My Marielito Boatlift

Life on the Yard

Stephen P. Conrad


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The Cubans. It was the Cubans, they were the most dangerous, the ones you had to steer clear of. They weren’t just any Cubans though. The Marielito they called them.

Marielito’s. They were those that came over on boats, makeshift rafts, dinghies, tree limbs or just about anything else one could climb aboard that would float them the 90 miles from Cuba to America during the spring, summer and fall of the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

That port of Mariel just west of Havana must have had some serious shit going on because these guys were seriously deranged, dangerous individuals. By the time they made it stateside, they were a Cuban crime wave, unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

Me and my guys were glued to the TV news. It was all so romanticized and we bought into all of the romance. A gang of pubescent boys looking for excitement, adventure and anything that wasn’t nailed down.

I was a 14-year-old kid well on my way to a life of crime. There was already a bed being readied for me in reform school.

The Boatlift went for about six months but seemed longer. Washing up on Florida shores daily, Fidel Castro had shipped them off to America, where streets were paved with gold. Anyone who wanted out he set afloat.

Most were just regular folks. Teachers and doctors, factory workers and seamstresses, professionals and laborers alike. Good folks, most all of them decent hardworking people looking for a better life. A life they could never attain in Cuba.

Along with them, there were the Marielito’s. The gangs. Castro decided to empty out the prisons and insane asylums. What a surprise.

Many of the Marielito’s were adorned with tattoos of patron saints of crime and hidden symbols with mysterious meanings. Both white Cuban and Afro-Cubans engaged in the religious rituals of Santeria.

Santeria is basically Voodoo incorporated with elements of Catholicism. A bit unsettling and scary. Catholicism on crack. Right up their alley. So, when the boats landed in Miami they jumped off like rats from a sinking ship.

AMEREEECA! A few months in tent city didn’t seem so bad, far better than the lives and prisons some left behind. Until it wasn’t so good anymore. Then the riots.

After a hasty immigration interview, they found their way onto the streets of gold making a beeline for urban centers across the country. Anywhere you could turn a buck.

The Marielito’s ran the gamut, petty criminals and political prisoners to drug traffickers, pimps, stick-up men, murderers to assassins for hire. Your standard jack-of-all-trade criminal.

If we didn’t have enough of our own criminals already the competition just got a lot stiffer.

I Won a Free Trip

Fast forward, to 1984. I find myself rolled into an interstate compact transfer out of Illinois’ Joliet prison.

A political experiment of deflating street gang control of state prisons is in full swing. Gang leaders and their confederates were being banked out of the system by the dozen, trading criminals with other states. A sort of human bartering.

One minute I’m sleeping like a baby dreaming then BAM, the cell bars break open! Suddenly, I’m a victim of a surprise middle-of-the-night prison move with a few dozen other convicts to an undisclosed location which would ultimately be Midway Airport on Chicago’s Southwest side.

And so, I was thrown into the fray.

Once securely on the Midway tarmac the bus quickly off-loaded in the pre-dawn darkness with a lot of shouting and barking. Under the watchful eye of machine gun-toting guards, we moved from bus to jet plane.

A few hours after I had been drooling on my pillowcase, I found myself chained to a seat on a federal Conair flight.

Conair was generally reserved for federal prisoners and those in transit to various institutions across the country. Now, still, early in my criminal career, I find myself airborne with real criminals.

I guess as plane rides go, it wasn’t a bad ride. My seatmate chained next to me was a well-put-together fella somewhere in his mid 50’s dressed to the nines. He and I chopped it up a bit.

He was a bank robber, a real one. Oddly enough he looked more like the dad from the ‘Brady Bunch’ than a bank robber. Shit, what did I know? I was still a kid, still wet behind the ears.

I was just shy of two years into my first stretch. Strictly small time I had big plans to get to this fella’s level. I was cutting my teeth learning how to do time the right way and getting an education in crime at one of the best schools of all.

It was a sold-out flight. Seats were filled with mostly federal prisoners, some dressed in prison clothing, others in street clothes on their way to wherever their stop would be. For some, It would be the last stop in their criminal career.

Muslim Brothers, White Aryan Brotherhood members, mobsters and a variety of hardcore gangster types mixed in with the white-collar-looking guys. Then there was us, Chicago street gang members. A coupla-three dozen give or take. As far as they knew we were fed cons too.

