The Belly of Hell
Updated: Feb 11, 2020
If I have to, if God sees it fit for me to spend time in a cell, if he wants my brain to be inside of a cage, if he’s brought me so far from hell to put me here and now he wants me to go to jail, I’ll go. If that’s where I’m meant to be, but I don’t think so. I don’t believe in my heart that I belong in jail.
E Block 5 Company Cell 16
He smiled at the press conference and apologized to the twenty-year-old girl, but admitted no guilt. He told her, “I hope in time you’ll come forth and tell the truth.” At sentencing, he told Justice Fitzgerald, “I mean this with no disrespect, Judge—you never paid attention to me. You never looked in my eyes,” adding “You never used the wisdom of Solomon. I always felt you had something against me.” The judge didn’t respond, and gave Tupac Amaru Shakur a moderate sentence at Clinton Correctional Facility, neither maximum nor minimum punishment: one and a half to four and a half years.
The largest and third oldest of New York’s prisons, Clinton Correctional Facility, or “Little Siberia” as it is often called on account of the climate, is a maximum security prison built into the side of a mountain in the Adirondack village of Dannemora, near the Canadian border. The prison is known for taking New York’s worst criminals and for having poor relations between prisoners and corrections officers. A few notable inmates include Charles Luciano, Robert Chambers, and Michael Alig. After Tupac’s incarceration at Clinton, several other rappers have done a stint there, including the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Shyne, who is currently serving an eight to ten year sentence.
For the first eight months, he was on “keeplock” status. That meant one hour in the yard each day—and twenty-three locked in a cell. According to the Correctional Association of New York, over half of the suicides that occur in prison take place in twenty-three hour lockdown. Prison was strange to him. When he first arrived, the corrections officer said, “There’s the rich nigger.” He looked for someone to tell: “Oh, shit! He said ‘nigger’! He said ‘nigger’!” And no one cared.
He hated the police, always had. In 1991, when he was twenty, he was arrested for jaywalking. Two crooked Oakland cops named Boyovich and Rodgers slammed his face on hard pavement, kicked, and choked him until he blacked out. When he came to, he was handcuffed and ridiculed by the officers. They told him that he would learn his place. They likened him to a slave and themselves to slave masters. Later he filed a ten million dollar lawsuit but they paid only forty-two thousand. And his face was still scarred: “All this is scars I go to my grave with. All this is learn-to-be-a-nigga scars.”
Two years later in Atlanta, two cops pulled guns on him, and he shot them. They went to the hospital, and he went to jail for the night. Charges were dropped when officials found out that the officers were drunk, and the guns they pulled were taken from the evidence locker.
Now, a twenty-three-year-old in a maximum-security prison on three counts of sexual assault, he spent his days reading and writing and working out. Lots of working out—curls, pushups, pulldowns, dips, and winglifts. He packed sixteen pounds of muscle on to his five-eleven, tattooed frame in his first five months there—perhaps due to fear. A few nights before the judge ruled a verdict in his case, Tupac was attacked on his way to Quad Recording Studios: “I got shot five times. I walked in, some dudes walked in and shot me up, took some jewelry. I have no idea why they shot me.” One shot went through an artery in his thigh, another hit him in the scrotum. Physically, he made a full recovery. He wrote a friend from jail, “I still have the complete use of every nerve, limb, and muscle, and more surprisingly I can still make love and have babies after taking a shot to my scrotum! Talk about faith in God! [Here there is a line drawing of a smiley face punctuated with an exclamation point.]”
Mentally, he was not so healthy. Paranoia set in: “So now I’m basically more scared of people than guns. I trust NO-ONE!!” Being surrounded by murderers didn’t help: “Dudes is getting killed. Dudes is comin’ in [here] with one-and-a-half to four-and-a-half. Getting stabbed in the chest with a pair of scissors, and dying in jail, and never coming home.”
Fortunately, his celebrity did help. He was mostly left out of the prison race war since his fans, whether free or behind bars, were of all races. In a journal entry scrawled on loose-leaf paper he writes, “The Latinos I do come across show me the utmost respect. They offer razors, shanks, food, whatever!” Shortly before he was incarcerated he had completed Me Against the World, his third album. It was released while he was in prison.
The album included a song called “Dear Momma,” about his mother. In prison, he wrote a plot treatment for the music video, asking that “strong supportive mothers” be showcased, including Betty Shabazz (Malcolm X’s wife), Coretta Scott King (Martin Luther King’s wife), and his own mother, Afeni Shakur. The parallel that Tupac draws between himself and these great leaders, as well as the song’s positive portrayal of women, is ironic coming from someone who was in prison on sexual abuse charges at the time of its release. The paradox was apparently lost on his fans, who bought nearly a quarter-million copies the week it came out.
He recalls the jealous corrections officers that often gave him trouble for his success, saying things like “Won’t be any more rapping for a long time for you huh?”
“Well, actually, my album is number one in the country right now. I just beat Bruce Springsteen.”
“Go back to your cell.”
