Garlic, Tolstoy, Mike Tyson, and Prison Exits

The forward for my upcoming book: Any Day Now, Travels Through the Criminal Justice System. A narrative non-fiction, pretty much travelogue of the system as it really is. No camps with colorful characters ala Piper and Mr. Smith, just the real thing.

I was released from prison by court order. Immediate release. Immediate and prisons do not mix well. A universal fact of every prison I had passed through – they shut down, literally and metaphorically, when presented with anything out of the ordinary. A court order delivered at 2 pm was most certainly out of the ordinary.

So it came to pass that despite being a free man for over three hours, I stood in a holding area while a bewildered lieutenant tried to figure it out and the CO waiting to escort me off the premises read through my file like it was my prison league baseball card.

Done, finally, discharge paper in my left hand, brown mesh laundry bag filled with my journals and novel clutched in my right, my escort and I headed to a yard and the way out beyond the fence.

The last CO I ever spoke with was tall, almost consumptively thin, first generation Lebanese-American, and a true believer. In Christ and the Department of Corrections.

The moment we were out of earshot from the still shaking-his-head-in-wonder lieutenant, the CO asked, “So you were in Devens, huh?”

“Yeah,” I replied absently, somewhat understandably thinking of other matters.

“Lotta’ mob guys there?”

“Of course,” I muttered, couldn’t help but notice he had veered toward a van, “Ah, are we driving?”

“Have to, DOC rule, discharged inmates have to be driven off the premises.”

It’s a testimony to the four and one half years I had just endured that I didn’t point out that the parking lot we were going to was closer than the van by a few hundred yards.

 “So, about the mob guys,” he obviously was not going to be deterred, I knew exactly where he was going for the simple fact it’s where everyone who found out I had been in Federal prison went – still goes – but I made him work for it.

“What about them?”

“They live like the guys in Goodfellas?”

“You mean slicing the garlic with a razor?”

“Exactly,” pleased I made the connection.

I nodded, blurted out something about how they managed to hang out in the hospital, had their own TVs, ate well, slept on hospital beds instead of paper-thin mattresses over sheet metal, probably a lot more while I watched the double gates lurch open, stared up at the razor wire as we passed under.

We stopped fifty feet past the now closing gate, he turned to me, stared me in the eye, stuck a hand out, “Those mob guys,” he went on, oddly morose, “I mean, that’s not really the point of all this, is it?”

I shook his hand, left the van and the question unanswered.

‘That’s not the point of all this.’

I’ve thought about that on and off over the past few years, have tried in vain to figure out exactly what the point of it was and is. I have nothing. I try to think of what I learned. Some things, like it’s impossible to look ‘not guilty’ in a yellow jumpsuit, have no applicability in the real world. Others, like a few hundred ways to prepare Ramen Soup, actually do, would that I could even stomach looking at the things on the grocery self.

What I do have, in droves, are nightmares about prison. I don’t anticipate them going away anytime soon.hieronymus-bosch

These nightmares are not what you would expect – they sure as hell aren’t what I expected. No fights; psychos; evil guards; the hole; small, sad, brutal moments like instantly escalating conflicts over Jerry Springer v. Maury Povich; no cuffs, leg irons, or black boxes; overcrowded holding cells, back, hips, neck in agony; the stairwell ninja; any of a thousand, thousand little things that almost convinced me that Sartre was right, hell is other people.

My nightmares were – are – none of those things. Nor are they specific to any one prison, they inevitably take place in some composite of every prison and jail (yes, there is a difference) I was in with a little bit of my college’s campus tossed in for good measure. As I went to a Catholic school, I’m not planning on exploring the reasons for that any time soon.

The dreams: I’m in prison, somewhere, sometime, someplace fairly open where I already have a ton of commissary and writing supplies and books and, seemingly, the run of the place. As in doors magically open wherever I go; deference, if not outright obsequiousness from the COs. The inmates are respectful at worse, outright kind at best.

