Philly Prison Stories

 By Rocco DiCicco

*Authors Note. This story is under construction. I will be adding a chapter everyday until it is finished so if you like the story check back in for updates. Thanks
I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in Gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.
 ...
But this I know, that every Law
That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother's life,
And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
With a most evil fan.
...
This too I know—and wise it were
If each could know the same—
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.
...
With bars they blur the gracious moon,
And blind the goodly sun:
And they do well to hide their Hell,
For in it things are done
That Son of God nor son of Man
Ever should look upon!
...
The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair.

--Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

From 2005 to 2014 I held a job as a social worker in the Philadelphia prison. The following accounts are all true, and they represent the most compelling stories I can remember from my time on State Road. Some names have been changed to protect the innocent. But not Bob the Butcher, Bob was his real name.

 

Chapter 1.

 

An Unsolved Murder

I met a lot of murderers in my time working at the prison but this story is the first time I can remember an actual murder taking place while I was on the job.

At PICC (Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center) I am leading a group with around 11 guys in the group room. An inmate, Carter, is telling the group about the time his mother died while he was in jail.

“It was in that room right there.” Carter says and points to the lieutenant’s office across the hallway. Everyone turns and looks. “The LT came and got me off the block and brought me back into his office and he told me to sit down. Then he handcuffed me to the chair. Then he says to me, ‘this is how I do this, your mother has passed away.’ And I was like damn, man. What is the cuffs for? and he was like ‘you never know how people are going to react.’ It was the coldest thing ever.”

Suddenly, while Carter is mid sentence, a code blue is called over the prison intercom. Code blue means immediate prison lock down because of an emergency.

Within moments a Sergeant sticks his head into our group room and says that everyone has to go back to their cells. His tone is urgent and very serious. The inmates in the group comply without much grumbling. It is as if they have developed a sixth sense as to what is bullshit and what is not.

We all make our way over to the block and I ask the COs at the console what is going on but they aren’t sure. I decide to leave the prison until the code blue is resolved since everything is going to be locked down. I have them buzz me through the door and back off of the block.

I take the elevator down to the first floor.  When the doors open I step off of the elevator and immediately a large pattern of droplets of blood, on the floor to my right, catches my eye. The trail of blood drops leads down the hallway. I am definitely not interested in going that way. Suddenly I hear the heavy CLACK, CLACK, CLACK of jack boots coming down the hallway to my left. I turn to see the CERT team running full speed towards me, a locomotive of knees and elbows. I take refuge back on the elevator for a moment to let them pass. They turn up the hallway the opposite way from the blood and stop at the A unit pod door briefly while they are buzzed onto the unit. In a second they are on the unit and the door slams behind them. I make my exit up the hallway in the direction they had come from.

Finally, after long waits at each sally port, I am outside. I stand at the back entrance to PICC, the staff entrance, gossiping with some of the COs a bit before taking my lunch break. No one really knows what is going on yet but the general consensus is that someone was stabbed and ran off of the block and down the hallway. I add my small bit of intelligence to the pool of speculation and the COs seem grateful for my contribution.

When I come back from lunch I see that two detectives have arrived and they are waiting to be admitted to the jail. They are ahead of me in line and I see them flash their badges. The prison staff are all very serious and somber. There is a vibe I can’t quite put my finger on, a hush. All of the visits have been canceled for the day and the waiting room is empty.

When I get back up to my office I decide to head over to the block and see what gossip has made its way to the pod.  The officer on duty, Arroyo, tells me someone on one of the cell blocks down stairs had gotten stabbed in the throat over a packet of sugar. The guy ran out into the hallway and dropped dead. He says that so far they don’t know who did it and no one is talking. The whole jail is locked down until further notice.

The jail was locked down for the rest of the week while the investigation was being conducted. They never found the inmate who stabbed the man whom was killed.

Chapter 2

 Bob The Butcher

One day I discover a new guy has been transferred onto the cell block and he is affectionately being referred to by his fellow inmates as Bob the Butcher. Eventually I meet with Bob and he offers to share with me the reason he got his nickname. He isn’t embarrassed or shy about the story and relays it in a matter of fact way. This is why they call him The Butcher.

Bob is around 40 years old and his friend Jake is in his mid 20s. The two have been shooting cocaine in the basement of Bob’s house. Every once in a while, when they run out of cocaine, they leave the house in order to make some money. They usually shoplift and sell the proceeds at local bodegas, or to whomever they can, or collect pieces of scrap metal in the surrounding community and sell it at the scrap yard.

Eventually, after a week or so of their binge, Bob begins to get extremely paranoid and irritable, a side effect of the cocaine. According to Bob, he and Jake experience a falling out in the form of a bitter argument. It is during this argument that Jake tells Bob that he is going to kill Bob’s wife who is upstairs in the house where they are holed up. Bob can’t get over this threat and it enrages him to the point that he picks up a dumbbell, and when Jake isn’t looking, he bashes Jake in the head with it and he keeps on pummeling him until it is clear Jake is dead.

Afterwards Bob continues his cocaine binge for several more days. Meanwhile he leaves Jake’s body in the basement decomposing. He will later tell police he thinks there may be some dead cats in the basement.

Eventually Bob runs out of money once again. By this time according to Bob, Jake’s body has swollen up like a balloon. The problem is that Jake wears a gold chain around his neck that Bob knows he can get some money for but Jake’s neck and head by now have become so bloated that Bob can’t get his fingers around the gold chain to unclasp it.

So what does Bob do? He finds a hacksaw in the basement and uses it to saw off Jake’s head. Once he gets the head is removed he decides he might as well chop up the entire body and put it into trash bags. Soon into the dissection however Bob realizes he does not have enough trash bags to put all of the body parts into.

At this point in Bob’s story I am beginning to get the nickname. It’s not about what he did, it’s the fact that Bob describes it all so calmly, like a butcher explaining how he might prepare a side of beef.

Bob decides that he is going to go next door to Jake’s house where Jake lived with his mother.  Jake’s mother is a sweet older lady whom gladly helps Bob out. Of course she says, and gets him the trash bags he needs. By the way, have you seen my son Jake, she asks Bob. Bob says no he hasn’t seen him and thanks her for the Trash bags and goes back to his work.

Eventually the slip up of asking Jake’s mom for the trash bags leads police right to Bob’s door. After a few questions the smell gives the cops the probable cause they need and they stumble upon the gruesome scene. Bob is caught red handed.

