walk into a “numbers” house armed with a Sawed-off shotgun and blast a man with both barrels who claimed there was no money on the premises. The three artists made up a motley crew.
From time to time Ernesto received encouragement for his painting. Other prisoners admired and bought his art. One of his large paintings, a picture of Mary holding the infant Jesus on her lap, won second prize at the Marquette County Fair in Escanaba, Michigan. He had dreamed that he was going to enter three paintings in the show and win two prizes and he did.
During the recreation periods he played chess, dominoes, tonk, and poker, with poker being the game at which he was the most successful. On a fluke, he beat Jim Spivey, the prison chess champion, but never again after he earned Spivey’s attention. Spivey was a homosexual who liked young white boys, a preference which earned him thirty-five years in prison where, among other things, he edited the prison newspaper.
Both prisons, the one at Marquette and the one at Jackson, had homosexuals, who were extremely popular with inmates of both sexual preferences. The most popular one at Marquette was an exceptionally ugly black queer nicknamed “Sapphire”. Gays and straights both like Sapphire. Down at Jackson the most popular sissy was known as Billie Holiday because of his, or her, striking resemblance to the singer.
Ernesto couldn’t figure it out, couldn’t see why everyone thought sapphire was so great; He finally asked one of his friends. “Joe,” he asked, “what’s so damn special about him about that ugly bastard?”
“Look Ernie,” Joe Massina explained, “that Sapphire’s the only faggot that can suck your pecker, lick your balls, and whistle Yankee Doodle Dandy all at the same time.”
“Why society and prison officials encourage homosexuality by denying prisoners conjugal visits,” Ernesto said he will never understand. “Surely they understand the consequences of their actions. And society who pays their salaries is equally responsible. It is all a very deliberate plan. More than once, I was told to get ‘married–settle down’ with some faggot and stop being a trouble maker.”
In prison, to the delight of prison administrators and in accordance to their prison policies, there are many heterosexuals–men considered to be so by their fellow inmates–who will pay a sissy a pack or two of cigarettes for sex. In the eyes of the other prisoners this does not stamp them with the homosexual brand. To pay some man to do that is considered no less socially acceptable with that crowd than going into a whore house for a quick fix. They weren’t the jockers or the daddies, the aggressive partner in the homosexual team, they were heterosexuals who tired of masturbation.
When Ernesto began his loan sharking business he knew he’d have to have a very persuasive knife, or shank. And he found the makings of it in a pile of athletic gear scheduled for burning. He came across a sixteen inch racing skate blade which when sharpened on both edges was a fearful and persuasive thing to behold. The handle was fashioned out of electrical tape and the working portion of the blade, sharp as a razor, was a foot long.
During a poker game one day a player name Pritchett ran out of funds and asked Ernesto to lend him four dollars for a short time. When the game was over Pritchett repaid the four dollars but not the five dollars Ernesto expected. The game room emptied when Ernesto announced that it was five dollars or fight. The weapons in the two men chose to make their point favored the lender over the borrower because Ernesto’s knife was twelve inches of shimmering steel and Pritchett’s a scant three inches. As the two men circled each other, feinting and waiting for an opening, Rodriguez explained to his adversary that whereas Pritchett’s shorter knife could indeed cut him his own knife, the longer one, would in all likelihood kill Pritchett. Did he want die for a lousy dollar? The man with the short knife paid off his debt and Ernesto’s reputation as a no-nonsense collector remained intact.
One of the many faggot characters at Marquette was known as Joe Louis because of his boxing skills. Rodriguez remembers one day when Joe Louis rushed up to his cell, panting and out of breath, and thrust a large ham through the open cell door.
“Quick, Ernie, take this!” Joe gasped. “Gotta get going,” and off he ran down the tier’s corridor.
A few minutes before four large hams had been stolen from a prison delivery truck and Joe Louis didn’t want to get caught with one of them. Ernesto, having been in his cell at the time of the heist, wouldn’t be suspected. And for Joe, of course, it was an easy way to make friends with one of the tough guy leaders.
Soon Ernesto’s favorite guard at Marquette, a man named Sully, smelled ham frying and decided that he was very hungry. Sully was a big man with an enormous appetite and a real liking for convicts under his care if they didn’t give him any trouble. He was a friendly man and when Ernesto or the others cooked up a treat, say a purloined ham or T-bone steak, Sully was always given his share, complete with trimmings. Sully’s kindness to Ernesto and the fact that he treated him with fairness and respect were certainly among the reasons for the Mexican’s good behavior for the first five years at Marquette. He was as responsive to decent treatment and ordinary courtesy as he was intolerant of cruelty and “chicken shit”, as he called regulations demeaning to the prisoners.
Troubles began for Ernesto at Marquette with a six foot one black man named Hooks. Hooks was the hall boy on E Block’s base floor where Rodriguez lived. Being a hall boy was probably the easiest, most agreeable job in prison because in return for no more than an hour’s work each day hall boys were allowed to come and go within the building until all the cells were locked at 10 p.m. It was certainly more pleasant than working in any prison factory and most of the time sweeping, not swabbing down with water, was enough. Being a hall boy also enabled a prisoner to know what was going on.
