By Stanley Cohen.
Every city has its own character, a unique identity that says who and what it is. Nothing speaks louder about a city’s life than Broadway, which seems to run through the heart of each one. Prison is no different.
In our Gulag, Broadway runs as a two-lane aisle which intercepts row after row of identical grey metal bunks and cubicles. To walk up and down Broadway here is to quickly feel the pulse of our brotherhood of 130. We may not have neon lights, but heart we got.
Bunk 7. Phil is 70-something. A grandfather of eight and the former president of a workers’… real workers… union in metropolitan New York. Phil is serving nine years… essentially for beating the government, time and time again, over disability claims for his workers. They adore him.
It’s been a tough day already and it’s only 10:00 AM. Phil sits on his bunk and stares at the photos of his grand kids taped to the broken metal “desk” he shares with his “bunkie.” Moving slightly, Phil now stares out into space as he scratches his brow, thinking out loud yet barely audible, “I still can’t believe I’m sitting here for nothing more than fighting for workers’ rights for 45 years.”
Charged, along with several physicians, for fraudulently enabling hundreds of his union members to gain millions in disability payments to which the government claims they were not otherwise entitled, all members were stripped of their benefits before Phil went to trial. There, his efforts to introduce evidence that the members were in fact disabled was rejected by the judge… Phil, convicted. Months later, it was widely reported that almost 100% of the contentious disability findings had been upheld by a panel of independent physicians and the benefits restored to all. While his appeal drags on, Phil walks day after day trying to maintain his sanity and control the anger, wondering with each step how a lifetime of work for others triggered the government’s drive to get him at all costs – including the truth.
Meanwhile, like the steady stream of visitors each weekend, the support letters roll in each day at mail call… dozens from family, friends and union members, current or retired, and many on disability thanks to Phil. It’s his only arrest ever.
Bunk 43. John, a 50-something New York City school teacher and part-time computer consultant is imprisoned for 24 months for “hacking,”… essentially accessing government networks and information to which, prosecutors say, he was not entitled. Sound familiar? A strong, independent, stubborn man, an African-American with a PhD, John teaches all day long and counsels, till late each night, mostly young men of color with little more than his heart and passion. Outside, he makes a difference… a real difference… among young, inner-city victims of the now century-old “war on drugs”… lives lost as time moves on. Here, it’s no different. “Education, education, education,” is John’s mantra which reverberates in his tiny, drab classroom and throughout Broadway. The “kids” love him. He gives them confidence and hope in a prison which otherwise beats them down. Each night when he goes to sleep, John takes photos of his own kids to bed with him… for now, they are fatherless. This was John’s only arrest.
Bunk 11. Gil is 27. He’s been in prison for the last two and half years… in fact, six prisons… all for an offense not a crime in his home state. But when the Feds want you, they get you. A heroin addict since his late teens, Gil sold a couple of guns, from his dad’s collection, to friends for some quick cash during a desperate time when he was dope sick. Not a crime to sell the guns themselves, the Feds busted his friends who gave up friends who, in turn, gave up Gil.
Like the huge federal pyramid scheme it is, cooperation… even against friends… is, in prison, a fact of life… a last-ditch effort to avoid jail yourself no matter what it takes or who it hurts. It’s not much different for those in federal prison where many, pressured or desperate to earn a “better” job, bunk, or more halfway house time, serve as the eyes and ears of the Broadway cops.
So, one might ask, if it’s not a crime, why is Gil in prison? Well, having entered an inpatient drug program, Gil became , under an arbitrary federal law, barred from “possessing” a gun. Unbeknownst to him, just the hour or so that he handled and sold his dad’s guns converted a 24-year-old with no criminal record into a federal felon.
Arrested and released on bail not long thereafter, Gil relapsed from the stress of federal prosecution and prison… and almost died from an overdose. With his bail now revoked, he went from prison to prison as he discovered what is called, inside, “diesel therapy.”
Gil spends his mornings cleaning toilets. His afternoons are spent walking and walking and walking just beyond the barracks…afraid to stop. Not knowing whether he will get high the first time he can, he keeps on walking. To Gil, the mounds of snow, ice, cold temperatures, and gale-force winds are just “one of those things”.
Meanwhile, at night, he pours over real estate manuals hoping that, after his release in some six months, he can start all over again as a real estate broker. Oh, yeah, Gil’s “rehabilitation” does not permit for such lofty dreams. A convicted federal felon cannot obtain a broker’s license.
