Chapter II: The TombsThe Trial,
There is nothing more frustrating than waiting for the courts to hear and dispose of your case. For the next four weeks, I was interviewed by parole officers, probation officers, members of the D.A.'s office, and all kinds of investigators who examined and cross-examined me.
My two buddies arrested with me were interned on a different floor. Apart from all of us meeting in court now and then, there was one other way to communicate, and most prisoners knew about it. On Sundays, the call would go out for services. At nine in the morning it was Catholic mass; at ten, Protestant services. We all attended mass and sat in the same pew. While mass was proceeding, we would carry on a conversation. Several times during mass, the priest would stop and demand that everyone "shut up" so that others could follow the sermon. When mass was over, we were led back to our tiers where we waited for five minutes until we heard the call go out for those wanting to attend Protestant service to line up. If anything was left over from the first round of conversation, we could fill in the gaps the second time around.
The meals at the Tombs were horrible. The standing rule at feeding time was that everyone had to be locked in his cell. Upon entering the Tombs, you were handed a spoon, a large bowl and a cup. All were made of aluminum. If you had any money, it was taken away at the admissions office and you were given aluminum money. That money was the exchange medium used at the commissary. Once a day, a commissary man came to each floor with a large basket of stuff such as combs, writing paper, pencils and candy bars. Once in a while, he sold some homemade sandwiches. With the latter, he never got past the first floor without selling out--unless, of course, they were so foul-smelling that no one wanted them.
One day, strangely, some prisoners reported their bowls missing. It took three weeks to discover that a thief was using the bowls to make aluminum money.
My cell was on the top floor. An area about five feet wide separated the cell door and the center bars. I could stand at these bars and look straight down four floors. The last floor bottomed out to a broad hall some 30 feet from any cell door. I could not see the cells on the three floors below me. All the windows were 30 feet high, and you could not see out of them because they were made of non-transparent glass running from the bottom floor clear to the top of the building. Bars ran straight up, then across every few feet like a ladder. You could only look toward the window and see the sunlight filter through or watch the sun fade and the dark of night appear.
The prisoners on the lower floor had been let out for their walk. I lay in my bunk just thinking, as I often did, when I heard some voices on the lower floor shouting in my direction: "Hey, man, you better come down from there before you get into trouble." I saw nothing. Again I heard a shout, "Come on down from there. Whatcha trying to do?"
Then I saw him. He was a tall man climbing up those bars carefully, hand over hand, putting one foot ahead of the other. He was almost at the top now. I got out of the bunk and walked outside my door to stand, transfixed, at my tier bars. I watched him climb up the last few feet to almost the top of my tier. Was he trying to escape? But there was no possible way for him to escape. I quickly looked over the situation, waiting for the last step he would take before he realized escape was impossible. Then he would have to start down again.
But no. He stopped for a moment, making a slight adjustment and turning with his back against the window. Then he took his hands from the bars and let the weight of his head direct his plunge to the hard steel floor four stories below. His head made a dull thud as it made contact; then he rolled over on his back and lay still. I couldn't believe it: I had watched a human being commit suicide. He had found his way out. He beat the rap, as they said later. In the five or six weeks I spent at the Tombs, three men took that route.
Below the steel deck was another floor of cells where they kept the real tough guys. We were just the foam of the beer when it came to petty crooks, but below that floor walked the toughest characters in the underworld.
One day I was coming up from the visitor's floor. As one guard handed me on to another through the long series of gates, he passed a bit of news to his cohort. "They just nabbed Mad Dog Coll." The mere mention of this gangster's name sent chills up anybody's spine. The police mentioned his name as if he were a saint.
That night we had hotdogs for supper. They were big and round and garlicky. Since I like hotdogs, I complained that two were not enough. But on the floor where Mad Dog Coll was locked up, it was a different story. First there was a banging of tin cups against the steel cell door bars, the traditional form of prison protest. Then they took the hotdogs and threw them out of the cells. One guard later told another, "There were hotdogs bouncing all over the place like ping-pong balls." Of course, this action brought the warden out immediately. Mad Dog was screaming his head off about the rights of prisoners and the inhumane treatment they were receiving by being served what he himself "would refuse to serve to pigs."
