Guarding Sing Sing
“Take your shirt off, please. Show me your hands, both sides. Now arms away from your body. Turn around.”
“O.K.” We nod that we’re finished and move on to the next cell. The inmate there has heard us coming and wants to know why.
“Just do it, please.”
“And what if I don’t?”
“The sergeant will come, and they’ll write you up.” The man sighs, shrugs, pulls his T-shirt over his head, does the dance.
The cellblock is locked down, and we’re looking for knife cuts. The Latin Kings have been attacking the Bloods, and vice versa. Not en masse–just stealth encounters, stabbings without warning. One incident provokes the next. The lockdowns are in their third day, but each time we let the inmates out, another one of them gets attacked.
The sergeant wouldn’t say why we were conducting upper-body frisks, but it doesn’t take a genius: the white shirts (prison slang for the senior officers) think that at least one participant in the latest cutting exchange, though wounded, avoided detection. So we’re looking for blood, skin that needs stitching, a gash from a homemade blade.
In the next cell, the inmate is lying on his bunk.
“R-63, take off your shirt, please.”
He sits up, bleary-eyed, then stands, removes the shirt. Like many inmates, he’s in excellent shape from weight-lifting. And, like many inmates, he has scars: three inches long on his waist below the ribs, about one inch long on his arm, penny-size circles that look like two bullet wounds on a shoulder blade.
“Nothing fresh,” says the officer I’m with, more to himself than in dismissal. He’s an old-timer who doubts we’ll find anything and acts like he’s seen it all before. I’m not so world-weary. The huge quantity of scars surprises me. Half the inmates in Sing Sing seem to have been stabbed or shot at some point in their lives. Often the scars are on the face: a pale thick line across the back of the skull where no hair grows, a sliced nostril imperfectly healed, a gash along a cheek which ended when the blade passed through a lip. The most ghastly wound is on a man who looks about nineteen: a ragged cicatrix that winds from one corner of his mouth to beneath his left ear, then all the way around his head, under the right ear, and back to the other corner of the mouth, as though the assailant intended to peel off the top. A sadist’s trophy.
We continue down the line, looking at gash after gash, but nothing fresh.
The Sing Sing Correctional Facility sprawls across fifty-five acres of the east bank of the Hudson River, some thirty miles north of New York City. Convicted criminals used to travel from the city to Sing Sing by boat “up the river” to “the big house,” which is how both phrases entered the language. The prison’s name was borrowed from the Sint Sinck Indians, who once inhabited the site. It may have meant “stone upon stone,” which describes the rocky slope that the prison is built upon. When I arrived for work each morning, around six-fifteen, I parked in a flat area between the river and the Metro-North tracks, hard up against the prison wall. Just over the wall is the abandoned stone shell of the original cellblock, which was built in 1826. The former death house, in which six hundred and fourteen inmates, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were electrocuted between 1891 and 1963, is down there, too. It has been converted into a vocational building with print, drafting, woodworking, and welding shops. Old Sparky, the electric chair, was sent to a museum in Virginia, and death row has become an inmate-orientation room. There are no plaques or commemorative signs. The only links to the past are the memories of guards like the man who once showed me where the chair had been, and the switch, and the so-called Dance Hall–I thought I recognized it from a James Cagney movie–that condemned inmates passed through on their last walk.
I parked next to my friend Aragon, who always put the Club on his steering wheel. This puzzled me, since, with a heavily armed wall tower just a few yards away, this has to be one of the safest places to leave your car in Westchester County. But Aragon was a little lock-crazy: he had screwed a tiny hasp onto his plastic lunchbox and hung a combination lock from it, because, he said, of the sodas he’d lost to pilfering officers.
Most correction officers park in lots up the hill, near the Administration Building, but it’s almost impossible for a new officer to get a locker there, so I used the men’s locker room in the former heating plant next to the railroad tracks, where only about twenty of the two hundred lockers are in use; the rest have locks on them belonging to officers who quit or transferred or died or who knows what. Nobody keeps track. An old wall phone hangs upside down by its wires on the left as you enter, the receiver dangling by a curly cord. During my second month on the job, I found one lock that was so flimsy I could almost twist it off with my hands. Inside the locker were plastic cups, photographs of women in bikinis torn out of magazines, newspapers from 1983.
Around six-thirty, fifteen minutes till lineup, I would put on my gray polyester uniform and make sure I’d got all the things I needed on my belt: radio holder, latex-glove packet, two key-ring clips, baton ring. I put a pen and a pad, an inmate rule book, and a blue union diary in my breast pocket, slid my baton through the ring, locked the padlock, and slammed the locker door. Then I walked past a pile of old office desks and, usually, went into the men’s room, which smells like an outhouse. Every morning my stomach let me know, just before the shift started, what it thought of this job.
The desk of Sergeant Ed Holmes is the focal point of the lineup room. It’s on a raised platform, in front of a window in the Administration Building. From up there, Holmes can see everybody who’s in the room and most of those who are ascending the front steps. His eyes move constantly, never settling on any person or object for more than an instant, going from the officers to the printout in front of him and back again. The printout tells him what jobs he’ll need to fill–who’s on his day off, who’s got vacation, who’s out sick, who’s on suspension. He checks off old-timers as he sees them–they’ve reserved their posts and know where they’re going. It’s the new guys, rookie officers like me–we were called “new jacks” by the inmates–who are at his mercy.
Holmes is one of the tough black officers who have been at Sing Sing forever, a big man who seems to enjoy his distance from the rank and file. “Don’t fuck with me,” he said during orientation, my first week on the job. “I’m gonna give you your job assignment, and if you complain I’ll give you a worse one tomorrow. I’m not nice. Don’t fuck with me.”
A stint at Sing Sing, with its decaying plant and reputation for chaos, is a sort of rite of passage for New York State correction officers. “Everybody’s got to do their time at the bottom of the barrel” was how a union representative had put it to my class at the correction academy in Albany. We had trained for seven weeks, and then were sent directly into battle, so to speak. “Three months at Sing Sing is like three years anywhere else,” the union rep had said.