Hooks had access to all others in E Block, including a new arrival named James L. Davis. Both these men were proselytizing homosexuals but, unlike Hooks, Davis was a dangerous man. Davis had been sent to Marquette from Jackson because the lifers at Jackson were plotting to kill him and the authorities learned of their plan. Loose on the streets, Davis had specialized in armed robberies which were especially notable for the savage beatings and pistol whippings he gave his victims after the robberies. Inside the prison at Jackson Davis specialized in raping young whites and the “switching out” or “swapping out” with the objects of his affections after they had been pacified. Sometimes he liked to be the daddy and other times the sissy. When he wasn’t safe in his cell, Davis, a self proclaimed “Muslim”, wore a cap to indicate his devotion to Allah.
One of Ernesto’s good friends at Marquette was a tough, hillbilly, Tennessean named Davidson. During their recreation period Davison told Rodriguez he wanted a carton of cigarettes, that his supply was running low. It was agreed that when Ernesto returned to his cell he’d send Hooks, the hall boy, up with a new carton.
Cheating and petty thievery were high among Hooks’ accomplishments. He was a mean spirited man given to taking wrappers or packages from expensive consumer items, substituting prison-issue products of a much inferior quality, and then selling the newly rewrapped items as the real thing. The carton of cigarettes Ernesto gave Hooks to give to Davidson never arrived at its intended destination.
Instead, Hooks gave the carton to James Davis, the Muslim tough guy. When Ernesto learned that Davis not Davidson, had received the cigarettes he knew that he’d been ripped off by Hooks and Davis and that he’d have to act promptly. There was no difference between letting Davis rip him off or letting a man default on a loan. Word would get out in a hurry.
When they were out in the yard Ernesto confronted Hooks with what he had heard. “Who’d you give the cigarettes to?” he asked the hall boy.
“I gave them to Davis. Didn’t you want me to give them to him?’
Rodriguez was getting mad. “Who’s Davis? I never heard of him I told you to give them to Davidson and you fucking well know who he is–don’t try to shit me you asshole!”
“Look man, I made an honest mistake,” Hook lied lamely, looking everywhere except into Ernesto’s eyes. “That’s him over there,” he pointed. “That’s Davis.”
“No you didn’t nigger, you never made an honest mistake in your whole fucking life. I want my cigarette back.”
“You’ll have to get them off Davis.”
Ernesto walked over to where Davis was standing and came right to the point. “I understand you got a carton of my cigarettes by mistake.”
“Look man,” Davis said, looking right through Rodriguez, “I don’t know you or anything about you. Don’t care to. I ain’t got nothing to do with it. A man gave me a carton of cigarettes thinking I was somebody else and I used them.”
“Davis, you listen to me real careful. I know what you’re doing, but I want you to know I’m going to get my cigarettes one way or another.”
Not to follow through on his promise was unthinkable to Rodriguez.
No man, Davis or Hooks, was going to destroy a reputation he had taken five years to build. The most natural thing to do was to return to his cell and pick up his long knife, which he had concealed in a secret compartment in his desk. Armed with that he didn’t have to take any crap from anyone, he was sure.
“I went up to Davis,” Ernesto remembered, “I had my knife and I was very polite, ‘I’m getting my cigarettes,’ I told him. I don’t care who’s got them, you or Hooks. I understand you made a bet with my money. You knew it wasn’t yours.’”
“I ain’t got nothing to do with it man. I don’t want any of that shit. Fuck you!”
The clanging bell announcing the end of recreation period interrupted the dispute. After a rather unpleasant exchange of “fuck yous” the dangerous Ernesto was not only armed he was cocked. On the way back to their cells he told Hooks how he’d heard from a bookie friend that Hooks and Davis had gambled the carton and lost and that Hooks could look forward to being hurt badly if either the money or the cigarettes didn’t materialize soon.
Hooks relayed the message to Davis and came back with word that if Rodriguez wanted the cigarettes he’d have to go through Davis to get them.
“Nigger, you’re dead!” Ernesto warned and, grabbing his long shank from under the pillow, he made a move toward Hooks who ran down the gallery to the stairs leading up to Davis’ cell. Had the cell locking bar not been in the midst of being lowered, Ernesto would have “stuck” him. But because the locking bar was almost fully lowered he couldn’t open his cell door to catch Hooks.
Soon Hooks was back outside Ernesto’s cell with another message, a taunt, from Davis. He must have known he was egging on the Mexican.
“Davis says to tell you that if you come out of your cell again today he’s gonna kill you!”
