Progressive Prison Project
Innocent Spouse & Children Project
An Excerpt from
"Last Stop Babylon:
The Art of Surviving Prison"
I never really felt threatened - but there was a big difference between not feeling threatened and the realization that prison could be a very dangerous place. I started to think that I had a few things going for me in order to survive. First, I was old - at forty-eight years old, I was older than most of the other inmates and way outside of my fellow inmates’ testosterone-fueled need for prison yard bragging rights. Second, I had a marketable skill – once word got out that I had been a lawyer, this was a highly sought-after commodity for trade in prison. Third, I learned, albeit the hard way, that the best way to earn respect on the compound was to simply keep my mouth shut - a counterintuitive assignment for a guy who was used to talking his way in and out of almost anything. I learned fast that as a new guy, I was expected to give respect to everybody. Respect was the absolute most important thing in prison – and I guess in life. This is something I never really understood until I went to prison. It came in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and was expected in all kinds of ways in return. It was a wolf pack and I was the omega.
I was scurrying to get across the compound in less than ten minutes before they closed the doors. The compound was this maze of paths from building to building, location to location, that intersect in the middle. It was clearly not designed for efficiency, but upon reflection I can see how it was designed to maximize public safety. It was crowd control, plain and simple. That is, it spread us out, and made sure that not too many inmates were crowded into one location at any one time.
So here I was on my second or third day, moving along minding my own business when a huge muscle bound black guy walking in the other direction just leaned his shoulder into me and knocked me to the ground. I was the new guy. He was immense and I didn’t know what to do. Believe me in my old life I didn’t take much shit from anybody - or at least that was my perception of things. But in here baser instincts, my survival instincts, just took over. I quickly apologized to him for getting in his way. In retelling this story later to my cellies, I found out that I did exactly the right thing. I was new and I was expected to give respect. Earning respect on the other hand, was a whole other deal.
After a few more days of getting up early, I made my way over to the recreation area. The “Rec” was to be my oasis for the next fourteen months, although I certainly didn’t know it then. Inside the gate of the Rec it looked like a high school athletic department. Or what I would have imagined a dingy, inner city high school athletic department to look like. There were some basketball courts, a football field, a soccer field, a track, handball courts, horseshoes, and a baseball diamond. And an immense outdoor weight stack that looked like one from prison movies. I couldn’t take my eyes off the weight stack - it was so essentially prison looking. And at this hour of the morning it was empty. I imagined it would be pretty intimidating later when it was full of huge inmates pumping themselves up. I walked over to a bench press and fingered an Olympic bar with no weights on it. I figured it had to be about forty pounds or so - I thought I even I could handle that. I looked around and saw nobody else there - so I slid around and laid down on the bench. I gently squeezed the bar on either side of my head, equidistant from the bar holders, and was ready to push upwards for my first grand lift when a huge shadow fell across my face.
Like a solar eclipse blocking out the sun was perhaps the largest man I had ever seen. He was bent over at the waist - his face was inches from mine. In a soft, gentle voice - that belied his gargantuan proportions - he asked me if I was new to the compound. He stood there motionless until I replied. I told him that I was indeed a new guy. He smiled, and asked me if I would come speak to him after I completed my workout. I sort of smiled back and he left. I lifted the bar one single time - not without some difficulty - and walked over to see him on the far end of the weight stack. Only then did I realize his true proportions: maybe 6’4’’, three hundred pounds, charcoal black skin, with a huge Cheshire smile. He introduced himself as Cuda and stuck out his hand. I shook it. He then asked me if I intended to work out in this time slot everyday, because if so I was using his bench. I didn’t understand. There was nobody using the bench when I got there. In fact, there was still nobody using any bench even while we were talking. He told me to that if I wanted to use the bench that I should go talk to my cellies and then get back to him. We shook hands again and I left to walk the track until the seven thirty whistle. When the gate at Rec opened, I crossed the compound to get back to my unit in a hurry.
When I got to my unit my cellie Les was just waking up. Les Peoples was a big strong country boy from York County, Pennsylvania who was in prison on weapons charges. Les had more like an armory of guns, ammunition and Civil War era battle memorabilia stored in his basement. He loved all that stuff. Even he would probably admit that it wasn’t such a good idea to have maintained an arsenal of guns and ordinance in his basement since he already had a prior felony. Felons were simply not allowed to possess any weapons, and Les’s trading of them on the Internet was a big very deal. All the pot plants he was growing in the basement were apparently ill advised too - given the federal raid on his house. When Les got taken down, there were over one hundred agents, helicopters, the whole shebang. At least according to Les, but of course you can’t trust anything you hear in prison. But Les was already in for over six years when I became his cellie, and he knew all the ropes. He was a trader, kind of like Radar O’Reilly was on M.A.S.H. If we needed something on the pound, Les could get it for us. He was very handy to have as a cellmate.