Usually, I was sent to A-block or B-block, massive human warehouses that are among the largest prison housing units in the world, with more than a thousand inmates between them. I lived for the exceptions: the easy day in the wall tower, barbershop, or hospital; or an escort job. Escort officers get to leave the cellblock for chunks of the day, taking groups of inmates to the mess hall and other parts of the prison. The officers who run the floors where inmates live–the galleries–have to stay there for the whole shift. Galleries are understaffed, and the officers on them, surrounded by inmates all day, are run ragged. It’s where new officers get sent.
B-block feels like the remotest part of Sing Sing. There are a couple of ways to get there; both involve a lot of stairs. In the morning, we would march along slowly, sipping coffee from paper cups in one hand, hanging onto lunch bags with the other. The corridors and stairways are old, often in disrepair, and are neither heated nor air-conditioned. When it rained, we skirted puddles created by leaks in the tile roofs. The corridors snake around, joining the various buildings, and at the beginning and end of each of them–sometimes even in the middle–there is a locked gate. Most of the officers posted to these gates have big thick keys, but at one gate the guard pushes buttons instead, as they do in modern prisons. By the time we passed through the heavy front door of B-block, there were ten locked gates between us and freedom.
A-block and B-block are the most impressive buildings in Sing Sing. One wonders how a democratic society could commission such horrific structures, and how a debased enough architect could be found to draw up a plan. They are stupefyingly vast, and you come upon them with no preamble. There is no wide staircase or arched entryway leading to them, just the corridor and then a pair of solid metal doors, neither of them much bigger than the front door of the average house. A-block, which is probably the largest freestanding cellblock in the world, is five hundred and eighty-eight feet long, twelve feet shy of two football fields. There are some six hundred and eighty inmates in there, more than the entire population of many prisons. You can hear them–an overwhelming cacophony of radios, of heavy gates slamming, of shouts and whistles and running footsteps–but, oddly at first, you can’t see a single incarcerated soul. All you see is the bars that form the narrow fronts of the cells, extending four stories up and so far into the distance on the left and right that they melt into an illusion of solidity. Then, as you walk down the gallery, eighty-eight cells long, the human dimensions of the place become clear. There might be a half-dozen small mirrors thrust through the bars, and the arms holding them retract as you draw even. Some of the inmates make eye contact and glare, others doze, some sit bored on the toilet.
Both A-block and B-block were completed in 1929, and they’re practically identical, except that B-block is twenty cells shorter (sixty-eight), and one story taller (five). The design is typical of American prisons: tiny cells back-to-back on tiers, with stairways on either end and in the center. Each cellblock consists of two practically separate components. One is the all-metal interior, containing the tiers of cells; it’s painted gray, and looks as though it could have been welded in a shipyard. The other element is a huge brick-and-concrete shell that fits over the tiers like a dish over a stick of butter. One does not touch the other. A series of tall, barred windows runs down either side of the shell; they would let in twice as much light if they were washed. As it is, they let pass a diffuse, smog-colored glow, which crosses about fifteen feet of open space on each side before it reaches the metal, which it does not warm. The flat, leaky roof of the shell is maybe ten feet from the top of the metal cellblock. If the whole structure were radically shrunk, the uninitiated might perceive a vaguely agricultural purpose: the cages could be thought to contain chickens, or mink. The cellblocks are loud because they are hard. There is nothing in them to absorb sound, except the inmates’ thin mattresses and perhaps their own bodies. Every other surface is metal or concrete or brick.
Since the demise of apartheid in South Africa, the former No. 1 jailer, the United States has run neck-and-neck with Russia in the race to become the world leader in rates of imprisonment. We lock up six times as many citizens per capita as England, seventeen times as many as Japan. Prisons and jails in the United States now hold nearly two million people, meaning that one out of every hundred and forty residents is behind bars. In the nineties, while Wall Street was booming, a third of the black men in this country between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine were either incarcerated or on probation or parole.
New York’s seventy prisons are scattered across the state. Among them are maximum-security prisons–including Sing Sing, Attica (in western New York, near Buffalo), Auburn (mid-state), and Clinton (in the northern Adirondacks, near Canada)–and a variety of medium-security, minimum-security, and work-release facilities. (State prisons hold people who are incarcerated for a year or more. Inmates awaiting trial or serving shorter terms stay in local jails, such as the giant Rikers Island complex in New York City, near LaGuardia Airport. Federal prisons generally house criminals convicted of federal crimes–often drug dealers.)
Fifty-two of these prisons were built in the last twenty-seven years, a period in which the number of inmates has increased nearly sixfold, from twelve thousand five hundred to more than seventy thousand, owing in large part to mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses. The majority of the inmates are young men of color from New York City. Because the state government is based in Albany, however, and the state senate is dominated by politicians from rural precincts, nearly all the prison construction has been outside the city, where job-hungry communities clamor for it. A state salary goes far in small-town New York. After correction officers have been on the job for eight years, they make nearly forty thousand dollars annually and enjoy numerous job benefits. Most of these officers, like most of the people in upstate New York, are white.
Both inmates and younger officers tend to be on the move. Inmates are often shifted, with little notice, between facilities. Officer recruits spend seven weeks at the training academy in Albany, as I did, and then may spend several years trying to get posted closer to home. Their first assignment is generally Sing Sing, which always needs staff, because most correction officers can’t afford to live in Westchester County and because of Sing Sing’s reputation for being run-down and disorganized. (Since it is so close to New York City, it is unusual among state prisons in having a predominantly nonwhite permanent staff.) The more desirable prisons have seniority-based waiting lists of up to several years.