But even the corrections officers bowed to his fame when stories of a visit from Madonna began to circulate on the local news. They allowed him an extra shower that day. He also got visits from Jada Pinkett, Jasmine Guy, Mickey Rourke, as well as letters from Tony Danza and Mike Tyson.
Creatively, Tupac had always been prolific. Between November 1991 and 1994 he completed one album a year. During his eleven-month stint at Clinton, he wrote only one song. Perhaps it was the lack of music (though he had bought a walkman at the prison commissary). Perhaps absence from his urban element kept him from reporting his brand of street journalism (though, to his audience, prison life would certainly have been newsworthy). Maybe the stress of incarceration put his thug and murder metaphors into perspective. In the wave of interviews that followed his 1996 release, he had only one thing to say about his writer’s block: “My inspiration was gone because I was a caged animal.”
Unable to write songs, he looked for other creative outlets. In his cell, he read “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu and Syd Field’s “Screenplay.” Combining Tzu’s knowledge-of-self principle with Field’s strict screen writing formulas, he began writing scripts. Some based on novels, others on his own life. Some set in places he knew too well, visiting hours at the county lock-up, others in places he had never been, the classrooms at Boston University, and some set where no one had ever been, the future. Still creatively stifled, he finished only one screenplay while incarcerated, entitled “Live 2 Tell.” The semi-autobiographical, self-proclaimed “coming-of-age story” is currently in pre-production and will include Sylvester Stallone as a detective.
In the establishing shot of “Kindred Spirits,” his unfinished screenplay based on a novel by Octavia Butler, he wrote meticulous, almost yearning description, detailing the glowing skin and high heaving breasts of Dalani Sukari, his female protagonist. It was difficult for him to suddenly be so alone, so profoundly without a woman. But even in prison, he had more women than he could handle. In a letter to Sister Souljah, activist and friend, he details his problem:
“Woman (A) is from the streets and that’s all she knows but I can see and feel she loves me. Woman (B) on the other hand is famous, rich and able to assist me financially, loving, serious, and very sexual. She’s known me since before I got into the business and she’s been there from the jump. . . . They each know of the other and I have tried to make it work as a threesome. Not sexually but commitment wise.”
There is reason to believe that Woman (B) was his high school classmate and famous actress, Jada Pinkett. In a poem written for her entitled “Jada,” he tells her “U R the omega of my heart/ The foundation 4 my conception of love/ When I think of what Black woman should be/ It’s u that I first think of.” Only in 1997, after Tupac’s death, did Jada Pinkett marry the rapper Will Smith.
Woman (A) was Tupac’s girlfriend at the time, Kiesha Morris. They had met in June of 1994 at a party thrown by Bad Boy record executive and hip-hop mogul, Sean Puffy Combs. Unlike most women that he met, Kiesha was not impressed with his fame. When they met for a second time at The Tunnel, a Manhattan club, he approached her and said that he had been unable to get her out of his mind since they met. He recalled all of the details from their previous conversation, even the clothes she wore. On their first date they went to the Chelsea Movie Theater to see “Forrest Gump”. He was interested in the movie because he had auditioned for the part of “Bubba.” That night he told her that he would die by the time he was 25-years-old, and that it would probably be murder.
Kiesha eventually won out over Woman (B). He proposed to her from prison and they were married on April 29, 1995. He recalls the spartan wedding: “Just in a room, justice of the peace, you do, I do, let’s go.” She moved upstate from the Bronx to be closer to him and the prison. She took six-hour bus rides to visit him. They weren’t allowed any conjugal visits. Later he said of his short-lived marriage: “I married her for the wrong reasons. I cared about her. But I married her because I was in jail, I was alone. . . .all I could do was watch TV, so I got married.” Early in 1996, she sought a divorce, and the marriage was annulled. When later asked if she believes the rumors that Tupac faked his own death and is still alive, Kiesha replied, “He doesn’t call me.”
In October 1996, the lawyers told him he had an appeal, and could get out of prison on bail if he could raise 1.4 million dollars. He couldn’t. Legal fees had eaten into his bank account. But Suge Knight, a six-foot-four, 345 pound, ex-NFL, ex-bodyguard, once-and-future con turned record executive, put up the cash. But before Knight bailed him out, Tupac signed a handwritten record deal with Knight’s label, Death Row Records—three albums in three years for six million dollars.
He left prison and went directly to a recording studio. In less than two weeks, he recorded twenty songs for his double album, All Eyez On Me. Commercially, the album proved to be his most successful, going platinum nine times over. “I figured this would be the best way to vent it instead of paying some psychotherapist like, fifty million dollars. I just went in the studio. It’s cheaper.” The album hit stores just a month after Knight paid Tupac’s bail.
Later that year, Tupac released another album, titled “The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory.” This one only took him a week—three days for him to record, and four for the producers to make a final mix. In the eleven months after his incarceration, Tupac released nearly forty songs.
“That’s when it all came out. Freedom, inspiration. . . . I had so much to say . . .”
On September 7, 1996 at approximately 11:15 pm, a month before the release of the Don Killuminati album, Tupac was shot and killed in a drive-by-shooting after the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon fight at the MGM grand in Las Vegas.