I remember when I first came down about twenty-one years ago at Michigan Reformatory. I met this older convict named Farmer. He was housed in the facility’s transitional unit with me, his cell on the wing around the corner of our building, but our wings came out for yard together. That’s when I usually saw him. 

The first time I approached him, I asked if he had a quarter-pack of cigarettes for sale. Yes, this was when cigarettes sold for a quarter, five of them, pre-rolled and wrapped in the ginger space of a plastic kitchen glove. This was also back when we had real stamps. At the time they went for twenty-nine cents. I held one up while inquiring, my nicotine addiction raging, as I hadn’t yet gotten used to having less than my customary pack a day on worldly standards. The brows on his dark-skinned face became furrowed, but his mouth, outlined by a precisely trimmed goatee, twisted into a patient grin. 

“I ain’t gon’ sell you nothin’, but I’ll give you one,” he said, his voice and tone firmly entrenched in values that I had no knowledge of at the time. “What they call you, young blood?” he asked while pulling a few cigarettes from his shirt pocket and handing them to me.

I thanked him then told him my name, couldn’t help feeling like I was talking to one of my uncles for the next few minutes. He walked me around the track a few times and listened as I answered more general questions about my time, my conviction, my city. He introduced me to a few people along the way, offered me a little advice, then walked back to the spot I found him standing in after politely excusing himself. 

“If you need anything let me know, lil’ bro,” he said over his shoulder as he went. “They call me Farmer.”

He had already been down for about a decade at the time. Unlike most prisoners in the G-Block transitional unit who came fresh from quarantine at Jackson or Riverside (like myself), he had just rode in from a maximum security upstate after spending four years there. I never asked him why. It wasn’t my business. When they moved me to general population in I-Block, he came carrying his property around the corner too. I was relieved that he was among the group that moved with me. 

He ended up locking just a cell away. Regularly, he fished me that latest hip hop cassette tapes to play, books to read on all kinds of topics from Black history and slavery to Mafia history, the art of war, and religion. He even sent a few steaming burrito wraps, cooked in a cell with his stinger. I swapped my tapes back with him and let him read all my hip hop magazines. I eventually started selling my own quarter-packs, coffee shorts, and anything else that I got my hands on to turn a profit, and he advised me on how best to do it. He also gave me pointers on weightlifting, nutrition, women (when I got into mail fights with my then girlfriend, Lexi), and prison politics. He told me which people to deal with and which to stay away from, and I listened since we ran with different crowds. 

His guidance increased my wisdom and maneuverability exponentially, especially seeing that this was my very first year in prison. I expected to have to fight, possibly even stab people for the respect that conferred upon me naturally by just following his example. I found myself moving like him, thinking and even speaking like him. I also began to accumulate a lot of stuff from hustling, more food and hygiene products than I could ever use on my own. He never needed anything. No matter what I offered him, he always had it. I could never repay him or fully show my gratitude.

On the other hand, whenever I needed anything, he got it without strings. When I needed a stinger, he not only made it but taught me how to make the next one. Once he got me a plastic garbage bag to cook up some tuna wraps with. I called down when they were about done.

“Hey Farmer, send your bowl down here, man.”

“I’m about to go on a visit,” he said. “I don’t know if I wanna mess with you anyway. You still green with that stinger, might not know what you’re doing.”

He returned a few hours later with stories about his daughter and ex-wife. His daughter, he said, was only a couple years younger than me. He said he ate so much out there that he could barely breathe, that they almost had to cut the visit short because he barely held his bowels in place. His voice was relaxed, his tone as peaceful as I ever heard it. I didn’t have to see him to know he was smiling and beaming with love. Of course he wanted that meal with family. I would’ve gone out there on an empty stomach too.

A few days later, while he was away on a callout, I had the wing porter carry a bag full of food and store goods to his cell and leave it on his bunk.

“Who this come from?” He yelled through the bars onto the wing when he returned. I waited for no one else to answer. “Lil bro.”

I waited more.

“Lil bro!”

“Hey!” I said, my tone even pretending to have just heard him.

“You sent this down here?”

“Sent what?”

“Man, you down the playin’?”

“What you talkin’ bout?” I asked, struggling.

He heard me snickering anyway. “Man, don’t do that no more. You know me better than that.”

“Hey, that was just to say thanks.”

“You want some of this shit?”

I laughed. “Man, I just sent it down there!”

“This lil’ guy, man…I tell you…”

I could tell he was grinning too.

Over the next few months, he modeled more grace. I never saw him lose his cool once. The guards sometimes did and said things to him that angered me. I felt his reaction inside but I also watched him suppress it with a light smile and nice words. He always repelled evil with good. From him, I learned not just how to carry love and mercy in my heart, but to reflect it for the world to see, and not be afraid of how people receive it. 

We did nine months at MR before the state decided to close the facility down. On the day of pack-up, we wheeled our property on a dolly to the property room together and talked for one last time. I extended my hand to him, he grabbed it, and we hugged before reentering the unit. Inmates around us did the same, either in passing or as we passed them on the loud wing. A festive, electric vibe filled the air but a sense of loss outweighed my excitement. We were all going to Bellamy Creek, the new joint that we were to open, and he would be there, but I knew that we would never be close again. 

They placed us in different units upon arrival, like I expected. About three weeks later, while walking the yard Bellamy Creek, I stopped to talk with a friend who stood with a Latino Kid from Southwest Detroit named Martinez. He introduced us and then Martinez addressed me.

“You was on Block I-4 with Farmer,” he said. 

“Yeah, he was two cells down,” I said, while remembering our good old days at MR. 

“Dude a good guy, but I wouldn’t cross him. He cut like that for real, a stone-cold killer, a legend in my ‘hood.”

“Oh yeah?” I grinned to mask my surprise.

He grinned back while nodding. His eyes remained serious. “Why you think they call him ‘Farmer?”

I felt myself shrug. I had never really given it any thought. 

“I know you didn’t think he was out there in some field in overalls with manure fertilizer up to his knees, raising pigs, cows, and chickens.”

We all laughed together.

“Naw, man, he was putting dudes in the ground…like a farmer do seeds.”

What a revelation. I had no idea who I was around. Good guy, though. I’ve been in the joint twenty-plus years now, and I haven’t met anyone like him since.

Never have I heard a nickname so original either. 

Deyon Neal #360091

Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility 

13924 Wadaga

Baraga, MI 49908-9204