Sing Sing’s enormous complex includes, along with the ruins of the 1826 cellblock, prefabricated Family Reunion Program trailers and a Quality of Working Life conference building constructed in the nineteen-eighties. The architectural hodgepodge is a sort of palimpsest of conflicting philosophies of how to deal with the criminal class. Americans began experimenting with incarceration as a humane alternative to corporal punishment in the late seventeenth century. The leaders of the movement to rethink the prison were Pennsylvania Quakers. Their goals were preventing further harm to society, deterrence, and, by the early nineteenth century, “penitent reflection” intended to lead to personal reformation. This was the beginning of an American innovation, the penitentiary. Philadelphia’s Walnut Street jail and later, in 1829, the massive Eastern State Penitentiary were designed as places for prisoners to spend the day entirely alone, with only daytime work projects in their cells, and a Bible, for company. The arrangement came to be known as the “separate system,” and it attracted much attention, both abroad and at home.
The first warden of Sing Sing was a cruel but innovative disciplinarian named Elam Lynds. A former Army captain, Lynds had been the warden (or “agent,” in the usage of the time) at the state prison at Auburn, where he had experimented with an extreme version of the separate system: he subtracted work and daily recreation from the Pennsylvania arrangement. Of the eighty-three inmates subjected to this treatment, several went mad or committed suicide; most of the others were pardoned when the experiment was abandoned. Lynds modified his plan to allow inmates to labor together, silently, in prison shops during the day. Since this “congregate system,” as it came to be known, appeared to be a success, with the labor producing more money for the public coffers than Pennsylvania’s, Lynds was asked to oversee the construction and development of a new prison. A handpicked crew of inmates and “keepers” travelled with him from Auburn via the Erie Canal and then by freight steamer down the Hudson to the village of Sing Sing, where they began quarrying stone for what was to be named, ironically, Mt. Pleasant State Prison.
Mt. Pleasant was the first stop made by Alexis de Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont when they came to America in 1831. The sight of nine hundred convicts hard at work, unrestrained by walls or chains, impressed them. Lynds’s achievement was one that I think would dazzle most correction officers and wardens today. The building of Sing Sing offered a spectacle of total control. And yet, by the time Tocqueville and Beaumont wrote their final report, they had their doubts:
One cannot see the prison of Sing-Sing and the system of labour which is there established without being struck by astonishment and fear. Although the discipline is perfect, one feels that it rests on fragile foundations: it is due to a tour de force which is reborn unceasingly and which has to be reproduced each day, under penalty of compromising the whole system of discipline. The safety of the keepers is constantly menaced. In the presence of such dangers, avoided with such skill but with difficulty, it seems to us impossible not to fear some sort of catastrophe in the future.
In the early years at Sing Sing, Lynds was given more or less carte blanche to punish as he saw fit. Whippings were administered, once the cellblock was occupied, in an area of the ground floor called the Flogging Post. Two iron rings had been fastened to the wall with staples; hanging nearby were a number of cat-o’-nine-tails and, according to one inmate account, sometimes a gag. Inmates were stripped, their hands were tied to the rings, and the keepers they had offended administered blows to their backs. This sort of thing disturbed the members of a legislative committee that was convened to examine the system’s harsher aspects, and Lynds was fired as warden in 1844. Four years later, use of the cat-o’-nine-tails was abolished, although the prison continued to operate much as it had before. Corporal punishment in general was not renounced.
“Prisoners are treated now like wild animals and are kept in cages,” Thomas Mott Osborne, a Harvard-educated politician from Auburn, declared in a lecture in 1905. “The system brutalizes the men and the keepers.” Hoping to revive the idea of prison as a place where prisoners could be rehabilitated, Osborne got himself named chairman of a new state commission on prison reform, succeeded in having an ally appointed warden of Auburn, and then had a brainstorm: he entered the prison for a week as an “inmate” himself, and used the experience and publicity to further his campaign for reform.
Osborne, who became warden of Sing Sing late in 1914, was one of the great modern penal reformers. The centerpiece of his program was the idea that inmates had to be given responsibility if they were to be properly prepared for life as free citizens. He instituted the Mutual Welfare League, a system of inmate self-government, but this provoked charges of “coddling.” Plots were hatched to discredit him; he was accused of, among other things, having committed sodomy with a prisoner. The charges were dropped, but Osborne resigned less than two years after he became warden.
Osborne’s ideas lived on to some degree through his famous successor, Lewis Lawes, a former guard from Elmira. Though Lawes believed that prison administration was by its very nature despotic, he favored an enlightened despotism. He also believed that crime begins in the slums and that prison itself can’t cure it. He opposed the death penalty that he had to administer. And, like Osborne, Lawes believed in increasing public awareness of prison conditions. The great crime wave of the nineteen-twenties and -thirties, the gangster era, had brought prisons to the attention of Hollywood, and Lawes allowed Warner Bros. inside Sing Sing to film “Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938), starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart; “Each Dawn I Die” (1939), with Cagney and George Raft; “Castle on the Hudson” (1940), with John Garfield and Ann Sheridan, and other movies, including two based on books by Lawes, “Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing” and “Invisible Stripes.” A recurrent figure in the films and in Lawes’s books is a firm but compassionate warden.
The job of warden at Sing Sing was a political appointment until the nineteen-fifties, when it became a civil-service post. The fifties and sixties brought the “professionalization” of corrections–the idea that prison was something a working person might make a “career” of. This meant better pay and training and a higher standard of on-the-job conduct for guards, but the advent of bureaucratic administration seemed to guarantee that the visionary policies of Thomas Mott Osborne and the humane paternalism of Lewis Lawes were things of the past.
