Some of my best Christmases have been in prison.
From 1990 until 2003 I spent 13 Christmases behind bars, from the county jail where I was first taken after my arrest, to the old state prison I was eventually released from, on Bastille Day.
The first Christmas was the worst.
On Nov. 24, 1990, I woke up, naked, with a scratchy white sheet wrapped around me, in a concrete cell. I was on suicide watch in the Westchester County, New York, jail, charged with murder for shooting a crack dealer.
I shot him in the Bronx, straight through the heart, but the guy had so much blow in his blood that he ran across the county line, into Westchester, where he collapsed and died. It’s not exactly my proudest moment, but things were a lot different back then; back then there were six or seven murders a day, scores of assaults, robberies and rapes, and ineffective and corrupt cops who let most crimes go unpunished; back then everyone had been a victim, or knew a close relative or friend who had been a victim; and everyone carried a weapon, a gun, a knife, a can of Mace—even a hot cup of coffee.
Hobbesian, in a word, is what it was like; and the life of a man was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
When the cell door opened that November morning, there stood, to my surprise, alarm, and relief (in that order), Artie, all 6 feet, 3 inches, and 350 pounds of him. It took me a moment to recognize my old friend’s father, a man I first met when I was 12 or 13.
Artie was wearing a corrections officer uniform, with a wooden baton, and rings full of oversized keys dangling from his belt. In his hand was a large, square styrofoam container filled—he told me later—with food from the officer’s mess hall. Bending forward, he ducked into the cell and placed the white container on the small, shiny table that stuck out from the wall between us, before stepping slightly back and standing upright, eyes softly fixed on mine.
I sat up. I met his stare. He seemed friendly, but I wasn’t sure.
His son Smitty and I met at Mark Twain Junior High School and became fast Huck Finn-style friends. Together, we listened to heavy metal, drank quarts of Budweiser, chased girls and shot BB guns and bows-and-arrows in the woods near his house. He was there when I shot my first real gun, a Colt .45 automatic, into the hood of an abandoned car. Then I handed him the pistol and he pulled the trigger too. One day Smitty shot me in the face with a BB rifle because I was wearing a hunter’s orange cap that said “Don’t shoot” on it. That’s what passed for humor in my neighborhood when I was a kid: Violence was funny. But Smitty wasn’t really laughing after I emptied my six-shot pellet gun into him. We stayed friends, but Smitty’s father, Artie, later put him in a different school and we fell out of touch. Smitty’s older sister, who we all knew, liked, and hung out with, had been murdered. I hadn’t seen any of them in years.
“Here’s some breakfast,” Artie said, pointing to the container, smile sprouting on his face. “You’re not gonna kill yourself today are you, Jason?”
“What the fuck?”
Artie visited me every day for weeks, bringing food and other small things, like the newspaper. He pulled some strings and got me a good job in the jail laundry, and he had me moved to a newer, cleaner block with bigger cells, and windows. The doors there were solid steel, instead of bars, and had a slot in the middle of them where trays of food were slid, including Christmas dinner, which I think was a turkey sandwich or something. Whatever it was, it was always the worst food ever, cold, gray, and tasteless.
That Christmas I ate alone in my beige-colored cell, thinking the entire time that my life was over, that I would be convicted of murder and sent away for life, forever consigned to a cell like this, rendered a shade of my former self, a ghost trapped in a concrete purgatory, living and breathing, but hardly alive.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, after eight months, a jury spared me and convicted me only of second-degree manslaughter, instead of murder. The judge called it a mistake; I called it a second chance. I was sentenced to a maximum of 19 years in prison, which meant I’d be out in 12 2/3 years, if I stayed out of trouble and lived that long.
Neither of those things seemed likely, because one man was biding his time, patiently waiting to exact revenge, like a character straight from Shakespeare. That man was the brother of the man I killed, himself behind bars, at the Downstate Correctional Facility, where newly sentenced prisoners are sent for processing into the state system. He was part of the prisoner workforce there and, thus, literally stood between me and my second chance. He had sent messages, through the prison grapevine, that I deserved death, not 19 years, and that I would be held accountable for the outstanding balance. But when the moment was right for him to take action, when all that was between us was one C.O., and I was alone and unarmed, all he managed to do was yell,
“Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!”
The C.O.s handcuffed him and took him away. I never saw him again.
