On Jan 9, I turned myself in to the Monroe County Detention Center to begin serving a 45-day sentence. I won’t go into the details of my case, but I will say that I was the victim of an overzealous State Attorney who possessed a fanatical bloodlust for prosecuting members of prominent Key West families. I’m not part of such a family, but my friend, who was involved with me in the original incident, is. So our case went to the top of the State Attorney’s list.
On July 19, 2011, we were each charged with felony burglary with assault on the occupant with a deadly weapon AND aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. Each charge carries a potential life sentence, so I was in some pretty deep shit. However, one thing I had on my side: there was no crime ever committed. There were only the heated assertions of an alleged victim, none of which were true.
About three weeks after the incident, the State Attorney offered a plea deal. We could plead guilty to misdemeanor battery and serve one year in the county jail. From two life sentences to one year in jail, only three weeks later. What does that tell you about the case they had against us?
Our lawyers dragged it out for a year and a half, one delay after another, and the plea deals got better and better. I, however, did not want to go to jail for even one minute for something I didn’t do, so I held out. Finally, our trial was set for December 10, 2012. My lawyer told me if I went to trial and was convicted, I would be looking at a minimum of 4 years in state prison, and maybe more. When I said, “How can I possibly be convicted? They have no proof!”, he reminded me that they had circumstantial evidence that would weigh very heavily against me in the mind of your typical juror, who would then undoubtedly say, “Well, Dennis must be guilty of something.”
So on the morning of the trial, the plea offer came down to this: I could plead no contest to misdemeanor trespassing and serve 45 days in jail, with one year’s probation, which would be cut to 6 months if I stayed out of trouble. The probation would begin on December 10 and I had to turn myself in before February 15. I went in at noon on January 9.
The jail is set up dorm-style, with about 50 inmates in each of several dorms, plus a couple of cell blocks like you see in the prison movies for the violent felons. I was placed in a dorm.
Later that afternoon, I was chatting with a couple of other inmates who asked me what I did on the outside. I said I was a writer of crime fiction novels. He asked my name and I told him. Immediately, a guy behind me said, “Are you Mike Dennis?” I said I was and he said, “Did you write Setup On Front Street?” I was pretty startled at that, but I said I did. He then turned to the guys I was talking to and told them he had just read it up in the Marathon jail, sort of a satellite jail up the Keys, and went on about how great the book was, giving them a virtual scene-by-scene run-through of the plot.
I’m shaking my head in amazement, right?, when all of a sudden, another inmate pops up with a dog-eared copy of Man-Slaughter and says, “Did you write this one, too?” He then said, “We’ve all read this one.”
Now, for the record, I had gone to the jail a few months earlier and donated two copies of each of my books for their dorm bookshelves, but I had no idea it would turn out like this.
Okay, so now they know there’s a writer doing time with them. So the next day, I have to take a shower (I’d showered at home the day I turned myself in so I wouldn’t have to do it in jail). I’ve heard all the campfire tales about the horrors of jailhouse showers, so I was apprehensive, to say the very least. The shower area is an open space containing four showers. When I went in, three of them were occupied by some of the scariest motherfuckers I have ever seen. Two black guys and a white guy lathering themselves up and, in my mind, swiftly becoming the perpetrators of my worst nightmare. I thought about turning around and leaving, but that would show unspeakable weakness, so I went in and turned on the fourth shower.
A minute or so later, one of the black guys, a solidly-built fellow with a gun tattooed on his bicep, said to me, “Are you the writer?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Did you write that book Man-Slaughter?”
“Man, I just finished it. I loved that book! I’m trying to find Setup On Front Street right now.”
At this point, the white guy, who weighed in at about 280 pounds and who had the word “Savage” tattooed on his chest, said, “I read Setup On Front Street and Man-Slaughter both. They’re great. Did you really write those?”
The third guy then says, “And I read The Ghosts Of Havana. I loved it, especially the twist ending!”
So that covered the three books in my Key West Nocturnes series. Then they began talking about all my books right there in the shower and I felt as though I’d wandered into a book club discussion. I wanted to run out of the shower naked straight into the dorm and raise both fists in the air, shouting, “These are my people!!”
Yes, my books resonated with the inmates. Who knew? Maybe it was the fact that most of them were from Key West and that’s where those three novels are set. Maybe is was because each of the books features a different criminal as a central character. Whatever it was, I became a celebrity. The guy who writes these books is in here with us! All the inmates treated me with respect, and I gave it back to them. Some of them actually called me “Mr Dennis”. In any event, they enthusiastically lined up to read my books.
One inmate, a fresh-faced, good-looking kid, came up to me with a poem he’d written and asked if he could read it to me. I’m not big on poetry, but I said sure, go ahead. He did, and it was one of the most gut-wrenching, emotionally-charged pieces of writing I’d ever come across. I immediately told him to try fiction. I said if he could get to me with his little poem, he certainly has what it takes to write a novel. He said he’d never thought of doing that before, that he was only nineteen. I told him Lawrence Block published his first novel at around that age and is still going strong all these decades later. I had a long talk with him about it and I think I got through to him. I hope I inspired him to at least try. I fear he’s headed for prison, however, when his trial comes up, so we’ll see what happens.
I was released the morning of February 8, after having served 31 days, receiving 14 days off for gain time — good behavior and working. Nobody likes to go to jail, but I can say that apart from losing my freedom and having to eat the shit food, it was not a bad experience. Not nearly as bad as I had feared. When enough time has passed, I will probably realize that I became a better man.