With the mothballing of the electric chair in 1963, Sing Sing became more and more of a corrections backwater. There were no funds forthcoming for the modern industrial-education shops that other maximum-security prisons enjoyed, no room for a prison farm, such as the one inmates ran at Green Haven. Officer turnover increased, and discipline suffered. In 1982, four guards and a sergeant were indicted on corruption charges, including being paid to smuggle marijuana and cocaine into the prison. The following year, prisoners took over B-block and held seventeen guards hostage for two days. According to a state report on the incident, Sing Sing was by then “to most of the outside world . . . a relic from musty books and old movies, which many people were surprised to learn was still in use after 157 years.” In 1988, page 1 of the New York Daily News carried a mortifying headline: “sing sing sexcapades.” The story that followed referred to “a clique of rogue correction officers” and “trysts between male inmates and female guards.” It reported that random urine tests had shown that twenty-one per cent of the inmates in Sing Sing were on drugs, compared with a statewide prison average of six per cent.
Correction officers don’t like being referred to as “prison guards,” with all the negative connotations that the phrase has come to have, but that is what most newspapers–and everyone else–call them. Before I went to the training academy, I spoke with a steward of the correction officers’ union, Rick Kingsley, who works at the Washington Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Comstock, New York. He’d been a dairy farmer for years, he said, before switching to corrections. His brother, who had been a car salesman, had become a C.O., too. Kingsley was divorced, with a son he was putting through college, because, as he put it, “officer after officer will tell you: there’s no way in hell you’d want your kid to be a C.O.” He said that probably ninety per cent of the officers he knew would tell a stranger they met on vacation that they worked at something else–carpentry, he liked to say for himself–because the job carried such a stigma. Sure, it had its advantages, like the salary, the benefits, the job security, and, with seniority, the schedule: starting work at dawn, he had afternoons free to work on his land and rebuild his log cabin. (The previous one had burned down.) But mainly, he said, prison work was about waiting. The inmates waited for their sentences to run out, and the officers waited for retirement. It was “a life sentence in eight-hour shifts.”
Being a guard has never been a great job, but in more hopeful times there was more to recommend it. For a while, the system seemed to encourage the idea that correction officers had a role to play in correction. Guards, for example, used to teach inmate classes. One day, a deputy superintendent gave me permission to look through two manila folders he kept of old newspaper clippings and prison memorabilia. In one of them I saw a “Help Wanted” poster published by the state in the fifties to attract applicants for jobs as guards. It listed the usual supervision and custodial work among a guard’s duties, but there was also a line about helping to counsel and reform the prisoner. Nothing like that was ever suggested to me when I was being trained. I think the department is smart enough to know that today’s C.O.s would only laugh.
At the academy, an officer’s duties are defined as “care, custody, and control.” Rehabilitation is somebody else’s business. Or, more correctly, nobody’s. Federal grants to inmates for post-secondary education were banned in 1995, and other programs at Sing Sing have been pared so drastically that “there isn’t much left to cut,” a prison administrator said. In practical terms, this leaves inmates with nothing much to do all day, and guards with no mission except to enforce the rules, which increasingly politicized prisoners reject as arbitrary creations of their oppressors. Many African-American inmates, for instance, from the crummiest drug dealer on up, think of themselves as prisoners of war. This undercuts an officer’s authority, and, when it is combined with a compromised ability to use force as an instrument of fear, causes incertitude.
I was intrigued by a Latino officer I’d seen in the lineup room. Like the rest of us, he kept his little yellow “Standards of Inmate Behavior” booklet in his breast pocket, but, unlike us, he had written “Fuck No” in block letters along the top edge of it–the part of the booklet that peeked out of his pocket. It was his personal message to inmates, and, actually, a pretty good summary of the booklet itself. It made me think he was probably a good officer, funny but tough, an enforcer of the rules. Then a friend of mine spent a week working with that officer and told me how every morning an inmate would fix him his coffee, passing the mug out through the bars of his cell. There was no rule against it, but what favors was the officer passing back in the inmate’s direction? How could you ever trust an inmate enough to drink his coffee?
The fuzziness about rules was a strange counterpoint to the solidness of Sing Sing’s walls, the seeming immutability of the prison. I thought about this as I walked through the tunnels and corridors. Eyes on the floor, I’d watch the yellow traffic lines painted down the middle of most hallways to keep opposing traffic on its proper side. There were broad perpendicular lines at gates, where inmates were supposed to stop and wait for permission to proceed. Of course, they hardly ever did.
Often I wouldn’t know if I was to be an escort or a gallery officer until I made it to B-block and told Hattie (Mama) Cradle my job number. She was the O.I.C., or officer in charge–a fifty-something woman five feet tall and just about as big around whose horn-rimmed reading spectacles hung on a chain from her thick neck. She would check her clipboard and tell us where we were posted. “Conover, 254,” I would say, and she would check the spelling on the tag on my shirt and say something like “R and W,” meaning that I was assigned to galleries R and W, which were parallel to one another on the second floor.
Gallery officers are like cops on a beat, the guys on the front lines. The gallery officer on R and W is responsible for overseeing around a hundred and fifteen inmates. Sometimes an escort officer is there to help you, sometimes not. At its worst moments–say, if the inmates from both galleries were sent back from the mess hall at the same time–it would be just them (violent criminals all, about a third with murder convictions) and me.
Inmates are out of their cells for much of the day. Prisons are already insanely expensive to run, and if a guard were required to escort every inmate individually from his cell to a classroom or the gym or the yard, they would cost many, many times as much. So inmates are moved en masse, all day long. They go to meals in the mess hall. They go in large escorted groups to the school or the hospital buildings. They go without any escort at all to the yard and the gym. But before they can make these trips they have to be released from their cells, and when they return they have to be cajoled back in. Controlling inmates during these moments of minor liberty, and returning them to their cells when the liberty is over, is the main job of the gallery officer.
Inmates love to test new officers, partly to measure their own strength. C.O.s want compliance, and inmates want to defy. The balance of power is reset every day. And then there is the entertainment value of officers. “To an inmate in his cell, you’re like TV,” one of my instructors at the academy had remarked. On my first days on a gallery, porters (trusties–inmates assigned to sweep and mop) would try to convince me that they were allowed to be out of their cells when they weren’t supposed to be, or that they were entitled to receive a shower. I would find prisoners who belonged on other floors talking to inmates on mine, and they would tell me that their gallery officer had given them permission to be on my floor, which was extremely unlikely, and in any event irrelevant. Inmates would heckle me (“You gay, right, C.O.? That’s why you lookin’ in on a man while he’s getting dressed?”) and call me names (“Hey, Barney! Barney Fife! Hey, Don Knotts!”).
