Portraits from Craggy

Photo negative of a group of people in a cell

Jackson Hill

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 4, "Still Life: Inside Southern Prisons." Find more from that issue here.


“This place is a little more secured than Central Prison,” the guard joked as we arrived at Craggy Prison unit in the mountains — a unit that had been condemned 10 to 15 years ago officially but was still being used. During this time the system was holding 4,000 more prisoners than it was built to hold. The whole prison system was old and outdated so bad the Associated Press ran a special series on it. And I was sent to the most criticized unit. 

I was assigned to “A” Dorm where, although in the mountains, I still knew a good number of the population. The first ones to talk with me were the jukers. 

“Now Stowe, you just wasn’t satisfied with that ‘candy bit’ that you had the first time. I’ve told you and told you but you just wouldn’t listen! Well, you’ll feel that ‘brand new’ 15 years that you haven’t even woke up to yet,” one of the jukers preached. 

“Yeah, they tricked you into these mountains and you’ll be here a while,” another one claims. 

“Hey man, not me, I’m just waiting to be transferred,” I explains. 

“Yeah, well I had been waiting for seven months!” the first juker said. “I’m putting the icing on the cake now .... Before you leave, you’ve got to borrow an axe, find the stone to sharpen it on, cut the wood, resharpen the axe, wait for the wooden stove to warm up after you make the fire, hustle up the ingredients, make sure you got the right amount of yeast to make it rise properly, take it out the oven, let it cool off, put the icing on it, cut the cake to test it, offer the right people a piece and if they like it, then you’ll be able to leave after you clean up the mess!” 

All the time knowing that they were right, I went on to say, “Well, I know something that ya’ll don’t.” All I knew was that I wasn’t going to quit trying. 

“Hey Stowe, ain’t no use of you trying to fool yourself, we’re just telling you the truth! Them people the ones who tricked you into these mountains,” the jukers reply. “We’re your friends; I hope you do make it out of the mountains soon, but I’m not going to wait on you. I’ve seen a many leave here, and my cake is almost baked.” 

Actually, the jukers are usually a so-called friend of yours. The majority of the time, the things that they be saying is true. It’s just a part of the “breaking in.” And it also serves to set your mind to a very active line of thinking, toward reality. And don’t just, by no chance, happen to mention your woman! 

“Yo woman what!!?” one of the jukers snapped. “Man, by the time you get off that bit, and go to your crib, your children will come to the door and holler, ‘Mama, who is the nigger at the door?’ and when she comes to the door she’ll say, ‘I don’t know who that nigger is!’” Then the juker continues, “How can you call yourself a man and left a wife in that cruel world to rear two children? How in the world can you still call yourself a man?” 

Yeah, they sho-nuff on my case. My only escape was to walk away. As I slept that night, my thoughts were really in a swirl. All of the joking conceptions made by the jukers served to bring out the truth of reality. 

Penitentiary girls 

Of course, I’ve always been an all-round dude, able to get along with anyone. I have always enjoyed just talking with the “penitentiary girls” and the undercover homosexuals. I tries to find out what makes them tick, how they first got into that bag, and did they like what they were doing? Their answers always vary. But I usually go on into their life story. 

The most recent “homo” that I’ve rapped with was in the Marine Corps when he caught his time. He was convicted of “common law robbery” in Jacksonville, North Carolina, for jumping on two marines and taking 75 cents. Although this was his first offense, a military affair, he was crossed by the state and given 13 years while the max for c.l.r. in this state is 10 years. He had lost both his parents by the time he was 14, when he then quit school and, at 15, left his home (he had six sisters but at the present time has lost all contact with them) to join the circus, the fair, and then the Marines. He was really a big dude, very honest and believed in speaking his mind. From what he tells me, he was on the farm (Caledonia Prison) broke, with no outside help. One day he was approached by a few inmates who offered to take care of him if he committed homosexual acts with them. Letting the truth of reality move him to a new venture in life, he looks upon his manhood as not being torn down or weakened, but more or less strengthened by doing as he felt and admitting up to it. Anyway, after it was over, one of the inmates brought him some cigarettes. In some strange way, he seemed to enjoy what he did .... 

The penitentiary is about half and half. Some of the girls are actually beautiful. I was a “run boy” in the walls when this girl came in that night. This was when the walls was so crowded that the inmates were sleeping in the open space on the bottom floor. 

She walked in a graceful step with her pants tightly fitted to show the imprint of her thighs, and you could clearly see the roundness of her soft and fluffy looking behind. She stood straight, to flash the apple-size tits that she accumulated by taking pills. When she smiles at you with her smooth, hairless face and arch eyebrows, from somewhere comes the sound of soft music and sweet thought to the mind. 

At first she was sent to the open space on the bottom floor, but the inmates blew that by making noise — they were shouting all the way from the third tier, and they couldn’t even see her. This actually was one time the inmates were acting like the animals we were always accused of being. So the sergeant moves the two men out of the cell in front of his office and puts her in there. And me being the “run boy,” were delivering all kinds of slick chain gang raps to “Deb” for the inmates. 

I don’t condemn the homosexuals, cause I feel that a person should be allowed to do whatever he please with his life. But of course, a lots of people call me crazy simply because I tells them that “this is my life and I lives it the way I want to.” 