When Bob relates this story to me he is convinced he is going to get off. He tells me they gave him a special, high powered, lawyer because it is a death penalty case. His plan, which he is very excited about, is either to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, because of all of the cocaine he was high on at the time, or he is going to plead self defense based on his fear of Jake’s threats to harm his family.

I don’t have the heart to tell him but I am doubtful he will ever see the streets again.

Bob the Butcher is found guilty of first degree murder. He is sentenced to life in prison. That is when I learn, ‘I was so high’ is not a proper defense in a court of law. The only real defense in court is ‘Your honor, I did not do it.’

Chapter 3

The Neighborhood Pharmacy

Bill is a guy in his mid 20s with a large gap between his teeth. He is funny, kind hearted, whip smart and facing charges of burglary and possession with intent to deliver.

The reason Bill is in jail is, to this day, still one of the best heist stories I have ever heard.

At the time of the heist, Bill is on methadone and tired of putting up with the harassment and arbitrary hoops they are making him jump through at his clinic. They give him a hard time about the other drugs he has in his system. They make him wait around and go to makeup groups causing him to miss work. So he comes up with a plan. He is going to rob a pharmacy and get enough opiates to detox himself off of methadone.

On his way home from the clinic everyday, Bill notices a small neighborhood pharmacy that is the bottom floor of a row home and connected to a block of row homes. Most interesting to Bill is that the row home next store to the Pharmacy is for sale, and vacant.

Bill decides to go into the pharmacy and checkout the security system. He eyes exactly where one would have to break through the wall to be in the medication area of the pharmacy and not set off the alarm.

Later that night, he breaks into the empty house next to the pharmacy through the back door. Bringing with him a sledge hammer, bill then goes to the place in the house about where the medication section of the pharmacy is next door. He uses the sledge hammer to bust a hole through the wall and into the pharmacy.

I ask Bill how many hits it took to break through the wall. He says it took about 5 hits.

Once inside, Bill can’t believe his luck. In addition to large bottles of Oxycotin and Xanax, he finds a half dozen huge bottles of methadone pills in varying dosages. Bill makes out with two large duffel bags full of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of prescription narcotics. But he doesn’t just stick to the narcs. Bill also steals asthma medication, the kind his daughter uses, and antibiotics as well.

How did they get you, I ask.

Things were beautiful (pronounced buu tee full) for a while, he says. People started buying their methadone off of me instead of going to the clinic. I was giving take homes, he says with a laugh. I was even detoxing people, and lowering their dose.

Anyone who has been on methadone knows that these are all things they give you a hard time about at the methadone clinic. So it kind of makes Bill feel like Robin Hood to help other people out who are also on methadone. If they want to go up, he raises their dose, if they want to go down, he lowers it. No annoying therapist and no judgmental doctor throwing his two sense in. Bill is giving people what they need the way THEY want it, he feels.

But how did it all come to an end? I ask him.

I’ll admit it, I got greedy, Bill says.

Some time later Bill and a accomplice rob a cigarette truck and, now, in addition to selling prescription medication to the neighborhood, he is selling smokes out of his house. Some of his customers think he is reselling the cartons for too much money since he has gotten them for free. Apparently Bill pissed one woman in particular and she calls the cops on him, and leaves an anonymous tip. She tells the cops Bill has a bunch of stolen narcotics in his house and that he is operating like a pharmacy, getting the whole neighborhood high.

Bill says that after he got into the argument with the woman he had a bad feeling she was going to do something like that. He decides to move the drugs to another location but he gets lazy and puts it off for a day or two. On the day he finally gets his ass in gear to make the move, he walks out of his house with the duffel bag that has what is left of the drugs in it and, as he is about to get to his car, undercover officers rush him from all directions with their guns drawn. He drops the bag and puts his hands up.

He tells the cops that he found the bag out back of a pharmacy. But they don’t buy it and charge him with burglary.

This was in 2007 or so when Bill and I had this conversation. As an update, I ran into Bill last year in Kensington and he has finally gotten out of prison and he looks healthy and is working.

 

Chapter 4

 

Meek Mill

 

I eventually transfer from working with methadone clients as a contractor to being a full-time, City employee and union social worker at the Prison. The primary reason I do this is because my health insurance at the contract job had shot up to 300 dollars a pay.  I know if I get into the union that they have cheaper health insurance. Turns out I am right, as a union social worker my health insurance drops to 40 dollars a pay.

My first job as an official prison social worker is in OPTIONS. OPTIONS is the drug treatment social work unit. In OPTIONS I do group therapy and 1:1s (individual therapy), essentially the same thing I was doing as a contractor.

The OPTIONS trailer at HOC is situated out back of a cell block. To get the trailer, everyday I had to first enter the cell block on A unit and then enter a cell. In the back of the cell a door sized hole is cut out of the wall. To that hole a trailer is connected in the same manner that an airplane is connected, accordion style, to the loading bay at the airport. And because HOC is such an old prison, the cell’s ancient iron doors are slung low, like in the movie Papillon,  forcing one to duck their head to get in and out of the cell.

In the trailer, stationed by the door, is a correctional officer, Trusdale, and further towards the middle of the space in side by side cubicles are myself and another OPTIONS social worker, Torrez. Finally our supervisor the indomitable Debbie Lee has the office at the back. There is a large group room that is separated into two separate rooms by one of those heavy-duty plastic curtains that is used to typically separate cafetoriums and gym rooms in public middle schools.

All of the inmates at HOC that are sentenced to drug treatment are OPTIONS clients and they are housed on one block. Torrez and I are the social workers for this block and we typically divide up the block in half with Torrez taking the even number cells and me taking the odd number cells. We each run group therapy sessions twice a week. On the days we aren’t running groups with our clients we do 1:1s. The goal is to at least see everyone, individually, once a month.

One day, in 2009, Torrez comes to me trying to restrain her excitement. Guess what, she says. Meek Millz is on the block.

Oh yeah, I say. Who is Meek Millz?

You have never heard of Meek Millz? She says. He’s a rapper, he just got signed to a record deal. Anyway, he got busted with possession and attempt to distribute but he took a deal for a drug program, so guess where he is coming?

What kind of name is Meek Millz? I say.

The name sounds very strange to me. I grew up in a time when rappers names made sense, even if they were eccentric. Old Dirty Bastard is a non-conventional rap name, but at least I know what it means. I suppose Meek Millz means this guy is shy but also has aspirations of being a millionaire.

Torrez calls him to the block immediately for a 1:1. I look on the cell list, Meek Millz is technically my client. But I don’t mind that Torrez wants to take him on since she knows who he is and she is a fan. It means one less client I will have to see. More power to her I think.