Somewhere during our small talk, I recall my bank robber friend saying I was going the same place he was. How he would have that information I asked myself.

He claimed the band I had strapped on my wrist, the same colour he wore, indicated we were headed to a max joint outside Las Vegas. In the know, he had obviously booked with this airline before.

There he explained, was a federal side and a state side of the penitentiary. He was no stranger to the system, I guess. I asked how much time he was doing, a truly amateur question of a young kid.

He cracked a slight smile and mumbled, “Not much longer”.

The travel agents were nice enough to book us a suite, rather than a dorm, on an overnight layover at the Kansas City County Jail where they separated us from the federal convicts. Thin mattresses on wooden bunk beds.

‘Choke sandwiches’, boloney and cheese on stale white bread and a bag of chips were on the menu. I was glad to see their meal plan was consistent with Chicago’s Cook County Jail.

In the morning we were back aboard. Our first stop, was New Mexico where half of our guys were offloaded. Far from well-traveled in those years, I only knew it to be New Mexico because of the mountains outside the window and one of the Muslim brothers let on that he knew it was Albuquerque.

The plane was getting lighter and other than ‘Mr. Brady’s’ counsel, I still had little idea of where I was headed.

We weren’t in New Mexico long before we were in the air eventually wheels down on a far-off runway at Las Vegas McCarren Airport where we were met by a few NDOC busses. Then on to SDCC, Southern Desert Correctional Center in Nevada a few 40 miles north of Las Vegas.

Southern Desert was the shithole of the prison world. Sure, Joliet was old, falling apart and dangerous, but it was also organized. You were with who you were with and you knew where you stood in the yard.

Southern Desert was a wasteland of rocks, dirt and deadly heat and anything but organized. Chaos, a complete madhouse, with no rule on the yard and hick guards, was ripe for a riot at any moment.

You could see for miles and miles outside the double razor wire gates to nowhere. Even the surrounding mountains were barren towers of dirt. There, I would spend the next few years trying to get back to where I had been abducted from.

The irony of fighting in court and appeals to the state of Illinois via legal letters to get back into prison back in Illinois was not lost on me.

At the ripe old age of 19 years old, I had already been down almost two years.

Out on the yard at Southern Desert, you had it all. Guys from Midwest cities and all over the East Coast rode together. Mexican Mafia La Eme members, Nazi Low riders, and various outlaw biker gangs were not to be confused with the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood fellas. ‘BGF’ Black Guerilla family members out of California and regular black power types just to name a few.

And then there were the Marielito’s.

After spending a month in segregation and not long after I had hit the mainline yard, one morning at count time the prison sirens went off. Screeching loudly out in the middle of the desert you just knew something serious went down.

We spent most of the day on lockdown until word had gotten out that there was an escape or an escape attempt from the fed side of the prison. The only thing that separated us from them was an electrified razor-topped fence. It was sort of a prison within a prison.

That evening as I watched the evening news in a day room the news anchor announced an escape had occurred from a federal facility at the Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs.

A photo flashed across the screen of an escaped convict was none other than ‘Mr. Brady’ himself. Yard-wise and not knowing any of the guys around me I made no hint that I knew the guy. His words “not much longer” resonated warmly with me. Godspeed my friend.

The last thing I needed was for anyone, convict, hack or administrator to even think I knew this guy or had any connection to him or his plans. Other than our short plane ride, I didn’t. In prison, you’re always sitting next to a snitch.

Finally, they said they believed he had someone waiting for him on Nevada Highway 95, a few miles outside the prison. Two banks got robbed in Las Vegas that day both in which no suspects were apprehended.

I know in my years there, to my knowledge, he was never caught. Hopefully ‘Mr. Brady’ is having boat drinks on some palm tree island.

Crew Up

Las Vegas was full of guys looking to turn a quick buck and criminals were no different. There were organized and independent criminals from coast to coast.

I found myself among a crew of guys from cities east of the Mississippi like Chicago, New York, Philly, Boston, and New England. Some of them were regular criminals’ others, Chicago Outfit guys and New York or Boston Mobsters. I was the youngest on the crew by 10 years.