It would have been easy to be physically intimidated by the inmates, but early on I realized you just had to put the possibility of violence out of your mind. If they were going to hit you, they were going to hit you. “Hey, C.O.!” an inmate called to me from behind, on my first day on R and W. When I turned to face him, a short, bulky man at his side went through nine-tenths of the motion of landing an uppercut on my chin. He stopped maybe an inch away. I jumped backward, and the two of them laughed uproariously and strolled off down the gallery to the gym.
The encounter left me dumbfounded, with my pulse racing. What should I have done? Pulled out my baton and whacked him? Punched him? That would be an easier call for a larger C.O.; I wasn’t too eager to start a fight that, at a hundred and fifty pounds, I was likely to lose.
The alternative, in a situation like this, is to write an Inmate Misbehavior Report, or “ticket.” In this case, I thought the infraction would be 102.10, “Threats to an Officer.” An inmate receiving a ticket was “keeplocked,” or confined to his cell twenty-three hours a day, pending disposition of the charges by the prison’s disciplinary committee; if the ticket was upheld, he could be further confined, anywhere from a few days to several months, or even be sent to disciplinary segregation–solitary confinement–in the Special Housing Unit, or shu, pronounced “shoe” but referred to simply as “the Box.”
But you didn’t want to write a wimpy ticket. I hadn’t been hurt, and officers were idly threatened all day long. If you wrote a lot of tickets for piddly shit, it was like crying wolf to the members of the disciplinary committee, who were inundated with tickets, and they wouldn’t be there for you when you really needed them. So I didn’t do anything.
As recently as twenty years ago, old-time officers told me, it would be exceptional to find more than ten B-block inmates on keeplock at any one time, out of the six hundred and thirty-five in the block. Nowadays the number is nearer a hundred, and the Box is always full–of the very worst keeplocks, generally those who have actually attacked officers. Since keeplocks are always on the gallery, they are the inmates an officer comes to know best. When all the other inmates have gone to the gym or the library or the yard, you talk to the keeplocks. You also get to know them because they require the most attention: three times a week, they must be individually escorted to and from a shower cell. And their cells must be unlocked every day for their one hour of yard recreation with the other keeplocks, and then locked again when they return.
One day, I was taken off a comfortable escort post on A-block and reassigned to L and P galleries, on the top floor. That in itself was discouraging, since I’d been anticipating a fairly calm day, but then I discovered how many keeplocks the two galleries had: nearly thirty between them. On the north half of P gallery, the number was particularly high, about one for every four cells. Several of the keeplocks were in consecutive cells, which concentrated the bad vibe.
My problems began when the keeplocks returned from keeplock rec, about two hours into the shift. When the O.I.C. announced their return over the P.A. system, my first job was to clear the galleries of other inmates, to minimize the chance of trouble. The only inmates who were out on the galleries were three or four porters. Two of them were slow to return to their cells, and when I saw the keeplocks arriving I ordered the two laggards into a shower stall on P-north, next to my office.
“Come on, C.O. That’s bullshit!” one protested loudly.
“Yeah, C.O., the regular never makes us do that,” said the other one. I got them in anyway, but the complaining caught on with the two or three keeplocks whose cells were on the other side of the shower.
“Let ’em stay out, C.O.!”
“You too harsh, man!”
“You want to start a slave revolt, C.O.? That’s what you doing?”
It was too early in the day for this, I said to myself. I walked over to the loudest keeplock, P-49, a scary-looking guy with dreadlocks, dirty clothes, and one gray and clouded eye.
“What I’m doing is absolutely appropriate, and you know it,” I said, trying to keep my voice low but unable to preserve my sang-froid. “Do me a favor–shut up and let me do my job.”
“Whoa, ‘Shut up!’ C.O. told me to shut up!” he crowed, completely jazzed, as I walked away. Others took up the hue and cry. “C.O. told him to shut up!” I walked back toward the center gate to start putting the returning keeplocks into their cells. And not a minute too soon. The keeplock officers, always eager to avoid extra work, were beating a hasty retreat down the center stairs.
“Hey!” I yelled after them, as they waited for the officer downstairs to open the center gate. “How about sticking around a couple of minutes to help me get these guys back in? I’ve got thirty of them out and don’t know where a single one locks. You going to leave me with that?” Grudgingly, they returned.
At 11 a.m., when it was time for the count, an officer newer than I was appeared on the gallery. Her name was Reid, and she was a tall redhead I had worked with one day when she was in training. (To keep inmates from learning our first names, nametags bore only the initial. Officers got in the habit of using last names to refer to one another, and didn’t even know another person’s first name unless he was a friend.) The O.I.C. had sent her to do the go-round; that is, make a list of where all the inmates planned to be after lunch, so that they could be tracked down in case they had a visit, had forgotten a medical appointment, etc. Go-round forms were filled out at the same time as the count forms. You stopped at each cell on a gallery and said, for example, “L-3, where you going this afternoon?”
Something like one out of every ten officers is female. Most of them are assigned to posts where they won’t be the only officer facing a crowd of inmates, but when they have a job that requires them to enter the area where men live, they yell, “Female on the gallery!” at the top of their lungs. That usually results in a dozen mirrors being stuck out of cells so that inmates can get a good look. Sometimes there are catcalls, and that day they were especially obnoxious on P-north.