When he comes over to the block he looks like a normal guy, not out of the ordinary or overly impressive in any way. He has his hair twisted into braids and is tall and kind of scrawny. He seems confident and is laughing and joking with the other inmates he comes to over to the OPTIONS trailer with. He is not at all meek as I had supposed.  I can tell he is popular with the other inmates, as anyone famous tends to be, because even in jail he seems to travel with an entourage.

The only interaction I have with him is one time when Torrez asks if he can use my phone while she is busy with another inmate. I say sure and while he is using my phone I look him up on the internet. But I can’t really find too much on him. He isn’t in OPTIONS for long. In fact I don’t think he completed the program. He is released early on house arrest.

And then I don’t hear anything about Meek Millz again for a year or two. Until one day I am driving in South Philly and I hear the song ‘I’m a Boss’ come over the radio. To my surprise the song is really good and I am like, hey, that is the guy from HOC!

But when I fully realize Meek has made it as a rap star is when, some time later, I am seeing an inmate at CFCF on the intake unit, and I ask the guy what his favorite song is. He says right now I listen to this song every morning called Ambition. I pull up the song on youtube so I can play the song for him and there is Meek Mill on a rooftop with rap mogul Rick Ross rapping about his ambition to be successful. I am immediately blown away and suddenly proud of him. Anyone who comes through poverty in North Philly, and consequently the Philly prison system, yet still manages to make it to rap stardom gets 100% props from me.

 

 

Chapter 5

When You Realize Someone is a Murderer

 

Before I worked at the prison I don’t remember meeting many murderers. But I certainly met my share on the inside. As a clinical approach I prefer non-judgmental techniques. It does no good to judge people you are trying to help. Plus most people only need you to listen and not say anything anyway. Silence is more therapeutic than advice–scratch that, silence is therapeutic, advice is not. ‘The judge makes a lot of money, and they don’t pay me enough to judge you’ is something I tell inmates to set them at ease. Another social worker friend of mine has a great attitude about it, “a sucker is born every minute, why can’t it be me” she says.

As social workers, we get lied to every day by nearly every client, it’s part of the job. One learns it is human nature to want others, especially those in the position of power over us, to see us in the most positive light possible. I have worked with hundreds of individuals charged with the crime of child molestation for example and I cannot remember a single one of them ever confessing that they were guilty. They all claim their innocence. In fact they go to elaborate lengths to explain the circumstances of their case and how it is all a misunderstanding. I’m not saying they are all lying, but every single one of the guilty ones was. Either way it is not my job to judge. Which brings us to Jimmy.

Jimmy is not in jail for child molestation, he is in jail for murder. He is a young guy, probably 21 or 22. His dad owns a big fencing company and Jimmy has grown up pretty well off. He is the kind of kid who always had money in his pocket from working for his dad’s business. But all of that money is eventually his downfall as Jimmy gets into drugs as a teenager and he develops a pretty bad heroin problem. It’s the same story you have heard before, he starts off with Oxys and over a couple of years he progresses to a bundles of heroin a day.

After a few years of in and out of rehab, his parents finally get Jimmy onto the methadone clinic. This is how he comes to be my client at the prison.

Now, the story he tells me is that he is getting high one day with this guy in an bando and he thinks he hears the cops outside getting ready to raid the place. Jimmy says he couldn’t get arrested again so he panics and runs out of the back of the house and jumps the fence to the alleyway. In his rush however he leaves his back pack with all his info in it back at the bando.

A few days later, the guy who he was getting high with turns up with his brains smashed in, someone had done it with a sledge hammer, back in the bando. The cops track Jimmy down to the scene after they find his back pack.

I work with Jimmy for the better part of a year and the whole time it is pretty clear to me that he is innocent. Not only does he constantly profess his innocence but he even looks innocent. Jimmy’s got a baby face and he seems like a spoiled, chubby, middle class kid. My impression is that he likes to fight, sure, but so does every other red blooded kid from his Northeast Philly neighborhood, To me Jimmy is definitely not a killer.

The only thing that gives me pause about Jimmy’s story is the fact he has confessed his involvement in the murder to the police. One may think, well, if he is innocent why would he confess to the murder? According to Jimmy the reason he confessed is because they were holding him at the police district for days and not letting him get his methadone dose. Jimmy’s methadone dose is in the hundreds and by anyone’s standards would be considered a large glug. Jimmy admits that he is the kind of methadone patient who cannot handle withdraw symptoms very well when he doesn’t get his dose. Jimmy says that after several days of not having his methadone dose he was hallucinating and that he would have done anything to get dosed. I would have confessed to Abraham Lincoln’s murder he tells me. Jimmy also says the cops weren’t just denying him his dose either. He said on more than one occasion they smacked him around and they were cursing at him and telling him they knew he did it. So eventually Jimmy breaks. He does what they want and he signs the confession to the murder. And afterwards they take him as promised and get him dosed at his clinic before taking him to the jail.

Jimmy is now fighting the case from county prison where murder cases are usually long trials that last over a year. Meanwhile, I am working with him the whole time which means we talk for about an hour each weeks and he is in my therapy group. I think I get to know him pretty well and for his part he shares some deep stuff with me and it seems like he is making progress with some of his issues. That is when it happens.

One day Jimmy comes over to see me and he is really upset, very angry. When I ask him why he is so angry he says it is because his cell mate, a Spanish guy named George. George, whom is one of my other clients incidentally, was praying with him and in his prayer George kept telling God he is innocent, and praying that the jury see his innocence when he goes to trial. This upsets Jimmy because Jimmy believes George is not innocent. When it is his turn to pray Jimmy prays to God that the jury sees he is innocent too but Jimmy begins to get angrier and angrier because he believes George is mocking him. Even as he is telling me the story of what happened in the cell when they were praying, Jimmy’s face is turning red and he begins to squeeze his large fist and pound it into his hand over and over again. Jimmy had undergone a transformation and was now red faced and simmering with rage for a reason that didn’t really make sense to me.  Jimmy says he wants to pound his cell mate’s head in but he is really working hard to be a better person.

In that moment, as I am listening to him, and noticing this behavior, I begin to think about some of the things that George has told me about Jimmy. That he has a terrible temper, and that he is bullying some of the other guys on the block. George doesn’t think Jimmy is as innocent as he lets on. I start to re-consider the details of Jimmy’s story and think more about the murder and wonder why he really signed that confession. And that is when it dawns on me, Jimmy did it.

