Prison Diary, Part 3

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

 Continuing Mark Kernes' prison saga. Part 1 can be found here ; Part 2 can be found here .


Walking to breakfast became one of the most enjoyable parts of my day. I've never liked getting up that early, but the sunrises at Allenwood were superb! The front of Dorm 2 faces west towards the dining hall, so I sort of had to walk backwards down the hill to catch the first rays, but there are few things prettier than sunrise in the mountains. Allenwood is set on a hill, and below the camp to the northwest is a deep valley that, 9 days out of 10, was filled with fog that would flow northward as the sun began to burn it off.

It's too good a sight for some of those swine ... and I'm not just talking about the prisoners.

The call to meals is 1 unit (2 dorms) at a time. That week, our unit was first, and I later learned that the order of meal call is based upon how clean your unit is, according to an inspection by the Camp Safety Officer, Frank Bahner. Bahner was also in charge of Camp fire protection, none of which appeared to keep him very busy unless some emergency arose. Our dorm was generally pretty clean, and for the first part of my sentence, we consistently got top score ... until Bahner decided that cleanliness also revolved around how we handled the mutant cats.

It seems that, many years ago, when Allenwood was just starting out, the camp farm was plagued by mice and other rodents - not too surprising, since the place is pretty much out in the middle of nowhere. So the Warden, in His Wisdom, let the inmates keep cats for pest control. The idea worked, but perhaps too well. When I arrived, there were about 20 cats still left on the property, and the official word was, they didn't exist. No-one was supposed to feed them, shelter them or care for them in any way. Of course, unofficially, most of the inmates in my dorm played with them during break periods and after hours. Most of us would sneak food out of the dining room and feed them, and we had a cardboard box and some old sheets fixed up as their house.

But the strangest thing about these cats was their feet. I don't know anything about cat breeding, so I have no idea if this phenomenon is at all common, but most of the cats had what appeared to be the beginning of a second paw growing out of the back of each main paw, just about at the area of the footpad. It was a weird-looking thing, but it gave them character. I assumed it was probably due to a couple of generations of inbreeding, but what do I know?

Anyway, about a week after I got there, some local kid was bitten by a rabid raccoon and died. This was the impetus for an executive order that anyone caught playing with the cats would get a shot, because they might be rabid, and the Warden wasn't going to have any of "his men" dead "for no good reason." The order also said that the SPCA would be coming to pick up the cats within the week, so there was no need for us convicts to feed or shelter them.

Of course, the SPCA never did show up, and the cats just got scrawnier and scrawnier, until we started feeding them again ... at which time the shit hit the fan. Bahner decided that our little cat shelter was a health hazard, and continually lowered our cleanliness rating until we were always last for chow. Some of the guys grumbled, but for most of us, it was a matter of pride. WE weren't going to let these poor creatures starve and freeze, no matter how much THEY wanted us to.

But I digress ...

The next day, there wasn't much for me to do. They paged me down to the personnel office a couple of times to ask about various things in my file. I had some sort of interview with the guy that was in charge of the gym, and then hung around to check out the Camp library ... and the librarian. Contrary to lay opinion, many women do work in male prisons, and among them was our librarian, whose (unpronounceable) name now escapes me. She was quite a pleasant person, who didn't seem to fear the convicts as much as some of her sisters - notably Wendy M., who was to become my work boss. It didn't take much to make Wendy nervous, but once she got to know me, she relaxed considerably. (I have that effect on people.)

After a quick tour of the library and the gym, I wandered back to the dorm and laid around, reading Heinlein's Waldo and Magic Incorporated, which I'd found on the dorm bookshelves. Each dorm has a few shelves for books that convicts neglect to take with them when they're discharged. Apparently there had been a real Heinlein fan around at one point, because I found almost all of his major novels on one shelf or another. Our dorm also had Starship Troopers and I Will Fear No Evil, and I gathered several other titles during one Saturday's diligent search. A notable exception was The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress ... so I asked Bob G's daughter Gloria to bring it up on her visit. (The synchronistic story of how I wound up in the tax movement, in which Gloria plays a pivotal role, will have to wait for another time.) I expect the book's still there; I left it as part of a scheme to smuggle out a book by Mike Royko that had much impressed me.