In other words, conditions I never came close to experiencing anywhere but would have killed for from August 28, 2005 through April 5, 2010. The thing is, though, in the dreams I have no idea, and no one can tell me, why I am in prison or when I’m being released. Usually, I can’t get to a phone, literally – like something out of Greek mythology I can see the phone banks, no matter how long or fast I walk they never get any closer. Sometimes, worse yet, I get to a phone, dial a number, the phone’s answered by the unidentifiable voice of the person I know can fix everything and we get cut off after ten seconds; I redial but can’t remember the last digit, try guessing, with each successive call I forget an additional number. By the end, if I haven’t woken myself up and headed for a few hours of late night TV, I only remember the area code.

97i/43/huty/9230/09If I stay asleep it escalates and frustration follows frustration until I explode in rage, scream that I know the law, threaten lawsuits and everything else in my legal and extralegal arsenal . . . to no effect.

Concern, some of it genuine, some of it patronizing, thin smiles from vague people, shallow nods, condescending ‘do what you have to do’s, but no one acts. Not surprising, it’s clear from the beginning that the only person who can do anything is on the other end of the phone line that always – always – clicks off ten seconds into the call. My only two options are to keep screaming or to just shut up. Usually, I shut up.

I never dream of the day I won my release.

Until I figure out the dreams, or figure out a way to change them, or figure out a way to get out of the dream prison without the phone call, or stop having them all together, I may not be the best person to dive into what ‘all this is about.’

This book is about what happened and what it was like. Everything else –102867977-GettyImages-453434162.530x298 conclusions about me, the criminal justice system, prisons, inmates, attorneys, judges, monolithic bureaucracies, crime, punishment, the United States, the World, I leave to the reader.

You’re in a better position than I to decide who’s right: Tolstoy or Mike Tyson.

Tolstoy: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Mike Tyson: “When I was in prison, I was wrapped up in all those deep books. That Tolstoy crap – people shouldn’t read that.”

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About Mr. Smith . . .

According to the somewhat archaic rules of non-fiction book proposals I’m supposed to mention competing books (well, books with the same general theme), note what makes Any Day Now different, and not comment about quality – just in case the proposal ends up in front of the editor who green-lighted the book I slam.

I’m not sure I get this part of the deal, presumably, like every other type of creative endeavor, a whole lot of crap sells and the editor/producer can embrace the cash while holding their nose on a pretty regular basis.

Anyway, I’m breaking this ‘suggested’ rule because this . . . competing  . . . title is just too contemptuous to ignore any longer. Plus, everybody I’ve (extensively) ranted to about it have carefully and compassionately pointed out that I need to bring this to the attention of a broader audience (i.e., not them).

So, it goes like this:

IMG_0694This the Amazon page for Jeff Smith’s book, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis. Smith was a politician, now teaches at The New School, was convicted for lying to federal officers about election malfeasance. The book is interspersed with the story of his political rise, tracks from his many readings/research on prison, and sprinkled with his surefire ideas on how to fix the thing (and probably get back into politics).

In short, pretty much nothing of what I plan to do, certainly not in tone, style, layout, or content. So why do I care?

Here’s the thing, though, that has me … flummoxed: I was up to 3:30 the morning this came out reading through as much as I could without ponying up the $13 they want for the Kindle version (it’s surprisingly a lot between free looks and his interviews). I couldn’t put it down, but not for good reasons.

Because the whole thing is off.

It starts with the blurbs and gets worse in the first 80 pages of the book – he served ‘hard time’, a year in a federal prison, he had to duck the attentions of the Aryan Brotherhood, was threatened by the KKK, had a front row seat to gang fights, racism, worked 40 hours a week in a hot, dusty warehouse for $5.35 a month, a whole lot more.