Something about his story just clicks and I realize his story makes a lot more sense now. Jimmy is a murderer I think to myself as he is pounding his fist into his palm with tears of rage in the corners of his eyes. I can’t exactly explain it but it is suddenly obvious to me that Jimmy is the killer. He murdered a guy, probably because the guy made him angry, in that bando. I run the story back in my head and think about how Jimmy told me he cried when they showed him the pictures of the crime scene. He cried when they showed him pictures of the guy with his head smashed in. Of course my judgement didn’t matter one way or another and I didn’t tell Jimmy my mind had changed about his innocence. It wasn’t my job to judge him.

I transfer off the methadone block not long after that interview with Jimmy. But about a year later I run into the George in the hallway at CFCF. I ask George whatever happened to Jimmy and George says that Jimmy was found guilty of the murder. I guess the confession sunk him, I say. That and the fact he was guilty George says. I shrug in agreement. How much time did he get, I ask George. Life, he says and adds with a shrug, he aint never coming home. What about you I ask, I took a plea to that case I was in for before and got out. I’m back in on a new case, but it’s bullshit. Well, good luck I say.

 

Chapter 6

An Illegal Immigrant

When I became a City social worker I initially went to the OPTIONS drug treatment unit but eventually I made my way to the intake unit at CFCF. As an intake social worker I estimate that at least once a week, and sometimes once a day, inmates show up in my office who are in the country illegally.

The stories they tell often follow a similar pattern; a man who has traveled from South or Central America and risked everything to get here, and who is in the country working their ass off, but has somehow gotten arrested for some petty crime or fight, and now is sitting in the county prison with an immigration (ICE) detainer. Eventually they will either stand trial for their crime and be released or be carted off to a detention facility up state somewhere and eventually be sent back to their home country.

This is the story of Carlos.

Carlos is a quiet guy but I can tell he is bright by his grasp of English and his thoughtfulness as he answers my intake interview questions. He is patient with my broken Spanish and is just as happy to speak with me in English. After his intake assessment is complete. I let him make a phone call to his wife. He gives her some instructions and begins to cry while he is talking to her. The tears silently roll down his cheeks.

After he hangs up the phone I talk to him for a bit so he can get himself together before going back to the block. As a rule inmates tend to not want to go back to the cell block still crying. I ask him if he wants me to look up his case. He says yes and so I punch his PP number up in the computer. He is being charged with aggravated assault. His bail is only 300 dollars but he can’t go home even if he pays it. Carlos has an ICE detainer.

When inmates have an ICE detainer it means the jail has notified the immigration police and is awaiting for them to either come get him or not. The have 48 hours to let the prison know. If they don’t show he can bail out.

Carlos is certain immigration is coming for him. His brother was also picked up and detained at a large immigration facility in up state PA where they held him for nearly a year before deporting him.

When I ask him what happened the night he got arrested, Carlos says he had been eating dinner with his wife and their baby at an outside restaurant in his neighborhood when a guy whom also lives in their neighborhood, and whom he and his wife have been having problems with, walks by and notices them.

The guy walks down the street a ways but then turns around and walks back towards them. When he gets up on them he pulls up his shirt and flashes a knife and says “What’s up now pussy?” Carlos immediately jumps on the guy admitting he is no bitch, and that he is not gonna let anyone threaten his family. He says the fight got broken up by the people at the restaurant and the guy with the knife ran off. It is too late for Carlos however because the police arrive shortly thereafter. The people at the restaurant tell the cops what happened but they didn’t see the knife. They just saw Carlos jumping on the guy.

Carlos begins to cry again when I ask him what he thinks will happen to him. He says he will probably have to go back to Honduras. He says that it will probably be many years until he is with his family again. He will lose his job, and his family will lose their income. He has no idea what they will do. There is no way his wife can come visit him at the immigration facility either because it is too risky. There is nothing I can do but listen.  I have heard this story before, many times.

Chapter 7

 

A 100 Dollar Bribe

One of my clients, a native born Russian turned naturalized citizen by the name of Ivan is sitting with me in my office and telling me about how he flipped his Acura on the highway and walked away without a scratch. According to Ivan he is very wealthy and well connected outside of the prison. He seems to be living the American dream. He has come from nothing and made his money in real estate and today he has a nice house in the Art Museum neighborhood of Philadelphia not far from Vince Fumo’s mansion.

We are winding down our interview when Ivan slaps his hand down on my desk and rises to leave. When he removes his hand he reveals a crisp, new 100 dollar bill. He stands with his hands on his hips smiling. This is for you he says. All I ask is that you bring me in a pack of cigarettes when you get a chance. 1 pack. He reiterates.

I push back from my desk and lean back in my swivel chair. Look, Ivan, I say, you know its’s nothing personal but it’s just not my thing.

Come on, he says, don’t be a noodle. Whenever you get a chance, that’s it, one time deal, a single pack of smokes. It’ll cost you 7 bucks, you keep the rest. When I shrug as if to double down on my refusal, he says, tell you what, you keep it as a personal gift from me, huh?

With that Ivan turns and heads for the door leaving the hundred on my desk. As the door slams behind him I take the bill and put it into my pocket. I put my hands behind my head and begin to ruminate on the complexity of the problem i am now faced with. I can hear my boss’s voice echoing in my ears. Never trade a slice for the whole loaf, he would say whenever the concept of bribes would come up in our discussions. We talked about this very scenario a year earlier when a male nurse at the prison was discovered bringing in drugs and electronics for inmates. The account of what happened to the nurse I later heard from a CO. The nurse was called into the warden’s office and strip searched. I could only imagine the slow shame of it all as he peeled off his clothes and dropped them on the floor, and along with his clothes his entire career, and his freedom. No thank you.

Now, if you are wondering why would someone give a social worker a hundred dollars for a pack of cigarettes you have to understand this is not a poor investment on Ivan’s part. It is a decisive business decision. Usually cigarettes sell in two pieces with each piece going for five dollar’s each. A whole cigarette is called a “Cadillac” and goes for 10 dollars. This means that even at a 100 dollar initial investment Ivan stands to double his money on a single pack of 20 smokes.

The other thing that is a deterrent when it comes to bringing in contraband is that once an inmate has flipped you they never let you go. The moment they get you to go back on your principals they now have your whole career in their hands. And these are folks who lets just say aren’t too good with boundaries. They will threaten to expose you if you don’t continue bringing in contraband. They may even have people on the outside who now want to pressure you to work for them to bring in whatever they want. At the very least they will brag to the other inmates that you work for them, and immediately you lose all moral high ground and integrity to make positive change. Don’t try and pretend you have values, we know you have been turned. This was perhaps what was most important to me. At this time I still wanted to save the world. But at the very least I was not willing to put my life in Ivan’s hands. I had to give the money back.

