When I heard that Michael Avenatti had been placed in the Special Housing Unit, or SHU, at Metropolitan Correctional Center, or MCC, I almost became nostalgic for my old alma mater. I spent most of 2019 at MCC, bunking with Paul Manafort and spending hours one on one with Jeffrey Epstein while he was on suicide watch. But I missed meeting Michael. Basta!
Regardless, there are few people who understand exactly what Avenatti is experiencing, hardly a year after he was clashing with Trump concerning Stormy Daniels (among other issues) and talking about running for president himself.
Thanks to my 10-month stay for tax fraud at the facility where Avenatti’s lawyer says that he’s huddled under three blankets in El Chapo’s old cell while he awaits his trial at MCC for allegedly trying to extort $20 million from Nike, a charge he’s vehemently denied, I have a pretty good idea about what Mr. Avenatti is going through. He was flown to the Manhattan prison last Friday from California, where he awaits trial on other charges, that he also vehemently denies. This all sounds par for the course. And I’m sure my ex-bunky, Paul Manafort, who blazed an eerily similar path at MCC, would concur.
High-profile prisoners—be they rich white-collar criminals, or infamous sex offenders—are generally placed in protective custody for their safety. Jeffrey Epstein was somehow first admitted to general population, where inmates immediately set to shaking him down. “Put money on my books and I won’t kick your ass,” was the general theme.
So he requested protective custody quickly and ended up in the special housing unit. The catch is that protective custody is intrusive, unpleasant and filled with the worst of the worst—the 10 percent of prisoners who simply will not follow the rules and have to get high, or use cellphones, or fight.
So what’s it really like living in the SHU? What is Avenatti experiencing there as you read this? To start with, he’s cold. I froze my ass off my first week at MCC. Without thermals and a sweatshirt (which I couldn't get until commissary day), I was constantly under a blanket. That blanket was a scratchy cover which we called The Burberry because it had the pattern though certainly not the quality or comfort. MCC cells all have a vent blowing out cold air for 23 hours a day (at 10 p.m., it turned hot for an hour). So we fashioned cardboard rectangles and whammed them into the vents to block the wind. At least that eliminated the wind chill.
The SHU itself is actually one unit with two sections: 9 South houses the unleaded regular-type guys, inmates who can’t follow rules; 10 South, where Avenatti is in Chapo’s old cell, is reserved for superstars, celebrities and big-time terrorists and drug dealers.
Units at MCC evoke a six-legged spider. The body is the central area where guys congregate and watch television. The legs are the tiers, each containing eight 50-square-foot two-man cells and one private shower. Up a flight of stairs off the body is the classroom and offices of the unit team (counselor, case manager and secretary). But above 9 South, what had been classroom and offices have been converted into 10 South, cells for the infamous.
SHU Inmates get a meal three times a day (6 a.m., 11 a.m., 5 p.m.). The food isn’t all that tasty, or even edible. But there’s a lot of it. While general population inmates receive meals on small brown trays, the SHU guys get at least twice as much on big orange trays. The elite 10 South prisoners are served on blue trays the same size as the orange ones.
Down in the kitchen, we'd generally make 75 orange SHU trays for 9 South and maybe 2 or 3 blue trays for 10 South. To make up the regular brown trays, we spooned the meal into the tray. For the SHU trays, we used the brown tray as a spoon. You get the idea. One of the first questions I asked upon viewing the discrepancy between g pop and SHU trays was "Why do the SHU inmates get a bigger meal when they're the prisoners getting punished?" The answer was that they have no access to commissary and thus are given more food to sustain them.
With respect to visitors and phone privileges, SHU residents don’t really get any. But legal visits are allowed, and often the only time that they can leave their cell (which perhaps explains why Epstein was spending eight hours a day with his lawyers). In a letter sent to authorities, Avenatti’s lawyer complained that he wasn’t allowed to make proper legal visits over the holiday weekend.
Totally believable by me. We had only one half-day window for visiting hours every week while I was at MCC. And often, that half-day was canceled with very little notice.
Avenatti, his lawyer wrote, is being held in a cell by himself, with two cameras clocking him—and isn’t even allowed to shave. I get it. After Epstein’s highly publicized suicide, the prison staff doesn’t want to take a chance on a reprise. The authorities don’t want him anywhere near a razor blade. Inmates at MCC (Nicholas Gibson for one) have tried to slit their throats with blades they hid after breaking open disposable shavers.
Avenatti’s lawyer speculates that his client is “apparently under special administrative measures,” and it doesn’t sound like Avenatti has even been getting his hour a day of recreation on the roof of the prison.