Bunk 67. “I would not trade my misery, and that of my family, for someone else’s family.” With these words, Robert, who refused to cooperate with the government or to “trade someone else’s freedom for [his] own,” heard a federal judge sentence him to prison for 404 months… thirty-three years… as a first-time offender for the non-violent sale of crack! His two younger brothers received sentences of 35 and 31 years. Two other co-defendants received life without the chance of release for the same offense.
Born and raised in a hard-scrabble family, Robert spent his youth on the streets of North Philly, known for its drugs, violence, and police corruption. In his family, and among his intimate friends, cooperation was just something one didn’t do. Unfortunately, for Robert and his brothers, it was not a lesson learned by all. Their convictions were obtained almost entirely on the backs of government informants who got a walk while they lost their youth.
Now in year 15 of his sentence… reduced to 18 years by two recent changes in the law… Robert muses that the “feds don’t care what you’ve done, or will do again, they just want you to give someone up, anyone… it doesn’t matter who… friends, family, or even a stranger. If you do, you go home. If you don’t, they bury you.”
One can only wonder about the institutional integrity, indeed cruel folly, of a system in which a sentence can be cut almost in half, many years later, with the same offender, offense, and judge… with 33 years becoming 18 not because of “rehabilitation” but simply changing “moral” values or priorities. Robert asks, “What’s changed? What’s different? I am still the same man. What I did long ago remains the same today.”
Arrested at 27, the father of three young kids, Robert has seen birthdays, illnesses, and graduations whiz by far from him as they have gone from child to adulthood raised by one parent. Throughout these years, he has been shuffled, from coast to coast, to eight different institutions… the first six, high security prisons… the last two, camps… most recently at Canaan. Now almost 43 years old, the last 15 years seem so much a blur to him, although vivid and painful memories of institutional violence, brutality, and rape in the prisons is hard to forget. Nor is the ugly systemic “racism from top to bottom in the camps where it matters less what you’ve done than the color of your skin… its just so much a way of life. ”
Early on, Robert remembers sitting night after night in the dark, just trying to survive in cold, isolated cells buried deep inside a prison not much safer than the streets from where he came. Thoughts about his family and future were ever rare, distant, confusing moments because, “… when you got that kind of time, you’re not thinking about what you will do when you get home… you’re just thinking about surviving and praying you will get home.”
Now, many years later on the “eve” of release, Robert still lays awake late at night on his darkened, tiny bunk with his brain “spinning and spinning”… at times “rushing out of control” trying to process the dramatic changes soon to come.
Nervous about his family and the uncertain world outside which awaits, he jokes about an 8-hour furlough he received in his last camp several years ago… his only one in all his years of confinement. Picked up by his family for a day outing at the large local mall, Robert remembers fumbling with his cousin’s iPhone as he tried to place a call without a dial pad. Racing down the highway staring out the window at new cars and billboards with places and things he had not seen or heard of before, Robert quipped to his daughter that it might as well be “Mars.” At McDonald’s, he stumbled with the change his family had given him as he savored his Big Mac… his first non-prison meal in more than a decade. At the mall, his family had to help him to traverse toilets and sinks without handles. Overwhelmed by changes in technology, Robert could not spend more than a few minutes in the Apple Store, and left amazed at the collection of iPads.
“Count time, count time, count time.” As we hurry back to our bunks, Robert shakes his head and my hand. He thanks me for the chance to talk, to spill his heart, to let go of lots of memories… mostly bad… that have followed him these last 15 years. He walks away as he entered… a proud, unbroken man that has survived the hell called the “war on drugs.”
Soon, the prison doors will open and Robert will go home to family and friends… many lost as the years of his youth have given way to retribution and survival. His father waits for him. A recovered addict himself, he too has seen the inside of prison walls for almost thirty years for numerous convictions related to drug abuse and is now a well-respected community organizer who fights for the rights of recovering addicts and returning felons.
Robert wonders what awaits him. Nervous about what he will find, and unable to trust others, fortunately some friends have volunteered to be helping hands of sorts, buying him clothing and a used car. Thirty other childhood friends will not, however, be there to greet him in the burned-out, mean streets of North Philly. They’ve lost their lives to guns, drugs, and disease these last 15 years.
Bunk 109. Prostrate in front of the steel desk in his tiny cubicle, Curtis lies hunched over, his forehead touching his saj-jad, or prayer rug, which covers a small square on the stained and cold cement floor. As he does five times daily, Curtis is deeply immersed in prayer, thankful for his life and blessings… odd, one might think, for a man who has lost his family and fifteen years of his life to a mandated sentence regime little more than a game of number-crunching.
