Prison Diary, Part 2

Life's a bitch, and sometimes you get put in jail for it. AVN Senior Editor Mark Kernes recalls his incarceration.

 Mark Kernes' prison saga continues. Part 1 can be found here . For those who don't get the reference below, "Susan Atkins" was one of Manson's followers who bragged about how she'd killed for him and repeatedly got denied parole because of it.


I tried to make my bunk quietly, but Willie woke up. I can't remember the exact dialogue, but as with any new "partnership" where the partners have just met, there was a certain amount of verbal dancing around, probing for information while trying not to inadvertently offend the other person. From the way he reacted, I suppose he was wary of having a white guy for a cubie. I found that cultural differences are, in some ways, magnified among prisoners. The professed Jews took great pains to separate themselves from the bulk of the prison population, much moreso than they would have in outside society. The Hispanics I met all came from very different backgrounds, and barely communicated with each other. The blacks tended to look out for each other, but there was an abyss between the younger, hipper ones and the old-timers.

After making up my bunk, which was a pain in the ass, being on the upper level - all newcomers got upper bunks unless they had a medical condition that prevented their climbing - I got checked out by the other prisoners, who were just returning from their work details. I think the first guy that came over was Ralph, a 50ish sort of guy, who asked how long I was in for (this was generally the first question any convict would ask another), and then said that if there was anything I needed, just come to him. I took this offer in the best of light, and didn't automatically assume he wanted something in exchange and/or was gay. Ralph, I later found out, was in Camp for 4 years on a counterfeiting charge which had netted him quite a bit of money. (Naturally, exact amounts were not discussed; even I knew enough not to ask, mostly based on what I was told while in prison in '69: One of the other prisoners had advised me, since I was only in jail awaiting bail, that it wouldn't be a good idea to tell others about my "crime"; any of them might be a stoolie, looking for a lighter sentence in exchange for information picked up around the prison. If Susan Atkins had followed that advice, she might be a free woman today.)

I do hope, however, that Ralph has a very large amount stashed, because after he gets out of Allenwood, he's got 10 more years to do in Graterford, one of the Pennsylvania state prisons, on the same rap ... and Ralph has already had 2 heart attacks, so by the time he gets out, he'll be too old and in too bad health to be able to spend it properly ... and it seems likely to me that his cache of "real money" (Federal Reserve Notes) will then be worth about as much as the stuff he was printing.

Ralph, I found out, was a sort of father figure for the dorm, and for a small fee, he'd do your laundry for you while you were at work. (Payable in Camp currency: Things that could be bought from the Commissary. Convicts weren't allowed to have more than about a dollar in change in their possession at any time; just enough for a couple of candy bars from the dorm vending machines.) Ralph didn't have an official job because of his health, so he was a sort of a "dorm orderly." He was the one that found me my "kit"; a wooden box with a handle that I could use to keep my soap, comb, razor, etc. in. (Yes, Virginia, they do give you razor blades in minimum security prisons ... and a razor to put them in that is nearly impossible to use without bloodshed. Eventually, I bought some Bic disposables ... at the Commissary's usual exorbitant - i.e., retail - price.)

The payment to Ralph was necessary because he was taking a risk. You're not allowed to do your own laundry (except underwear) in prison. When I finally got my "wardrobe" the next day, it wasn't a hell of a lot better than the stuff they first gave me. Everything was military surplus (except the shoes - those were made at another prison - and the underwear, which were Sears imperfects) and it was all pretty ratty, full of holes. I finally got clued in to the solution to the clothing problem: When you get a worthwhile shirt from the laundry, keep it! Same with pants. When it gets dirty, wash it yourself, but make sure nobody in authority is around, because in that form of communism known as the prison system, it's share and share alike ... whether you want to or not. What actually happened was that long-timers steadily built their wardrobes of decent clothes and guarded them against discovery by the hacks. (Hack = guard, or, speaking generally, anyone in authority.)

And the penalty for breaking the rules, I soon found out, was most likely to be an "Inmate Incident Report," otherwise known as a "shot." Of course, anything serious, like an attempted escape, was dealt with much more severely, but the shots were what kept us in line. You could get a shot for just about anything, like the unauthorized changing of a TV channel. Screwing up count was a real no-no. Shots had various consequences, unless they were worked off by waxing the floors in the visiting area or some such menial labor. A shot could keep you in an upper bunk after it was your turn for a lower. A shot could delay the weekend furlough you'd been promised. Worst of all, shots could cause you to lose "good time."