Rec is another realm at which MCC, long ago hailed as a flagship modern prison, fails, partially owing to its urban location. There is no yard, like in most prisons. Rec happens instead on the roof, where inmates exercise on a basketball and handball court surrounded by four walls topped off with caging. Because of those walls, inmates will not get any sunshine unless their unit has early afternoon rec. My unit had rec at 5:30 PM. I was down in the kitchen working at that hour, so even if there was any sun to get, I wouldn’t have gotten it.
It did occur to me that the administration could have rotated rec hours among units so everybody got at least some sun at some point during their stay. And if possible, a second rec time for workers would have been appropriate. (Even Rikers had that!) When I got out, friends commented, “You look especially pale!” You can guess why.
With respect to personal hygiene, SHU residents are allowed three showers per week. Will Avenatti get more access to the shower owing to his celebrity? Possibly. But probably not. Welcome to prison. Club Fed and Club Med bear little resemblance.
Institutionalized inmates know how to hustle for a good mattress (all things being relative). I don’t imagine Avenatti is in a position to do that in 10 South. In any event, Avenatti is sleeping on a metal bunk with what would be more accurately called a pad than a mattress. The variation is in how thick that pad is. I settled for one that was a little short but not too thin, and made up for the shortness by piling up blankets to about the level of the mattress.
Oddly, MCC doesn’t allow pillows. Which meant we took to hiding them in our lockers whenever leaving for work so they wouldn’t be confiscated by a guard doing a random walk-through. One day I returned to my cell and found two of the three pillows I’d collected confiscated. I never forgot to lock them up again. Fortunately, I was friendly with the unit tailor (self-proclaimed, not prison-sanctioned) and for a tuna pack from commissary (or was it a chicken from the kitchen?), I got a replacement quickly. With no opportunity to barter with the tailor, chances are Avenatti is using a towel or blanket to rest his weary head.
Beyond being cold, confined for 23 hours a day (unless his lawyer visits), not showering most days, never seeing sunlight and having no TV or phone calls, the worst part of the SHU is still the noise.
Remember, the special housing unit is where the worst 10 percent of the prison population is held. The boys scream and yell at each other from tier to tier and pass things on a string from cell to cell. If one decides to spend a night banging and screaming his guts out (which happened on a number of occasions even in the more civilized g pop unit), officers rarely do anything about it. Sleep deprivation can be a real issue anywhere you live in MCC — and especially in the SHU.
At one point, I was on suicide watch with an infamous chomo (child molester) who’d requested protective custody because he tired of the physical intimidation he was experiencing in g pop. White (not his real name) reported that the SHU was so intolerable that he feared he was going mad and went back to g pop to take his chances, and beatings. Living in the SHU was that bad.
When I heard (while I was still locked up inside) that Epstein had killed himself, my first thought was that the insanity of the SHU caused his suicide. Just a thought, mind you—because in the hours I’d spent with him, Jeffrey never struck me as actually being suicidal or horribly depressed.
But I digress. I get why Avenatti is currently housed in the SHU (for his safety). I get why he is under constant watch: for fear that the conditions that drove Epstein to suicide might do the same to Avenatti. More bad publicity is the last thing MCC needs. They're not going to let him die in their custody.
Given how bad the SHU is, the authorities may eventually move Avenatti into g pop—just as they did Manafort. If they pursue that course, the staff will carefully consider who to room him with.
But there is one wrinkle in that idea: Manafort was a sentenced prisoner, who could be placed in the relatively civilized cadre unit (where I was) with the other sentenced inmates. Guys who know their out date are much less prone to violence because they don't want to lose their good time by fighting. Pre-trialers, the population Avenatti would be released into, are more dangerous. Many live in suspended animation, with a propensity for violence that reflects that limbo. Virtually all the blood shed at MCC is spilled in pretrial units.
When Epstein requested me as his bunky as an alternative to the SHU or suicide cell, he was told that was impossible because I was a sentenced inmate and he was awaiting trial. Avenatti will have the same problem.
William Mersey is a writer and blogger who's been published in the New York Times, the New York Daily News and New York magazine, as well as in Gallery, Oui, and Screw magazines. From Jan. 3 to Nov. 18 of 2019, Mersey was imprisoned in the Metropolitan Correction Center for tax fraud, where he spent a significant amount of time in the company of Paul Manafort and Jeffrey Epstein. For more of his thoughts on prison life, the BOP and MCC, visit db-lockdown.com.