Many inmates had action going in their cubicles. The most prevalent were the bodegas in which inmates maintained supplies from the commissary that they offered for resale to other inmates, at a substantial markup. The large grey footlockers under their bunks were filled with everything from toiletries to Twinkies. Bodegas were just the start of it. Since many inmates were in Allenwood on immigration detention charges, they were far from any family that could help them financially. As they had no money coming in from home, they would do almost anything to make money. There were inmates washing clothes, housekeeping, cutting hair – you name it. It was a closed system of barter. There was black market for almost everything you could imagine from which the guards were not immune. For example, cigarettes on the compound went for $700 per carton at a time that smoking was unlawful in Federal buildings. At that kind of markup, it was no wonder that a Central Pennsylvania guard on a low-level government salary might have been tempted to sneak in a few cartons of cigarettes.
The medium of exchange on the compound was the mack - so we were, in essence, on the “mack standard.” A mack was a smoked mackerel fish in a foil bag that we could buy at the commissary for a dollar. So they made a perfect standard for barter. If I wanted my clothes washed, it cost me two macks. To get my room cleaned cost me one mack. A haircut was two macks. But really any food or other item on the commissary list was fair game for trade. If I owed anybody money for services they had performed for me, on commissary day he would give me a list of things he wanted. I would get them for him, deliver them to him and we were square. Macks were used for poker games, football bets, settling all sorts of things. Some people hoarded macks, but if the guards caught an inmate with too many macks they could throw him in the SHU. Inmates were not allowed to exchange anything of value with each other, and too many macks in a locker was evidence that a guy had been trading something with somebody. This whole culture was entirely undercover - even though the guards were aware of exactly what was going on.
I went to Les and explained what had happened at the weight stack. Les laughed at me. He did that a lot - he thought that I was the most naïve city boy. I have to say that he was probably right. Les explained that Cuda didn’t use that bench from 6:30 – 7:30 in the morning; he owned that bench during that hour. And he probably owned other equipment during that time period too. Cuda acquired that bench a long time ago with some commissary money - or he had money sent home to that guy’s family - or he acquired it in some other way we just didn’t want to know about. If I wanted to work out in the morning, or at anytime, I would have to pay somebody. For that bench at that time period, I had to pay Cuda. Cuda wouldn’t talk to me about it because he didn’t know if I was a rat planted by the guards. Rats were among the lowest forms of life in a prison and were not safe from harm - that’s just the way it was.
The high cost of using workout equipment was the major reason that guys got together in “cars.” Cars were groups of four or five guys who rented a workout bar together for an hour at the same time every day. Les, for example, was in a car everyday at 2:30 in the afternoon. His crew pushed each other, spotted for each other, and importantly, was able to trade bars during the that hour with guys in other cars who had rented other workout bars for that same hour. That way, they all were able to complete their workout in this model brand of prison efficiency and economy.
My other cellie was Ricky Mosby, a club-kid from Brockton, Massachusetts who had been named “The Most Wanted Bachelor in Massachusetts” by Cosmopolitan Magazine. Ricky’s mother was a heroin addict who cleaned up, got a Master’s degree and made a life for Ricky. But she and Ricky moved often, with Ricky having changed schools almost yearly. In each of these schools, Ricky showed an almost chameleon-like ability to fit in immediately - he was handsome, smart, a star athlete, and was willing to do almost anything. Anything included drugs and women. Ricky was elected best looking guy in his high school senior class, had slept with over seventy-five girls by the time he had graduated, drinking, doing weed and acid. By age twenty-one he was doing cocaine and ecstasy. By the time he was twenty-four, he was taking 160 mg, of Oxycontin during the day to manage withdrawal from the previous night’s drinking, cocaine and crystal meth. He had slept with over five hundred women.
Ricky became manager at a local nightclub called King Arthur’s Cove – it was while managing this club that he was named as Cosmopolitan’s Most Wanted Bachelor. This was big news on the local nightclub scene, and was promoted heavily by the club. Every night, there were local paparazzi outside the club. Ricky felt like a star. It didn’t last long.
