Prison Diary, Part 4

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

 This is the fourth installment of my prison diary. Part 1 can be found here . Part 2 can be found here . Part 3 can be found here .


Bright and early Monday morning, I reported for work at the Commissary warehouse, where I would join the person and a half who were already working there. The half person was Joe L., although I didn't know at the time just what kind of a fuckup this guy was. When I first saw him, he was sitting in a chair, watching my other 'teammate,' Harry S., finish up some work left from the previous Wednesday. (Harry had also taken off for the Jewish holidays, leaving Joe to handle all the paperwork for the rest of the week.)

Harry was a hard worker; so hard that he was on daily medication for high blood pressure, ulcers, and a few other ailments. Harry had been the CEO of a small electronics company in Ohio that made some sort of gadget which used a subassembly manufactured by another electronics company in New Jersey. Apparently, the New Jersey company was one of the few that made this particular package, and since their price was the best, Harry did business with them. In fact, as I understood it, it was Harry's company that kept these guys in business, and they were overwhelmingly appreciative ... so much so that any time they'd schedule a sales conference in some remote location like Florida or Hawaii or Bermuda, Harry and his wife were always invited along, free of charge.

Unfortunately for Harry, someone else on his board of directors wanted Harry's job, so this swine informed the IRS that Harry was being given free vacations and not reporting the value thereof on his tax return as income. (Yes, the IRS has all sorts of dumbshit regulations you've never heard of, and probably never will unless somebody catches you abusing one. In fact, Harry was the first person ever prosecuted under this law.) Rather than face the disgrace of going to trial, Harry pled guilty, with the understanding from his attorney that he wouldn't get sent to jail. The attorney's promise was worth 3 years, later reduced to 18 months, of which Harry had served about 5 months when I arrived.

The thing that interested me the most about it was that Harry, a good American, was convinced that his government wouldn't have prosecuted him for something unless it were some sort of heinous offense, and that therefore, his being in jail was just and proper. And if you, the reader, have come to this point in my diatribe and you also feel that the government has the right to put you, an average citizen who doesn't work for the government, in jail for taking a gift from a business associate, you might as well stop reading right now. Much of what I have to say about the rights of free men will never reach you where it counts, so you'll be wasting your time. I must have spent at least a couple of weeks convincing Harry that he hadn't done anything wrong, and that it was a stupid regulation propounded by an equally stupid agency that had put him in jail. And the capper of the whole caper is that Harry's rival did get Harry's job ... and promptly ran the company into the ground, so that Harry has no business to return to when he got out.

Joe was another story. Joe was inside for credit card fraud. They'd caught him coming back from Europe with about $35,000 in diamonds and a $2,000 Rolex watch, all of which had been charged to a bogus credit card ... or so it was said. Actually, Joe's business was more inspired than that. Those of you who have credit cards are aware that about 2 or 3 weeks after a company sends you your new card, they send a follow-up letter saying that if you haven't received your new card yet, call them at once. But a lot can happen in 3 weeks, and such was the basis of Joe's business. His clientele were those who had just received their new credit cards ... which they would promptly turn over to Joe, along with a list of what they wanted Joe to buy with their "stolen" credit card. And for ever dollar of merchandise the client wanted, Joe would spend another dollar on himself. Then, when the follow-up letter came, the client would report the card stolen, and be liable for a total of $50 for the unauthorized purchases. (It was never made clear to me how these people found out about Joe, but if all he said was true, Joe had one hell of a business ... which he offered to set me up in when I got out.)

And it was quite a good life I refused. Joe dined at the world's best restaurants, stayed at the best hotels, wore designer clothes (almost a necessity for his pudgy 5'1' build), and in general enjoyed the best of everything, not one cent of which did he pay for ... except what came from his salary as (so he claimed) an assistant librarian at a local (Pennsylvania) university.

I had the impression that Joe was a pretty intelligent guy, but ... a typical exchange between Harry and Joe might go like this:

Harry: Joe, go get me Closed Purchase Order File 801-850.

Joe: Where is it?

Harry: You know where it is. It's where we always keep it.

Joe goes away. A few minutes later, he's back.

Joe: Where did you say it was?