Davis hadn’t learned much in the two weeks he had been at Marquette because that was the last kind of threat to deter a man who had been fighting battles for as long as Ernesto had. Worse than that, he had issued the threat on movie night, the night a film would be shown in the theatre above the kitchen, Rodriguez would attend as he usually did. In fact, it was his turn to bring the sandwiches and the pop. Without his knowledge, Davidson, the man for who the cigarettes had been intended, followed Rodriguez to the theater.
At the entrance to the building Ernesto noticed a group of eight or nine Muslims with James L. Davis. They were his soldiers, of whatever rank the great on deigned to bestow upon them. As Ernesto approached the circle he could see Davis in the midst of his co-religionists, feinting and moving around with one hand in his pocket, a pose which suggested he was concealing a shank. Davis was certainly encouraging them to attack Rodriguez, the blue eyed white devil with brown eyes, but except for their mutterings and exchanged insults the troops were not yet psyched up enough to attack the Mexican.
“When Ernesto came abreast of Davis, Davis called out, “What the fuck’s eating you, man?”
“I came to get my cigarettes or an apology from you. Either one and no less.”
Davis, emboldened by his troops, snarled his answer. “I’m gonna kill you, man. You ain’t getting nothing!”
“Look nigger, where I come from we fight back, we kill each other–I’m from Texas motherfucker. You’re gonna give me my cigarettes, or I’ll skin you alive. Take your choice,” Ernesto said, while pulling on the handle of his knife which he had under his belt and hidden under the bag of sandwiches he was carrying.
“You just looking for trouble, Whitey!”
“No I’m not, I just found it.”
‘We were walking toward the theatre and as we started to climb the stairs one of the assholes stepped on my foot. I started laughing at him–there I was with a shank a foot long in my hand and aimed at his heart–I thought to myself, forgive him Lord for he knows not what he does.
“They were foolish enough to let me walk up the stairway, dumb bastards.
“All my friends were sitting in the front row and I tossed the bag of sandwiches to Bob Meadows and told him I’d be right back.
“What’s the matter?” he wanted to know.
“Nothing’s the matter. I’ll be right back.
“Davis and his gang of eight were taking seats near the rear of the theatre and I walked down the row behind him, and when I came up even to him I slapped him as hard as I could with my right hand, his cap flew into the crowd of inmates in front of him. He was stunned and dazed. After I had slapped him with my right hand, I had buried the knife twice into his back. When he spun around to face me I shoved the knife into his heart and pulled it out–blood exploded all over the place as he fell backwards. I braced myself and waited for his soldiers to attack me, but instead of attacking, they ran into the crowd of inmates and hid themselves.
“I looked at Davis, he was on his back, his head on the floor, his legs dangling over the backs of the row of seats he fell over. Blood squirted out of his heart with each beat.
“Davidson got back to back with me, pulled out a large knife, and yelled into the crowd, that no son-of-bitch had better try touching me. He waved his knife at the crowd, keeping everyone away from my back.
“I look around to see if I could spot Hooks. I saw him, up on the stage, behind the movie screen; all I could see was his face as he peered out from behind the stage curtain where he was hiding.
I told Davidson to get the hell out of there or they would get him for murder. He made it clear that he wasn’t going anywhere and that he didn’t give a fuck what they did. He was going to watch my back.
“The five hundred men in the theater were all backing up away from the bloody scene, towards the stage, into a large half circle.
“One of the guards yelled for me to put down the knife and go to him. I was not about to put my shank down for nobody. I wasn’t finished yet.
“I looked at Davis and spit on him a few times, then turned to face his soldiers. I yelled out to them calling them cowards for not defending their leader. I spit on Davis again but none of them came forward. I told them all they were only good in getting someone killed.
“I gave them a short lecture: I told them they could fuck with Whitey all they wanted too but not to bring their bull shit to the Mexicans. That we would not be their target without fighting back. I told them that today was their sample. (Ernesto has never harbored a racial bone in his body, his use of racial words were to show he was not afraid to provoke anger–they were “fighting words.”)
“I put my knife back into my waist, covered it with my jacket, never taking my hand off the handle, and walked towards the guards who was waiting for me.
“I made it clear to him that I was not giving up my knife until we reached the hole. He agreed. And we both walked out of the theater into the night across the prison yard.”
It was on the night of March 12th, 1961 that Ernesto brought James L. Davis’ life to a merciful and richly deserved conclusion. Fearing revenge, the authorities hustled Rodriguez from the Canary to A Block, to await an investigation. Back to the Honey Bucket. He was treated with great respect and consideration. While he was there, the guards even brought him bags of oranges, bananas, and apples, anything to make his stay pleasant.
There was nothing tacit about the pleasure they took in Davis’ death. They came right out and said they were damn glad he was gone, that he had given them a lot of trouble, that someone was bound to kill him sooner or later. They knew chapter and verse of his deeds before and during his prison term and they considered him a dangerous and evil man they were well rid of.
After going through the usual hearings Ernesto was arraigned in Marquette County Circuit Court on May 1st. He had been told that if he pleaded guilty to manslaughter they’d give him the shortest sentence allowable. For manslaughter that would be three to fifteen years which he could serve concurrently with the time he was already doing.