About two months later, a girl that Ricky was dating - one of many - accused Ricky of date rape. An article that Ricky had hanging in his locker:
Cosmopolitan's `Most Wanted' Charged In Drugging, Rape
September 25, 1998
A man named the "most wanted" bachelor in Massachusetts by Cosmopolitan magazine has been charged with drugging and raping a woman. Ricky C. Mosby, 22, was arrested Thursday at the Brockton home he shares with his mother. He pleaded not guilty and was released on a $20,000 personal recognizance bond. Police said the alleged victim, who is 23, and another woman met Mosby at Wamby's Bar on Aug. 8, and the three then went to another bar that Mosby managed at the time. Mosby served alcohol to the two women, and then gave them each a small plastic cup containing a green liquid, which he said was something from a nutrition store, said Detective Lt. William P. O'Connor, head of Brockton's sexual assault investigation unit.
It was a long process. Ricky lost his job, hired lawyers, defended himself and stayed home for a year. At the end of the year, Ricky was vindicated at trial.
Of course, this was not the end of a string of legal troubles for Ricky. In 2004, Ricky was introduced to the Federal prison system, for drug related charges, and then for threatening and interfering with a witness. He spent six months locked up in a Category 5, Super Max prison trying to make bail. Once bail made, he spent a year and a half waiting for his case’s disposition and designation to Federal prison. He reported to Allenwood Cube 25 one month after I did.
For most of my bid, it was the three of us in the cube: Les, Ricky and I. Ricky and I had big ideas for when we got out, and we would stay up late drafting business plans. Les would just shake his head and laugh - he knew better; he’d seen it all before. In retrospect, I think it kept us from going crazy. I got pretty good at The New York Times Crossword too. Our buddy Bobby was a nightclub owner from the Hamptons who had three newspapers a day delivered to him. He got caught in a sting buying drugs for the bands that played at his club. Newspapers were delivered a day late to prison, and after Bobby was through reading them there was a list of people who got to each newspaper – as a new guy I was pretty low on the pecking order. I usually got Monday’s New York Times delivered to me by Thursday. Since English was a second language on most of the compound, the crossword was always intact.
Sleeping was a problem in the unit, it seemed like the lights were always on - it was definitely always loud. There were 180 men on our side of the unit, divided into cubicles of two or three by seniority. If we stayed there long enough, we got a lower bunk. If we stayed even longer, we got an outside cubicle with a window. This was a seniority system I wanted nothing to do with. As a new guy, I was issued an upper bunk, but I really didn’t mind. Guys who had physical issues, or who were fifty years old or older, automatically got lower bunk passes. In my time there I saw lots of good cubicles split up by guys who came in waiving lower bunk passes for some kind of trumped-up ailment. It was not a good idea to break up a good cube – or to request any special privileges - if it would hurt another inmate.
I liked the upper bunk - it kind of pulled me away from the rest of the barrack feel and I could see out the upper windows and across all the mountains. Importantly, nobody could sit on my bed when they came to see Les to transact whatever business he had going on that day. But at night, the noise was deafening, and in multiple languages. I learned that Hispanics tend to speak very loudly – or at least it seemed that way. One night, when I was only there about three weeks or so, I was lying on my bunk with a pillow on my face just trying to get some sleep. Or some quiet. Three Latinos were holding a conference of some sort right outside the entrance of our cube. It sounded like they were screaming and yelling at one another. I couldn’t take it so I sat up in bed and screamed for them to “shut the fuck up.” Of course they ignored me. I was lucky that was the end of it.
Les was sitting on his bunk and stared me down before he asked me if I was trying to get myself killed. I just stared back at him. I told him I couldn’t take the screaming anymore. He looked at me with his country, puppy dog eyes and calmly explained to me that those “Latinos” were people. Instead of screaming, he suggested, that if I simply peaked my head into the hall and asked them politely to keep it down, or move their meeting to another location, they probably would have obliged.
For the next couple of months, I just kept my mouth shut. It became almost like a game to see how little could I say in a day and still manage to navigate my way through the daily life of prison. The key was to be respectful, to be a quiet observer. As I showed more respect in this way, I was given more respect in return.
Little by little I emerged. I helped Les out by reviewing some of his legal papers. I was to find out that having a legal background was a very useful commodity on the compound. I started discussed some other legal matters with the Jewish guys at synagogue on Friday nights. At synagogue, I wasn’t afraid to talk or let them know that I used to be a lawyer. But a prison, I found out, is a small place and a terrible place to try to keep a secret. So slowly word got around that I was a lawyer, and little by little other inmates approached me with their legal problems. I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid to turn them down. I was afraid to help them. This was not an easy situation.
