Prisoner 11 – A Defining Moment

In the summer of 1991, I was in my final week of recording what would become ‘Hit to Death in the Future Head’ by the Flaming Lips. It was a dream come true on so many levels and in so many ways. On a family estate sustained through generations of dairy farmers, an only son named Rees broke from tradition a few years earlier, and converted his family’s livelihood into a recording studio. This middle-of-nowhere studio came complete with a silo transformed into a recording booth, a wrap-around porch wired for sound, and a tree swing promising to help soothe the soul of anyone who perched on its welcoming hand-carved seat.

The early morning air never failed to intoxicate me, so I would often sit in the grass reading before the day’s recording session began. This helped to clear my mind of everything except the music we were making; the music I felt incredibly privileged to be a part of. Although something inside me knew that life couldn’t get any better, I was interminably discontented with myself and the world around me, often wondering what it might take to find the inner peace that eluded me this far in my young life.

As I soaked in the summer breeze, two men approached me. In that moment, I decided that they were refrigerator repair men. It seemed logical enough; nothing else made sense as to why these two men would be approaching me in the way they were.

‘Are you Keith Cleversley?’ they queried.

‘Yeah, why?’ I replied, as I wondered how or why they knew my name.

‘You’re being charged with 4 counts of a Class 1 Felony, each which carried a maximum of 8 years in Federal Prison,’ they said.

They then informed me that if I tried to run, they wouldn’t hesitate to shoot me ‘in my tracks.’ And, as if I needed some extra reassurance that they weren’t kidding about that particular point, man number two turned slightly sideways to reveal a pistol holstered on his hip.

Each man grabbed an arm, and in a single, orchestrated movement, they pushed my body and face to the ground. A leather belt was then wrapped around my waist, as my arms were pulled behind me, locking my wrists to handcuffs that were attached to the belt. Then, my calves were bound as another belt was wrapped around my ankles. Those handcuffs were then clamped to the handcuffs on my hands, hogtieing me.

Next, the men told me that I had exactly three minutes to yell for someone to gather a few of my personal belongings. Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips was the only one awake this early, and came running out of the farmhouse tossing cigarettes at me, telling me that they were worth their weight in gold on the ‘inside’. He also said; ‘Deny everything, no matter what!’

This offered me solace and hope in the middle of a situation that hadn’t yet begun to register as real. Any moment, I was certain I was going to wake to my alarm, or my cat jumping onto me, or anything that would take me away from this moment.

Picking me up by my handcuffs, I was thrown face-down into the back seat of an unmarked sedan, as the two men reiterated their intent to shoot me if I so much as thought about trying to escape. As we sped off, Wayne continued to yell; ‘Deny everything, deny everything, no matter what, deny everything!’

Although I couldn’t see the speedometer, our cross-state trek ensued at speeds far exceeding speed limits. On the way, I was subjected to a series of threats, promises of harsh treatment, descriptions of a brand new life in prison, as well as queries about whether or not I believed in Jesus Christ. A typical 9 hour drive took less than 5 hours, as we sped towards a county jail in Dunkirk, NY, the armpit of the state, and I still couldn’t believe this was real.

Once we arrived, I was stripped, searched, fingerprinted, and placed into a holding cell for non-violent criminals. (It occurred to me that I had not been read my rights, but simultaneously realized that no one would ever care.) This ‘community’ cell had nine beds for nine criminals, and I was prisoner number eleven.

I received a plastic coated mattress about an inch or two thick, a blanket too short to cover me, and a pair of rubber thongs. My only possessions, besides that, were a pen, a legal pad, and a book I had been reading at the time of my arrest; all of which were now precious commodities I was ready to defend at any cost. For some reason, two prisoners had their mattresses on the floor, so I was given a top bunk, second in from the cell door.

I tried to get settled into my surroundings, but reality quietly crept into my bed with me in some recent moment when I wasn’t paying attention. No one was particularly interested to hear about me or why I was there; they instead seemed to be waiting for me to reveal myself through my own words or gestures. I decided the best thing to do for now was to stay as unobtrusive as possible, and simply observe.

Surveying my surroundings, the social structure of the prisoners grew vividly clear. My mind felt razor-sharp as every nuance, every word, and every gesture was catalogued. In a short while, I knew who the top man on the totem pole was, and although it sounds slightly silly to write this now; my only hope, in that moment, was that I wouldn’t be the new man on the bottom of the totem pole.

To my left; the picnic table, toilet, and the shower. The picnic table was usually a flurry of activity; the social center of the cell, so I paid strict attention. ‘Spades’ was the only game that was played, and the biggest, loudest man in the cell also happened to NOT be the Spades Champion. In fact, there were names scratched into the cement wall honoring all the past Spades Champions, and Merlo (the biggest, loudest man in the cell) has always wanted his name etched into the wall, but had yet to achieve such an honor.

Knowing little about this card game, I made my way to the outer edge of the table and watched. And I watched and I watched and I watched. Of the many gifts I have been given in this life, being an extremely fast learner was the one I was most grateful for in those moments. I found that by watching games, I was able to not only learn the mechanics, but I could see distinct patterns in the unique playing styles of the three top players. This, I thought to myself, could come in extremely handy when the time came.