And that’s what happened. On May 12th Judge Carroll C. Rushton sentenced Ernesto Rodriguez to three to fifteen years with the court’s recommendation that he be released after the minimum. With “good time”, as it was called, that meant he could serve out the sentence in only two years.
On the way back to his cell in the canary, to which he was to be returned after sentencing, he had to pass through D Block, where one of his friends, Orrin Schultz, lived.
“Hey Ernie,” Schultz called out, when he saw his pal go by, “What’d ya get?” Every prisoner at Marquette was interested in what happened to Rodriguez.
“Three to fifteen with a recommendation for parole in twenty four months. Concurrent,” Ernesto called back, waving.
A black man in a nearby cell overheard the sentence and howled out, “Jesus Christ! That means it’s open season on us niggas!”
Ernesto was tired of Marquette. It was cold year round . The general prison population was relatively small, which meant somewhat limited opportunities for an entrepreneur. Jackson had much more to offer and it was only twenty-nine miles away from his family. He knew it was customary for a prison to transfer one of its inmates if he had killed another inmate, and Ernesto requested a transfer.
Hooks now lived in mortal terror of Rodriguez and this helped speed Ernesto on his way. Hooks was sure Ernesto wanted to kill him and any time the Mexican was out of his cell Hooks insisted that he, Hooks, be locked up tightly in his own.
When Ernesto left Marquette he managed to take about five hundred dollars “green money” with him. It was hidden behind photographs, in tooth paste tubes, and in the lining of his clothes. And he also had money in the bank. This time when he arrived at Jacktown he’d have a poke with which he could begin a good business. He was owed several thousand dollars by the prisoners when he left but it was the law of the jungle that all debts were cancelled when a prisoner was transferred or released. This time Ernesto felt no fear during the trip down because the bridge over the Straits of Mackinac had been completed.
Upon his arrival at Jackson Rodriguez had to go through the whole quarantine process again. He had to have his head shaved, wear the funny prison gown until he was issued new clothing, and be given aptitude tests.
Ernesto and two other hard cases from Marquette who had been sent down to Jackson with him decided to have some fun, to tease some of the younger prisoners they met. Darting their eyes around, the three huddled together.
“It’s so frightening here with all these bad men around.” they whined. “We’re never going to do another bad thing. Not as long as we live. Oh, no, never.”
“Don’t let it get you down, guys” the rookies advised the three bad asses. “After a while you will used to it. Some of them aren’t as dangerous as they look. Just keep your nose clean and they won’t give you no shit”
Later the rookies found out to whom it was they had given advice. They were chagrined, but three of the toughest men in the prison had a good laugh over it.
Five years and a few months earlier Ernesto had been admitted to the Jackson penitentiary for the first time. A remarkable thing happened to him during those five years. Back in 1956 He tested slightly below the sixth grade level. This time when he was tested he scored above the twelfth grade level. Thanks to his correspondence courses, considerable reading, and the mathematics skill loan sharking and gambling required, he moved up on the scale. As a consequence, he was assigned to clerical duties and administering aptitude tests to incoming prisoners. There was another reason Rodriguez was kept in the quarantine unit and not immediately released to the general prison population where he wanted to be.
That reason was Bauer, the man whose lies had been responsible for Ernesto’s being put into the Michigan prison system in the first place. In 1957 Bauer himself had been sentenced to twenty to forty years for robbing a seventy-five year old man of sixteen dollars and almost beating him to death in the process. Bauer had more reason than Hooks to live in mortal fear of Rodriguez. By now Ernesto had earned quite a reputation among the prisoners and when word reached Bauer that the man he had falsely accused had returned to Jackson Bauer became, as the bible would say, “sore wroth”.
Bauer immediately contacted the authorities. Should Rodriguez be admitted to the general prison population, he told them there was no doubt Rodriguez would kill him. He pleaded for protection.
Ernesto was performing his clerical functions and administering aptitude tests under the supervision of a black man named Rollin Green, with whom he got along very well. Green wanted to keep Rodriguez on his staff but after nine months Ernesto prevailed upon him and the authorities to allow him to join the other prisoners. He promised, scout’s honor, he would not do anything to Bauer.
Ernesto soon learned from reliable sources that Bauer was greatly appreciated by a group of black homosexuals. He was a very frequent object of their affections and one of them, learning of Bauer’s fear, approached Ernesto and pleaded for his sissy.
Rodriguez never harmed Bauer. He denied himself the pleasure for sensible, selfish reasons. He was in enough trouble as it was, and if he ever expected to be released he’d have to behave himself. Another homicide on his record wouldn’t be freedom effective, as the bureaucrats would say. Anyway, Bauer was leading the kind of life he deserved.