I walked in the door of Allenwood with a few tags on my file: disbarred lawyer, alcoholic/ drug addict and psych/bipolar disorder - my sentencing judge had ordered that I attend substance abuse classes and to do that first I had to see the prison psychiatrist. In the weeks before I reported to Allenwood, I did a lot of reading and saw that the Federal prison health care system was likely to continue medications that had already been prescribed by my own psychiatrist, Dr. Delvecchio - provided that they were in their formulary and were stocked in their pharmacy. So I researched online what bipolar medications were in the government formulary; Dr. Delvecchio made a few modifications months in the before I reported to prison. When I first reported to prison on Easter Sunday, the first thing I did was to present the guard at check-in with a complete set of prescriptions for bipolar medications. This turned out to be prophetic and important part of my successful survival at prison, as I spent part of everyday on the pill line. The only accommodation to my prescriptions that the prison doctors did make for me was to change my twice-daily pill regimen to a double dose at bedtime. It had the wonderful ancillary effect of knocking me out many nights. A blessing.
I was instructed to see the compound psychologist sooner rather than later. I was told that my name would come up on the call out sheet. Again, I had no idea what a call out sheet was, but I was soon to learn that it got posted by the front door of the unit each evening to tell the inmates if they had specials the next day. I was soon to learn that had to report to all kinds of places – especially as a new guy. These were the specials. My cellies had instructed me to monitor the call sheet closely, and write down my call outs. If I missed a call out, the guards could throw me in the SHU. They also told me that new guys had a couple of weeks of grace to get used to the system, and that that nobody gets it perfect right away. That turned out to be true.
After a while, checking the call out sheet would be as natural as brushing my teeth. But organizing my day around it could be startlingly complicated in all sorts of ways. For example, let’s say I was in the unit after lunch and had a 1:30 call at medical, and then was going to Rec for a 2:30 class. Inmates had to wear their uniforms to medical. If I forgot to bring my workout clothes to medical then there was no way in ten minutes to get back to the unit to get them, and then have enough time to get to Rec for the class. If I showed up at the class at Rec without my workout clothes, then I could be hit and be thrown in the SHU. The only option was to have remembered to bring my workout clothes to medical in the first place - and that was not always as easy as it sounds.
On this particular day I had a call out to the Psychology Building, but it other than that it didn’t say with why or with whom – standard prison fare. On the move, I crossed to the Psychology Building and checked in. There was a lot of checking in on the compound. I was told to sit and wait, as I was to meet the compound psychologist. This first appointment turned out to be one of my most pivotal experiences at Allenwood.
Dr. Morganti was amazingly attentive - he didn’t appear to be rushing me and seemed willing to allow as much time as I needed. We went through my history, medications, and substance abuse issues. He asked me what I wanted to accomplish while I was in prison. He asked where I wanted to work in the year or so I would be on the compound. The guards in the unit had been pushing me to work in the education department in the library so I could help other inmates to pass their GED’s. That seemed to be a good fit given my background. Maybe I could teach a class in basic business law? Maybe I could have regular psychotherapy appointments, just like I did back in Connecticut? After paying close attention, Dr. Morganti told me that I had a rare opportunity to spend a year of my life working on things differently than I ever had before - to explore different coping mechanisms in a structured environment. He delicately suggested that I try working at the Recreation Department in the outdoors and try exercising everyday. He suggested that instead of relying upon a weekly therapy session, I try to build some effective relationships and start to rely upon my own ability to tell right from wrong. What’s to lose, he said, we could always try my plan if his didn’t work?
Just getting the job at the Rec required its own brand of diplomacy. It helped that I had Dr. Morganti on my side, but I still had to convince the Head Rec Guard to hire me. The Head Rec Guard was like one-part guard and one-part gym coach - he even wore Adidas rip-stop warm-ups all day, the kind that Ken Howard used to wear on The White Shadow. Except that this guy had a badge, and was the difference between my good job in the sun and a bad job toiling in the library all day long. I went up the Rec office and asked to speak him. I told him that I had been a lawyer and would do anything to work at Rec – in reflection it was a sales pitch that sounded a little too much like Tim Robbins in the Shawshank Redemption. Nonetheless, he was impressed and hired me on the spot - to clean out garbage cans every weekday morning at the going rate of $5.15 per month. I had my job at Rec without further negotiation.
