Though it may be hard for some to believe today, there was a time when a person who made a profession of casino work had a choice of only two states where they were legal: Nevada and New Jersey. That all changed in the 1990s when riverboat gaming was legalized in Louisiana, Illinois, and Mississippi.
I lived a nomadic existence, bouncing from city to city and state to state. Born in Miami, raised in Las Vegas, I’ve also lived in five other states and countless cities and towns within those states. No, I wasn’t an army brat. Just the son of a single-mother who was a casino professional. In the summer of 1992, my mother and I decided it was time to leave Las Vegas, and moved to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to ride the wave of the casino boom and escape the toxic environment that Las Vegas had become for both of us. I was sixteen years old.
As a young man who had grown up in a bustling metropolis, to say that moving to a sleepy Mississippi town with a population of around 15,000 was a culture shock is an understatement. I adapted, however, and was struck by how both black people and white people seemed to get along just fine. My impression was that all the horror stories I had heard about race relations in Mississippi were greatly exaggerated. And in a sense, they were, but not for an obvious reason.
At age seventeen, in the middle of my junior year in high school, I decided to drop out, take my GED, and go to work. This was an easy choice for me to make; I hated school and had been trained by my mother (who was now a pit-boss in a local casino) to be a table-games dealer. This was a lucrative job. Pay varies depending on where you work and how good the tips are, but as a recently-emancipated eighteen-year-old, I started out in 1994 making roughly $45,000 per year. Not bad for a high school dropout.
To say I was the epitome of white privilege would be accurate. I didn’t see it that way; at the time, I was still firmly of the belief that racial division was the product of a divisive media. I wasn’t racist, therefore, we needed to concentrate on unity, not division. We need to forget about race and concentrate on the real problems. Which I now realize was naive in the extreme. But to a white liberal guy in his 20’s who had been handed the world on a silver platter, it made perfect sense.
At age 19, I moved out of my mother’s house, financed a brand-new truck, and dove headfirst into the life of a casino dealer, which I was ill-prepared for. The party culture among casino workers is probably rivaled only by professional sports or Hollywood. By age 23 I had worked at six different casinos in three different states, had a daughter with a woman I dated briefly, and was well on my way to becoming a full-blown alcoholic. At age 25, I married a woman five years my senior who was also a casino dealer, and emotionally in no better shape than I was.
Four days before my 27th birthday, I decided to go out for a drink. I woke up the next morning in a jail cell and was told that I had killed someone. I woke up to a nightmare.
I went out drinking and blacked out at the wheel. When I awoke after the impact, I was still very drunk. I assumed that the light-pole my truck was resting against when I pulled myself out of the floorboard was the thing I had hit. Because I was injured, I attempted to drive myself to the hospital, never realizing that 50 yards behind me and ten feet below me in the median, a young woman who had been sitting in the back seat of the car I rear-ended was dying with a badly fractured skull. On February 12th, 2004, two months after my 28th birthday, I was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections for the crime felony DUI-Death.
Upon admission to MDOC, I was terrified. My first two years were spent in almost a fugue-state, alternating between suicidal intentions and shock. There are two reasons I am still here: One, the 4-year-old daughter I barely knew. The other was a friend who made it her mission to remind me that there was still hope; a wonderful woman I met on the internet but to this day have not met in person. She wrote me letters twice per month for my entire sentence. I am forever in her debt.
As I became used to my environment, I started to notice something: that all the people I was surrounded by were not monsters, bent on my rape and destruction. They were people just like me, people trying to make the best of a bad situation. Given the constraints on length for this essay, I can only scratch the surface, but when I say to you that some of the most caring, intelligent, and noble men I have ever known in life wore black-and-white stripes, believe that I have a strong basis for comparison.
I was asked by one of the first white men I befriended in prison if I hated black people. I told him “No.” He replied, “By the time you leave, you will.” Truthfully, I suspected he may be right.
Even in prison, I was treated with a level of deference by almost all prison staff—even black prison-staff—that the average black prisoner did not receive. That’s not to say I was babied, far from it. My privilege was subtle, but it was there. My obvious education (mostly self-educated, but nevertheless), a family (mom) on the outside willing to support me with money always on my books, this mattered. I was taken seriously. I wasn’t abused by the staff.
I got away with things that no black prisoner ever would have. Losing my temper and cussing out an officer in the field at Parchman springs to mind, the Long Line. I should have wound up in the hospital that day. Instead, I wasn’t even given an RVR (Rule Violation Report). Just a warning not to let it happen again. I realize how hard it is for the average person to understand the significance of this but I should have left that exchange with broken bones. Maybe even bullet-wounds. But after 11 calendar years—I was released early with good-time—I left prison without a scratch.
Through it all, there were people in there who had every reason to hate me, envy me, treat me badly. Don’t get me wrong, many people did; I was taken advantage of, hated by some. But looking back on those eleven years now, my overall impression of the people I met, black people in particular…is one of deep, deep, admiration. Because even in the belly of the beast, even in an environment where black men were in charge, where I was the minority, I witnessed a level of humanity and acceptance I never expected and had no right at all to expect. In prison, I was treated with far greater dignity and respect than our society has ever treated black men in civilian life.
For that, I am eternally grateful. And, yet, my eyes are open.
Even now as I struggle with rejoining society, I can’t help but be painfully aware that even in that respect my burdens are nothing compared to many people of color attempting to do the same. I am aware that my privilege is intact. I’m aware that I’m less likely to be profiled, less likely to be looked at with suspicion or fear. My privilege is a shield which opens doors for me that might otherwise remain closed. I have a strong support network of friends and family. Many men leaving prison after years of imprisonment don’t have that.
I have witnessed firsthand the anxiety of men preparing for release from prison with nowhere to go, no family to take them in, no money to feed themselves. After eleven years of imprisonment, I was given $100 and offered a one-way bus ticket to anywhere in the state of Mississippi, which would have been all but useless as I had no family in Mississippi by the time I was released and had lost contact with all of my friends. Luckily, I didn’t need it; my family picked me up and I left the state that morning. But the vast majority of those released are not that lucky.
So while I am grateful for my privilege, I simply cannot close my eyes to the reality that so many have no chance at all. None.
Photo credit: Flickr/m01229