Problem is, this stuff happens, it just couldn’t have happened to him. He wasn’t in a federal prison, he was in a federal camp. He was never behind bars because there are no bars, in fact, there are no walls, no razor wire, just an honor system and a couple of COs.

There most certainly are no members – past or present – of the Aryan Brotherhood or KKK. Or recognized gangs for that matter. They are security risks and even with good behavior – in the case of the Aryan Brotherhood that would include the sudden ability to walk on water –  can’t go to a camp. Ever. Nor can inmates with ten years of more on their sentences and Smith introduces several of them when we finally get beyond his educational and political background and into the ‘prison’ around page 50.

$5.35 a month is the amount paid to inmates with no-show jobs like policing the compound. Everyone who actually works starts at $.30 to $.45 an hour and can work pretty quickly up to $1/hr. Stealing and smuggling stuff from the warehouse or kitchen because if you don’t the other inmates ‘will take care of you because they can’t trust you’ is not only a blatant lie, it’s right out of a bad movie.Inmates respect those who don’t take stuff and won’t jeopardize their good time, probably because it leaves much more for them.

It was pretty clear, pretty quickly, that Smith’s stories are from high, medium and administrative prisons, relayed to him by inmates who had been in them at one time or another. He adapted them for his use.

Look, this guy’s judge gave him a year and one day sentence. He was allowed to wrap up his affairs before surrendering, was dropped off at the ‘prison’ by his wife, released to a half-way house after a little over 8 months – so, hey, about that title. The first clue he wasn’t in prison should have been when his wife drove past the federal penitentiary. Another hint you’re not in a real prison is being allowed to drive a car.

Here is his corrected Amazon page:

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My outage – and it  is outrage – centers around lying about his ‘year behind bars doing hard time’ and passing off inmate stories as his own in order to draw conclusions about the system that support his theories.Theories he claims he had before his arrest.

Look, he wants to write a book, great; he needs to talk about his intellectual prowess on every page while disparaging that of most everyone around him, okay; thinking he has the answers because he was inconvenienced for eight months, not remotely okay.

This pretty much makes him the Brain Williams of prison correspondents.

Catching Up

Screen-Shot-2012-09-28-at-1.22.17-PM-300x222I haven’t written in a long while, I was off  putting together a package for a literary agent for a non-fiction narrative about prison. Since she wanted a couple of chapters I was forced to go beyond the chapter outline, snatches of excerpts, quick character sketch minimum and dive back into my journals – just to get the full flavor.

It worked for the chapters, it didn’t work for sleep.

The justice system was brought back in all its broken glory in my notes and in my dreams and in my nightmares. Each has a perfectly valid viewpoint. All this in time for me to tune into the ‘DeflateGate’ ridiculousness where I immediately read and/or heard the following: 1). Tom Brady is guilty because (a) he wouldn’t need an attorney if he wasn’t; (b) if he was really innocent his lawyer would work for free; 2). Tom Brady and Robert Kraft are now experiencing the same thing poor people experience everyday when dealing with the ‘justice system.’

I have refrained from commenting on ‘DeflateGate’ beyond a rather snarky tweet wondering how I missed it when Roger Goodall regained credibility (was there a ceremony? Plaque? Certificate?) After what I’ve been sorting out over the past month, I feel somewhat compelled to say something.

So, attorney, former inmate who successfully sued in Federal District Court for his release from a hell hole, what does the NFL’s handling of this mess say about the criminal justice system?

Not. A. Thing.

A billionaire supporting a multi-millionaire married to another multi-millionaire fighting with a multi-millionaire who represents a multi-billion dollar corporation that the first billionaire is a member off is by definition something that has no correlation to the criminal justice system whatsoever. The fact that the stakes are mostly prestige and who has the biggest dick instead of being shackled, cuffed, tossed into holes for any number of years only to be released and unable to find work and … just makes it more meaningless

The worse outcome for the Patriots is losing Brady for 4 games. There is no worse Captureoutcome for Brady, those who already adore him will continue to adore him; those who already hate him will hate him more – lots more – if he wins, then finds a cure for cancer, and feeds everyone in Gillette Stadium by multiplying the nachos and hotdogs at halftime.