“Hey, Red! Show me that red pussy!” yelled one inmate. “You ain’t gettin’ enough, are you, Red?” called another. “I’m gonna give it you!” I was feeling uneasy as Officer Reid marched bravely down the gallery. She wasn’t the tough sort, just a farm girl who needed a job. And she was good-looking. Inmates sometimes tried to ejaculate on female officers; this had already happened to two of my academy classmates. I kept an eye on Reid until my phone rang.
Two minutes later, she was in my office, looking flustered.
“You got a misbehavior form?” she asked.
“Masturbator,” she said.
She told me, and I checked my list of inmates.
“Too bad. He’s a keeplock already. Anything else?” Reid shook her head. I rang the sergeant and he said to send her to his office. Then I walked down P-north.
“What’s your fucking problem?” I said to the inmate who had exposed himself. He was lying on his bunk, his pants zipped up, smiling, looking smug. He wouldn’t answer. Upstate, I had heard, this kind of thing didn’t happen too often. Upstate, an inmate who spoke a wrong word to a female officer quickly regretted it.
“C.O., you call a sergeant for me yet?” This was the voice of P-49, the keeplock who, earlier in the morning, I had told to shut up. He’d been bad-gering me since then to get a sergeant upstairs to speak with him: not about me–about someone else. I’d called the sergeant, who said he knew what P-49 wanted, and that he’d get back to him. I’d already told P-49 this. I repeated it to him again impatiently, adding that there was nothing more I could do for him.
“Oh, yes, there is, C.O. You can suck my dick!” P-49 said loudly. There were hoots of approval from the other keeplocks as I walked away.
P-49 continued to hector me the rest of the day. Unfortunately, his cell was close to my office. “C.O., get away from my cell!” he’d yell when I walked by. “Homer, get back to the sticks.” (The assumption was that, since I am white, I was from upstate.) His neighbor keeplocks would cheer in support; they were his chorus.
“He looks like a puppet, don’t he?” P-49 taunted as I tried to keep my temper in check. I knew I had a loose-jointed style of running, but had never heard it suggested about my walk before. “Go home, Forrest Gump.”
I’d noticed that P-49 was holding his mirror out on the gallery to keep track of my approaches, and also that, against the rules, he sometimes left it balanced up on his bars. I tried to grab the mirror, but he anticipated the move and snatched it away. Half an hour later, I noticed it was up again. Quietly this time, I walked up and took it. He was furious. “You better watch out when you come back by, C.O.,” he threatened, adding something that I couldn’t understand but that I presumed to be about shitting me down. (Hurling feces at an officer is an angry keeplock’s trump card.)
In my eagerness to get the mirror, I’d placed myself on the wrong side of his cell. To get back to my office, I’d have to pass by again. I probably should have sprinted past the cell, but I didn’t want to show any fear. As I drew even with P-49, it all happened very fast: a gob of spit flew past my nose, with my cheek catching some spray, and then the keeplock’s arm swung out at full length. His fist caught my head just behind the ear. I stumbled forward.
My heart was beating fast. I spent a minute calming down and then called the sergeant’s office again.
“Who was it?”
“Bring down your misbehavior report,” he said curtly.
I turned over the mirror. On the back, in graffiti-style script, Folk had written “The Universal Don” and “Da Silva-Back Guerrilla” and “The As-sassin.” The sergeant sent an officer to relieve me. She seemed sympathetic, and said things like “Too bad we can’t go in there and show that asshole what the fuck is what,” and I felt a little better.
When I arrived in his office, the sergeant wrote out a new ticket for me in red pen. The nice thing about his version was that it sounded worse than it was: “assault,” “unhygienic act,” “threats,” etc. I did feel an element of shame in being a victim, and pointed out to every officer who passed by that this was the first time it had happened to me. The sergeant asked why I was walking close enough to the cell for the inmate to reach me. I answered that I didn’t want to appear afraid, which he accepted, though he told me an officer should always walk as far as possible from the cells. “It might give you more time to grab his arm and break it,” he said, never cracking a smile.
It wasn’t really a joke to me, either. That very thought had already crossed my mind.
There was more paperwork. Despite the fact that Folk had merely grazed me with his fist, I had to be checked over in the emergency room. A nurse there let me wash up with antibacterial soap. She was vociferous in her scorn for my assailant, and I had warm feelings about her, at least until she whispered, “I’ll bet he was black, right?” The sergeant took front and profile Polaroid shots of me, which was required, I think, in case I made a claim for workmen’s comp. I looked at the photos as we walked to the watch commander’s office. They made me seem gaunt and nerdy.
The sergeant had already been in touch with the Box and reserved a cell for my assailant. He evidently had clout, since there wasn’t often room there. I felt a touch of gratitude. He spoke to a team of officers who were doing some overtime arranging for Folk’s relocation to the Box. “He might not go willingly,” he said, which was greeted with nods of satisfaction. I would have enjoyed watching the “relocation,” but they would never have let me. And, to be honest, all I really wanted to do was leave.
As I was passing through the front gate of the prison, a sergeant whom I liked–Murray–called out. “Hey, Conover,” he said, and made a hawking sound. I smiled weakly.
“So you already heard, huh?”
“Heard about it in about a minute,” Murray said. I wondered if the incident would make the announcements at lineup.
I had a pounding headache–it had been growing all afternoon–and, as I got onto the highway, I experienced a vivid fantasy of A-block going up in flames, all the dross inside it being consumed by the fire. And then came dissonant flashes of memory from that same day–the inmate who had tried to tell me a joke as I set up the locking board outside his cell, the inmate who had warned me about an unfriendly sergeant who was approaching, the inmate whose classical guitar playing, particularly gorgeous in that setting, had drifted into my office around lunchtime. They weren’t all bad, I thought. Just most of them.
Unlike most of my fellow-officers, I think it’s fair to say, I had entered the academy with a liberal frame of mind. I was conscious of the harsh circumstances that had no doubt played a role in many of the inmates’ becoming criminals, and was pretty sympathetic to them. But practically every day that I worked at Sing Sing eroded that sympathy. Inmates took kindness for weakness, and tried to exploit it. I would speak to an inmate respectfully, and he would be profane and insulting in return. Simple directions to insure conformity with established routines–”Please step into your cell now, it’s time for the count”–would occasion wild outbursts of scorn and refusal.