The food at Jacktown wasn’t any better than it had been during Ernesto’s first visit there. In fact, it wasn’t as good as it had been up at Marquette because up there food could be ordered from town and cooked by the prisoners. Down at Jackson it was wretched stuff most of the time, the exception being that time of the year when the automobile license plates were being stamped out and painted in the prison factory. The politicians didn’t want a work stoppage or a food strike when the voters were expecting their plates and to avoid any stoppage steaks, ice cream, and cookies appeared miraculously on the menu. Once license plates were shipped, the menu reverted to its starchy, glutinous monotony, accented by fruits and vegetables long past their prime by the time they arrived at the prison.
A man by the name of Scoffes had the contract for food service at the prison. He and his father ran a restaurant in Lansing which was frequently patronized by politicians. Presumably, when the pols dined at Scoffes’ they were treated right. It can be further presumed that the produce served at Scoffes’ restaurant was somewhat fresher than the produce served at the prison. In fact, some days the food at Jadckson was almost inedible. Fruits and vegetables the commission house vendors were delighted to be paid for somehow ended up in the prison mess hall. And great great grandmother Holstein cows from someone’s dairy farm became the beef du jour.
Mr. Scoffes didn’t have an easy job. His prison labor, his work force, was tough and dangerous, not to be trifled with or scolded for the constant disappearance of food items. Unless he himself wanted to end up in the stew, it was better to keep one eye closed.
Least popular of the prison desserts was something intended to be bread pudding. Scraps of uneaten of stale bread were saved and thrown into a horizontal, stainless steel vessel mounted on wheels. A piece of wood covered the container until it was filled with enough bread to make the pudding. Because cockroaches held major gatherings in the vessel while it was being filled the dessert chef always gave the bread a quick spray of scalding steam before the pudding was made. The steam was supposed to drive out the little critters. Instead, many of the cucarachas died in situ and became an integral, high protein part of the pudding itself. No one asked for seconds.
Almost from the first day after his return to Jackson Ernesto was engaged in loan sharking. Other prisoners who had known Rodriguez at Marquette passed the word around that Rodriguez always had money for lending so it wasn’t long before he had a flourishing business, This, despite the fact that he was still confined to the quarantine block and working for Rollin Green.
There was an advantage to being in the quarantine block of the prison because it gave Ernesto exposure to the “fresh fish”, as incoming prisoners were called. Most of the fresh fish came in broke and needed money badly, something Ernesto always had enough of for buying good watches, rings, shoes, and items of clothing with a good resale value. As he was quick to point out to the fresh fish, watches really weren’t needed in Jackson because bugle calls piped over the public address system told you what to do and when to do it. And certainly these were not the kind of people who had appointments for which they didn’t want to be late.
Most prisoners who borrowed money had a credit rating. They were classified among the loan sharks as no-payers, poor payers, good payers, and fast payers. Ernesto never loaned money to a stranger without first checking his credit rating with his financial colleagues, in most cases he collected his own money but if he or the other money lenders ran into a borrower who got smart or appeared to be intractable there was a collection agency available. The collection agency consisted of three big, brutal brothers named Whitehead. Black men, they were tough, dangerous men who had most prisoners and guards in awe of them. They were intimidating men who knew when one more blow would kill. Ernesto never went to the brothers Whitehead unless he had already written off the loan. When he did use them he never offered them a percent of what they collected, he told them to keep it all. The fact that Ernesto was known to have used the Whiteheads on occasion made most of the men he loaned money to remarkably cooperative.
Out in the prison’s general population the resourceful Ernesto quickly entered three more businesses, running a numbers game, selling pills, and gambling. He never had any inclination to get into cocaine or heroin. He didn’t approve of them and too many times he had seen firsthand what their use did to people. The hard drugs were big time stuff in prison, big money and big graft which the Mafia connected prisoners dealt in, not the small fry like him. Cocaine and heroin were available in whatever quantities the prisoners desired, most of the drugs were brought in by guards who had been handsomely paid by the Mafia. A guard who had always wanted to own his own home, or who wanted to buy a new car knew how to find the money.
There were almost as many ways to get drugs into the prison as there were people who used them. After all, the prisoners had almost nothing to do except to find ways to outsmart the guards. They carefully studied everything the guards did, taking full advantage of what they knew the guards wouldn’t or couldn’t do.
Females, friends of prisoners, called “mules”, who had been asked to bring in drugs often used the “balloon” method. Using this technique when they kissed the prisoner they transferred the balloons from their mouths to his. He then swallowed them and later regurgitated it. In one case Ernesto remembers a prisoner who was swabbing down a visitors’ toilet and corridor, passed a half a pound of cleaned Red Bud marijuana past a guard. When the prisoner re-entered the prison security area all of his body cavities were dutifully searched but from frequent observations he had learned that the guards never checked the dirty water in the pail he rolled along behind him. It was in the black water, of course, where the water-proof bag was weighted down.