Now, years later I would speak to a couple guards who told me I should have told on the guy immediately. And they are probably right. Another guy told me I should have just kept the money and acted like nothing happened. Also a valid point. But I did neither of those things. For one I didn’t want to be connected to this guy in anyway. I didn’t want to  burn him either because I didn’t know who he was connected to on the street. I definitely didn’t want any problems with the Russian mob however unlikely that scenario was. Also I really didn’t want to get Ivan in trouble. Despite his willingness to destroy my career indirectly by pressuring me to break the law for him, this was someone who trusted me, and although it sounds weird I didn’t want to betray his confidence.

After about 20 minutes of mulling the whole thing over I get up out of my chair, leave my office and go on tho the block. I then go up the stairs where his cell is and I already have the rolled up bill in my hand. I go into Ivan’s cell and he is sitting there on his bunk and talking with another inmate. I say to Ivan, hey, you forgot this and then I toss the wadded up 100 dollar bill at Ivan and hit him in the forehead with it and it bounces to the floor. With that I turn around and walk back out of his cell and off the block. At the end of the day I go home with my conscience intact and Ivan never mentions it again.

 

Chapter 9

 

The Biggest Thing Anyone Ever Smuggled Up Their Ass

Contraband in the prison is a major problem and its eradication is something that every warden takes personally. There are routinely bizarre and inappropriate things that turn up after each jail wide search or shakedown. The jail is often closed because some disturbing item turns up during a shakedown on one unit or another. Sometimes I come in and the jail is closed for the week. What happened I will ask a CO (correctional officer). They turned up a gun on F block during a shakedown, they will say, or, some guy had a butcher knife in his cell up on B unit, etc. When something like this happens it is instant news among the COs. They call each other to spread the gossip from pod to pod on their block phones. This is why I can never call over to get my inmates and often choose to walk over to the cell block in person instead. When I get to the block one of the two officers will inevitably be on the phone. And that is what happened the day when someone got caught with the biggest thing I have ever heard anyone smuggle up their ass.

I head over to the block around 10 AM and the CO behind the console, Jones, buzzes me through the sally port. Right away I can tell there is a weird vibe on the block because Gupta is getting into it with an inmate which is very rare. I’m not sure what started the altercation but Gupta is pissed.

I’m no punk bitch, Gupta says in his thick Indian accent.  Gupta puts his hand on his pepper spray and pulls it out like he is going to spray the inmate.

The inmate puts his hands up defensively. Alright, alright, the inmate says in attempt to surrender. I didn’t say you were a punk bitch, damn.

I’m no punk bitch, Gupta repeats angrily.

What chu need Roc, says Jones. I slide the single piece of paper across the top of the console to him.  He looks at it briefly and begins shouting the names out, loud enough for them to be heard way in the back of the cell block. Jones is also multitasking. He calls inmates for visits and sick-call simultaneously. While I am standing there, waiting for my guys to come to the desk, a call comes in to the block phone and Jones picks it up and holds it between his ear and his shoulder as he sorts the inmate mail. Oh shit, he says. You you’re kidding me. Jones begins to laugh. Gupta, he says, come here, you gotta hear this. Gupta still on edge from his conflict with the inmate saunters over behind the console still eyeing the inmate with whom he is having issues. You are never going to believe this, Jones says. They just got a guy coming back from visits smuggling a cellphone. No shit, says Gupta. These goddamn motherfuckers (pronounced mudder fuckers) never learn. Wait, says Jones. That is not the worst part. He had it up his ass.

Whuuuuuuuuuut says Gupta in amazement. Hold on, says Jones, they just gave me his PP# I’m looking him up now.

Who caught him Robertson? Says Gupta.

I don’t know, Tombs called me, says Jones. Check it out, says Jones, he said the way he caught him was, when they strip searched him, right, he told him to bend down and squat and he said he could see the charger chord sticking out of his ass.

Oh my god, says Gupta, he had the charger too?

Both of them, the phone and the charger he had up there, says Jones. This is the guy, Jones turns his computer slightly so Gupta and I can get a look at his picture that Jones had pulled up on the computer.

Just then my clients start to make their way down to the console. As I bring my first guy back Jones is calling a friend of his on another block to tell him the news.

I hear an inmate shout from his cell, You a punk bitch, Gupta! You fuckin’ punk bitch!

 

Chapter 10

 

Jones’s Fight Story

 

It is not possible to believe in human rights or civil rights and not have your principals challenged daily by things you see and hear in the prison. Because you rely on the help of security staff to get your work done and move throughout the prison, one is forced to pick their battles. The indignation of a conscientious social worker is tempered by the context of complicated human interactions. Prison life is not all guards abusing their authority, although there is a lot of that. You will see terrible behavior perpetrated on both sides, by the inmates and the security staff alike. A fellow social worker of mine has a sign on her door that says, if I am not on the horns of a dilemma, I am not doing my job. Sometimes the disturbing thing you encounter is as simple as a story someone tells you. One of the most disturbing stories I ever heard was from a CO by the name of Jones.

Jones comes back to the social work area one day towards the end of his shift and is chatting with Singleton, the guard whom oversees the area. I step out of my office and join their conversation as I often do when I get the chance. Some how we venture on to the subject of guards fighting inmates and Jones says, did I ever tell you the time I got into a fight with an inmate and he sued me?

No, I say.

Yup, it was at the House of Corrections. I was taking this guy out to court and he kept saying not to touch him. So I said well hurry the fuck up then, because he was walking slow as shit and he was gonna’ make us late. I could tell he was purposely walking slow too, just to piss me off. So, I must have pushed him again because he turns around and gets in my face and says, if you put your hands on me one more time I’m gonna fuck you up. Any you know me, I don’t put up with the nonsense, and I went off. I said to him, oh yeah, you gonna fuck me up? And It’s early morning right, and we are in the sally port all by ourselves, so I take his handcuffs off. I say to him, okay, you think your tough, put your hands up. And quick as shit he steels me like, bop, right in my cheek. Jones throws a jab in order to show Singleton and I how the inmate punched him in the face. Well, when he did that shit, boy, I saw fuckin’ red. I gave him the meanest two piece I think I ever hit anyone with in my life, like bop, blam! Jones throws a slow motion uppercut and then comes down with an overhand right as if he is giving me the same two piece he gave the inmate. So, when I hit him with the right, Jones says, his fuckin’ eye pops out of his head.