My experience was not unique. For instance, an officer I admired named Hillary, a genial, Caribbean-born Brooklyn resident who worked on U and Z galleries, took special care to run it well. The place was always spotless. His porters weren’t allowed out for long, and they did a lot of work. He had his office painted a light blue; his desk and paperwork were always in perfect order. He had requested his posting and seemed to have good relations with most of the galleries’ residents. But one day I was escorting an inmate to the emergency room and found Hillary there, being cleaned off by a nurse and interviewed by Sergeant Murray. His face bore an expression of–what to call it?–humiliation, spiritual pain.
“Hillary, what’s up?” I asked him. “What’s wrong?”
“I got shitted down,” he said morosely.
“You?” The officers I knew whom this had happened to were people who had little rapport with inmates. Hillary was not like that. The keeplock who had attacked him, a young man with a consuming anger, was mentally ill. I knew the guy–I’d filled in for Hillary a few times. But I was shocked. Hillary’s office, too, had been splattered with shit–his beautiful office. Hillary didn’t deserve this. I felt sick about it.
But that was the kind of thing inmates did–not all of them, of course, but enough that, over time, you started thinking the worst of all of them. And the more you saw of it–even if you knew that at some level the system was responsible–the less you liked inmates, and the more inclined you were not to be bothered when other officers called them “crooks” or “mutts.” Despite the old saw that the only difference between officers and prisoners was the color of the uniform, there was a difference. One of the groups tended to obey the law and the other to disrespect it; one of the groups tended to heap scorn on the other, who more often than not took it on the chin.
That’s why, I have to admit, I felt a little thrill the day Sergeant Holmes told me at lineup that I had a special assignment. I would be part of a frisk team sent to the Box, which had been uncontrollable lately. An inmate had got out of his cell and had broken fifty-eight windows (because the building is old, many of the panes are small). A day or two later, an officer and a sergeant had had urine thrown on them. The morning’s assignment was a complete search of the Box for contraband, particularly shards of glass. This would be done one cell at a time, one inmate at a time. It was the second strip search since the initial incident, and some inmates were expected to resist. A dozen or so of us were issued handcuffs and flashlights, and loaded up with tall piles of search/contraband and misbehavior forms, as well as three big bags of “cell extraction” equipment, and we marched purposefully downstairs to the Box. Despite the ominous tone, and my better instincts, I’d countenanced enough inmate misbehavior and disrespect to feel invigorated by the thought that this is where it all stops. This is where we draw the line. We were going to follow the rules, and we were going to have our way.
The Box is a dark, squat building, a place of punishment within a place of punishment. David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer, was in the Box at Sullivan for nine years. Elmira’s Box held Lemuel Smith, who in 1981 had tricked a young correction officer, Donna Payant, into meeting him in a chaplain’s empty office at Green Haven, where he raped and strangled her (and, according to one of the instructors at the academy, chewed off her nipples). She was the last C.O. murdered on the job in New York State.
Half of the inmate inhabitants of the Box–those on the upper floor–are not disciplinary cases but men under protective custody. There are two kinds. Those who have asked to be protected are rats or rape and slicing victims who have identified their assailants–people who have enemies and, if left in the general population, could reasonably be expected to get hurt or killed. Among those there involuntarily are victims who have not ratted on their assailants, and thus are feared to be either loaded guns, waiting for their chance to get revenge, or sitting ducks, soon to be victimized again. Downstairs are the baddest of the bad. Downstairs feels like a dungeon, in part because entry to the building is via the second floor, but also because it’s darker down there, with smaller windows and lower ceilings.
The Box has the highest testosterone level in the prison, and smells like it–close, musty, with an acrid whiff of perspiration. The officers who choose to work in the Box tend to be Size Large. They tuck their trousers into the tops of unlaced boots and roll short sleeves up over their muscles–the casual swat-team look. The first day I worked downstairs during my on-the-job-training period, I watched a shaved-headed monster named Perlstein (not his real name) help a fellow-officer change his shirt. The man was so muscle-bound he couldn’t reach back far enough to get his second hand into the sleeve hole.
The environment of the Box produces stunning acts of insanity and barbarism. During our on-the-job training, we were told of a Box inmate nicknamed Mr. Slurpee who would project a spray of urine and feces at officers–out of his mouth. One day at lineup, a sergeant held up for display an interesting-looking noose about three feet long. “We think we take everything away that they could hurt themselves with,” he said. “And then we find this–made out of toilet paper.” He left it out for display. An inmate had rolled endless yards of toilet paper into tight cords before weaving the cords together into the noose. It was dingy-white from all the handling and, to judge by my tugging, seemed as tough as a real rope. Impressive, I thought, but, on another level, all this resourcefulness for a noose?
By the time we’d descended the stairs to the first floor of the Box, the inmates had become very quiet. They could hear us, no doubt, but not yet see us. One of the officers, Konoval, who was the first to walk into their view, set up a video camera on a tripod to record the proceedings. I had noticed that the department often did this when a use of force was anticipated, probably to protect itself from lawsuits. We all put on latex gloves, and then, en masse, poured onto the gallery.
I was partners with my friend Feliciano, a Bronx-born ex-marine who was even fresher out of the academy than I was, and there were three other pairs like us. Each team had been assigned a cell. I did the talking to our inmate, a Latino in his twenties. “Good morning. We’re going to strip-frisk you, then you’re going to come out and we’re going to frisk your cell.” The man had been through this drill two or three days before, and assented. He didn’t look angry or demented, just sort of discombobulated. He handed us his shirt, his pants, his socks, his underwear, and then turned and bent over and spread his cheeks.