So I laid around and met a few new people, until Milt came and convinced me that since I was now officially a Jew, I should attend Friday night services. That way, I could meet the other Jews in camp, and it supposedly was a good change in the routine. Well, I hadn't attended any sort of Jewish service since a outbreak of scruples in 10th grade, when I decided that if my (atheist) parents were going to require that I take off from school for Jewish holidays, that I'd really ought to find out what happened inside the synagogues on those occasions. Such forthrightness lasted through about 3 weeks of Friday prayers. There are few things as boring as a (Western) religious ceremony, so I quit going.

My first Friday night at Allenwood was 10th grade all over again. Though most of the ceremony was conducted in English, it was clear that the "rabbi," Myron G., expected each of us to read a portion of the hymnal ... but I had my limits. The thing went on for 2 hours!! When it was finally over, they served us all grape juice and gefilte fish (Don't Try This At Home Yourself, Boys and Girls) and we all socialized for a bit before going back to the dorms. I met several people with whom I'd have more contact later ... but more importantly, Big Mistake #2 was just on the horizon. Y'see, I'd arrived just as the Jewish holidays were about to begin, and "as Jews," it was our duty to take off work for them. Yes, folks, prisons are really civilized today. It's now almost as easy to shirk work inside a prison as outside ... and some of these guys were masters at it. So "of course," what I had to do was sign a "cop-out" (more formally known as an Inmate Request To Staff) and give it to the camp chaplain so that he would know I was Jewish and would arrange for me not to have to work on the holidays. For some reason, this had to be done very quickly, so when I went back to the dorm that night, I got the form from Leo, who just happened to have a few dozen blank ones laying around, and delivered it the next day.

I got some early lessons in how to handle the guards. Most of them were "live and let live" types, though I remember one guy named Mr. V who, rumor had it, had been transferred in from a maximum security prison after having been attacked and raped by 3 inmates. He was Mr. Macho; always behaved as if he had something to prove. Also, to my surprise, one of the guards was a woman. After reflection, I realized that this wasn't so strange. There were no guns at Allenwood. All the prisoners were in for non-violent crimes. If the Warden ever decided he needed armament, he'd call the local police, as happened once or twice when a fight broke out among some of the inmates.

The weekend was uneventful, except that I went around reading all of the official posted notices in the dorm. I was supposed to know them, but most would never apply to a short-timer like me who had no interest in the various inter-dorm sports events. (Soccer was very big at the time.) One thing I was responsible to know, however, was what they refer to as a "call-out sheet." This paper, which is posted every weekday at about 4:00, shows any changes in a convict's normal daily schedule. If you're due for an examination, it's on the call-out. If you've changed jobs, it's on the call-out. If you're leaving the institution, it's on the call-out. So I wasn't surprised when I saw my name on Friday as a new arrival, and listed for "A&O" on Monday.

"Admission & Orientation" lasts about a week, and is supposed to introduce the new inmate to each department in camp, so he can decide where he wants to apply for a job. That's the theory. In practice, what happens is that most of these flunkies have little worthwhile to say. (What can you tell a guy about being a warehouseman that's either informative or stimulating when he's in jail for stealing $10,000,000 worth of computer equipment ... as the above-mentioned Myron G. was.) Inmates perform the vast majority of the work that goes on in any prison, from mopping the floors to cooking the food to shoveling the snow. So each of us that had entered prison during the previous week was required to sit in the gym every morning from 7:45 till about 10:00 and listen to people like the kitchen boss, Woollweever, tell us how he feeds about 560 convicts on $2.21 a day each (add 25 cents for us kosher guys). We heard from Bahner about the camp fire department, from Wendy M. about the Commissary, from Jack Knelly about the warehouse, from the cute librarian about the library and GED programs, from Opal S. about how the business office runs ... everybody got their say, right down to the chaplain, who went last, I guess, to wrap everything up. His "thing" was to tell us to "do your own time." By that, he meant that if you started a fight, you were doing somebody else's time. Same went for not accepting the guidance of prison officials. The spiel seemed reasonably logical at the time; damned if I can remember now how it all hung together.

