Malakki was awarded the Dawson Prize in Fiction in the 2016 Prison Writing Contest

Dedicated to the death of my trust.

Look, my name is Jacks and I got this story from Maleek, or that’s what I call him. Why he trusted me with this, I don’t know.

See, we didn’t exactly hit it off when we first met. It wasn’t like we were beefing or anything, we just ran in different circles. See, I was really heavy into smut back then (that’s what we call pornography, “smut”) and I made decent money off of it too—well, decent as far as prison standards—and he was heavily into Islam and all of that so, like I said, we were in different circles.

See, prison in Pennsylvania is a rough stop: no smut, period. But see, a brother like me knows how to make moves so of course I put my thing down and I had one of the only few connects.

Maleek left prison as I was just getting settled in on my 20-40 year sentence. When he came back, 10 years later, I had the smut game on lock: dudes had to come see me if they wanted a magazine.

It was right around the time that Ramadan was getting ready to start that Maleek came to my cell. He said, “Peace,” to me and my cellie, a young dude from my neighborhood named Tre-Eight, and we said what’s up to him. I offered him a discount on a magazine; I wasn’t trying to be funny or disrespectful because I had a few Muslim customers. He looked at me with those serious ass eyes of his then looked past me at all of the pictures of women that covered the walls of my cell. He shook his head then said, “Brother, will you please fall back from the Muslims during our fast, especially the young ones? It’s only for about 30 days. Will you please give us that respect?”

I laughed in his face. Like, I didn’t really mean to straight borderline disrespect him, the laugh just kind of popped out of my mouth. I said, “My bad for laughing at you Maleek, no disrespect, but truth; a brother gotta eat! Ain’t nobody sending me nothing. I’m doing this time by myself.”

He looked down the tier at the approaching guard and said something like, “It’s only for about 30 days. If this’ll hurt you, I’ll get some money sent in to you.”

I was hot about that; to me it was like he was showing off because he got change like that and I’m a bum or something and I need him for a favor or something. I said something like, “I don’t need or want your money, unless you gonna buy something.” I pointed to the pictures on my wall and said, “What you like, dark skin, light skin, white, skinny, fat; whatever you need, I got you!”

The guard walked up on us and said, “It’s time to lock it in for count,” and Maleek walked away saying over his shoulder, “It’s just for 30 days, Jacks, 30 days.”

Now dig, I wasn’t going to violate, not because I’m scared of Maleek or something like that, but because he had a point and at the time, even though I was still ignorant about some things, I respected other people’s beliefs to an extent plus the prison we were in, Western Penitentiary, had changed a lot since it first opened back in the day. It used to be “Wild, Wild” Western but now it’s mostly short timers doing drug programs and I saw that Maleek was just trying to help the men. See, I’m not an addict—I used to sell drugs—but a brother like me is still in a prison like this because I work for one of the maintenance crews that keep this old, decrepit place operating.

Anyway, like I said, I wasn’t going to violate but I got something hot from my connect and it was the same thing that this dude named Mundy had asked me for about two months before. See, Mundy was really into Asian women. I mean like really, really, into them—so when I came up on those kind of magazines, I only had my mind on my money.

I came out on the tier and hollered to the tier upstairs at him and he acted like he didn’t want to talk to me. I couldn’t figure out why he was acting like that until he yelled down, “Man, I’m fasting. See me in a couple weeks.”

I pushed the issue ’cause I really did forget about the conversation I had with Maleek, “Mundy, you know them Asian chicks don’t come through like this. I came to you first ’cause I know this is your twist but I’m putting this on the market, early, and you know it’s gonna sell!”

He came out the cell and looked down on me like he wanted to fight me or something then he said, “Wait, hold up for a minute.”

He went in the cell and came out with some brown (that’s what we call tobacco, “brown,” and we use it for money). He then came downstairs and we made the exchange. I happened to look up on the top tier and I saw Maleek looking down watching us and, on everything I love, that’s when I remembered what he asked me.

I went back to my cell, put the bro away and strapped up (that’s what we call it when we get ready for war, “strap up”) ’cause I wasn’t sure what Maleek was going to do. My cellie who was laying on the top bunk reading a magazine (of course, he got first pick) saw me getting dressed and lacing up my boots and he asked me what was up and I told him. He went back to the magazine and said, “You cool for now, Jacks. Even if he wants to see you about what you did, he gon’ wait ‘til after Ramadan. It’s their Holy month and he real religious and sh– so you cool for now.”