“Fine,” I said, as he dressed. “Now turn around and we’ll cuff you.” The inmate put his hands behind him and thrust them through a hole in the door, and Feliciano cuffed him. “Open 105!” I called out to the officer in the bubble (a control cage from which an officer operates the gates and cell doors by means of an ancient system of brass-handled levers that stick out from the wall; the officer can’t leave the bubble without a relief officer coming in). The cell door opened and the inmate stepped out backward, wearing socks but no shoes. Feliciano held his handcuff chain and walked the man toward the opposite wall, under the windows. He told him not to turn around, and then drew his baton and held it in ready position across his torso, what is called “port arms” position.
I frisked the cell, which was a pigsty, with roaches crawling over bunched-up sheets and garbage on the floor. I flipped through his notebooks; the handwriting was lovely. He had made a chess set that used toothpaste caps and squares of paper as pieces. (I had seen these games in action. Another inmate had to have a board, too, and they had to make voice moves, since neither could see the other’s board.) There was a lot of pencil-written gang graffiti on the walls, but no contraband.
The frisk of our second cell, which belonged to a skinny, middle-aged man, was also uneventful. Feliciano turned up only an extra state-issued pillow, which we confiscated. Before the search was over, however, we were distracted by a commotion at the entrance to the gallery. The Box officers, Perlstein and two others, had put on full cell-extraction (“hats and bats”) gear–helmets with clear face shields, stab-proof vests, knee and elbow pads, and heavy gloves. They were preparing to go in after an inmate I’ll call Duncan, who had refused to coÅ¡perate. I recognized Duncan from B-block–a short black man with dreds who apparently was a perpetrator in a recent fracas in the B-block yard in which officers had been injured. Cameras had shown him throwing things at officers and egging the others on. He seemed to hate C.O.s. The extraction officers stood one in front of the other, the second and third holding on to the officer in front of them, and the lead officer carrying a clear riot shield. On a signal, they started moving forward in step, like a locomotive gaining speed. “Open 101!” someone shouted. Another officer pulled open the cell door and they went in on each other’s heels, the shield being used to smoosh Duncan into the back corner of the cell. It was hopeless for him, I knew–like going into battle with a rhino. Three minutes and many thuds later, they emerged with the inmate in handcuffs and leg restraints. He somehow managed to raise a fist in defiance as they carried him upstairs to do a forcible strip search.
That was when things started getting raucous. Inmates up and down the gallery began to yell. We were “bitch-ass faggot motherfuckers.” We were getting off on looking at them. They would file lawsuits, because we were not following Directive 4910. (It says that sergeants have to be in constant supervision of a strip frisk.) One inmate began pleading endlessly to see one of the sergeants, and when she refused to talk to him he started berating her and Sing Sing’s two black captains as “house niggers.”
“Kill all house niggers, kill all house niggers!” he chanted, for more than fifteen minutes.
Somehow, this felt like the first wave of an attack. Feliciano and I were given a third cell, that of a young, thin black man, Lincoln George. I repeated the line about the strip frisk, and asked him to hand us his clothes.
“I’m not going to show you my asshole,” he stated without affect, starting to remove his shirt.
“You’ve got to,” I said.
He stopped taking the shirt off.
“I won’t do it,” he repeated.
I tried to reason with him in a low voice. “Look, man, you see what they’re doing. They’ll do it to you. It’s not worth it. We’ll be done in like five seconds. Let’s just get it done.”
He shook his head, and said, “According to Directive 4910, you could use a hand scanner instead of doing a body- cavity search.”
“This is not a body-cavity search,” I said. “Nobody’s going inside. We’re just looking outside.”
He shook his head. Why on earth, I wondered, would anyone choose cell extraction?
“So you’re refusing?” Feliciano said.
“I want to speak to a sergeant.”
This was every inmate’s right. I summoned the male sergeant, who, given the din and the insults, was in no mood for negotiation. “I’m giving you a direct order to comply with the frisk,” he said. I couldn’t hear the inmate’s reply.
“So you’re refusing to comply?” the sergeant said. Lincoln George nodded. The sergeant left the gallery and spoke with the extraction team.
They were swift and tough. George made little attempt to brace himself or otherwise prepare for their entrance, so it didn’t take long. He was basically knocked down and flattened, then hauled upstairs to be forcibly searched. We frisked his cell and found nothing.
Meanwhile, the extraction team had brought Duncan back down. They placed him in his cell, unchained him, and were on their way out when he snatched the leg chain out of one officer’s hand and swung it at him, hitting him hard on the visor. The surprised team completed their exit from the cell and closed the door. Then they turned around, regrouped, and went back in again to get the leg chain. Duncan appeared shortly afterward at the door to his cell, a big scrape on one cheek and no doubt untold other wounds less easy to see. He looked thrilled.
The extractors took a break and then bulldozed their way into a third cell. This one I couldn’t see, but it took longer than the others, and the officers were shouting, “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” partway through. The phrase was used to protect yourself legally when you were, for whatever reason, applying a bit of extra force. Konoval was following with the camera, but as the officers knew, all he could see was their backs. The inmate continued to struggle as he was carried up the stairs. I picked up half a shattered face shield after they went by.
And then it was all done but the paperwork. The cell-extraction team came back downstairs, removed their armor, and gave each other hearty hugs and slaps on the back. They were sweaty and charged up like victorious football players. I felt the catharsis, too, a thrilling release, with our team coming out on top.
But, as the moment faded and I picked up my gear to go, I paused and looked back down the gallery. It was quiet now. No weapon had been found in any cell. Perhaps none had actually been expected: it seemed reasonable to conclude that we had been sent to make a statement about who was in charge. And I had to wonder: With the outcome never in doubt, what had we won? What especially puzzled me was the refusal of Lincoln George to submit to a strip frisk. What could account for an action so apparently contrary to his best interests? But then I realized that self-respect had required him to refuse. He was not stupid. He was simply renouncing his imprisonment, our authority, the entire system that had placed him there.