The warden, never one to offend a real first-class bottom-of-the-barrel hood like Coll, caved in. The whole tier of toughies was served hamburger steaks which were rushed in to them from several area restaurants. It served the rest of us right--for ten cents' worth of guts, we could have had hamburger steaks that night, too. From information I received later, Mad Dog was treated like a dignitary for the length of time he remained at the Tombs.
Four weeks had passed. I was becoming a veteran of the Tombs. I got a message: my two buddies were being deported back to England. A number of prisoners passed along the word, adding that they bade me good luck and farewell. Three days later I was told my trial would be the next day. My sister Kate had been visiting me once a week and had even managed to have a dollar placed in my account. It at least kept me supplied with Bull Durham. For the previous two weeks, Kate had been working to have the charges against me dropped. She found the office of George M. Cohan, owner of the warehouse we had ripped off, and with some persistence got an audience with him. For an hour she explained her brother's action and told him about our life and background. Cohan became convinced that we were ragpickers and not hardened criminals. He would do what he could to spring me.
I stood before the judge in the huge courtroom, feeling as comfortable as if I had been standing in the center of Macy's window at noon with my fly open. Some guy read off the charge to the judge. I was charged with unlawful entry, a charge I had already agreed to at an earlier appearance before a probation officer. I was assured at that time that the judge would take into consideration my admission of guilt and place me on probation. I thought this was my little secret and that before the end of the day I would be walking free along the streets.
The judge looked at me standing tensely against the rail. He picked up a sheet of paper from the bench. "In this letter from Mr. George M. Cohan, whose warehouse you unlawfully entered, damaging its contents and property, he proposes that leniency be shown you. He proposes that instead of imprisoning you, we permit you to serve in his employment. He will deduct part of your salary to compensate himself for damages."
I figured the next word out of the judge's mouth would be about probation, but I figured wrong. The judge continued. "Now, I have studied the probation officer's report and recommendations, and I must say that I disagree with them--as I disagree with Mr. Cohan's proposition. There is a time in everyone's life when he needs a shock to snap him out of his rut, and you, young man, are in a house-wrecking, junk-collecting rut. With all due respect to Mr. Cohan, I suggest he confine himself to what he does best--tap-dancing his way around Broadway--and leave the matter of criminal punishment to those trained to administer it. I therefore sentence you to serve one year in the New York City Reform School with the hope that upon your release you will alter your way of life."
That was it.
I was asked no questions. I stood there like a dummy, mute, staring at the judge's bench, trying to figure out the meaning of his little talk. A cop came over, handcuffed me quickly and walked me to a side door. I was on my way across the "Bridge of Sighs" that joined the courthouse to the prison. Within minutes I was back in my cell, truly disgusted. I was disgusted with myself because I had trusted the word of the probation officer who was "100 percent sure, positive, no doubt about it" that I would be placed on probation for leveling with the powers that be. How dumb I was! I was supposed to be street-wise, wise to the machinations of the police. I was supposed to be the "conner," not the conned. I trusted someone and got the dirty end of it. That's what made me furious with myself. I wasn't too concerned with the one-year sentence. I was too mad about my own incompetence to even worry about what that year could mean to me.
Two more weeks passed as I waited to be transferred to my new home. After six weeks at the Tombs, I would have welcomed Devil's Island. When the transfer finally happened, it happened quickly, right after breakfast one morning, at six-thirty. I was marched down to the Property Office to pick up a few items, then directed into a corridor where I was placed in handcuffs and leg cuffs, with a chain running from my feet to the handcuffs. I was handcuffed to another prisoner and thrown into a van for a ride to the railroad station. There it was time for another lineup and check-off. People stared at us with our pale, bleached skin, white from imprisonment. There were 40 of us, all youngsters, all looking sheepish. Women moved closer to men as if they feared an attack from one of us.