However, the way the rest of the universe, mostly composed of non multi-millionaires/billionaires is commenting on it says a real lot about WHY we have the system we have. No long explanation here: ignorance.

There’s no other way to explain nos. 1 and 2 above, to start. First, anyone, never mind a very well paid African-American ‘journalist’ who is forever outing the racist policies of the teams he covers (in a city that deserves him) who thinks only guilty people have lawyers is just … beyond … well … nah, no need to finish, he’s headed like a train that’s lost its brakes toward a defamation suit, or worse, any day now. I can only hope he really thinks the truth will set him free, wanders into court alone and we never, ever here from the ignorant, odious prick again.

I hope it’s pretty needless to say the African-American writer who wrote that Bob Kraft and Tom Brady now know how poor people feel in the justice system has no idea what the hell he is talking about for the simple reason not a single one of the poor people he’s referencing have ever seen a $2,500 an hour lawyer in their lives, never mind had one represent them.

As a matter of fact, I’m willing to bet that pretty much every single poor person in the United States currently being held pending trial would trade a 4 week suspension and a few headlines with whatever they’re facing armed only with an overworked public defender.

Then there are idiots like the rabid white sports guy on Sirius who foams and wow-nerd-south-park-580rants about Brady’s guilt without, admittedly, ever having read a single page of any report. What’s reported by others, especially the NFL is good enough for him. A complete and total lack of intellectual curiosity is one thing, pairing it with blind belief in an organization that denied the effects of head injuries for decades is just plain terrifying. The only possible excuse is that he was one of those men the NFL said was fine after 40 or 50 concussions. But, alas, he is not, he never played a team sport in his life.

Scariest of all – for the future of this country, no less – are the regular people who tweet, blog, post, call talk radio and go off in apoplectic rages at Brady’s ‘refusal’ to hand over his phone for the investigation.

They speak and write as if this is some bona-fide investigation run by an authority that must be obeyed. It’s also more than a little scary that they don’t seem to know that everything anyone texts, or snaps, or calls, lives on. And on. Replace, burn, destroy, do whatever you will, the phone dies but its spirit lives.

It’s scarier still that they think the NFL has the right to compel anyone to hand over anything without a court order. If they think the NFL has that right, what the hell rights do they ascribe to the governmental agencies that can really do damage? Do they think they have any rights to resist?

Look, I don’t know what Brady did or did not do. I played rugby into my 30s and soccer into my, ah, er, longer, and I know for a fact unless the balls were blimps or limp folds of pig skin it made no difference whatsoever in a 45-7 waxing.

I do know that blind acceptance of a Welles report that was edited by the NFL and thereby no longer independent; being adjudicated a cheater, appealing, then having the same guy hear the appeal; dismissing ‘all that science stuff’ are symptoms of much greater import than a four game suspension for a guy who would still be going to the Hall of Fame if he started a baby chick stomping league after retirement.

It means a great deal of the people caterwauling about this 24/7 are only interested in judgement, not in a fair process. And that’s a problem, a very large, societal problem that bodes ill for serious judicial reform. Because it should be the other way around.

Unless, of course, hatred of all things Patriots has temporarily blinded these people and as soon as the Pats revert back to their comedic ineptitude of the early 80s, they’re okay with such minor matters as due process.