I felt what he was saying but I still wanted to be on point because prison is prison, so I finished dressing and stood by the door and waited. When they opened the doors for showers, just like I thought, he came by the cell. Although he saw me standing in the cell in front of the cell door, he still stood on the side and knocked on the half-open door: we consider that good manners and being respectful and all that.

I said, “What up?” and as I slid open the steel door my cellie hopped down from the top bunk and stood behind me, still flipping through the magazine.

Maleek said, “Peace. I thought we had an understanding?”

I said, “Naw, you know; it’s about that money! I ain’t twist nobody’s arm or nothing.”

He interlaced his fingers and rested his hands on his chest as he studied me, my cellie, and the many naked and semi-nude pictures of women hung up all over our cell. “See something you like?” I asked. My cellie snickered.

Maleek’s expression didn’t change. He looked right into my eyes, always with that same serious look, and asked me:

“You ever think about these young women? I mean, really think about them and what they go through?” He shook his head and lowered his eyes for a moment, then he pointed at our walls and said, “These paper dolls all over your cell are pictures of real women, women who were not put here on planet earth just to be toys for you to play with! They don’t exist just for pleasure!

“Jacks, brothers like you and me are older than these young bucks like your cellie,” he said, pointing at Tre-Eight. “Brothers like you and me are supposed to be leaders. You got time to do but he leaves pretty soon. What are you leading him to become once he leaves here?”

I started to say something but my cellie cut me off and said, “Maleek, you cool and everything and all that pro-black or religious talk is cool but keeping it 100 with you, to my peoples Jacks is the leader! He’s leading me or showing me how to get money from these nasty-ass bitches right here!” Maleek never took his eyes off me. He looked into my eyes and shook his head as my cellie continued talking. “And as far as thinking about them, I’m thinking about this hot ass bitch right here, right now!” my cellie said as he turned the magazine he was looking at around and flashed Maleek a picture of a naked, young, black woman with her back to the camera, smiling over her left shoulder, and spreading her ass cheeks for the camera.

“Yeah,” I said and pointed at the picture, “I’m really gon’ think about her, as fine as she is, later when my cellie goes to the yard and I get my lotion out!”

My cellie and I both started cracking up and when I looked up, Maleek had walked away.

About a week later, after the afternoon count, my cellie jumped down out of his bunk and stood by the cell door. I asked him what was up and he said he was waiting on the guard to deliver the mail ’cause his sister was supposed to send him some money. I went back to watching TV, not really concerned ’cause I never got mail.

A few minutes later, the guard stopped in front of the cell and handed him a letter through the small space that is in between the grated window and the steel door, then walked away. My cellie looked at it and cursed.

“She just write you and didn’t send any money?” I asked. “Don’t be mad, at least she care enough to take time and write; although she need to stop playing and send that bread!”

He said, “Naw man, it’s for you,” and he handed me the letter before he hopped back on the top bunk.

Like I said, I never got mail so when I saw that it was from my mother, I started getting worried.

We, my mother and I, weren’t on good terms. Probably because when I was out on parole for my first case, I was staying at her house and I had some drugs in my room. Look, I wasn’t totally ignorant, alright; I had only planned to change clothes real quick then leave and put the work I had on me in my stash but I ended up falling asleep. Anyway, somebody told on me and when the police came in waking me up with a search warrant, they found the drugs on me and ended up tearing up my mother’s crib. After that, she was pretty much done with me.

The letter said that my baby’s mother had moved back in town and that my daughter had been asking about me. At that time, it had been about 10 years since I heard from or seen my mother, baby’s mother, or my daughter who was 10 years old when I got this case.

I wrote mom back and went through all of the steps I had to go through to put my daughter and my ex on my visitor’s list. I was super nervous about seeing my little daughter and I pictured her sitting there bored while me and her mother argued over the same old bullsh–.

A couple weeks later, they called me for a visit. Before I got to the visiting room I had to be strip-searched (standard procedure for us). As I walked through the door looking for my ex and my little daughter, my heart was jumping around in my chest.

I saw this woman stand up and walk towards me and I looked past her still looking for my people. Then the woman hugged me and I froze. I looked over at the guard sitting in the corner and he wasn’t paying me no attention. I looked one last time still looking for them when the woman hugging me said, “Daddy, it’s so good to see you!”

I hugged her back and said, “It’s good to see you too.” Man, I couldn’t believe this grown-ass woman was my little daughter!