I didn’t find them, they found me. It was after a chow hall altercation I had with a large black fella over the last pull on a Kool-Aid jug.

It wasn’t about the Kool-Aid; it was all about not standing down. It was about how I carried myself, and respect. A sword fight with plastic cups that ensued led to me being left with a cut over the bridge of my nose courtesy of a cup in the face but not before I tossed the empty Kool-Aid jug at his head.

The hacks stepped in but we stopped short of them getting involved. We mean mugged each other, separated and left it at that. I didn’t want to go toe to toe with this monster, but I would do what I had to do. I had earned my stripes. I was no punk.

It was then that an older Jewish hype conman from Chicago named Arnold Gorlick approached me and invited me to a table to eat. I accepted and found my crew. As I sat at the table it did not go unnoticed that I let the minor cut bleed while I ate.

As it turned out Arnold was familiar with a few of my uncles who were street guys. No strangers to the gambling and drug business. He had some history with them and admittedly and wisely a healthy fear of them.

Tony G. was the defacto shot caller on our crew and nephew of a big-time and very dead Outfit boss in Chicago. I can’t say we wanted much in my time there. We were connected but not cliqued up with any of the gangs in the yard which was different and welcomed compared to what I was used to.

The Cubans, they were cut from a different cloth. I never gave much thought to Cubans other than the few I knew back home. I had no clue what a Marielito was much less where it was.

But I would learn. Learn things about them before the news stories, before Al Pacino played Tony Montana in ‘Scarface’. I met some of the boys from the boat lift and the crime wave.

Big screen portrayals made them parodies of themselves compared to who they really were. I witnessed and experienced firsthand who they were and what they were capable of. They didn’t ask for your respect, they demanded it and if you didn’t give it, they took it.

I recall an incident with one of their guys, Leche they called him, a fair-skinned, red-haired guy who looked more Irish than a Cuban. Being a short-timer, he made the decision he was walking away from their crew.

Leche wanted to finish his time with no problems or potential of catching another case that would lengthen his sentence. But it just wasn’t something that was allowed.

Out in the desert, we had plenty of open yard time for a penitentiary. There were also plenty of rocks.

One day Leche was out for a stroll in the yard when eight or ten of his own brothers caught him and beat him down with something vicious. They smashed his head with a large desert boulder and left him there to bleed out on the walkway. They send a message that was surely received by others.

He lived but was stuck on stupid after that day.

In a situation like that, you looked the other way, and you walked the other way. See no evil, hear no evil. It was their business, and you didn’t get involved.

Fortunately, our crew had good relations with them.

A Cuban Connection is Born

Hector Franco was just a kid in the yard. 15 years old doing a life bid with the possibility of parole. He shot up a North Las Vegas cop during a robbery. He looked like a regular American kid of Cuban descent that spoke perfect English like anyone else born in America.

Hector was the all-American kid except that he was doing life. In these parts of the Southwest, you could be sentenced to adult prison at age 15 unlike Illinois, slightly more civilized, where 17 was the age of criminal adulthood.

Hector and I never hung out, but we were cordial toward each other in the yard. We would chop it up from time to time in the gym on the weight pile. We were both small, young and pretty.

I concentrated on doing my heavy reps on the weight bench. I had been putting on some good muscle for a kid of my size. At 5’8” and 155lbs. I was slightly less than average height and on the leaner side. Hector a few years younger than me was even smaller. But he wasn’t scared and if he was, he didn’t show it.

As I worked out, I noticed a small mixed group of Hispanic and black guys approach Hector and make small talk with him.

Unlike back in Joliet, in Southern Desert, it was unusual to see blacks and Cholos cliqued up together in the yard. I couldn’t hear the conversation but could tell from their body language that it wasn’t a social visit. I was able to make out enough to know they were trying to ‘turn him out’ to make a sexual move on him.

In the joint, once you allow another man to make a move on you, punk you out, make you ‘pay rent’ or extort you’re done. There’s no going back from that.

Making the decision to take a stand regardless of the potential danger and outcome happens in seconds. You got to be able to think on your feet. Unless you’re a psychopath or total maniac, dummies don’t survive in the joint. You’re ready to do whatever you have to do.