What! Got damn! says Singleton.

Wuuuuuuuuuuut? I say.

That’s right, I’ll never forget it. His eye popped right out of his head and was hanging there on like a little stalk. And at first he wanted to keep going. He had his hands up still getting ready to tussle. But I was like no, OG. Nah. I think we need to get you some help and I walked him over to medical.

What happened? I say

Nothing, they popped it back in and he sued the prison. He claimed he lost all his vision in that eye.

Did he win? I say.

I don’t know. I don’t think he did as a matter of fact. Because it was caused from his aggression on a officer. He might have even got a new charge for that.

And that is the kind of story I would hear routinely at the prison.  It seemed like everyone had a story like that.

 

Chapter 11.

The Time I Got Written Up For Hacking the Prison Computer System

 

writeup

Every day when I walk to my office I pass a water fountain that is always running. It is a rather large arc of water too and I think what a waste. I wonder why no one fixes it. I know everyone sees it the same as I do but every day it is still going. There are a lot of things like that in the prison. Take Axiom for example.

I discover Axiom, the computer software, one day when I am chatting with a friend of mine who happens to be a lieutenant in the statistics department. The statistics department is situated not far down the hall from my office and because Lt Topper is also interested in computers we instantly hit it off. One day we are in his office and he tells me about this computer program that is very powerful, and possibly the most useful software the prison has, but no one uses. According to Topper this is a shame because the prison spent a huge amount of money to purchase this software. This is how we get on the subject of Axiom and all of the data search functions it can do.

It turns out that Axiom is quite powerful because it can scan all of the prison’s inmate data and return answers to just about any queries if you ask the questions the right way. And it just so happens that while Lt. Topper isn’t an expert on querying Axiom, he knows someone in the CIS department who is the best person at the prison with using Axiom. A light bulb instantly goes off in my brain.

At this time I am working as an intake social worker at CFCF. An intake social worker has a list of priorities they have to adhere to each day. These priorities include seeing individuals right away whom are suicidal or in mental health crisis; second, seeing individuals who have mental health issues but are not in crisis, as well as those with physical health challenges. Next to be seen are those who have been in jail the longest and have not yet seen a social worker or anyone at all; and third, everyone else in the order they come into the jail including those that have already seen a social worker and those with other immediate concerns. The challenge to seeing all these people in order however is that it takes about an hour each morning of looking inmate names up individually in the computer before a social worker can compile a list of who we needs to see and in what order. It wasn’t hard but it was tedious and making the list was a time waster and caused all sorts of problems.

So, because Lt. Topper had clearance to use this software, Axiom, he and I began to create algorithms for search criteria that might be useful to me. We sat there for a couple of hours one day banging out query ideas. We set up Axiom to search all of those with mental health issues on my pod for starters: done, piece of cake. Another one we did was to set it up to search everyone who had previous assaults on staff, and then we did every inmate (on my pod) who had not seen a social worker yet since they have been in the prison, and so on. In the end we came up with a little over a half dozen search criteria that we wanted Axiom to do. I didn’t know much MySql but Topper was pretty good at it and loading up all the queries was pretty easy for him. The next thing I had Topper do was set up Axiom so that it would email the results of those queries to my prison email, every day, so that when I came in in the morning all that I had to do was pull up my email and there it was, all the info I needed.

It took a few weeks to get all the bugs worked out but eventually Axiom had majorly simplified my life. Occasionally I would show other social workers the read outs from Axiom but most of them didn’t want to have anything to do with it because they got a sense immediately that I was going to get in trouble for using Axiom. They were right of course.

Sure enough a couple months later, I go in to Lt. Topper’s office and he tells me that he was having a meeting with the Commissioner yesterday and with the Deputy Commissioner of Restorative Services, for clarity, the DC of restorative services is my boss’s boss’s boss and the commissioner is the boss of the whole prison.  Anyway, Topper is so excited about this useful way that he and I have been using Axiom that he wants to share our work at the meeting. Big mistake. The DC hears that it is one of his people who has been doing this with Topper and he tells topper to stop working with me on this immediately and to stop having Axiom send the inmate data to my email every morning. Topper later would get this seconded from his direct supervisor and was therefore forced to comply.

I, on the other hand, get a call from my supervisor, Mr. James and am ordered down to his office immediately and where I receive the write up shown at the beginning of this chapter. Not only did they try to write me up for accessing “records for which I did not have clearance” Mr. James was instructed to write me up for a whole host of things including lateness, absenteeism and whatever else he could think of. The message was that I was to be made an example of. But it that is not all.

A few months after my write up, Mr. Jame’s supervisor Brenda Creedy and the Deputy Commissioner of Restorative Services have a big unveiling of what they call “the data server” in front of all of the social work staff prison wide. What they share with us is a new way that social workers can easily access inmate information on our blocks. The data server turns out to be a website that stores the axiom data, based on Topper and my queries, that they had put together with the help of our friend from CIS. They had taken our work with Axiom and repackaged it. And Not only did Topper and I get no credit, I got in trouble for it.

In the end I am happy that all of the social workers got to benefit from our work, but I tell this particular story because it is an example of how the prison operates when it comes to innovation. Instead of just taking your idea, they will punish you for it too.

 

Chapter 12

A Cop is Killed at Dunkin Donuts

 

During my years at the prison, I can probably count on one hand the times where something that inmates did offended me on the grand scale. Most of these incidents were early on when I tended to be more judgmental. But the first one I will never forget. It was in 2007 when a cop was murdered at Dunkin Donuts and everybody on the cell block cheered.

It’s an otherwise unremarkable day and I am with a client doing a 1:1 therapy session in my office. After finishing up the session, I walk him back to the block to get the next guy on my list. The guard buzzes us through the door and we enter the housing unit and right away I see that the block is open. The inmates move about the block freely in their blue jumpers. There are 40 or 50 out by the looks of it and some sit in front of the TV on plastic couches or on plastic chairs, while others sit at the stainless steel lunch tables and play chess or cards. Daylight pours through the giant Plexiglas wall that offers a full view of the razor wire and concrete enclosed basketball court.  This is when the news report comes over the TV.

Live, late breaking coverage. A yellow ticker tape scrolls across the bottom of the screen with helicopter footage of the scene and police cars. Then the coverage cuts to a stunned female news caster relays, in a serious tone, the message: a Philadelphia police officer has been shot in the head at point blank range and killed today at a Dunkin Donuts and the gunman has escaped, she says, the screen cuts to the image of the fallen police officer. Instantly, seemingly in unison, the collective inmate population sends up a cheer.

