My Neighbor, Bernie Mac
Among the numerous policies implemented by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, one requires Security Level 5 Inmates to move to a new cell every 90 days. This is one rule peaceful Old Heads on Death Row dread, having to move next to some idiot always running his mouth, trying to act tough, cursing, blasting his television and radio.
So when they moved fellow death row inmate Bernard McGill next door to me, the tightness in my chest loosened. He is one of our more mentally unstable brothers, who suffers from a Multiple Personality Disorder, or Schizophrenia. But he is unfailingly polite and respectful. The administration probably moved him to G-Wing because they know we'll look out for him. You see, he has a ferocious appetite.
We call him “Bernie Mac” because he puts his food hustle down. He's turned pan-handling into a fine art. He hits me up almost everyday. But I don't care. He's always grateful and thanks me profusely.
“How you doin' today, Salahud-din?” He calls me by my Muslim name. “I'm fine,” I reply. “How are you doing today, B?” He also likes it when I call him “Big 'Nard.” “Salahud-din. You got any coffee?” He asks politely. I pass him coffee through the bars. I know what's coming next. “You got any cookies?”
He personally memorizes the names of every inmate on the block and locks them in for future reference. Bernie Mac used to flood his cell when he couldn't get anything to eat – so the administration finally took his television and radio to prevent him from electrocuting himself. But he has his own internal entertainment center. From his cell I hear a vicissitude of sounds and voices that rises and falls, depending upon his mood. His tough, gritty voice is an inflection of the musical assonance of Rappers Jah Rule and DMX, an hypnotic euphony anchored on a swirling vortex of driving rhythms. The defiant lyrics of Tupac Shakur spitting tragic, Shakespearean tales of love and pain and social injustice.
Sometimes I hear the rapturous, staccato-tongue of a preacher rousing his congregation. The stentorian baritone pontificating on worldly affairs with a professorial eloquence.
A Dashiki-wearing character chants: Say it loud; I'm Black and I'm Proud! He explodes into rage and rants about child molesters. “Boom! Boom! Boom!” The sound of gunshots rumbles up from his throat as he exacts street justice and comeuppance.
Vicious left hooks and hard right hands whistle on the wind as he destroys an imaginary opponent.
He sometimes roars like a barbaric post-war survivalist in Mad Max.
But the most dominant voice that often emerges from motley Brood – (And probably the one that landed him on Pennsylvania's death row) – Takes on the persona of a Mob Boss:
Mother.....you don't want war! I'm Frank Nitti...I'm Nino Brown...I'm Big Al Capone!
There are countless prisoners trapped in total isolation in dark, cruel Gulags all across the U.S. Designed to enforce sensory deprivation that gradually chips away at the human spirit and mind. For well over 200 years, the U.S. Congress has enacted statures that provide treatment for federal prisoners. And those “Who are or Shall become Insane during the term of imprisonment.”
I've never seen a prison Psychiatrist speak to Bernie Mac. Perhaps they've resigned themselves to the fact that he is just too far gone to be helped. So what purpose does it serve the State to continue to house the mentally ill, year after year, at an estimated annual cost of $36, 000 to $40, 000?
Listen to B. Mac as he reminds his crew: I did 19 years on Death Row for y'all. 19 years!
Reginald S. Lewis
Graterford, PA 19426