I lift weights as I observed from the periphery of my eyes as Hector backed up a bit and one of the predators pointed in his face. I could tell from his body language he was ready to go down fighting.

Now, in these situations, unless you’re with someone on your crew you don’t get involved. You mind your own business.

In this case, I had a prior situation with one of the predators in which I had to deal with him with a shank to his neck. He came on to me and had to be set straight right away. From that moment on he knew where I stood. That situation worked out in my favour, and he avoided me in the yard.

Quick thinking and the ability to break down a situation calmly and decisively, a trait which I was blessed with in my life, came into play.

I could let the kid Hector go it on his own in this fight in which he would surely get smashed, or I could stand by his side and throw down with him. I knew if I stood by and let it happen, they would misconstrue it as fear in me and I would likely be their next target. It was purely a self-preservation move.

As Hector milled slowly around the weight pile, I picked up two ten-pound dumbbells and slowly edged his way. Ten pounders were light enough to swing but heavy enough to crack someone’s skull open with.

He turned toward me surprised to see me standing near him. He was nervous but not scared and ready to go.

“I appreciate it brother, but this ain’t your problem. You don’t gotta be here.” Hector said.

“Sure, it is. If they come for you, they gonna try and come for me later so we may as well get it on now” I replied.

Hector shrugged his shoulders, “Alright then, let’s do it.”

In prison there’s no hemming and hawing, no discussion, these things happen that fast. We stared each other down for what seemed like a long time though in reality, it was only seconds. I could smell they had doubt in them.

It’s times like these you perfect that thousand-mile stare. That empty stare you have that shows you have little, or nothing left inside and don’t give a fuck.

I knew they were having second thoughts otherwise they would have already made a move when a hack walked into the gym and unwittingly gave us a move. I quietly dropped the dumbbells. Hector and I slowly walked by the predators never losing eye contact.

Fight for another day. We figured it was easier to battle in the yard than in the enclosed gym. We strolled the walkway for a while making small talk until we were sure they were done for the time being. But we knew we would have to keep our eyes on the back of our heads now.

Like it or not, we were in this beef together now. After a time, we shook hands and parted ways. From that day we made it a point to acknowledge one other in the yard and make small talk.

I made sure to make mention of it to Tony G., so he was aware in case there was any blowback. After that I let it lie.

In the joint, you can’t control what might come only the moments you’re living in. You can’t live in fear worry it’ll kill you. You do the time, not let the time do you. Because of this, you lose your fear of others in life and sometimes a bit of empathy for your fellow.

Over time the incident seemed to fade, the predators stopped looking either of our ways or did so without notice. At times it seemed as if they even went out of their way to not cross paths with us in the yard. I knew this wasn’t because we were tough guys, respected because we carried ourselves sure, tough guys no. I felt there was something else but at the time I didn’t know what.

On the inside, you tend to forget about situations like this quickly. They come and go. You experience or witness bad, sometimes terrible things behind the wall, so you get through the rough spots and move on and hope to survive it all. Eventually, you become desensitized to it all. Fortunately for me, I was desensitized before I ended up behind the wall. It was a useful quality.

Spanish Sit Down

A few weeks after the incident I was approached in my housing unit by one of the guys from back home I had travelled with. Tito was a middle-aged Puerto Rican fella in his 50’s. An old school Latin King from the street, he was doing time in Stateville Prison for some dope beef and like me he and his partner Flaco, another old school white Latin King, had been abducted out here to the desert.

Though we were from rival gangs we got along well. One of the benefits of being dumped in the desert was not having to deal with Illinois prison politics.

Tito had been in the game a long time. At his age having survived all the bullshit and still breathing he knew survival on the streets and behind the wall was only by being able to deal with all kinds of personalities. So, we shared a smoke and a walk and talk in the yard occasionally.

Tito called up across the hall from me. I used to make him chuckle when I would imitate the black guy’s dancing on the unit at night when everyone had their radios blasting. Sometimes I would do my version of the singer Boy George ‘Karma Chameleon’ dance in my cell. He got the impression that I seemed to enjoy being in the joint. I explained it was far from it.

The way I had it figured I could do my time like a lot of the miserable guys on the mainline or do what I could to keep a smile on my face. I had long before decided that I wasn’t coming out of doing time broken.