She let me go and took a step back to look at me. She was so pretty, the most beautiful woman I had ever … that’s when it hit me. My face must have changed because she asked, “Daddy, what’s wrong?” I played it off by asking where her mother was. She said that they were still looking for a permanent place so her mother decided to check on a few places while she was here visiting me.

She pointed to some empty seats and, as we walked towards them, I became nauseated. The last picture I thought I had of my daughter was her 5th grade school picture. But as I sat beside her and looked into her eyes, it was clear that I had another picture of her. She was the woman in the magazine, the one my cellie flashed at Maleek. The naked, young, black woman with her back to the camera, smiling over her left shoulder, and spreading her ass cheeks for the camera. I couldn’t believe that I was getting money (that’s what we call masturbation, “getting money”) to a picture of my own daughter. I was sick.

She was excited about seeing me and I was trying not to spoil the visit but on the inside, I was tore up. She talked about my BM moving them to Atlanta to be with family and that she started having problems down there so she was glad to be back in Pittsburgh. I asked her what was going on down there and she said that she wanted to be an actress and a model but she ended up doing some things she regretted, some things she thought would help her career. My daughter put her head down and said that she had done some things she wasn’t proud of and that maybe, in time, we could talk about what happened. Both of our eyes were full of tears as she said, “For now, I’m just glad to have my daddy back!”

After our visit, I practically ran back to my cell. As soon as I got there, I ripped her pictures off my wall (yeah, unfortunately she became one of our favorites) and ripped them into a million pieces. For some reason, I thought about what Maleek said about us being leaders then I took it deeper than him. As I stood there, it felt like all of these young women were my daughters. Sh–, I’m old enough to have a 20-year-old daughter and I’m even old enough to be my cellie’s father.

Maybe some of these young women really wanted to be pictures in a magazine, paper dolls, that men got money to, but what man would want their daughter doing this? As the leader of my family, what kind of example am I setting for my daughter and if word gets to her what kind of dude I am … I ripped all of the pictures down and I stacked up all of my magazines and carried them down the tier and put them in the trash. As I stood there ripping up the pictures and throwing them in the plastic trash bin, my block was just coming back from the chow hall. My cellie saw what I was doing and was f—ed up about it. Dude was almost fighting going through the trash trying to get those paper dolls.

Back in the cell, my cellie was so mad that he wasn’t talking to me and I was actually glad because I had a lot on my mind. I had to take this “Violence Prevention” program a few years earlier and the one thing that I used from it was that whenever sh– goes haywire, one thing you can do is to journal or write about what happened and how you were feeling in order to get some clarity on the situation. I didn’t know what else to do so I took out some paper and a pen and wrote down what happened and how I felt about it. When I finished writing, I walked up on Maleek while he was in the dayroom teaching some young brothers how to say their prayers in Arabic and I handed him what I wrote and said, “Tell me what you think.”

The next day, he caught me in the chow line for breakfast. We talked about what happened and he said that he liked my writing and the way I expressed myself. I told him that back in the day I was in college because I wanted to be a writer—I got inspired by one of my teachers to do this—but when the money got tight I started selling drugs to pay my tuition. After a while, the streets took priority and I started getting arrested and the rest is history.

We talked a little more and then after breakfast I went to work and did my regular routine. After dinner that night, Maleek showed up at my cell with a legal box full of letters, old pieces of some kind of parchment, notes, diary entries, etc. He set it down in front of my cell. “You’re a good writer; tell this story,” he said, pointing to the box, “and I’ll pay you twenty-five grand, my word.”

Anyone who knows Maleek knows he’s a man of his word, and anyone who’s been paying attention also knows he’s got money like that so I nodded at him, bent over and picked up the box, and carried it into the cell. After a while, my cellie started talking to me again when I offered him 10 percent to help me organize everything. I’ll use a couple of thousand myself, just to have in case of emergency. The rest is going to my daughter to help her get situated.

He’s like really religious so I had to figure out what to do with the cursing and all that. I kept it in but as you can see I kind of like, you know, “bleeped” it out.

It’s kind of deep what happened to Maleek, or that’s what I call him, and the whole situation. This project was kind of hard to put together but I hope whoever is reading this can follow along and I hope it inspires someone to be the best “them” they can be. ’Nuff said.

Jacks (Vernon Jackson)

PEN America celebrates the winners of the 2016 Prison Writing Contest with a live event, PEN Breakout: Voices from the Inside on Nov. 28 at The Green Space in New York City.