Two officers in state troopers' garb and nice polished boots met us. They exchanged greetings with the two New York cops escorting us from the Tombs. The troopers had their own handcuffs; the old ones were taken off and the new ones put on. Leg irons were removed and we were directed aboard the train. We had the whole car to ourselves. We sat back and enjoyed the scenery as we headed into the interior of New York State. At Middletown we were ushered out to form a line. As the train pulled away we began a slow march down a lane and over a few hills. The march felt good and refreshing. The clear country air was stimulating, a huge difference from the stifling air of the Tombs. As we came over a small hill we saw the reform school, a large, oblong building, part administration, part cell block. Tucked away behind the high wire fence stood the mess hall; attached to that was the recreation hall. In the distance, another three-story building was visible. That was the new cell block that was to contain my domicile. The cells were entered through a strong, solid door, with a four-by-four window at the top. Inside were a cot, one chair and a small piece of wood attached to the wall as a desk. The back of the cell was hard, steel wire mesh. Three feet from the mesh was a barred window. The guard walked this pathway every two or three hours. By pressing his club against the screen, he could easily detect if something was wrong with it.
When we arrived we were ushered into the warden's office and told to empty our pockets. The warden lectured us about our responsibilities. Next, we were ushered into another room for a set of fingerprints, a mug shot and a number that would replace our names for the duration of our stay. A stop at the doctor's office was followed by one at the clothing department. Next came a walk to the barber shop where some snot-nosed sonofabitch told us how important he was as a barber and how easily the razor could slip. In other words, you better understand that the barber is a real tough guy. After a shower I was assigned to a cell block. Then it was meal time.
On the tables, which seated 20, the food had been dished out. The menu was best described the way older inmates summed it up for new arrivals: "Monday, it's bread and gravy; Tuesday, it's gravy and bread, followed on Wednesday by bread and gravy." After everyone finished eating, they picked up forks and spoons and placed them on a tray before guards. You learned quickly to guard your eating utensils; some sonofabitch was always trying to snatch hardware to make shivs out of them.
I was assigned to a ditch-digging detail. We marched out after breakfast, crossed the main highway and walked about a mile across some fields. The ditches served to drain off the heavy rains that hit this part of the country. I was happy with the work and the pick and shovel felt good after weeks of being cooped up. The air and the work made me hungry, and I never allowed my plate to go to the dishwasher with any food on it. If seconds and thirds were available, I was there with my plate.
On the third day I was there, it rained so hard no one could be let out to the fields for work. We were confined to the recreation building, where we sat on wooden benches hour after hour until it was time to march to the mess hall. It was a rule that when cell blocks were being called out everyone maintain absolute silence. The guards sat on a platform where they could keep an eye on everyone. They carried sawed-off cue sticks. As we sat there, I continued to mumble out the side of my mouth to the guy next to me while the cell blocks were being called. I had no idea that the guard stationed at the door saw or heard me, but he did.
When it came time to pass through the door, I had to go past him. He stood up, raised his stick, and brought it down on my head with all his might. I winced with pain and turned to look at him. Down came the stick again. My hat fell off. He allowed me the courtesy of bending down to pick it up, then he brought the stick down a third time. My head burned, and it felt like blood was running down the side of my face. I tried to put the cap back on, but the lump on my head, which was the size of an egg, was so painful that I kept the cap in my hand. I looked the guard in the eye. He had enough meanness in him for a dozen guards. "When we say no talking, we mean just that. No talking. Next time we'll unscrew your head and hand it to you. Now git."
I was embarrassed. After all, it happened in front of most of the inmates. But in a way, it made a little hero out of me, because I did not whimper or throw my hands up or even back off when he hit me. I stood there and took my lumps, and the inmates liked that. I got winks and nods and all sorts of signals from guys that sympathized with me. In my cell that night, I read the whole book to the Lord, demanding he lay it on this screw. That was my initiation. It took a week for the lump to subside.