I had always adapted to heavy situations well, I learned how to when I was a small kid. My physical and mental survival depended upon it. But on the inside, there was no doubt I had my 24-hour demons to fight with.

On one yard walk, Tito said someone had made a request to have a sit down with me. Why me? I strictly kept my business to myself or my crew and always played my cards close to my vest.

In his heavy Chicago Puerto Rican accent Tito said, “The Cubans like to see you.”

“Me? The Cubans?”

“Ramon. Ramon Franco, the bichote, the boss for the Marielito’s. He likes to meet you.”

I looked at him incredulously, “Yeah, I know who the guy is, who doesn’t? What the fuck he wanna meet me for? I mean, it ain’t usually something to look forward to when those guys wanna meet you.”

“Don’t worry it’s okay. He heard about you and asked what kinda guy you are and just wants to sit down. I’ll be there with you. He doesn’t speak good English. There’s nothing to worry about, I guarantee it.”

We walked and smoked, and I thought carefully.

“Well shit, it’s not like I can say no right? I mean, that’s like a big fuck you, and I don’t wanna do that. But I don’t wanna seem weak or scared like a punk. But I would be an asshole not to be a little nervous.”

Tito grinned “Okay then, I’ll set it up hermanito.”

“But I gotta bring another guy with. I mean I know you’ll be there with me but I gotta bring someone from my crew along.”

We smoked and walked and moved on from the subject.

The meeting day came, and I brought along Tony G. who I had to let know about the meeting anyway. He had the respect of the guys in the yard. Tony was a generally happy guy who liked to laugh a lot and he was not a heavy-handed kind of ‘I call the shots’ kind of guy.

He had street smarts and brains to go with them. He knew how to handle situations like this, when to speak and when to not. After a short schooling, we went to our sit down.

We met in the yard and walked over to a different housing unit. Normally, if you didn’t live in a housing unit you weren’t allowed to be inside. In this case, Marielito who escorted Tony, Tito and I just waved to the hack in the control centre who simply waved him on.

We stopped at a cell that had a few fellas lounging around just outside the open heavy steel door. Obviously Marielito’s, on the smaller side, to say they looked intimidating didn’t give them justice.

Anyone who has ever been on the inside knows it’s always the small guys you have to watch out for. The two small fellas with dead eyes simply stared us down and went back to their business.

It looked like any other cell, sparsely decorated but appointed with whatever luxuries an inmate was allowed to have in the joint. Like others, it was a double bunk cell but only one man lived there which was apparent by the personal effects neatly arranged atop the upper bunk. Not too many guys in Southern Desert had the juice to get a one-man cell. Ramon did.

On the bunk sat a slim dark-complected, green-eyed man of medium height and thick curly afro-centric hair. His badly pockmarked face only made him more intimidating. Still, his eyes were bright and alive and his smile was wide and genuine even with several missing teeth. But you knew he was dangerous.

He had prepared for the number of guests he knew would be attending the meeting.

He spoke to Tito in a quick barrage of Spanish. He slowly waved his hand offering us one of three makeshift milk crate chairs set in front of his bunk. It seemed his every move was thought out and intentionally in slow motion.

He looked at Tony with his bright eyes but up until this time still had not looked directly in my direction.

Like manner, like many guys in the joint who had lived a good deal of life in such cramped quarters, he sat with legs crossed in a tight effeminate manner. After some years one usually found ways of becoming a natural creature of their environment and utilized the small spaces they had accordingly.

Again, he spoke to Tito in Spanish and then extended his hand to Tony who gave a toothy smile and shook his in return. Then, he turned toward me and looked directly into my eyes and extended his hand for which I returned the gesture.

When he shook my hand, he did so firmly. Unlike others, when he shook my hand, he held it momentarily and placed his other hand atop mine to cup my hand completely, offering me what seemed like a warm handshake.

This put me at some ease as I had so many scenarios racing through my head. I was uncertain of much, but what I was certain of was that if Ramon Franco wanted to do me wrong or harm me, he didn’t have to bring us to his cell to do it. Of that much, I was sure.

He had the floor and he cut to the chase.

Tito translated for a short time until he looked over to me and said, “he wants to speak in his English so be patient.” Remaining serious yet at ease, I simply nodded affirmation and listened intently.

