In Hell with Michael Skakel
Michael Skakel has moved into my cellblock. Normally I’d leave this one alone—because the last thing I’d ever want to be considered part of is the news media. But they put him on our cozy cellblock after his conviction, and things have been buzzing since. Especially in my very conservative Republican family, which wants to see leeches put on him. Personally, I feel for the man. Greenwich to Garner Correctional is a long trip.
Skakel and I talk mainly in between bites of prison swill and occasionally during recreation, and I’ve come to like his company. In fact, I liked him almost instantly. He’s got a great sense of humor; he’s humble, gracious, and has a spiritual side. Rare qualities in prison. Hell, rare qualities in a human being.
I’d introduced myself with a prison "welcome/ care package" put together by my cellmate and me. It contained those things the state neglects to give you to get started—which is just about everything. The state gives you a "Bar-O-Caustic-Lye" piece of soap, a mini tube of toothpaste, a mini one-inch toothbrush to go with it, underwear, deodorant that doesn’t work, a uniform and a bedroll. We gave him a real bar of soap (one that wouldn’t render him blind), a hot mug, a box of tea and sugar, a pen, paper, etc. Basically, things he needed that we could spare. Things he would need before his commissary account was set up, which takes weeks.
One would think we’d given him ambrosia, he was so thankful.
I think one of the reasons he was so grateful was not so much for the contents of the care package, but rather for the fact that someone was being nice to him right off the bat. Half of the worry of going to prison is not knowing who you’re going to be dealing with. When a stranger walks up to you with a package, you’re more relieved than anything else.
After that day I backed off for fear of being mistaken for a Kennedy fan. For I, like my family, am a conservative Republican—probably the only one in the building, save for the warden. And it wasn’t so much that, as it was for the fact that the poor bastard has had a camera lens up his nostrils for months—and he could probably use the downtime. So I just watched from a distance for a few days. And what I saw, I liked.
He handled the Bible-beaters with tact, the lunatics (of which there are plenty) with gentleness, and the celebrity junkies with good taste. Me, he handled with a sense of humor, which is essential if you’re going to get along with me. Had he been self-serving, snot-nosed, morose political spawn, I would have written him off the way I did those with whom I went to D.C. prep school. But he was gracious, good-natured and, like I said, had a (dry) sense of humor.
Knowing him has been tough on my political value system. Actually, being in prison and knowing him has been tough on my political value system. As a conservative Republican, it is almost a tenet to dislike Kennedy offspring. And being a conservative Republican in prison (tough on crime and sentencing), I’ve found myself cursing my own past votes that have contributed to my own misery here (and, I’m sure, Michael’s as well).
I’m reluctant to bring up the subject of politics with the man as a result. Plus, there’s no need for him to know what I think of Ted. So I just enjoy his company, which is easy enough. And with the way the Department of Corrections moves people around, I just enjoy it while I can. I have to. Likable people are not easy to find in hell.
D. P. O’Keefe is a humorist incarcerated in a Connecticut maximum security correctional facility.