A devout Muslim from Baltimore who came fully to embrace Islam upon arrival in prison some eight years ago, Curtis realizes great inner strength and peace of mind from his faith. “It makes me a better person, more peaceful, better able to deal with prison,” he says even as he looks back over his often dark and violent experiences while locked up.
Now thirty-five and a father of five still young kids, Curtis is barely halfway through his mandatory 15-year sentence for possession of crack. Unlike those who have benefited from two recent sentence reductions for drug offenses, he’s stuck . . . locked in place and time. Like thousands of others, largely young men of color, he pleaded guilty to a sentence with a mandatory minimum to avoid one twice as long, or longer, if convicted after trial. The reductions have no impact on these sentences.
Though he had a series of minor “street” brushes with the law, at the time of his arrest at age 27 Curtis had no history of serious drug involvement and certainly no connection to the violence glorified in the wildly popular, but fictional, TV glimpse into the life of Baltimore in “The Wire.”
A sometime low-level drug dealer, Curtis’ jacket, with his driver’s license inside, was recovered from his “connect’s” apartment along with a modest amount of drugs and a relatively small amount of cash from another room. Almost magically, photos of the crime scene depict the license, the drugs and the cash not in the places they were actually found, but now stashed together in a wall safe that had been pried open.
Like so many other prosecutions, driven by mandatory minimum sentences which can run into decades of prison for even small amounts of drugs, the wholesaler, whose apartment was raided, cut a quick deal with federal prosecutors. Refusing to cooperate, himself, overnight, Curtis went from a nickel and a small-timer to wholesaler, as the real one went home.
In federal courts, across the country, it pays handsomely to be a cooperating kingpin of sorts… as the more you know, the more you can give (whether truthful or not) and the more you can get in return.
Eight years later, Curtis thinks back to the few meetings he had with his court-appointed attorney that were much less about strategy and meaningful options than they were coercion. He reports that “from day one, the attorney said over and over again that I had no chance, no choice, that no one won at trial, that I should either take the 15 or get ready to do 30.” Frightened, unable to hire an attorney of his own choice and told that he would likely get a drug camp and far less time, Curtis pleaded guilty.
Curtis’ experience was not unique. It is played out day in and day out in the world of drug prosecutions where prisoners across the country complain of similar fates; case after case where they had “no choice” but to plead guilty… overwhelmed by the prospect of even greater draconian sentences if they went to trial represented by court-appointed counsel who described that process as a futile gesture… little more than an exercise in form over substance.
In federal courtrooms across the country, this process repeats itself; prosecutions fueled by desperate, dishonest cooperators, shaped by over-zealous prosecutors who threaten inflated charges, overseen by judges who sit powerless or paralyzed, unwilling to break the vicious cycle, thus turning the criminal justice process into so much “dead man walking.”
In the years since his plea, Curtis has known nothing but hard times as he struggled to stay alive and sane, mostly in high-security prisons, with the screams of hopeless prisoners, trips to the SHU, and abusive guards that “treat you like the stray cat that’s been hanging around, feeding you one day and the next, when they tire of you, kicking you away.”
For Curtis, the drug camp never came, nor did the reduced sentence… but Canaan has. Here, like other prisoners, he often lays awake at night staring up at the top bunk thinking about his lost life, marriage and five kids he has seen but once these many years… since moved on far away and fatherless. Unable to sleep, night after night he reminds himself that he has to “… get up in a little while and deal with this shit all over again.”
All prisoners, no matter what their placement, know this chant. We all live it and cope with it …if we can… in our own way… and many do so until their deaths behind high brick walls and Concertina wire. For Curtis, years of isolation and loneliness permeated, at times, with meaningless, unproductive jobs as a research clerk, in a butcher shop and recycler, at 12 cents per hour, plus some courses in horticulture, as a cook’s apprentice and in a faith-based program is all he has known.
Unless he is lucky, the lyric “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” is as close as Curtis will come to the prison’s front door for another seven years. Barring a miracle, it will be that long before he returns to Baltimore, homeless and broke, with little more than his faith. He prays it will see him through.
Bunk 69. The thick metal door slams, or rather, Ray slams it looking for some way, any way, to scream. As the deputy marshal unlocks the holding cell and tells him to get in, all Ray can think about is the discussion he had with his court-appointed lawyer. When scared by the thought of a much “longer” sentence, he decided to plead guilty. “The judge is fair,” the lawyer said to him. “He’ll find a way to do the right thing… pot’s not a hard drug…besides, you didn’t have that much.” Ray spun these words over and over again in his mind as if it was yesterday. Was it incompetence or wilful indifference he wondered? Years later, he still asks the same question.