"Good time" is a concept that few outside of the prison system seem to have heard of ... and which would probably incense a few people if they had. You see, almost no-one in prison serves his full sentence. Somewhere along the line, somebody snuck the concept of "good time" into the rules, probably to help relieve overcrowding. It goes like this: If you have a sentence of 6 months or more - which let me out - you automatically receive 5 days per month off your sentence simply for obeying all the institution rules. For instance, Dr. Gerald MacDonald, who killed his wife and 2 kids and claimed he and they were attacked by a band of dope-crazed hippies, is right now receiving 5 days per month off his sentence simply for being a good boy in prison.

Residency in Allenwood or another minimum security facility, however, carries a double bonus. Every Allenwood prisoner, including short-timers like me, receives "Camp Good Time," which is an extra 3 days per month off your sentence for the first year, and 5 days per month after that. This was one of the happiest things I learned in my first few days there, when I suddenly received an official notice that instead of the 3 months to which I had been sentenced, I would only actually be there for 2 months and 20 days. (I later received notification that I was also to get credit for the day I was arrested - at which time I had walked into the federal courthouse in Philadelphia, surrendered myself to the marshals, was fingerprinted and mug-shot and released on my own recognizance - a total of about 2 hours - and that since that would move my release day to a Sunday, I would actually be freed on Friday, December 7th; total, 2 months and 17 days.)

So loss of good time was nothing to sneeze at. You couldn't lose statutory good time - that was decreed by the Bureau of Prisons - but you could lose Camp good time. So if you got a shot, you worked it off. I never did get any, but I came close a few times.

Anyway, I was introduced by Ralph to 4 or 5 other guys, all of whom you'll get to meet as this goes along. Then 4 o'clock count came around ... and the strangest thing happened: As soon as the guards finished counting, everybody started edging out of their cubes, and when one of the guards yelled "All clear," there was a mad dash for one of the cubes at the end of the dorm. This, Willie said, was to get a phone call that night. Each inmate got 10 minutes of phone time per evening, plus as much as he could wangle during the day; say, during lunch, or, for the lucky few who had jobs that didn't conform to the Camp's regular work schedule, sometime during the morning or afternoon work periods. My first day there, I didn't realize how important phone calls could be, but before I left, they became one of the things that got me through the day.

The phone list at that time was compiled by Phil Gaziano, an ex-IRS agent, rumored to be there for taking bribes from potential auditees. The location of the phone list moved each day so that technically, each section of the dorm got first choice at least once a week. In fact, phone calls were just another bargaining chip of prison life. Guys would be first in line for a call, get an optimum time - say, 11 p.m. or just after - and trade it to someone for a 6-pack of Coke or a box of laundry soap. Guys used to beg for certain phone times; I never figured out why. All calls had to be collect - not even credit card calls were allowed - so either your wife or girlfriend (or whatever) was there or she wasn't. This didn't bother me so much, as what time I got usually decided who I called. If I got the early evening, I'd call either my friend Linda or my ex-housemate Mike. If it were late evening, I'd try the parents, or some other friends. A call after 11:00 was tricky, but I usually found someone awake ... or wakeable. I think I even called a friend in Hawaii once.

Shortly after the phone rush came chow call ... which, like every other main event in the prison, was announced by an electronic tone generator, always too loud, especially in the mornings. Our unit (dorms 1 & 2) happened to be the first called so we swarmed down to the dining hall ... and what turned out to be my first mistake in prison.

Meals are handled cafeteria style in Allenwood. You take a tray and utensils, stand in line, some inmate asks you what you want from the not-too-appetizing assortment, and then slops it on your plate. What I didn't know as I walked in there was that there were really 2 lines, one kosher and one non-kosher. (As you come in the door, it all sort of looks like one line, due to the crowding.) I was just about to follow the longest (non-kosher) line when I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a voice saying, "You don't want to do that." The fear I felt only lasted a split second as I turned around to see that the speaker was Milt G., the only guy I'd known on the outside.

I first met Milt in the spring of '82, during a monthly "solidarity" meeting of my tax protest group, headed by Bob G. (currently doing 3 years in Danbury), and the one Milt and his wife Gretchen (currently doing 6 months in Muncie) were in charge of a few miles away. I eventually began attending meetings of both groups, and the relationship between the 2 leaders was a real case study in how a good cause can be screwed up by internecine rivalries. A similar account of destruction can be found in Art Kleps' Millbrook. It's very sad to watch, and I suspect that it won't be the last time I see this sort of thing up close. At its worst, a couple of months before the indictments came down, Bob told me privately to watch out for Milt and Gretchen, because the only people that could have caused as much dissention as they had would have to be undercover agents; Bob could tell because of the way they phrased things when talking on his tapped telephone, and their failure to come up with a quick writ of habeas corpus when he'd been thrown in jail overnight a couple of years earlier.