Chain gang mafia 

In the North Carolina prison system, most of the unit officers were against inmates from Charlotte. They claim that we are troublemakers. What it was, was we just didn’t take any shit, and we hung together as all inmates from the same town. It’s just that Charlotte is the Queen City of the Carolinas and naturally the crime rates were higher, and the polices made sure that someone wore them cases. 

I was raised in the Charlotte ghettos, in gang fights, stealing and killing and there just ain’t no way I can let no inmate tell me what to do. When I got here to Craggy, I saw that the brothers from Charlotte used and flunkied a lots of the dudes from the mountains. 

Yeah, the inmates are organized in this system as the mafia are in the world. There are loan-sharps (with high rates and stiff penalties), storekeepers, dope-pushers and gambling rights; all connected to the mob. I was told that there was a riot here just last year between the blacks and whites over the gambling rights. After a few stabbings and injuries, the conclusion was a 50-50 division. 

A lots of black inmates underestimate the white inmates, not realizing they can be just as brutal, cunning and tactical. They have a reputation for “stealing you,” too. Stealing you mean tipping up on you and stabbing you, mostly when you’re asleep. 

If there is anyplace that you’re really turned out to live in the criminal world, it is here. And the lawmakers know for themselves that this system comes nowhere near doing the job of rehabilitation or correction that it have brainwashed you, the public, into believing, which really makes no difference to you. After all, why should you be concerned with what happens to a bunch of convicts? Just because they’re using your tax money, don’t mean that they are required to tell you the truth about what is done with it. 

For twenty-five push-ups 

I can remember what broke me from associating with just “any and everybody.” It was behind a game of “dirty hearts” for 25 push-ups. During the course of the game this dude received enough points to do the 25 push-ups, but he claimed that my partner and I were cheating. We just figured that he wanted to get out of doing the push-ups, but then he claimed that he was going to make us do some push-ups. Later, he and my partner were in a corner where he really thought he was going to make my partner do some push-ups. So I hurried over to stop my partner from getting a case, cause the dude was halfway crazy anyway and wasn’t worth killing, but to my surprise, the dude told me if I was to say another word that he was going to let me have it. At that moment I was really shocked, and I just had to think: “This fool is standing in front of my partner and I, not strapped down [armed] or nothing, while my partner and I are strapped down and really ready to go to his ass.” 

We knew that he was insane to do what he did, so we just walked away. But that was the closest I come to killing someone out of a series of detrimental events that have went down. 

And all that from a card game

On Fridays right after payoff is one of the world’s most confused exchangings of money that I have ever witnessed. The dormitory becomes like the world stock exchange. Witness the tensions and pressure build up among inmates when money owed is not received. My first thoughts were that s— was going to be flying all over the place. 

On one side of me, I was listening to a “business argumentation” which went on as follows: 

“Well looka here man, where’s my money?” cries the first man in a calm voice. “You can pay everybody else and can’t pay me.” The same calm voice, in a louder tone. 

“Them were cash loans,” the next man shouted. 

“Mine was a cash loan, Nigger!” the first calm voice, but much louder now. 

“Yeah, but that was in a poker game!” said the second dude. “I’m giving you four shakes [pills] .” 

“I take five,” the first man argue. 

By now both voices were in an excruciating tone, cursing each other and continuing the argument with the matter of how much is owed. Somehow they manage to work out something and is back loaning each other money that same night. Only one or two of these arguments lead to a fight. 

On the other side of me, I observes the loan-sharp collecting his money and there’s always this someone that comes up a little short or tries to shoot some slick game under this creditor, but they, the loan-sharps, don’t argue with anyone. They warns and does. 

The Godfather 

He’s envied by some inmates and admired by others. He’s an ace pimp, a number one con man, a money-maker, a woman breaker. When he dresses he’s careful not to wrinkle his neatly pressed and creased browns, tailored to fit him in a continental style with a perfectly squared cuff. (The top stitch of his shirt jacket matches his S65 Bostonian shoes.) He’s fast with both his hands and mind, and when he speaks he’s always heard. Taught by experience, he’s a leader among inmates. His thoughts are those of a king who plans to prolong his powers by using a psyche game on those chumps who lust for “money and the power.” His emotions are buried under a thick layer, a pride that can be seen only by a sharp observation of his cleverness. They call him the “Godfather.” King of all criminals, one whom I admire respectfully. Because I have known this influence of power that he feels, since I was 15 and I was leader of a small gang. My gang! That feeling of sho-nuff knowing that you are somebody. I was always the champion in games that I played. And in the sixth grade finishing out with straight A’s put another distinction and self-praiseful feeling of confidence which inspired me on in high school to become the homeroom president and a leading member of my junior class. Still continuing this drive, I was the first of my category to become leading seaman on my ship while in the Navy. And at the young age of 19 was president of a black organization formed by the strong on my ship during the time of the Vietnam War when there was a black servicemen’s uprising in the Philippines. Under my leadership we had started a mutiny conspiracy to turn the ship around. That power! That influence which takes control of a man’s mind to become always the dominating figure. Yeah, I have seen it, felt it, and can never lose it. So yes, I admire the Godfather in a sense of understanding and respect. I even occasionally shoots a booster of encouragement myself.