Ramon looked at me directly and intently as if the others did not exist. His smile and bright eyes seemed to momentarily fade. He spoke in choppy awkward English, yet it was better than I had anticipated it would be.

“I hear about this problem you had some time ago” he gently gestured a hand over his shoulder to indicate the passing of time, “with the mandate,” a derogatory term for a black man, “who visited your cell,” Ramon said.

I nodded slowly and deliberately in acknowledgement.

He continued, “I hear from people I trust you handle yourself well and I know you are a real man. Just so you know this will not happen to you again with this mandate or any other.”

Again, I nodded but remained silent.

He extended an open palm-up hand toward Tito, “Our friend speaks highly of you. He says you have a lot of heart.”

In a calm quiet manner spoke up, “Thank you.”

Ramon nodded and continued, “There was a situation a few weeks ago in the gym with the same mayate and some others.” He looked at me intently. “I heard of this through others that you stepped into a situation that you did not have to.”

Now my head was swimming puzzled over where he was going with this. Part of me wanted to explain the situation but instinct told me to not. I just listened.

He continued, “Because you stepped in and helped a boy you did not have to at risk of your own self, I thank you for this. It means something to me.”

If I was confused when I got here, I was more confused now.

Ramon halted for a moment, looked down, and then directly at me again.

“The boy you helped; Hector is young but not scared. He said you were a great help to him.”

“Whatever reason you had for standing next to him doesn’t matter. What matters is that you chose to.”

I hung on his every word.

“Hector, he is my sisters’ youngest son. My sobrino. It is very important to me to make sure he is safe. He will be here a long time and he has a lot to learn. What you did was a personal favour to me. And I don’t forget these things.”

I kept my eyes on Ramon’s eyes but could see from my periphery both Tito and Tony ginning. Tito and Tony, I’m sure already knew. A wave of relief washed over me. Caused by the knowledge that I stood up and did the right thing in the morality of prison ethics. I chose a side and won this time.

“From this moment on you are our asere, our brother. If you need anything just let me know or let Tito know. We have your back like you had Hector's.”

I sat calmly exhibiting little emotion so as to not give away my feelings or intentions while a wave of relief and pride washed over me. Few guys in the yard would get a moment like this. Before long it would be the word on the yard because the Marielitos would make sure others knew.

I knew it wasn’t a free pass to do whatever I wanted, and I knew it didn’t make me untouchable. But if I played my cards right and carried myself right, I would have an ace in my pocket. I would gain a certain respect and in the joint respect can go a long way.

One of the Marielitos who were on the lookout brought in four small paper pill cups atop a small book. Each of us took one. One whiff and I knew it was prison hootch.

We shared a quick shot together and the cups were taken away and disposed of as quickly as they appeared.

We had been there maybe 15 minutes total, yet it seemed like hours. We all stood, after exchanging goodbyes Tito and Tony exited the cell. I was last out though not before Ramon Franco again took my hand and cupped it.

Mi asere” Ramon repeated.

Though at that moment I wasn’t certain what it meant, I was certain it was good.

I exited the cell and one of the Marielito closed Ramon’s cell door and then retreated to his cell directly across the six-foot-wide hall.

Tito, Tony and I were escorted out of the cell house and walked the yard quietly for a few moments.

“It was a good thing you did, he’s an important man,” Tito said.

Extending his arms slightly, “It’s not a bad guy to have on our side”, Tony added.

After that day, I can’t say people treated me differently, yet there were subtle gestures such as a nod from another con on the chow line or a knowing gesture on the yard by a Marielito.

As always Hector and I would stop and share a smoke and some words.

Even though I already had my crew I knew I now had some added juice. The thing about having juice is never having to use it unless necessary and not abusing it. Still, the Marielitos were some strong juice to have.

It would be a few more years before I would see the world again and time went by slowly. Unfortunately, I would return even after I walked out those gates. Another prison in another place.

I grew physically and mentally and became a man during that period of my prison life. For better or worse it was in prison that I would learn my lessons and values and how to walk in this world.

I always say; Some of the best lessons I ever learned were from some of the worst people I know.



Stephen P. Conrad
Writer for

A nomad, a gypsy at heart, writer, actor, artist, anti-sycophant, socially maladjusted and comfortably near complete insanity.