I, of course, saw what was really happening, and could only stand by and hope for the best, while trying to downplay their worst fears about each other, which I knew were unfounded. Needless to say, once all the leaders were indicted for having conspired together, it became "one for all, and all for one" ... at least, for a while.

The upshot was that Milt got 3 years (later reduced to 18 months) for Willful Failure To File, and Conspiracy.  So Milt was biding his time, studying law in the prison law library, and, I found out later, generally being a pain in the ass around the dorm. Somehow, prison had turned Milt macho ... or as macho as a 5'4' aging, deskbound Jew can get.

Milt had appointed himself my guardian, and his first duty was to see that I ate on the kosher food line. I'd heard through Gretchen that he had been working in the kitchen at Allenwood, and he swore that the kosher food was much superior to what the regular convicts ate. In retrospect, I'd say he was wrong: Both food lines were about equally unappetizing much of the time ... and the kosher line never got icing on its cake.

But that was only one of the things I, as a newly-arrived convict, didn't know, so I accepted his urging and went kosher. This may not seem like a major decision to some readers, but I agonized over it. To ask to be fed kosher was to refer to myself as Jewish ... something that I had never done, despite the urging of friends and relatives who didn't (don't!) understand that religion is not something that one is born with. Many - perhaps most - people simply slide into the religion of their parents, and never question that particular view of their place in the universe, their "relationship" to some "supreme being," etc. I, on the other hand, have spent a great deal of time on the subject. So to allow myself to be identified as "Jewish" felt hypocritical. Here was my first brush with jailhouse logic: Did it matter what I called myself in a place that, after 2 months and 17 days, I would (with any luck) never see again? Probably not.

So I became an instant "Jew," entitled - required! - to eat only kosher food. And it didn't make a hell of a difference what I called myself, the food was still lousy ... except that on Saturdays, if I wanted dinner, I had my choice of chopped liver or gefilte fish, which, on a smaller scale, is not unlike Ulysses' choice between Scylla and Charybdis.

The typical Allenwood menu needs some explanation. Many of the dozens of items supposedly offered at each meal weren't. The "kosher" menu was basically a Xerox of the non-kosher menu, and even the regular convicts didn't get everything on their menu, so we got even less. In general, as one might expect, the food ranged from sort-of palatable to awful. Meat tended to be dry, even though most of it came from cattle raised on Allenwood's farm. Vegetables were generally tasteless and watery. The soups were good, if sometimes too salty or peppery. Jews weren't supposed to eat the various "salads" offered - cole slaw, carrots and raisins, pseudo-Waldorf - but that was okay; most of them didn't taste very good. All bread and cake products were baked at Allenwood, and depending on which prisoner did the baking, some were good and some were terrible. The only decent meal I got there was Thanksgiving, where everybody really outdid themselves. The turkey was delicious, as were the veggies and stuffing. It was a meal everyone was looking forward to, because after all, what pleasures does a convict have besides eating, sleeping and visitors?

As my guardian, Milt made sure I met the "right" people, by which was meant all the guys he played bocceball with and a few others. (For those not familiar, bocceball resembles shuffleboard, except that it's played in a long trough with round balls. Points are scored by having 2 or more balls of your color touching at the end of play, while your opponent uses his balls to knock yours apart.) Among the non-bocce players I remember meeting that night - I was still somewhat in shock from the day's events, and would remain that way for the next week or so - were Ira M. and Leo S., then cubies in my dorm, and both of whom, I decided - as I would decide about a number of others - were too nice to be in prison. (Shows you how wrong one can be. Leo, it turned out, had been convicted of embezzling funds from a federal youth program in New York City.)

I think Ira was my favorite prison acquaintance. He was in for credit card fraud, which actually translates to running a whorehouse in the Washington, D.C. environs, along with his partner Bill H. On the outside, Ira's and Bill's vocation - the bordello being a sideline - was selling lamps and fixtures and things to interior decorators ... which was how they got into The Business in the first place. Seems they had a lot of cash and were looking for ways to invest it, so their accountant suggested a terrific opportunity she'd (!) just heard of ... which turned out to be the local massage parlor. What Ira didn't realize at the time was that his new investment was a front for a house of prostitution. I was never too clear on the date all this started, but it was at a time when it wasn't legal in D.C. for women to massage men, and vice versa. According to Ira, he was the guy who went to court and got all that changed. Well, the business grew, until, at the time he was busted, he and Bill were running 7 "massage parlors," and making quite good money at it.