The pills Ernesto sold to his customers were known by their appearance. There were “hearts”, “C-Codes”, “crosses”, or “speckled greens”, and “micro-dots”. They were also known as “speed” and cost two dollars apiece to the user. It was easy to get in large quantities at one time. Like one or two thousand at a time.
Lady luck played a hand in Ernesto’s entry into the pill business. If it was known that a dealer in pills was expecting a shipment of pills on a certain day, the shipment was often high jacked by other prisoners for their own use and sale. On one of those days when a large order of pills had been smuggled into the prison one of the men who had stolen the other man’s pills mistakenly thought the pills belonged to Rodriguez, a man with whom no one messed around.
“Gosh, Ernie,” the frightened thief confessed, returning the stolen pills, “I didn’t know these were yours.”
Ernesto didn’t correct the man and, of course, took the pills, warning the thief not to do it again. It helped to have his wits about him.
“Yeah, Ernie, yeah,” the man promised, scurrying away.
Rodriguez then took the pills to their rightful owner and made himself a partner in the business. In the future he would participate in all incoming orders. There was another pill dealer who was much too weak and skinny to protect his inventory and soon Ernesto became his partner too. The runners Ernesto used to collect the bets in the numbers game he was also directing served his pill distribution network too. It was very efficient. When it became known that he was cut in on the deals the hijacking stopped.
Like cocaine and heroin, the pills found their way into prison in many different ways. Often they arrived in hobby-craft shipments of paints and pastes destined for individual prisoners. Bought by the prisoners’ pals on the outside, the paste and paint cans concealed the pills, making them undetectable unless the contents were emptied. Shipping labels were counterfeited and the packages looked as if they had come straight from the factory. The same was done with newspaper subscriptions.
The numbers racket, a highly profitable one, was based on the first digit of the win, show, and place payoffs in the last five races at a designated track. Bets were for a nickel a number and the payoff was thirty dollars for every nickel waged. The standard bet was twenty-five cents, the price of a pack of cigarettes, but Ernesto wasn’t forced to pay off his first bet until he’d been in business more than two months. It was a very profitable racket and over a period of several years he was required to pay off no more than four or five times.
Rodriguez’ favorite game, however, was poker. He was an excellent poker player and an accomplished cheater, who never played at the five tables he himself owned and operated. It was silly, he thought, to play against himself. A Milwaukeean named Paul Case whom he had first met at the Nebraska penitentiary and the later at Marquette had shown him how to mark a deck in such a way it would fool all amateurs. Case, later arrested in Milwaukee for counterfeiting, was an excellent safe cracker and second story man who was well versed in the deceptive arts, ones which he was happy to show to his friend Rodriguez.
Playing poker in prison isn’t like playing poker at the Union League Club. The players were expected to cheat if they could and there was no opprobrium attached to doing it. Ernesto’s stake in each of his five tables was five percent of the pot for each hand played, and his tables were popular because he treated his customers fairly, he supplied them with snacks and hard and soft drinks. It was a good deal for the players because money borrowed for gambling purposes was loaned out for twenty-five percent on a dollar. Hard liquor was easily available at five dollars a gallon and it was made from a bewildering array of ingredients. If the taste of a batch of hooch reminded the consumer of anything he had tasted outside the prison walls it was a rare coincidence indeed. But it did the trick.
The distillers and brewers within the confines or Jackson were a bold and brash lot. Once when one of the hospital doctors was away for a few days they took advantage of his absence by building a false wall in one of the hospital bays. The phony wall shortened the room imperceptibly but created enough room behind it for a good sized still. Unfortunately, when the machine went into operation the delicious aromas gave away its presence and the wall concealing the rig was torn down by the guards.
Toward the end of his stay at Jackson Ernesto was falsely accused of homosexual rape by one of the prison’s more notorious faggots, a man who was trying very hard to get out of Jackson and be reassigned to a minimum security farm. He was a small, girlish appearing person in his late twenties who weighed about one hundred and twenty pounds and who was very active on the drug scene. An addict, he complained to his counselor that Ernesto was out to kill him because the little guy didn’t want to have sex with Ernesto, so went the story. Rodriguez, he claimed, had raped him five times.
When the rumors of the absurd charges reached Ernesto’s ears, he paid a call on the young man. “Look, you faggot son-of-bitch, if my name ever comes out of your mouth again–even once–I’ll get a couple of guys to keep the guards busy and then I’ll break every fucking bone in your body, starting with your head. Don’t you ever mention my name again, you miserable little faggot asshole.”
Ernesto was eager to clear his name of any stigma and he asked his Counselor Melvin Harris, to arrange a hearing with the prison’s deputy warden, a man named Kircher. The homosexual and his counselor were also invited to attend. Unbeknownst to Ernesto and the little faggot, prison officials were well aware of the Mexican’s antipathy for gays. Without his knowledge, many of Ernesto’s warnings to homosexuals had been overheard and recorded in his file. So, when the charge was repeated that Ernesto had raped the man five times and now was threatening the man’s life because he wouldn’t have sex with him, the man didn’t get very far.
