In Michigan we call it selling slum. A symphony of baritones, reverberating air full of testosterone: men in discord. After a certain point, I don’t even hear words anymore. Nor do I know what the day’s raucous is about. It just seems to have evolved out of thin air.

I was busy writing, with choruses of laughter and jokes in the background when, in what seemed an instant, the six or seven festive voices erupted into hurled insults. The insults became threats. The day quickly became routine.

It’s basically when someone talks crazy to another in order to break him down mentally, assassinate his character, rile him up, annoy him, engage him in jestful roasting, or simply scare him to death.

That covers the aim and purpose, but why guys feel that all of that is even necessary probably requires additional psychoanalysis. The easy answer is boredom. The majority of maximum security prisoners literally sit and rot in their cages for twenty-three hours each day. They don’t exercise, read, or write much, but watch distractions on TV all day from their bunks.

When nothing is on TV, they find other ways to escape their minds. Most guys get up in the doorways of their locked cells and talk about frivolous things until it degenerates into selling slum. Other guys deliberately create entertainment with arguments, stir up a bunch of petty controversies just to kill a couple hours of idle time until the next meal or a favorite reality show or anticipated basketball or football game comes on. Either way, they sell it until someone gets mad, then they argue. Then they make up and do it all over again. Meanwhile the clock ticks.

I refuse to stop doing my legal work for anything, but I try to keep my nearest ear on the mess in the hallway for security reasons. Are they just releasing hormones and stress, or did something serious happen? It’s hard to believe that anyone would fight this much since it could get physical but, while we’re in our cells in segregation, the locked doors seem to confer a certain comfort and confidence in the idea that anyone can pick one with little consequence.

Maybe it’s just the culture of this place and everyone acts in conformity to the trends already set, doing what’s expected of them. Maybe it’s a deep-set habit that most individuals develop in their particular experiences of the same conditions, and stimuli. Whatever the case, it’s hard to take serious because you know these dudes will reach a resolution after a couple hours or get bored with heated silence after non-resolution, especially when nothing’s on TV, and end back in their doors joking and laughing until the next dispute hatches.

Most, if not all, of these guys are doing ten months or better in the hole. Very few want petty situations to follow them out to general population when they go. That’s what makes it dangerous. For every bunch that sell slum for fun, there’s a few who take it personal and will come out and bust your head open for real. These types will rock you to sleep and make you think it’s over. You won’t know how they really feel about it until a shank point plucks out your eyeball or four to six balled fists suddenly launch your way from silent, unexpected attackers.

A warning never comes in such situations. You’ll be lucky if they grant you the mercy of a fair one and not sneak you from behind. Last year I witnessed no less than eight incidents on my yard alone where someone got out of the hole and had to fight within ten minutes of stepping back onto the general population exercise yard.

One of them resulted in a twenty-five-man pileup, which is why guys in segregation tend to squash slum-beefs immediately, or at least before they’re released, if not avoid them altogether. Since four out of every five maximum security prisoners are connected with some neighborhood or set, and guys have paroles coming or other interests to protect, the potential of sucking more people into the mess than intended often makes the price of slum too high. Gang wars have waged on for years, resulted in hundreds of injuries, and thousands of trips to the hole, simply because one man uttered one curse too many in segregation.

I learned my lesson during a previous stretch that lasted from 2008 until 2015. I was in the hole for a serious staff-assault and had been strapped with an RPA (Regional Prison Administrator) hold, meaning my release had to be authorized by the highest MDOC authority in Michigan. The RPA only came around once a year to review RPA cases for reclassification. If you caught any tickets in the previous year, it killed your chances for release for a whole year.

The average length of segregation time given to serious assaulters of staff was three years and around this time I was in my fifth. An inmate that I had a problem with rode back into the facility after being gone four years and I recognized his face and remembered his name. I even remembered that I had to fight him whenever I saw him in GP (when he rekindled the issue with a fresh insult), but I had no idea why anymore. I reflected on how lucky I was to see him again then, while he couldn’t hurt me because we were in segregation.

It taught me how unwise arguing behind a locked door really was. If our previous mess wasn’t worth remembering then it was never worth the trouble in the first place. I didn’t know how much solitary time I had left, but the last thing I wanted was to get out of solitary after all those years and have to come right back for something I couldn’t even remember.

From that moment on, I avoided the door completely. Every blue moon, I’d make an exception for constructive, stimulating conversations, but in all other instances, I let the wisdom of proverbs guide me: A tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly (Proverbs 15:2, Holy Bible, NIV Translation); Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin (Proverbs 13:13, ibid.). Nothing but folly comes from folly.

Very few inmates adopt my position but I try not to judge the majority who love to engage. For I understand what it’s like to have nothing else to do.

It can’t be very serious this time: the main culprit suddenly yells from the heart of the seven-man-argument that his favorite music video is on TV. He retreats to the back of his cell and puts on headphones. While he’s gone, the raucous subsides the way it began, with little notice. Loud voices lower, then disappear. Those that remain find new things to discuss. A measure of stillness returns to the background.

An hour later, I’m still halfway-tuned-in while writing my motion. Now they’re having a friendly debate over who’s the best rapper: Mozzy vs. Moneybagg Yo, NBA Youngboy vs. them both, Lil Durk is better than everyone, etc…. I’m glad that they are no longer arguing but I can’t help but to think in what-ifs. What if they expended this same energy and interest toward educating themselves, or putting together business plans, or acquiring self mastery, or preparing for return to society, or solving the problems of poverty in our communities, mass incarceration, or fatherless children left behind in its wake? What if all the big homies who are running these sets on the location stood in the door for hours discussing ways to fix the gang problem in our cities and communities, instead of viewing one another as problems? Many of our real problems would be solved overnight.

Words create, heal, build, and destroy. In the context of prison especially, and the impact it has on our lives, our families, and society, you’re either moving forward or going backward. No neutral ground exists between the two poles. Stagnation of any kind is counterproductive, and yet many of us look up after five, ten years and wonder why our degenerate activity or inactivity has gotten us nowhere fast. “Slum” is defined as a heavily populated urban area characterized by substandard housing and squalor. How fitting a term when so many of us share such a wretched state of mind? We can pass time doing positive things just like we kill it doing the negative, but we choose to sell each other more of the same.

Another argument between two new contenders begins. I lament over the waste — of time, of energy, of life, of precious human resources, but I don’t judge them either. No, I understand that many of the men here have either adopted or passively accepted the outlook of a system that has long condemned them as non-resourceful. They grew up in a world that invests three times as much in building prisons as it does public education, a world that overlooked most of their fathers in the hiring process, a world where nothing was left for many of them on their blocks but the gang, a world of self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you tell people they’re nothing for long enough, they’ll tend to believe it, or at least act like it. If they only knew that they have the power to create any reality that they wish at any given moment, they wouldn’t continue to create the worst. How do I get them to listen to anything else?

Deyon Neal #360091
Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility

13924 Wadaga Road
Baraga, MI 49908-9204