The hardest part of prison life was boredom. Almost equally hard was the pressure, not from the authorities, but from fellow inmates. In most penal institutions, guards act as arbitrators in beefs between you and the system. The prisoners are the ones who run the complex affair that is supposed to punish you and make you sorry you ever committed your crime. For example: an inmate works in the admitting department. He knows immediately how much money you bring with you into prison. If it looks like a large sum, he'll pass this information on to the clique he is a part of. They in turn will either cozy up to you for any goodies that may fall their way or set you up for "protection." In other words, it may cost you one carton of cigarettes or a box of candy bars per week to "protect you from attacks" by the "other mob." (The other mob may never even know you have money in the first place.)
I was lucky. I never had any amount of dough sizable enough to start a gang war, so I never went through the "gang identification" pains. In this joint, four groups reigned. The Italians formed the biggest clique; the Irish came second; the negroes third. The fourth group was the one with no dough to fight over. If there was anyone in the latter group handy with his hands in the ring, he was encouraged to come over to one of the bigger groups. His encouragement included free cigarettes, candy bars, soap and flattery. To have a hard-hitting fighter associated with a group added some notoriety and status to the group. Sometimes a grudge match would be staged with bets made, and the two hitters would belt each other's head off in the ring. After that, group tensions would die down. My group was the fourth, which was comprised of at least half the inmates.
The guards took the attitude that the more the prisoners fought among themselves, the less they would fight with the guards--the old divide and conquer routine: keep the groups apart, but when they feel too "big," slap them down a little. The guards knew of about 90 percent of the "protection" activities. But they did not interfere. To do so would have broken up some of the rackets, but it also would have created new tensions for the guards to cope with. Thus, the victim despised the establishment for doing nothing to make his stay at least tolerable, and he held in contempt the "prison racketeers" who preyed on him and filled his already-miserable life with additional tensions.
Generally, during the first few days in prison, someone would point out to you all the main players. "That ugly-looking bastard over there blowing smoke rings into the air is Choir Boy Donohue. He's the number one Irishman. See the stupid-looking dago with the black sideburns and his cuffs rolled up? That's Minelli, the "Shiv." He's head man for all wops and dagos in here." My new-found friend continued to explain the scene to me. "They're all a bag of shit if you ask me. On the outside, I bet I could take either one of them. If I was real mad I could take them both at the same time. They're both loud-mouthed punks." To play it safe, I learned to stay the hell away from the Choir Boy and the Shiv, since everyone knew there were too many "dark alleys" in prison.
Behavior on the inside is not so different from that on the outside. I found, after just a few days in the "slammer," that some prisoners didn't want to work. They could amuse themselves and enjoy life fully without stirring one inch. The mere mention of work was enough to bring a sour look of disgust to their faces. There were others who saw it as their main obligation to pass on two-thirds of their work to you. To do as little as possible, in their way of thinking, was to "beat the system." Any prison guard with a work detail would know within the first half-hour what kind of worker he was dealing with. I was rather fortunate since I like work and hate idleness. To do nothing in prison was a fate worse than death to me. Time dragged. No matter what the job was, no matter how miserable, no matter how dirty or hard it was, I managed to plunge right into it with something approaching gusto. The guards recognized this. Even when it was time to take a break or change partners, I stayed right in there. Word got around fast: I was not a "goldbricker."
Three months went by. I was made a trustee of the cell block. Sometimes it was more of a pain in the ass than it was worth. It was like being an office boy. One inmate would say, "Hey, Slim, give this book to Charlie in Cell 12. He'll give you one for me." You would go back and forth until Taps and lights out. Being a trustee did, however, give you a better insight into that world. The guards, of course, expected you to be their eyes and ears and to report to them any breach of discipline among the men. They are still waiting for my report.