The operation was quite well organized. Bill was Mr. Inside, meaning he managed the houses, hired and fired the women, and kept everything running smoothly ... including keeping on good relations with the local police and contributing to their unofficial 'benevolent fund.' The business' major problem was that it took credit cards, and Ira and Bill hadn't bothered to tell the credit card company just exactly what their customers were charging ... not that the company would have approved. In fact, it was the company, working hand in glove with the feds, that put our boys away. Bill told me that he never allowed a woman to work if she were addicted to anything, and he discouraged use of marijuana on the premises. Bill said he had a lot of stories he could tell, which I frequently pressed him to relate, but we never really spent as much time on it as I'd have like.

Ira was Mr. Outside. He generally stayed away from the parlors, handled the books of the business, and invested 10% of the women's "tips" in CD's and IRA's to provide for their future ... which was extremely generous of him, as the hookers ran the gamut from college students working their way through, to "mature" women whose clientele were steadily diminishing, and who had never given a thought to their retirement.

I learned that one of the cardinal rules of that business is, Never Fool Around With The Help. Both Ira and Bill were happily married, and while their wives didn't really approve of The Business, they knew their hubbies weren't being unfaithful. Ira and Bill thought so highly of the wives that they refused to let them visit at the Camp; they didn't want them subjected to the agony of seeing their husbands in prison. And being in Allenwood for 3 years without a visit is sheer torture.

A sidelight of their conviction was that the IRS also got after them, claiming that they owed something like $3 million in unpaid taxes on profits - a laughable figure, but how many of the IRS's aren't? When he heard this for the first time, Bill offered to start paying right away. He pulled a tax refund check out of his pocket and endorsed it right over to them. It was for 63 cents.

Also of interest was that the judge liked them so much that he wanted to give them light sentences (well, by some criteria, 3 years is a light sentence), but found that he couldn't, because he had convicted them under something called the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which called for a minimum sentence of something like 5 years. So in an unprecedented action, he called them back into court, reversed their RlCO conviction and found them not guilty of being "racketeer influenced" (which, of course, was correct) and gave them their 3 year sentences.

I'd been introduced to most of the guys in the dorm - there being about 75 inmates in Dorm 2 - but didn't really spend any time in conversation that night. I'm basically shy, and was feeling cautious about telling much about my private life. Besides, Milt had cautioned me that he'd started out by telling anyone who'd listen about his tax fight, and why he was correct, and that hadn't won him any friends. I, on the other hand, found several folks willing to listen, and not just out of jailhouse courtesy; I think they were amused by the concept of somebody who went to jail because of something he believed in. Another unofficial rule I learned is, any convict who claims not to have committed his particular crime should be assumed innocent while you're in conversation with him. As it turned out, a lot of us were only too willing to confirm the circumstances of our "crime," if not the legal effects thereof. I certainly did just about everything the government said I did, except that I had no intention of committing an illegal act, and I would still contend that my acts were not in fact illegal. That, however, "don't cut no ice" with the forces of law 'n' order. Several other inmates, including Carl S. in my dorm, were in for trespassing on government property. What they had done was invade a General Electric facility in Florida that had some defense contracts, and attempt to slow the work down. That was worth 18 months in the slammer. Various others were in for political acts ... including, I would say, the bordello operators. (There were several more besides Ira and Bill, including the guys that owned the famous Plato's Retreat in New York City.)

That first night, I slept like a log, though awoke momentarily at about 3:30 because of some strange movement around me. (It was the kitchen staff leaving to start breakfast.) Wake-up in Allenwood is accomplished, at 5:45 a.m., by the guard on duty in "Center" (the operations control room for the prison), generating 4 or 5 obnoxious electronic tone blasts through the camp-wide speaker system, and shouting "Reveille! Reveille!" (On weekends, the blasts were missing and the "Reveille" was much quieter.) I went to breakfast that day, which was either cold cereal, oatmeal, Wheatena, some sort of egg dish or pancakes - who can remember? - and again got caught up in the insanity of being kosher: A Jewish inmate chastised me for using one of "their" glasses. Jews were only to use plastic cups, paper plates and plastic utensils.

It's tough to keep kosher when you have so little idea how it works.



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