Earlier this year, Urban Box Office, Inc., [“UBO”] the company of which I am CEO, signed David Sanchez Badillo, AKA “Tempo”, the most iconic figure in the young history of urban Latin music, to a long-term recording contract.
Tempo was and is imprisoned in the Colman Medium Security Federal Penitentiary, a few miles and a world away from Orlando, Florida. He was arrested in 2002; charged and later convicted on purely circumstantial and particularly flimsy evidence of shitting on his own doorstep - conspiracy to distribute of an ungodly and totally preposterous amount of hard drugs (30-something kilos of heroin) from the Lirios del Sur housing-project in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where he was born and raised.
Tempo was grabbed along with his oversized and egoed manager, Francisco Muriel Castillo AKA Buda and over 70 others. Buda and Tempo faced similar evidence/facts (the bulk of which seeped from 3 fantasizing, skin-saving, triple-dealing, snitches). Their evidence was that Buddha led the gang and that Tempo managed the spot, and that together they participated in all aspects of the distribution of drugs.
Tragically, Buda persuaded Tempo to let him ‘finance’ and ‘handle’ his defense at trial. The net-net being that Buda walked having proven or at least convinced the jury that he traveled far too much and was far too successful a legitimate businessman to be a Don, which left Tempo holding the 30-kilos and an obscene 292-month sentence. To add egregious insult to injury, Buda also walked from his promise to pay Tempo’s legal bills, which gathered interest until Daddy Yankee and UBO paid them.
On January 17th, 2006 UBO along with Tempo’s family, fans and friends launched the Free Tempo campaign with a hugely successful press conference in San Juan, PR. At the conference a platoon of urban stars signed the Free Tempo petition, and Daddy Yankee, flanked by Tego and Hector “The Father” read a letter from Tempo to the world. In the letter Tempo thanked us all for their support and forcefully and convincingly protested his innocence…
On Labor Day morning I went to visit Tempo in jail, not for the first time, and almost certainly not for the last, as the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit is not scheduled to decide Tempo’s fate for many months.
I arrived at the penitentiary at 8.30 am, in time to see the sun burning a smoky haze off the rolling coils of barbed wire that add menace to the penitentiary’s perimeter fence, and a Hawk swoop on a kitten sized rat.
The waiting room was teaming with out-of-school kids. One of them; a pre-teen diva, was boasting loudly to a dark skinned cluster that her visit was going to be short as she had to go with her mom to go visit another brother at another jail later that afternoon. Apparently her situation was neither extraordinary or unique, as she was quickly joined conversation by a hard driving Ms Daisy with two sons, two grandsons, a granddaughter and a long list of more distant relatives boarding at various jails across the state, and a Harley driving ex-Angel, whose father was in Colman, whose stepfather resided in a Southern California jail, and whose brother and sister were imprisoned in a Texas,
45-minutes passed before a billy-goateed, gruff, warden escort called me and a handful of other adults to come forward, reciting our names, with some difficulty, from our driving licenses and passports. I quickly sterilized my hands with a clorox wipe, before traipsing off to the welcome lobby followed by the others and a gaggle of their excited kids.
More often than not, the wardens take one or more visitors aside to test their heads, shoulders, hands, knees and soles for the residue of narcotics. Thankfully today was not one of those days, as it is easy to fail the test (even if you've never handled dope in your life), because more than 80% of US banknotes in circulation bear traces of one narcotic or another (hence the Clorox wipes), and you can catch dope residue from door handles, toilet seats, a kiss, or a puddle. Instead, we were herded straight to a prehistoric metal detector; so primitive that it trips up on bra-wire every time.
Today was to be no exception, and a short, sharp, bitter-chocolate, big breasted, lady-girl, triggered the alarm time after time after time. After refusing to take the bra off, she abandoned her mission, insisting, much to the gallery’s amusement that her: "… Titties need support…" And that she had no intention of:“… taking my (her) shit off…” Before accusing the Warden: “… I reckon you’re just a pervert that likes to see ‘em jiggle.” Needless to say her visiting privileges were revoked.
The warden escort then branded backs of our left hands with an ink that is only visible under certain fluorescent lights, before marching us up the concrete path to the cell block in single-file. On the way the kids became subdued – Disneyland was 50 miles and a dream away.
The infernal din of conversation, amplified by concrete walls and highly-polished floors lay in wait for us in the visiting room. I adjusted my eyes to the stark florescent lighting. More than twenty inmates bottled in green threads, the exact hue, reflecting the number of vigorous washes survived and therefore time served, as surely as the rings on a tree, were inter-dispersed between groups of visitors.