Harry: Over in the filing cabinet, you idiot. You got it out of there for me just yesterday!

Joe goes away. A few minutes later, he's back.

Joe: I can't find it. It's not there.

Harry: What do you mean, it's not there? I put it back there yesterday. Look again.

Joe goes away. an even longer time passes, and he comes back.

Harry: Well, where is it?

Joe: I can't find it. I looked everywhere and it's not there.

By now, it's 20 minutes later, Harry's work has been held up, so he goes to the filing cabinet, leafs through a couple of folders and comes up with the "missing" file. By the time my sentence was up, the only thing they'd let Joe do at the warehouse was to walk around the corner to the business office and get Xeroxing done. (Unauthorized Xeroxing would also get you a shot ... but that didn't stop us.)

Yet, Joe and Harry would spend most of their free time discussing Civil War battles, and Joe seemed to know what he was talking about. I played bridge with Joe some evenings, and as long as he didn't have a high-powered partner who put a lot of pressure on him, he played pretty well. Joe wasn't faking being stupid. He just seemed to have a mental block that prevented him from performing well when pressured.

The bridge players were most often Marv A., an insurance man that I could have sworn I'd seen in my travels around Philly's legal circles, but he disclaimed being a lawyer; also Harry, Joe, sometimes one other guy whose name I forget. Or, when one of us 4 couldn't make it, Tom C. from Dorm 1. I only mention Tom as an example of the type of person who, while not a complete asshole, was just not the kind of guy I'd hang around with if I weren't caged up with him. Tom was an oddball, who did things like wash the mayonnaise out of the cole slaw with seltzer so he could eat the raw cabbage. He only ate what he considered to be health food, and had these disgusting rice snacks at his elbow, which he always offered around and which none of us did more than sample, during the bridge game. Tom was Mr. Energy, and Joe's biggest detractor. He analyzed every single hand, and blasted anyone who'd made a mistake in play ... which often included himself but always included Joe. It got so that we'd rather not play than have Tom as our 4th.

I got right into the spirit of the job, which mainly involved typing up "receivers" - lists of items received by the warehouse - and filing same. There were mistakes to be made, and I made most of them. It was not entirely Harry's fault for not training me. He'd only recently gotten the job himself, having taken over for a guy nicknamed "Prince Paul," who was supposed to have been able to do the work of me, Harry and Joe, with time left over. We heard so much about him from Jack that when I finally met Paul, he seemed tiny; I was expecting someone larger than life.

I did mainly the Commissary receivers. The Commissary stocked all sorts of things, including disposable razors, Tastykakes, fruit, shaving cream, soda, chips, portable radios, etc., etc., etc., all at retail prices. Inmates' pay was posted to the Commissary books, and all purchases were drawn against that account. Outsiders could send money to an inmate's Commissary account, and the $90 1 arrived with went quickly: About $70 for the afore-mentioned watch and a tiny AM-FM radio that barely picked up the Williamsburg stations, 8 miles away, plus cookies and fruit to supplement the lousy Camp meals. One could also special-order things like tennis racquets and woodworking tools.

Besides Harry, Joe and I, there was the stevedore section of the warehouse: The guys that did all the moving of shipments. My favorites were Frank C., also a Philadelphian, and Louie S., a Brooklynite, both of whom were inside for refusing to testify before grand juries. It is one of the travesties of the judicial system that a person can be given up to 3 years in jail simply for refusing to speak to a grand jury.

I had many long conversations with Louie, who talked about the mechanics of labor negotiation, and whenever I expressed my anti-government feelings, he'd usually agree. One aspect that I'd never thought about before, that Louie commented on, was the function of OSHA in union/management negotiations. According to Louie, when one of his unions wanted something in a contract that they were pretty sure they couldn't get from management, the union would agree to the new contract anyway ... but suddenly, a lot of OSHA inspectors would start to show up on the job ... called in by the union, of course. And, OSHA inspectors being what they are, management would start to see costs mounting astronomically. Finally, the union head would go to management and say, "Look, we can keep these OSHA guys off your back, if you'll agree to give us what we want."