Many of the inmates not only cheer but rise to their feet and pump their fists.

I look at the two prison guards stationed at the console by the door. We shrug at each other and shake our heads. I am overcome with indignation. I have police officer friends and am afraid it is one of them whom has been killed. I think how dare they cheer the murder of a police officer. A man who put his life on the line everyday to keep our community safe. A guy, probably with kids, who was just heading to the store to get some coffee, completely innocent, minding his own business.

While both black and white inmates are cheering, I notice that it seems like the black inmates are cheering the loudest, as if the fact that it is a white police officer that has been killed is an added bonus. I feel disgust. I also want to go and call my wife, whose cousin is a police officer, and make sure it wasn’t him who was killed.

That incident happened early-on in my career at the prison. What I never would have guessed however is that there would be a time, in the coming years of working there, when I would get it. In the future I would come to understand why they so callously cheered the murder of that police officer. I would understand that, to many of the inmates at the prison, especially the black inmates, no police officer is innocent. In their eyes the police are murderers, perpetrators of brutality. That is why they cheered that day. They cheered because they felt like, finally, one of these untouchables had gotten a taste of his own medicine.

Chapter 13

Stand Your Ground

Pennsylvania’s Stand Your Ground legislation was a game changer for many youth charged with violent crimes in Philadelphia. Before Stand Your Ground, if you were an urban youth and you got involved in a shoot out, in Philadelphia, you were often charged with attempted murder, no questions asked. There is one client of mine for whom Stand Your Ground made all the difference. His name is Roger.

Roger is in my office and he is upset because his bail is 300,000 dollars. Even though in Philadelphia county one must only pay 10% to make bail, 30,000 is still too rich for Roger’s blood. He is on my phone calling his aunt to see if she will put up her house for his bail. She is not telling him what he wants to hear and it is painful to listen to him not giving in to the inevitable. He won’t take no for an answer. Eventually I give him the wrap it up sign with my fingers, twirling one over the other. He rolls his eyes and tells her he has to go.

After he hangs up the phone he tells me how much bullshit this whole situation is. His arm is in a sling and he has bandages across his chest and torso. He tells me his story and I tend to agree with him.

The reason Roger is bandaged is because he has been shot by the police. The cop had apparently shot him twice, once from far away and once at point blank range. He says he is still having nightmares because of it. Here is what happened:

“Look, a guy I knew felt like I owed him some money. So, he comes over to pick the money up from me but before he even comes over I told him don’t bother because I don’t have it yet. He tells me, well, you better have it by the time I get there or it’s gonna be something. So I tell him, well, I guess it is gonna be something then because I don’t have it.”

“So then he comes and knocks on my door and I just opened it up a crack, with the chain on, and he says come out here on this porch so I can talk to you. And I say, I am not going out there. And he calls me a pussy a bitch and all that. And then I tell him to get off my porch and he gets mad and comes over and tries to kick my door in. So I am holding the door trying to prevent him from kicking it in and he is pushing and kicking it. Finally he breaks my chain that I have across the door, you know the little chain,”

“Yeah” I say.

“Anyway, he breaks that. And that is when I grab my gun.”

“What kind of gun is it?” I ask.

“It’s a 380.” He says. “So I get my 380 from the table by the door and I show it to him and I say if you keep trying to break in here I am going to shoot your ass. And then he just kind of snaps. Like, he goes insane, and breaks through the door and now he is trying to get the gun from me and punching me.”

“So what do you do?” I ask.

“I shoot him but he doesn’t stop. It’s like it didn’t even phase him. So I shoot him again, and he is still coming. So I shoot him again and again.”

“How many times did you shoot him over all?” I ask.

“Six times.” Roger says. “Finally he knocked me down.”

“Wait, I don’t understand, how did you shoot him six times and not drop him?”

“I don’t know. I guess from the fact that it was not that big of a caliber. And I guess I didn’t hit him in the right places. Anyway, after he knocks me down he sees he is bleeding and he runs off. So I get up and chase after him, I kind of went a little crazy too at that point. And I chase him up the block and fire the gun at him. But guess who is coming around the corner just in time to see me shooting?”

“The cops.” I say.

“Exactly.” Says Roger.

“So what do the cops do?”

“Right after I fire at the bull, I see the cop and I am instantly like oh fuck. The cop jumps out of the car and immediately starts shooting at me. I didn’t have time to say anything, explain or nothing. He shoots twice immediately like, BLOW BLOW. But he misses. So I turn and start running but he is still firing and he hits me in my back. BLOW. And I go down. Then he runs up on my and shoots me again.”

“While you are laying on the ground?”

“Yup, while I was laying on the ground.”

“Did you still have the gun?”

“Nope, I through it in the bushes when I started running.”

“Where did he shoot you when you were on the ground?”

“He shot my right here.” Says Roger pointing to the area between his clavical and his shoulder.”

“What happened to the guy that you had shot?”

“He lived.”

“Damn, lucky for you.”

“I know right. If he died I’d be in here on a murder charge.”

“What kind of gun did the cop shoot you with?” I ask.

“Glock, 9mm. The doctor said I got lucky.”

“Lucky you are both bad shots.” I say and Roger laughs.

“Now they got you in here on attempted murder, I see. Hey you know this Stand Your Ground Legislation may be getting ready to pass in PA. It might help your defense against the attempted murder in this case.  If everything you are telling me is true.”

“Everything I told you is exactly how it happened.”

Three months later the Stand Your Ground legislation did pass in Pennsylvania. 3 months after that, Roger’s lawyer was able to get his charges knocked down to carrying a firearm in Philadelphia without a license. Roger’s bail was knocked down to 3,000 dollars and he was able to bail out for 300 dollars.

 

Chapter 14

Group Research

Occasionally, when I am running groups, I do informal research. The study I do the most has to do with the education level of the parents of my inmate clients. One particular day, when I am doing a group with about 20 guys, something clicks for me. I am still quite religious at this time in my life and I tend to believe that the people who end up in jail are there as a result of their own poor choices. No matter their circumstances, everyone has a choice to do right or do wrong. This is of course true in one sense. We are all responsible for our choices. But the idea that everyone ends up in jail because of their own choices and moral failings alone is not such a straight forward fact. The truth I would come to find is much more complicated.

We are in the OPTIONS trailer, twenty men in chairs sit in a large circle. Gray, overcast sunlight makes its way through rectangular trailer windows covered with rusty metal grating.