Now working at Rec for four hours every morning, I started on a plan to walk myself back into shape. I walked round and round on that track through rain and snow. Nothing could stop me - I was a veritable Forrest Gump. I walked 14,000 laps before I left – 3500 miles, the equivalent of walking from New York to Los Angeles. It was my outlet, my way to be transported out of the prison. Most of the time I had on a pair of headphones connected to an AM-FM radio that I had purchased at the commissary. At six every morning the local college radio station started broadcasting National Public Radio and that’s what I listened to for most of the time. I figured that if I had to build my own rehabilitation plan, listening to news and arts wasn’t such a bad idea. Of course, we were only about three hundred miles from New York City and I was often pretty homesick. So I listened to Imus in the Morning sometimes too. I wasn’t really a fan of Imus, but at least it was news from home.
One day while I was walking the track, one of the shot callers came up to me and said he wanted to speak with me. A shot caller was a gang leader – but I think a shot caller can also be a leader of a religious or some other group. At least I think that’s a pretty good definition. Anyway, I stopped walking when this shot caller came up to me - he told me that he heard that I kept my mouth shut and that I could be trusted. He smiled at me and I smiled back - and that was that. Judgment had been passed on me. I had earned respect on the compound.
So I learned that earning respect on the compound was mostly a matter of keeping my mouth shut. I certainly found it to be really counterintuitive for most people before I got to prison - and it certainly was for me on the inside. Nobody gave a damn what I had to say about anything. In retrospect nobody cared about anything I had to say before I got to prison either. Maybe I had been living one big delusion the whole time, like success and money just bought me a pulpit to spew out just so much bullshit.
Once approved by the shot callers, inmates approached with all sorts of legal questions and business problems. I always told them that I only gave friendly advice on the track – and that I never sat down with anybody. There were cameras everywhere, and the guards were very suspicious of people who sat down in places like the library to discuss anything. The jailhouse lawyers working in the library camped out there all day, perhaps earning thousands of dollars processing appeals and motions for inmates who had no - or few - other choices. As far as I could tell, almost none of the appeals they submitted ever resulted in reversals. It was just a factory of false hopes built on the backs of inmates who struggled to pay. From what I gathered, their poor families back at home delivered illegal payment after payment to the accounts of these jailhouse lawyers. Every once in awhile, these illegal transactions would blow up and everybody involved would wind up in the SHU - just to start up all over again. There was no shortage of the desperation of inmates looking for a miracle and greed of the jailhouse lawyers more than willing to take them up on it.
I never got involved in any of this. Perhaps it was a good thing that I had been a business lawyer and I really had no idea about any criminal law matters - especially the type of federal criminal law issues that fueled the appeals that these guys needed. Nonetheless, the more I walked the track and talked with fellow inmates, I found that they had other legal issues too. They discussed with me their divorces, bankruptcies, real estate, business transactions - and mostly their hopes and dreams for new lives when they got released. So many of these guys had plans for what they wanted to do when they finally got home. How could I not listen? We walked and talked for hours. I only had two simple requests of anybody who wanted to talk with me and get some advice: (1) that we only discussed things while we walked on the track, and (2) that we had to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings together. These guys were all drug dealers anyway – I figured that offering them my experience and sponsoring them in AA was pretty much the same thing.
About Last Stop Babylon:
The Art of Surviving Prison
Last Stop Babylon: The Art of Surviving Prison is my first book – some chapters have been serialized on this blog. Portions of it were written from 2009 to 2012 while I was a Master of Divinity student at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York – it was then was submitted and accepted in 2012 as my senior thesis. Much of the thesis structure remains – the fall, exile and diaspora - albeit reorganized and expanded into a recovery memoir that takes place over the course of my life. While it is certainly a recovery memoir, it is also a bible of rare and necessary information for people who are - or might be - going to prison. I have tried to use a crisp, honest narrative style that does not sensationalize or sugarcoat my crimes, my punishment, or my recovery. It is my own riches - to rags - to redemption story blended with specific and graphic details about daily living conditions, survival skills and spirituality inside a modern day prison. It is my attempt to offer hope and inspiration to anyone in need of a second chance in life. - Jeff
Progressive Prison Project/
Innocent Spouse & Children Project
Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div, Director
at Christ Church Greenwich
254 East Putnam Avenue
Greenwich, Connecticut, USA 06830
Innocent Spouse & Children Project
Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div, Director
at Christ Church Greenwich
254 East Putnam Avenue
Greenwich, Connecticut, USA 06830
First Baptist Church of Bridgeport
126 Washington Avenue, 1st Floor
Bridgeport, Connecticut, USA 06604
Jesus Saves Ministries
784 Connecticut Avenue
Bridgeport. CT 06607
Cathedral of Praise C.O.G.I.C.
45 Gregory Street
Bridgeport, CT 06604