Kircher had to struggle not to laugh at the charge, a charge coming from a man who had publicly bragged about giving oral sex to twenty-seven prisoners in one day. “Unless you enjoyed your rape,” Kircher asked the little man, “why did you wait until he raped you five times before you reported it? You’re lying and you know it. But let me tell you a couple of things about Ernesto. I’ve known him for many years now. No man in this prison is less likely to mess around with homosexuals than he is. But what you’d be smart to remember is that he doesn’t make idle threats. If he promises that he’s going to break every bone in your body, he’ll keep his promises.”
Ernesto gave the warden his view of the situation. “Warden,” he explained, “This man owes a lot of money to the people he buys his drugs from. He can’t pay them and if he names his suppliers, the guys who sell him the drugs, he’s in deep shit. He knows it and wants to get out of here. He’s accusing me because he knows I have a reputation of being dangerous and he’s afraid to name the men who’d come after him if he doesn’t pay up. The word is that he wants to be sent to a minimum security farm, some place he can escape from real easy.”
“Son”, the deputy warden announced to the homosexual after hearing the charges and answers, “I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to have you confined to the psychiatric ward. You’ll be safe there and maybe you can kick the habit. Take him there, men.”
As he struggled in the arms of his escort, resisting every step, the pathetic creature wailed, “I want my mother. I want my mother!”
In March of 1963 Ernesto appeared before the parole board, seeking his release in accordance with the recommendations of Judge Carroll Rushton. Rushton’s recommendations were in Rodriguez’ file but the parole board laughed at them.
‘There’s no way, Mr. Rodriguez.” they told him, “that you’re going to kill a man and walk out a free man two years later. They can do the prosecuting and the sentencing up there, but we’ll do our own paroling. Understand?”
Rodriguez was given an eighteen month “dee-fer”, as it was pronounced. This meant consideration of his release would be deferred for eighteen months, at which time the parole board would reconsider it. It would reconsider, that is, if he kept his nose clean during the interval. When he was given three consecutive dee-fers he finally realized the parole board and the warden were going to keep him in as long as they could, conceivably for fifteen years after Davis’ death, minus any good time he may earn. At this third hearing he pointed out to the parole board that he had gone more than three years without getting a single bad conduct report, but that was to no avail.
Ernesto’s life in prison had improved perceptibly in 1963 when a law was passed which permitted each prisoner, if he wished, to spend half of each day in school. The moment that law was passed he quit his job in the State Department of Transportation’s sign shop where he had worked since leaving the quarantine unit. It was his right to continue his schooling that had made him raise so much hell seven years earlier. And it was his refusal to work without it that had caused him to be sent to Marquette where he had murdered Davis. Thanks to his good fortune in landing a job as head hall boy in five block he could go to school now and hold down a job too. The first subjects he took were algebra and English. There was a lot of catching up to do.
1966 was the year in which Ernesto finally had a few breaks, the year in which a young “jail house lawyer” named Kenneth Carlton told him about the U.S. Supreme Court’s Gideon vs. Wainright decision. In that decision the Warren court had decreed that no person could be sentenced to jail if at the time of the trial that person hadn’t been represented by an attorney. The fact that Ernesto had been offered counsel but turned it down made no difference. He was entitled to a new trial for murdering Davis and Carlton drew up the necessary papers for setting the legal machinery in motion.
This time around Ernesto decided not to plead guilty, to plead instead that he was innocent of lthe crime. One of his good friends up at Marquette, a convict named Ray Hunter, had died a year or so earlier. Hunter had been in the theatre at the time of the stabbing and Ernesto knew that he wouldn’t mind one bit if Ernesto claimed Hunter had slain Davis and then handed the knife to Ernesto. In the confusion of the moment the guards had not seen the switch take place.
An attorney named Douglas Vielmetti of Ishpeming, Michigan was unsuccessful in his effort to get the new Marquette County Circuit Court Judge, Benjamin Davidson, to set aside Judge Rushton’s judgment and sentence. But four months later, in June, Vielmetti did succeed in getting the judge to approve a new trial for Rodriguez. August was the date picked for the preliminary hearing. And the court selected Kenneth Laing, a partner in the law firm of Maclean, Seaman, and Laing of Lansing Michigan to represent Rodriguez
The new trial never took place because the prosecuting attorney for Marquette County, Edward A. Quinnell, who was angry over the parole board’s decision not to honor Judge Rushton’s recommendation for parole for Rodriguez after serving the minimum of his sentence, decided there were no longer enough witnesses available for the state to win a conviction. Because most witnesses were unavailable or deceased he decided under those circumstances to file a nolle prosequi, that he would not prosecute. For Ernesto the action was almost as good as an acquittal, an acquittal in everyone’s eyes, that is, except those of the parole board’s, whose members were determined to extract the last pound of flesh. You prosecute, you sentence, and we’ll handle the paroles and don’t you forget that, buster, was their attitude.
