“You know,” John Lee said to me one day, “when I was a child I used to steal out of stores because my blood family was so poor. A lot of times there was no food to eat and my little sister and brothers would be crying to me. My little brother Clarence got so hungry he ate the paint off the wall and got lead poisoning.
“When I got older I didn’t do that stealing any more. I’d walk in stores and wouldn’t steal. Not even broke as hell.
“My Aunt Ree, she had a bunch of children, but when she had to take her rent money and her bills money to the place Western Union, sometimes she would ask me to do it over her own children! She didn’t trust any of them with her rent money, only me.
“The guys on Death Row used to trust me too. They would give me their money––this was back when Death Row had cash money––and I would take their orders and go get canteen for them. I never had a problem. No one ever challenged me. I always gave right change.
“Maybe this is why, when I got off death row and they put me in the population, the warden asked me to run a canteen.” He shrugged. “Or maybe he thought I’d mess up, I don’t know.”
John Lee did not mess up. He agreed to take the job on condition he could run the canteen as he saw fit. He was assigned to the most difficult canteen in the prison, the one that serves the Safekeeping and Diagnostics population.
Here, in a store he kept assiduously spic and span, he refused to engage in hustling, for which canteen men are routinely fired, developed a relationship of trust with the staff, and skillfully managed a very difficult group of inmate customers, especially the young ones, who are the most dangerous and constantly on the alert for weaknesses in others of which to take advantage.
He did so well, achieving the first zero deficit at canteen stocktaking in the history of Central Prison, that he was taken up before the warden for congratulation.
I tell you all this because John Lee dreams of starting his own business when he gets out of prison. He is currently at Pender Correctional, a medium custody prison in Burgaw, NC, but has applied to take a plumbing course at another prison so he will have a skill when he gets out.
If he is accepted to the course he will move north to Pamlico Correctional, east of New Bern. Classes start on May 19, and he will not know if he has been accepted until he’s called to get on the bus.
We are all waiting with bated breath, hoping he gets this opportunity. As he said to me, “If I can manage a big canteen at a close custody prison, I can start my own business and make it a success when I am free.”