A Prologue from Pre-Trail Detention

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        The ‘Backstairs Justice System’

My client pushed back on a protesting plastic chair until he leaned against a cinderblock wall the color of watered-down pea soup. He waved at the table in an ‘it’s all there’ motion, folded his arms and waited.
I flipped open a tattered, coffee stained file folder, it contained a creased, equally stained police report. Damn thing took an eternity for us to get and it looked like they dug it out of a Starbucks garbage bin.
“I going to find anything different from what you’ve been telling me?” I asked.
“What do you think?”
“That a no?” I smiled to remove the sting of my professional skepticism. He had been talking to me about his case for at least two months – to the point where I had his version memorized. I believed him, but then, I had believed a lot of things that had been somewhat outside the strike zone truth wise.
“Yeah,” He confirmed. He was Terry Jones. Black, 6’2”, 260 on a light day, cut in ways that were simply not possible two decades ago when I was his age and steroid technology was in its infancy. He was also smart as hell and loathe to show it.
“Okay, then,” I opened the report, flinched at some unidentifiable musty smell, and began scanning for key words. Found them.
That did not go unnoticed, “Find something?” Terry asked with only a slight ‘told you so’ edge.
“I did.”
“Great.”
I moved the report with a well-gnawed fingernail, “According to this, you’re walking down – “
“Up, Counselor,” he corrected.
“Up Atlantic Street, two am on a Saturday morning.”
“They got that right,” he seemed impressed.
“And here I thought downtown Stamford closed at midnight – at the latest.”
“Check cashing place and Chinese restaurant stay open,” he studied the molting gray tiles above us.
“You were getting cash for moo goo gai pan,” it was not a question, it was the beginning of a legal theory.
“Love that shit.”
“Many street lights up that way?”
“None that work.”
“So it’s pretty dark?”
“No, it’s very dark.”
“And the cop?”
“Cop car slams on its brakes four feet from me, cop jumps out, screams what the fuck I’m doin’ . . .”
I looked down at the report, turned the page while making a mental note to really wash my hands later, “Don’t stop now.”
“I don’t say nothing, he grabs me, pins me up against the wall – “
“Searches you.”
“Punches me,” he snapped, “then goes through my pockets and finds a bag.”
“Of heroin.”
“A small bag,”
“Right,” I turned the page, read down the arresting officer’s report, stopped, reread, then again, “all there, just like you say -”
“But?” Terry asked, concerned.
“But, cop says he had probable cause, big time.”
“What was it?” Terry, with professional curiosity.
“Seems he saw you walking … up … Atlantic with a gun in your hand.”
“What the fuck?”
“You saw him coming, tossed it in an empty lot.”
“That’s a fu – “
“Relax, Terry,” I said lowly. And he did. Not the usual client in that respect, “listen, what color was this cop?”
“What?”
“What race was he?
“Whiter than you, man.”
“I’m as white as it gets, Terry,” I admitted in complete frankness.
“Nah – you got all those freckle things, the cop, he was like glow in the dark white.”
“Okay, so – “
“Those things are freaky, you know,” he grinned viciously.
“What things?”
“Things you’re covered with, freckles, man …”
“No, they’re – “
“Never see bro’s with ‘em.”
“Dennis Johnson, asshole,” I snapped.
“Who?”
“Celtic guard, hall of famer? Black – “
“Of course.”
“And freckled.”
“Really?”
“Really … how ‘bout we get back to you – glow in dark white cop sees black guy walking at two in the morning with a gun in his hand and walks over and requests that he stand against the wall.”
“He wrote that shit up,” he marveled, rolled his eyes, began playing with the zipper of his canary yellow jumpsuit.
“Sure did.”
“That’s jus’ … I don’t know, it’s …” for a black guy who had been arrested a half dozen times before his thirtieth birthday and had seen it all he was the picture of nonplussed.
“Fucking ridiculous,” I finished for him, “… if you had a gun he would have either emptied his Beretta into you or called the SWAT team.”
“It’s Stamford. Counselor, he wouldda’ done both.”
“And here you are alive and well to tell the tale,” I pointed out.
“What about the gun? They got some bullshit evidence of that?”
I paged through the statement careful to touch only its corners – it really did stink in a purely non-metaphorical sense. Terry thumped down off the wall, plastic squealed across the linoleum.
“It’s – “
“Not there,” he finished for me.
“Nope, disappeared from the lot while he was arresting you.”
He sighed, “What. The. Fuck.”
“An extensive search of the empty lot found nothing, they figure someone – or something – wandered off with it.”
“Bullshit.”
“Regrettably, they didn’t have the manpower or equipment to search the lot at night.”
“Bullshit,” he again stated the obvious.
“Yup,” I confirmed, “but – “
“How we gonna handle this?” He asked, the way only someone fucked over by the system since puberty could ask an attorney unsurprised by said fucking over.
“I have to think but – “
That was truncated and obliterated by the 1950’s vintage loud speaker high over Terry’s shoulder:
‘WRAP IT UP, GENTLEMEN. RECALL. RECALL. RECALL’
“Later, Counselor,” Terry stood, headed out the door.
“Yeah, talk to you …” I grabbed the file, pushed back my Ocean State Odd Lot plastic chair with ear piercing results, stood, got to the door, zipped up my canary yellow jumpsuit – the things were a bitch to walk in otherwise – and headed into the cellblock and my cell, ten down from my client.