I had already been clued in, however, that if I waited until the end of A&O before choosing a job, that I'd most likely be put to work in "Industry." Industry was one of the more fascinating features about Allenwood, although I would not find this out until later. What I saw during A&O was a lot of guys assembling desks and chairs and a few other office items in a big warehouse. It didn't strike me as interesting, although the rate of pay at this job was mentioned 5 or 6 times during that department head's "sales pitch." Whereas most jobs at the camp paid 11 cents an hour, Industry paid 25 cents, and raises were quick. No wonder: You had to work in an atmosphere filled with sawdust and the like, and with so much noise that ear protectors were a must. I knew this was not the job for me. I'd discussed the situation with Milt, who advised that I ask around among my fellow inmates what jobs were open. My first choice would have been the library, where Ira worked, but there was nothing available. Then someone mentioned that Jack Knelly needed another clerk down at the warehouse. He was particularly looking for someone that could type. Well, if there's one thing a stenographer can do, it's type. And Knelly was reputed to be a relatively easy boss to work for, despite his gruff manner. So on Thursday, after A&O had finished for the morning, I made up a cop-out requesting to work in the warehouse and brought it to Jack to sign. If he agreed, then it was almost a foregone conclusion that I would get the job. The only snag might be if they were very shorthanded in Industry, in which case every available new body would be sent there, barring a medical excuse.

Jack asked a few questions, such as how fast a typist I was, and how fast I could take shorthand. I told him I could type 80 words per minute (a lie; I can do about 40 on a good day) and could take 200 wpm in shorthand ... if I had my steno machine. (I'd asked to be allowed to bring it into prison, so as not to lose my speed while incarcerated, but was refused. I later learned that everybody in authority was extremely paranoid about having their words recorded. That was one reason that while we could have radios, walkman-type tape players were verboten. They were afraid someone might modify one of them to record. I know it seems impossible to believe that they could be that stupid, but that's what I was told by people who should know.)

Anyway, Jack finally okayed my form, and told me to report for work Monday; that I'd help his current employees with the Commissary shipments. Things finally seemed to be settling down into an acceptable pattern ... but Thursday was also the start of the Jewish holidays, and I was supposed to attend services.

Now, you've probably heard of various groups that do charity work in prisons, and the Jews were "lucky" enough to secure the services of some traveling rabbis called "Lubavitchers," who consented to perform the Rosh Hashonah (Jewish New Year) services for us prisoners. And I'd thought Friday night prayers were boring! These orthodox types went on for like 6 hours at a time ... for 3 days ... and I couldn't understand a word of it! Talk about things that are less fun than being poked in the eye with a sharp stick! If I'd really been smart, that would have been the time to go to the "Reverend Hack" as he was referred to, confess that I wasn't really Jewish (an act which would carry no penalty but would probably be noted on my permanent record) and start eating non-kosher food ... but I was still in shock about the whole situation and didn't feeling like making even minor waves. So I suffered.

In fact, Friday morning, we all got to suffer. It seems that some of the guys that had the Jewish holidays off hadn't bothered to show up for services Thursday night. So when 9 o'clock count came around, the Jewish group was minus its proper number ... and you have no idea how crazy they get in prison about having the proper count. Count wasn't cleared for about an hour (an unprecedented length of time for anything short of an escape) and Reverend Myer called us all down to the gym at 7:30 the next morning to scream at us for having messed up the count. Of course, the people that had missed the services the night before didn't bother to show up for Myer's lecture. It was my first inkling that I could be punished for something someone else had done.

The most interesting upshot of the Lubavitcher visit was that they invited 2 inmates to go with them to Florida on a religious retreat. Bet you didn't know that convicts could get a vacation from the pokey for prayer, did you? Well, yes, they can ... if the circumstances are right. You have to be eligible for a furlough, meaning you're within one year of being released, and you can't have any outstanding shots on your record. Even then, it's damn difficult to get permission. After all, we were in there to be punished ... But the guys who wound up going were not what I would call devout.

And that led to yet another "only in prison ..." scenario. Seems one of my dormmates, Jeff P., a devout Mormon, got a little incensed that these Jews could get to go to Florida on a religious retreat, but he couldn't get permission to do the same in nearby Williamsport. He was near release, he was about to inherit the class job in the place: The Warden's chauffeur ... he was a model prisoner. So he applied for the furlough, and got okayed all the way down the line until it came to our unit manager, a guy named Chapman. Chapman had the application for weeks, but didn't do anything about it, and the date for the furlough was drawing near. Jeff was getting more and more anxious ... and he made the mistake of telling his wife about it on the phone. What Jeff didn't know was that since he'd been making so much noise in Camp about Chapman not approving the furlough, the Powers That Be were paying particular attention to his phone calls. Well, the shit really hit the fan when they found out he was planning a little rendezvous with the missus while he was supposed to be retreating religiously. They immediately cancelled the furlough ... and they took his cushy job away from him.


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