At his sentence, the judge repeated the same line, almost as a script that countless others have heard, throughout the U.S., since the sentencing guidelines became mandatory in 1987 and parole abolished. “I wish I could do more,” said the judge-for-life to Ray. “This doesn’t seem like the worst offense… or offender… but my job is not to make policy, but to enforce the law as others say it is. You strike me as a good man with a good family who made a mistake. Hopefully,” the judge concluded, “something will change and you will get a break.” 151 months. Next case.
Sitting all alone in the holding cell behind the courtroom where he had just lost almost 13 years of his life to politics and a mechanical sentencing formula, Ray ripped off his tie. It made no difference. Ray struggled to process, to understand what had just happened and what 151 months meant. Without paper and pencil, it wasn’t easy. “Wait!,” he screamed out, ”That’s 12-and-a-half years!”. “What?,” he screamed out again, “The lawyer said no more than 48 months!” Ray was lost. He had no idea what these upward adjustments the judge spoke of meant…none at all. Four points for leadership. Two points for obstruction of justice, two points for abuse of trust. “How did I lose credit?”, he questioned. Two points for renouncing responsibility and one for untimely plea. “I don’t get all this stuff!”, he cried out. “How did 48 months become 151? Wait, judge!” he yelled as he kicked the bars, knowing full well no one could hear him… or cared. “I’m not guilty! I’m not guilty! I’m not…”
As he was led away in handcuffs shackled to his waist, the part-time pot dealer thought to himself that nothing he had said to the judge mattered… not his life, his family, his hopes, or what he did or didn’t do. It was all very much a game.
“151 months for what? Who did I kill? Or rape? What did I blow up? It’s just not right!” is the last thing Ray recalls thinking to himself as he was herded onto a bus already filled with other black men surrounded by white marshals and guards.
Like thousands of prisoners throughout the country, and tens of thousands before them, federal prisons are today filled with women and men convicted of pot offenses… even as it remains the drug of choice and lawful for millions of Americans from coast to coast… even in Washington, DC, home to the Department of Justice… the very agency which prosecuted him.
With lives destroyed, families torn apart, and futures dashed, prisoners sit waiting year after year for that miracle release to happen… they don’t. And as the so-called “war on drugs,” more particularly on pot, fades in state after state, Ray and thousands like him sit as so many casualties of its first battles.
Now 46 years old and in his ninth year of prison, Ray has been shuttled from prison to prison some seven times, from coast to coast, for his mid-level role with a dozen others in a California-based pot case. He himself was not around, let alone handled, more than a couple hundred pounds of the leafy green substance now grown and sold legally in three dozen states nationwide, including California… with many others anxious to follow.
“I didn’t get 151 months,” Ray says. “My family did.” Although he thinks about his wife and two young kids every day, they have since moved on to other towns and relationships, unable to wait any longer, as he wonders about what might have been. Rare is the prison family that survives intact, as spouses with kids, often broken or on their way to it, have to survive and survive typically without a parent no matter how much they are loved and missed.
Is it an accident? Ray thinks not. Parroting what thousands of other prisoners doing real time say, “they know what they are doing to our families. It’s what they want. It’s the ultimate punishment. It guarantees that poor, inner-city families and lives remain fractured while the rural ones profit nicely from costly nearby prisons that dot the countryside. Prisons need guards,” he says as his voice trails off.
With the echo of “count-time, count-time,” it’s 9:00 PM and with darkness soon to overtake the prison unit, Ray readies his small, portable reading light attached to the side of his icy steel bunk. Tonight it’s the Bible. He’s read it 6 or 7 times before. Tomorrow it will be the Koran or the Talmud… parts of which he now knows by heart. These holy books have given him faith in the most unholy of places. Hundreds of other books, mostly fictions, have helped him to escape reality, if only for a short while… taking him to a world of fantasy far from the illness and despair he has lived with every day for nine years.
As he turns the final few pages of John II and reaches over for his reading light, Ray fears for the future… a fear that never quite leaves his side. As he’s done a thousand times before, Ray wonders what he will do if and when he gets out.
He thinks to himself, “I have no skills. I can’t compete with young guys.” He’s terrified that he will die outside helpless and homeless.
To Ray, Apple is but a fruit. He’s never used an iPad, a laptop or an iPhone, Facebook, Google, E-Bay and Twitter are just things to him… little more than items he’s heard about on TV. “And all this for pot”, he muses.
He turns the light off and goes to bed.