Spades seemed like a simple enough game, yet these men played it with a passion I have seen matched only in our pastor’s sermon when he discovered that the wine for the evening’s Mass had been pilfered by ‘an evil-doer that Jesus himself had surely witnessed.’ Since Spades is a partner-based game, I thought that the key to my safety in this cell might just lie within my ability to play this game better than almost anyone else here, especially if I could manage to get partnered with Merlo.

After many hours of watching, I was asked to join, but was first partnered with Fran; the cell’s punching bag. Whatever my role ended up being in this jail cell, I never wanted it to be what Fran’s role was, and I knew this was my test. Merlo decided to sit this one out, but he didn’t move from the edge of the picnic table.

To everyone’s surprise, Fran and I won our first game. And then; our second, and third. After just the third game, Merlo decided that I was going to be his Spades partner. Within a number of games, carefully structured in the form of a Spades Tournament, Merlo had his dream being able to etch his name on the cell wall, and I no longer had to worry about getting shit from anyone in the cell ever again.

So, here I was, put into jail for something I didn’t do, facing the possibility of 24 years in prison, still not quite certain that I wouldn’t wake up any minute. As I looked at the small spaces between the end of the mattresses and the edges of the bunk frames, a couple of inmates had designed miniature shrines from pictures, old rosaries, notes from home, and decks of cards. I guessed that this reflected those who had been here the longest; as each man clutched the only tangible evidence they had left of an outside world.

Through the cell I could see a black and white television, which sputtered every few minutes, never getting a minute’s rest. A commercial for a new kind of burger flitted across the screen, insisting that I “come in and try one today.’ Suddenly, a vegetarian, I dreamed of possessing the freedom to walk out my front door, to look up to the sky, walk down my street, and then, if I chose, walk into the nearest Burger King, and order that burger.

If I chose to do so, I could buy fries instead and eat them on the curb, or in the park, or back in my own home; it was really nothing more than a matter of what most struck my fancy. And in this simple moment, my scale for ‘How Bad Things Could Get’ changed dramatically, and forever. I am still grateful to this day for that moment.

Anyway, the shock from the day’s events still hadn’t worn off as I sat in a daze on my bed. This commercial, this ridiculous commercial had made me acutely aware of the incredible value of what I used to consider the “insignificant”. What I wouldn’t have done for the privilege of ironing every piece of clothing I owned, to take out last months garbage, defrost the freezer, or scrub my floors with a toothbrush. A new awakening immersed the world around me, as the joy of watching a sunset held entirely new depths of meaning.

For the first time in my life, I was comfortable in my existence and in my thoughts. I believed I knew what it meant to be alive, in a world where so few took the time to unravel themselves from their lives, even for a moment, to see beyond self-constructed blinders. My mind opened, and a rush of emotion took hold of me. What I had perceived as Earth shattering problems, dissolved before me and disappeared. My life, eternally wrought with dissatisfaction and frustration, found new life, and a new hope that this internal torture may have finally come to an end.

I kept my mind occupied with thoughts of how joyous life would be once all this was resolved. I guessed that it wasn’t too different than what inmates thought about in order to help maintain their sanity, especially when one was rotting in this cell, year after year, feeling their youth turn to maturity, and then to old age.

Life is so freakin’ short as it is, and facing 24 years in prison made me realize how short it could actually be. Maybe as a means of self-defense and self-preservation, thoughts of death only seem to loom off in the distance for most of us; it’s something that happens to other people, or really has little effect in our own lives. But here, death had purchased advance tickets, eagerly awaiting the future, while I steeped in fear of not knowing what lay ahead.

In some strange way, though, the daily routine began to feel safe and comfortable; maybe even predictable. There was a great deal of time to think each day (too much time), but in that, was a freedom. I could write and contemplate as much as I wanted. Meals were provided several times a day. One could buy extras from the ‘commissary’, such as instant soups, personal items, fruit, candy, and magazines, to help make one’s day a little more pleasant.

Inside, I felt as though there was a sense of community; we were all united by one of the single-most uniting factors; our lack of freedom. I saw things I would never see again, and some small part of me will always miss that world, although I swore to myself I would never go to jail ever again.

In the end, I was grateful to everyone; to the person who set me up, to the cops who did so little investigative work and were so excited to have such a ‘high profile’ case in their small backwater town, that they got themselves a ‘secret indictment’ from the government, allowing them to bypass the ‘indictment’ stage (a stage even O.J. Simpson was granted every single time he was accused of something). I was grateful to the characters in my cell, who treated me with the same respect I gave them, and who were also deeply grateful that I brought cigarettes to pass out in hopes of making friends, to the judge, who quietly waited for everyone to leave the courtroom, before he called me to the front, apologized, waived all fees, and sent me on my way, after 11 days of incarceration, armed with a lifetime of perspective.

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  • Wally
    May 16, 2011 at 12:45 am 

    I’ve been in a similar situation, I know exactly what you mean. Great story.

  • bernd
    January 20, 2009 at 11:39 am 

    great story & thinking, thanks!

  • julie
    October 13, 2008 at 12:33 am 

    This is just the story I needed to read now. Thank you 🙂

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