Louie also knew the best restaurants in Manhattan, and helped us prepare a list which we surreptitiously Xeroxed. I recall Louie's favorite expression, whenever we'd get into a heavy political discussion and he'd get disgusted with what "these goddamn politicians" were up to "this time," was "Drop the bomb; get rid of all of 'em!"

Frank used to run a popular restaurant/bar in Philly, which had a lot of the police hierarchy as customers. He was in jail for refusing to tell which officers came into his place and discussed payoffs. I admired his principles, even as much as I generally dislike cops and would like to see more of them prosecuted for their wrong-doings. And Frankie was no hypocrite: Towards the end of my sentence, when some federal agency was conducting an investigation about "irregularities" in Commissary purchases, each of us were called in to give a statement about what we knew about it (which, of course, was next to nothing). When Frank's turn came, he went in, and after answering his name and address, he told them, "Look; you guys put me in here for 18 months for refusing to talk to a grand jury, and now you want me to help you in an investigation??? Well, you can just go fuck yourselves." And he walked out. As far as I know, nothing happened to him for it.

My actual boss was Wendy M., who was in charge of the (overpriced) Camp Commissary. Wendy was a cute blonde, about 5'3", that I took an immediate liking to, and I think after she got used to my unconventional way of thinking, liked me too. She often commented that I seemed to smile all the time. Harry, Joe and I suspected that Wendy had same sort of heavy flirtation going with Jack's assistant, Tim C.. One day, there was a major power failure in Camp, and all the lights in the warehouse went out. We were all just sitting there in the dark by the receiving dock, and Wendy and Tim were back in his office. As I recall, Harry decided he needed something from the area of the filing cabinet, which was right by the office door. As he approached, we could all hear scuffling and mumbling in the office, and Harry got bawled out for "sneaking up" on Wendy and Tim. (We all had a good chuckle about that one.)

I settled into work pretty well, but I started having trouble in the dorm. Something I hadn't known before began to cause me major misery: I snore ... loudly. This had never been a problem at home. I'm single, but none of my previous girlfriends had ever complained. Prison inmates, however, are another story. My first realization of the problem came after I'd been at Allenwood about 2 weeks, when I was awakened in the middle of the night by something hitting me in the ass. 1 didn't think too much of it, but when I awoke the next morning, I found a roll of toilet paper on the floor by my bunk. I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on, but the guy in the next cube, Paul M., a drug dealer from New England, clued me in: I was waking up everyone around me with my snoring, and somebody had thrown the toilet paper to rouse me enough that I'd stop making so much noise. Apparently, the shock of getting accustomed to prison life had cut down on my snoring up to this time, but nature was taking its course.

The last thing I wanted was to make my fellow prisoners mad at me, so I tried anything and everything to cut down the racket. I slept on my back. That didn't work. I taped my nose shut at night (not an easy thing to do). That didn't work. I tried sleeping with the pillow over my face. That didn't work. Nothing worked, and I was getting more complaints. Worse, I was getting more things thrown at me at night, I was being woken up more frequently, and I was starting to have trouble going back to sleep.

In that period, I learned something about the way my body works: When somebody wakes me up at a certain time on a regular basis, I "learn" that I'm supposed to get up at that time, all logic to the contrary. After all, they wouldn't be so stupid as to wake me if I wasn't supposed to get up, would they? It's all handled subconsciously.

And so, as the nights went by, it would take longer and longer for me to get to sleep, knowing I was going to be awakened, and longer to get back to sleep once I'd been roused. By the end of my 5th week, I was averaging about 3 hours sleep a night, and the effects were becoming obvious. I remember one night when, completely exhausted, I'd managed to fall asleep at about 10 o'clock — not easy with a dorm-full of 75 noisy guys shooting the shit with each other. I came out of a very weird dream to find Denise, the female guard, shaking me awake during 10:30 count. She said I was snoring so loudly that she was afraid there was something wrong with me. At that point, I gave up and spent the night out in the recreation area, in front of the TV set, hoping to doze off there, but it just didn't work. I'd begin to nod off, and then some noise or movement would snap me out of it. Even my first acid bummer was nothing compared to this.