One night, between rounds of the guard, two of the Italian mob at one end of the cell block traveled all the way down to the other end to lump up some guy. The rule was not to be caught out of your bed. I had already been given the information that these two characters were going to punch some victim around. The victim, on the other hand, expected them. When the guard had passed through and was locking the outer gate (which meant that he wouldn't be around for at least an hour), the two mob members calmly got out of their bunks and started walking down the corridor toward the victim. There was tension as everyone saw the movement and knew what it was all about. The victim occupied the top bunk. They approached him on both sides. In a second, fists were flying. The two mob members were slugging like mad, but they were surprised by the resistance they were receiving from the victim, despite his awkward position on the top bunk. He was kicking and punching, and the sound of the bunk being jostled reverberated throughout the cell block. Somehow the sounds reached the ears of the guard. There was a clanging of steel doors below the floor. The mobsters raced to get back in their bunks before the guard appeared on the scene.
"What's going on in here?" the guard shouted to me as he fumbled with the keys in the cell block door.
"Nuttin'," I said.
"What's all that goddamn racket I heard downstairs?"
"I didn't hear any racket," I replied.
He opened the door. Ten feet from the door stood the bunks where the mafiosi were lying. He came right to their bunks. "You guys been out of your bunks, right?"
"No, sir," one replied.
He turned to me. "These guys been out of their bunks, right?"
"No, sirree," I said as if I were surprised that he would even dare think such a thing.
"Why are you two panting like steam engines? Like you been running, huh? How come? Huh?"
The two mobsters lay there. The guard rested the tip of his club on the bunk. He wanted to use it, but he had to be provoked enough. I could feel the silence as the guard waited for the answer that wasn't coming.
"Oh, that's somewhat my fault," I said. "When I was walking past this bunk, I slipped and fell and almost turned it over. When it looked like it was going to roll over, this guy jumped down. That's why he's panting. He got all excited." It was strictly bottom of the barrel. The guard knew I was lying. But it was better than standing there with my mouth open and nothing coming out. The guard growled a few more words, then picked up his club and left. The confrontation was over. The mobsters thanked me, and the victim had kind words, too. As much as I hated the cheap punks ganging up on some weaker guy, I knew there was a law that rises above all others in prison: you never blow the whistle in favor of the establishment.
It didn't take too long to get to know the homosexuals in prison. In some prisons, there may have been some attempt to separate them from the rest of the prisoners. However, in this joint everybody was thrown together. What little protection offered them was their cell. I learned that there was no system that could not eventually be cracked. This was no exception. Take this one homosexual on my block. He occupied the first cell the guard opened when it was time to let the men out to the bathroom. It takes a mighty smart guard to recognize all the faces he comes into contact with in prison. The prisoners rely on his inability. After the guard opened the first cell door to let out the homosexual, he continued down the line, opening doors. The homosexual would come out and one of the men occupying one of the bunk beds in the corridor would exchange places with him. When the guard left the cell block, the homosexual would go into the bathroom and accommodate anyone in the corridor who had sexual desires for him. This took place at least once a month. I saw most of the young guys trail off one by one from the corridor to be accommodated. The guard was never the wiser.
The longest time you could be sentenced to serve in this place was 36 months. That sentence was usually handed down to guys who committed rape. You could almost tell what a man was in for by asking the sentence. If he said 36 months, you knew it was rape. Two years was car theft or the use of a gun. One year was burglary, unlawful entry, second-story man, soft-shoe artist, boosters, hoisters, con men, drunk rollers or bag grabbers.
One group of six guys stayed to themselves most of the time. Their story was one of special depravity. They would wait up late at night, guzzling cheap wine, waiting for the moment when the old, tired scrub women were on their way home from scrubbing floors all night. These punks would waylay one of them, drag her off into an unlit hallway and gang-rape her. They had been caught in such an act. As bad as the other prisoners were, none of them had any time for these characters. Although they were not lumped up on by the inmates, there was a special hatred toward them. It created a constant tension that felt like it could explode at any time.
One of the prison's legends was about some hood who had blown his brains out. He too was one who grabbed women off the streets at night and raped them in dark hallways. This particular time, the legend went, this hood wanted to see who he was raping, so he lit a match and discovered it was his mother. I heard about ten variations on this story and cannot vouch for any of them, but it was quite a commentary on our society.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two