It is tempting to look into the inmate’s faces, as one might the faces of madmen and speculate as to their crimes. I won’t lie; I have indulged in such speculation on occasion. The conclusion I’ve come to, which like every generalization demands to be immediately discounted, is that most of the men were to some degree guilty by way of greed and that in some but by no means all cases their greed might be mitigated by need. The strange thing is that the more you stare the less you care because you become drawn to smoldering bottled-in pain… the odd weep as a kid bounces off a lap, or a girlfriend whispers something naughty or nice.
It usually takes a while for prisoners to be ‘brought down’ from the cells and today was to be no exception. In limbo, restless, I vended myself a lunch of microwaveable BBQ chicken wings and microwaveable fries, which I swilled down with a Coke, and topped off with a microwaveable apple crumb pie. Sitting down to feast from my lap, I bemoaned the removal of the ‘patio’ style tables and chairs, which had been introduced shortly before my previous visit, before being suddenly withdrawn. Apparently the above-the-groin shield that the solid plastic tabletops afforded had encouraged an epidemic of hand jobs, blowjobs and other illicit sexual favors and just deserts. “Give the bastard’s an inch… “ A cowboy-styled Warden cautioned me “… and they’ll take a fucking mile. Give them more than that and they’ll stab you with it.”
Still no Tempo!
At the table to the right of me a pregnant lady in a black dress and dark demeanor was negotiating with her young son to pull his pants up and re-loop his belt, Her carrot being that ‘this time’ she wouldn’t belt him with it. The kid seemed inclined not to trust her as he fled to the prison-playroom, jeans hanging midway down his ass. To the left of me two little girls had just received their icy Pops – the youngest serenading him with tears, and the other with an icy glare that over-matched his. On a previous visit an inmate had explained the reaction of his two kids to his incarceration like this…
“The younger one, is just sad I’m not around, the older one blames me for every hardship. Every day she blames me more and we drift further apart. The fucked up thing is that there is nothing I or anyone else can do about it.”
At 11 am the duty warden announces the ‘count’ over an underpowered and staticy PA system, as one might a fight, and the green bottles line up against the cinderblock wall of the adjacent outdoor extension, to be hand-counted.
A commotion! Apparently they are one bottle short… After a short but tense delay, a young Rasta strides back into the visiting room from the holding area; nonchalantly, blissfully unaware of the near panic his escorted, but apparently, unrecorded visit to the restroom had caused.
As the inmates filed back in the din-volume increased to its former glory. I swung my gaze around the room - to the far corner, where a clebrated narcotics ‘entrepreneur’ was playing Monopoly with his fine lady and kids – a holiday perk. His son was winning, beating him so baldly as to be disrespectful. The entrepreneur taught the kid a life lesson in humility by brushing the pieces off the board.
Finally, at 11.50 am, Tempo shuffled in. apologizing for his tardiness and unkempt appearance. Explaining that though the guards had informed him he had a visitor, the rules forbade them from telling him exactly who. Regretably, I had only fifteen minutes of visit left, as my flight was scheduled to leave from Orlando International at 1.27 pm. So we talked fast and furiously, the intensity of our conversation cutting out the chaos around us.
Waiting, waiting, waiting to be escorted out, I overheard a Latino sister scolding her brother – “Bored! You come here once every three months, and you can’t even fake it that you’re interested in him. I come here ever week come rain or shine. When he needs a smile I give him one. If he needs a hand to hold, there is mine. You can’t even listen. What he did, he did for us, whether he was right or wrong – he had that reason.”
The brother is not interested in the weights and measures of commitment and shrugs "… If he’d asked I’d have told him not to bother. ‘Cause I don’t need nothing’ from him. I can get all that I need on my own.” She snarls: “Gangster” right back at him and looks away. Perhaps wondering how long it’ll be before she’s visiting him
The escort warden unbolts the door. I look back to Tempo for an instant, waving a best-I-can-do-but-I-am-aware-its-pathetic, clenched fist to express my 'solidarity' and resolve to help. Tempo, waves the fist back, looking away, bottling his emotion in his greens. I left him alone – one green bottle standing by the wall, paying penance for all of our sins – the contrast between his and my circumstance staggering.
Walking down the concrete path back to the lobby the escort barks at one of the kids “In single file”. The kid’s steps back into his mothers shadow muttering:
“Ma, this place is worse than nursery school. They’ve got rules for walking talking, eating, shitting, sleeping. It’s like they think that just because someone made a mistake they’re stupid. Well, everybody makes mistakes – so everybody must be stupid.”