The Box

Someone, somewhere, sometime last week asked me to explain ‘plea bargaining’. My first attempt was fairly pathetic and I was about to bag it with a ‘I can’t talk about it’ sigh of self pity when the perfect image hit me – the box. Then the whole thing fell into place and it goes like this:

When you are held in pre-trial detention, in the absence of bail and most forms of common decency – the ‘back stairs justice system’ I oft times talk of – plea negotiations are surreal. Cut off from family, friends, potential witnesses and access to files and, well, evidence, it’s pretty much like playing poker without being allowed to look at your cards.

My plea ‘negotiations’ began with “Okay, hey, they may convene a Grand Jury and try to get an indictment, but if you get ahead of it, save them the time and trouble and waive indictment, they’ll offer anywhere between 20 and 34 months.”

“What are the odds in the grand jury? Really? Well, if they can indict a ham sandwich…”

“If you don’t waive [the almost sure] indictment and you make them move forward, the offer starts at 42 months.”

“If you take it all the way to trial, by the eve of trial the offer’s 72 months . . . lose the trial and they start at 120.”

“So, whattaya think?”

maxresdefault (1)That’s the pitch and a pretty good reason 97% of all federal cases end in plea bargains. My journals and notes are filled with graphs, charts, flow charts, tables trying to figure it all out while adding in ‘good time’, half-way house/early release, the works. I spent just over three months screwing with the many, many, many permutations.

The whole time I assumed, of course, that the ‘other side’ was doing the same, really putting in the hours to achieve a ‘just’ solution. Continue reading

Adventures in Writing #342, The Underwear Bandit

A metal table, headphones on listening to the Red Sox, flying through an early chapter of The Ceremony of Innocence, I was oblivious to my surroundings. For a solid ten minutes before two bags of potato chips, a box of Slim Jim’s, and a bag of Tang landed on the edges of my college ruled notebook.

I looked up at a guy named John – white, short, black hair, always sporting a half grin, “I need ya,’ Counselor,” he rasped – he always rasped, the residue(s) of years of cigarettes and pot and crack and …

The_Underpant_BanditsPen down, I surveyed the riches before me – in six months of pre-trial detention (Connecticut’s term of art for keeping men convicted of no crime in 22 1/2 hour a day lockdown) I had lost 40 pounds on the ‘regular’ DOC diet. This stash was impressive, the question was how much time was it going to cost.

“I wanna sue the Waterbury newspaper,” he said, sat down next to me, pushed my papers away and tossed down a copy of the Waterbury Republican American, “they slandered me.”

“They defamed you,”  I corrected automatically.

“Yeah, that too.”

I sighed, eyed the salt and vinegar chips and put on a smile, “How?”

He pointed to a headline just beneath the fold on the front page: Continue reading