I think it all came to a head after a particularly bad night, when the guy in 2-3-5, some relation to the Gambino mob family, had come over to my bunk to shake me every 15 minutes from about 2 a.m. to 3:30. (Gambino was a heavy coffee drinker, and usually got up at about 2 to smoke a few cigarettes anyway.) By morning, I was ready to kill the bastard, and told him point blank that if he so much as touched my bunk that night, I'd break his face. Even as I said it, I realized how stupid a notion that was. Fighting was one offense that resulted in real punishment: A trip to the county jail, and arrest on charges of assaulting another inmate, usually good for 6 months behind real bars ... and I only had about 6 weeks to go. Moreover, one does not commit bodily harm to a well-connected prisoner and expect to get away with it, even if not caught by prison officials.

But I was really going nuts. I had all the classic symptoms of sleep deprivation: Violent mood swings, inability to concentrate, memory loss, crying jags, auditory hallucinations. It was the first time that I really felt trapped where I was. On the outside, I could do something about it - get stoned, see a shrink, whatever - but in prison, even this barless one, there's hardly any freedom of movement.

So I broke down and did something I would normally only do in an emergency: I went to see the dorm counselor. By this time, Nelson had moved to another unit, and his replacement was a guy named McCollum. I'd mentioned my problem to Nelson a couple of times, but he'd always brushed me off, saying there was nothing he could do about it, and that waking the snorer was accepted practice. McCollum, fortunately, could see how upset I was - I literally sobbed out my story - and told me not to worry; he'd see what he could do about getting me moved to someplace where I could get a night's sleep.

One of the idiosyncrasies of Allenwood is that once you've been assigned to a dorm, it literally takes a court order to move you to another dorm. It just doesn't happen. So I was locked into my surroundings, and McCollum knew that. I immediately offered to sleep in the hallway, which was where the officials would set up extra cots whenever there was an overflow of prisoners, but that idea was rejected. Why, I don't know. It would have solved everyone's problem ... but one should never expect logic from a government institution. Fortunately, a few of the other prisoners' sentences were up, and that made it possible for McCollum to shift us around. I wound up at the back corner of the dorm, in 2-4-13 [Dorm 2, Row 4, 13th cubicle] upper, which meant that there were 2 less directions for my snores to carry. Besides that, my new cubie was Richie A., who liked to sleep with headphones on, listening to his favorite radio station. Richie worked in the kitchen, and would always sneak out fruit or other leftovers for his pals, which now included me. Needless to say, all of it was considered contraband, and if caught, he would have been in trouble.

Things seemed to be looking up again. There were still a few complaints from nearby bunks, but nobody did anything about it. I think they remembered what I looked when I was suffering, and despite what "good citizens" - those who've never been in jail - think, most of my fellow prisoners were decent folks who had no wish to cause anybody needless pain ... and they knew I only had a few weeks to go. (Ira informs me that I was replaced by someone even louder.)

The move to the corner was supposed to be only the first step. Richie was due to be released in 2 weeks, and I was supposed to get his lower bunk, so my snoring would be muffled even more. No such luck. The next arrival turned out to be a guy with a back condition, Kevin A., so they put him under me ... and after I'd had my heart set on a lower. In fact, considering the number of guys that were scheduled to leave, I was even due for one in a few days.

Kevin turned out to be a decent enough fellow. He was in for helping his brother smuggle something like $350,000 worth of grass, which, according to him, he hadn't done. What he had done was help his brother smuggle a few million bucks worth of cocaine, so he'd been railroaded on the marijuana rap to soften him up into telling where the brother was. Trouble was, he didn't know. The brother had got the wind up just before the bust, and had left no forwarding address. Kevin was in for a year, but had another hearing on related charges coming up a month after I left, which might have extended his sentence.

Synchronistically, Kevin showed up a week before Philcon '84, the Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference, and was heartbroken when I told him the guest of honor was one of his favorite authors, Larry Niven. He had several Niven books sent in to him, plus some of Fritz Lieber's "Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser" stories. We talked about science-fiction a lot, and I left my copy of Moon Is A Harsh Mistress with him. He was awfully glad to see me go, however. He didn't sleep with headphones on ... in fact, he didn't sleep well at all, until he got a bad cold and slept during the day.

(To be continued...)


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