I brief the group, telling them that I am going to be asking some questions.

First Question, I say, raise your hand if both of your parents went to college. In the group only I and one other member raise our hands. He is also a white guy. I ask the guy if he would like to tell us a little about where his parents went to college. He said his dad was an engineer but he left the family when my client was young. His mom later went back and got her degree after he had graduated high school.

Next question, I ask is who had at least one parent whom graduated college. Two more hands went up. One guys mom was a nurse and another a school teacher.

Next question, I ask whose mother and fathers are still married to this day? This time a quarter of the groups hands go up.

Next question, who in here grew up with parents who became divorced or grew up with only one parent in the home? This time 2/3rd s of the hands went up, including mine.

Next question, who grew up seeing their parents get up and go to work every day? This time only a quarter of the hands in the room went up. One of the guys asked a question that stopped me cold. He said, what if when you got up everyday your mom asked you for money?

Your mom asked you for money everyday? I asked.

Yeah, my mom had a drug problem. I had to bring her home money everyday since I was 9 years old. Or else we wouldn’t eat.

So what did you do to get money? I asked.

Whatever I had to: stealing, begging. I started selling weed when I was 11 cause it was less dangerous. I been a drug dealer ever since.

After that guy shared his story that day, I really never went back to judging people the same way I had before. Something changed in my perspective. I did this group a number of times and the answers were often the same. Almost no one’s parents went to college. Almost no one went to private school, nearly everyone had gone to public school  with the occasional catholic school attendee, but not one fancy prep schools.

Prison is a place for the lower classes and the lower middle. Who becomes junkies and crooks? People who are raised by junkies and crooks, mostly. People who are abandoned at young ages and soothe their pain with narcotics. People who are thrown out like the garbage and have grown up in poverty. F students with nothing better to do and no opportunities for success on the horizon. People who believe they are worthless.

I learned in school to use non-judgmental therapeutic approaches. But after I did these “research groups” was when I really started to see what little role we play in our own success or failure. This is when I sincerely stopped judging. This could have been me, I realized. They were no different. They were just born in different neighborhoods and with different parents. If I was born into their situations I have no doubt I would be where they sat now.

 

Chapter 16

Slaystation

It is 2013 and it is a sunny day. I am in good spirits coming into the staff entrance at CFCF. As I am getting searched by the CO at the front desk I glance down to see the day’s headline. In big bold letters it says SlayStation across the front of the Daily News.

SlayStation I say. I hold my hands above my head as the guard is patting me down. I pull my paperwork off of the metal detector conveyor belt.

“Yeah” says the CO, Mr. Tooms. He sucks his teeth and shakes his head as if to say what a shame. “A guy shot his friend over a Playstation. Young kid.”

“Damn,” I say. “Did he make it hear yet?” I ask.

“Yeah, I think they brought him in earlier this morning.” Says Tooms.

I make it through the security checkpoint and pick up my office keys from the armory. A half dozen sally ports later I am unlocking my office door.

“Your Supervisor called up here for you.” Says Watson, the CO on duty at the desk outside my office door. Watson controls the social work area and the shared medical area. “He said he wants you to see a guy.” Says Watson

When I get into my office, I am about to sit down at my desk and get settled in when my phone rings. It’s Mr. James. Mr. James is old school recovering addict turned counselor, turned online masters degree recipient. He has a 70’s pimp swagger from his days in the streets that comes through his voice on the phone.

“Listen here. Mr. DiCicco, I want you to see a guy that just came in, he’s on your pod. They are calling him Slaystation. His real name is Michael Sylvestor. PP# 109879”

“Got it. Yeah, I saw him in the paper this morning.” I say.

“Well, I got a call from the higher ups because his mom has already been calling for him, saying she is afraid he is going to kill himself. If you could have him give her a call asap that would do me a solid.”

“No problem” I say.

“Thank ya much.” he says and hangs up.

I go back out and give Watson the heads up. I ask him if he can get Slaystation over here asap. Sure he says and chuckles. “What is his PP number?” Watson asks, and I rattle it off. Reading it from my steno pad. “B pod.” I add.

“Got it.” he says and puts the phone to his ear.

10 minutes later a heavy set, bald headed correctional officer fills my doorway. He moves to the side and escorts into the room a lanky teenager whom is clad in an orange jumpsuit. The teenager’s eyes dart around the room and seem quite large and he scans the room nervously, taking in the experience. I can tell this is his first time in jail.

He sits in the plastic chair carefully, awkwardly, his hands are cuffed behind his back. All of my usual ice breaking comments are out the window. How they treating you? I don’t say it. I know the answer. None of the clever or witty comments I typically use to get a laugh will work here. Slaystation is looking at me with distrust.

Okay, I begin. My name is Rocco and I am going to be your social worker why you are here. I’m going to ask you some questions and when I’m done you can ask me any questions you have and maybe make a phone call, does that work for you?

He nods his head yes.

We go through my questions, quickly, all 78 of them. I am pretty good at skipping or filling in the questions where the answers are obvious or inconsequential. The most important questions: who is your emergency contact? And, are you feeling suicidal? And do you have a history of mental illness? Are the kind of questions I spend the most time on. In about 20 minutes we come to the end of my questions. I ask, do you want to make a phone call? He says yeah, my grandmother. I say good because she has been calling the prison, worried about you. She has called my boss, my bosses boss. This gets a laugh out of him.

I pick up the handset to the old plastic push button phone and place it to his ear. He cups it with his shoulder to his ear, his hands still handcuffed behind his back. It is an awkward hold but it works. I dial the number. There are only a few rings and someone picks up on the other end, I can hear, a high pitched voice but I can’t make out the words.

“I love you too, Granma” he says. “I’m okay” he says. He pauses for long periods, listening to a lecture or a series of questions. He looks up at me as if he is somewhat embarrassed.

“I can’t really get into that right now, Granma.” He says

“There is more to it than that.” He says

“No, there was more to it than that.” He says again.

Then I hear his Granma begin to scream. I can’t make it out at first but she is saying the same word over and over again. I see single, lonely tears fall down his cheeks. And finally I can make out the word. “Why” is what she is saying, “Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy. Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy”

Slaystation moves with his shoulder like he wants to hang up the phone. Like he is going to drop the handset on top of the receiver. I take it from him and hang up on the screaming voice.

We sit in silence for a few moments.

Is there anything else I can do for you? I ask him.

“Yeah, do you got a time machine?” he asks

He gets up to leave and I waive the guard over.

 

 

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