Now the argument changed from whether Ernesto had or hadn’t killed Davis to whether the parole board was justified in taking way his “good time”, if it could no longer be proved that he had killed Davis, as Quinnell’s nolle prosequi implied. The Michigan state law very specifically stated that good time could be taken away for only three reasons, i.e., a serious act of insubordination, an attempted escape, or an escape. The parole board was of the opinion that murder of an inmate fit well within the framework of the statute’s intention. Anyone, they claimed, who interrupted the peace and harmony of the prison deserved to forfeit good time. Several years earlier, back in 1963, Ernesto had done a favor for Raymond Buchkoe, Jackson’s warden. Buchkoe was active with the Boy Scouts of America and had promised the scouts several hundred signs for their jubilee celebration. Without extra help it would have been impossible for the prison sign shop to meet the scouts’ deadline of about four days, and Ernesto was a very skilled and fast sign writer. The deadline was met and Buchkoe personally thanked prisoner #92536 for his help.
“You don’t even know who you are talking to,” Ernesto told Buchkoe, “I’m the Rodriguez, the Ernesto Rodriguez you have never recommended for a parole. The only thing you know about me is what’s in the record.”
Rodriguez’ situation posed a problem to the warden. He had interpreted the various reasons for the prison’s authority to take away good time rather broadly and if Rodriguez and his attorney, Kenneth Laing, wanted to make a test case out of the law’s interpretation he could get himself in a real mess over the same matter with many other prisoners. He had promised Ernesto a favor back in 1963 so maybe he could do himself one too by restoring Ernesto’s good time. It would be a calamity if he had to review every revocation he’d made. With good time restored, Rodriguez could leave the prison in January of 1967.
Ernesto’s last days at Jackson ended almost as they had begun, in solitary confinement. Maybe the thought that he might be released despite the parole board made him cocky because he reverted to form.
The trouble began with a small black man nicknamed Frenchie, who resented Ernesto because Ernesto, not he, had been made head hall boy. At every opportunity Frenchie poor mouthed Rodriguez to the guards saying, among other things, that Ernesto was brewing beer. Ernesto had indeed gone into the beer business and Frenchie was snitching on him with the hope that the guards would demote Rodriguez and give the head hall boy’s job to him.
Unable to catch Ernesto with any home brew, the guard finally faced him. “Rodriguez,” the guard announced, “pack your things. I’m moving you out of here. I know you are bootlegging but I can’t catch you at it. Take your crap somewhere else. Pack up!”
As every normal prisoner knows, snitches have to be dealt with as the scum they are. Rodriguez thought Frenchie deserved a response and he, Ernesto, should give it to him before he was moved to another cell block. The moment presented itself a short time later when he found Frenchie sitting across the corner of a guard’s table, sipping a cup of coffee. Using his open hand, Ernesto hit Frenchie with great force across the face. The coffee mug and its contents flew up and hit the canopy which covered the guards’ station, protecting it from the galleries above. Frenchie spun around as if he were trying to regain his balance, and then fell flat on his face. Gaps appeared in his mouth were teeth had been.
Guards were on the scene quickly and both men, not just Ernesto, were dispatched to the hole, a rotten bunch of cells which have since been torn down. Rodriguez was in the hole for punishment, and Frenchie for his own protection. Being known as a snitch was no way to grow old gracefully in prison and Frenchie was transferred shortly afterward to a lower security prison.
The day after the little scuffle Ernesto was led from the hole to appear before the parole board again. Smirking, one of its members remarked on Ernesto’s new living quarters and Ernesto replied with an indecent two word suggestion which terminated the hearing. He had long ago stopped looking to the parole board for any help.
In mid January of 1967 the warden himself came to visit Ernesto in the hole. Buchkoe, rather than test in court the good time taken away from Rodriguez, decided to restore the good time on his own authority.
“You have to help me, Ernesto,. Someone has to back me up. I want you to see our psychiatrist and if he says you’re okay for release, you can be discharged on the 26th of his month. What do you say? Will you see him?”
When Ernesto visited the psychiatrist the doctor told him, “There’s nothing wrong with you, Mr. Rodriguez, except you’ve been here too long. You need some air, as the saying goes.”
Ernesto left the penitentiary at Jackson on the 26th, as promised. He left behind him a small group of good friends, a large number among his peers who respected him, and others who were downright afraid of him. It was a day that would change from a rainy one, to snow, to a blizzard and he was grateful to find his two brothers-in-law, Rudy Aranda, and Jose Enriquez waiting at the gate for him. With them they had a wallet containing one hundred and fifty dollars and word that Paco, Ernesto’s oldest brother was flying up to see him that day.
Ernesto had spent exactly ten years and ten months behind bars, bars he never deserved to be put behind in the first place. Had he not been, a man named Carl Hedin would still have two lungs and James L. Davis would still be alive to pistol whip more white victims in the future and Frenchie could still be smiling as he once did.