I ended up at the Coxsackie Correctional Facility, prisoner #91-A-6991. We called it The Cat, probably because calling it The Cox would have been too awkward. The Cat was a class-A maximum-security prison and it was crazy. Every day someone got slashed—we called it getting “touched”—with a razor or shanked in the yard or a stairwell, mostly the result of beefs started on the street or continued from Rikers Island. Every once in awhile someone died. Meanwhile, I got a job as a paralegal in the law library and I started reading the Village Voice.
Food was served in the mess hall. The C.O.s marched you there, more or less in formation, and gave you a certain amount of time to eat, which was never enough, and then marched you back to your cell. Sometimes a random C.O. or sergeant would stop the formation to “inspect” it. It was like the prison, Redneck version of stop-and-frisk. If you didn’t have your shirt tucked in, or if your pant legs were tucked in, or if one of the hacks just didn’t like the way you looked, you would be pulled out of line and thrown against a wall and patted down, or worse, dragged away into a dark corner and beaten, like a slave, until bones were broken, and maybe a couple of teeth.
Still, the food was pretty good, and as long as you kept a low profile and a sharp shank, you could do your time mostly in peace. In the mess hall, where all the tables and chairs were bolted to the floor, there were metal spoons but no forks or knives. You grabbed a tray and went down the line collecting what you wanted, one of the few places you had a choice of any kind. On Sept. 9 everyone picked up a spoon but no food. No one ate. No one spoke. No one smiled. This was how we commemorated the Attica Rebellion, and honored those who were murdered, beaten, and tortured there, by C.O.s, cops, and National Guardsmen, as Gov. Rockefeller and the rest of America cheered.
Christmas 1991, my first up North, there was a variety show in the prison’s theater, and we laughed as our comrades acted out various skits on the stage—the only time in the whole year such things were allowed. In the mess hall, sliced turkey and all the fixin’s were served, with pie for dessert. Lights and green garland even decorated the mess hall’s miniature indoor gun tower. It was was a veritable celebration of survival.
After Coxsackie, I was sent to Collins, a medium-security facility just outside of Buffalo. Compared with Coxsackie, Collins was paradise. Collins wasn’t built to be a prison, but a mental hospital, so there weren’t cell blocks but housing units, and there weren’t cells but rooms and small dormitories. Each housing unit had a kitchen, with an electric stove top—the honor dorm, where I lived, had a refrigerator. We would cook, literally like Paulie in Goodfellas, shaving fresh garlic with razor blades. The yard had lush green grass and trees; the view over fields and a pond looked to me like The Hay Wain. The place even had a sugar house, and every so often real maple syrup was served in the mess hall. Because the place was so sweet, and everyone wanted to stay there, beef was on hiatus, with old enemies agreeing to truces, and current disagreements settled with negotiation and discussion.
It was like the Oberlin of prisons—I even took college classes at night.
For the first time in a very long time I started to feel safe, that I didn’t have to be constantly vigilant, perpetually on guard. I made some friends. I smoked some weed. I drank some homemade wine. I relaxed.
One of the friends I made was Gary Hawley, a farmer from Delaware County, in New York’s own little band of Appalachia. Gary, then in his late forties, liked to blow off steam by skid-racing horses and smoking crack. To support his habits, he started selling ounces of coke to his neighbors, leading to a 6-to-life sentence under New York’s Rockefeller drug laws. Gary was part of a crew that ate together and slept in the same dorm, and I was invited to join them.
Besides Gary there was Tommy Green, an old-school, stone-cold Irish two-time killer from Buffalo who liked to work out and paint clowns; another Tommy, whose Italian last name I’ve forgotten, but who was a bookmaker from Albany doing 3-to-6, courtesy of a state police wiretap; and a Puerto Rican guy from Spanish Harlem who did most of the cooking.
One day, just before Christmas, I got sent to the mess hall to pick up some chicken. The only thing bad about Collins was the snow, which was on the ground from December until late March, frequently at depths of two or more feet. It made the place feel like Siberia, which is what it basically was, complete with hemlocks and Gothic architecture. After five minutes, I watched from a distance as the metal mesh screen covering one of the mess hall’s windows opened like a zipper, and a large, rectangular block was sent flying through the window, plummeting into the snowbank below. I waded over and dug the block out of the snow. It was 20 pounds of frozen chicken, straight out of the box it was delivered to the prison in. Quickly, I wrapped it up in my jacket, and carried it back to the housing unit, past the C.O. guarding the door, who we fed every weekend.
That Christmas was a true feast. We had 20 pounds of fried chicken, a huge pot of Spanish rice, olives, and cans of cranberry sauce. Italian Tommy made pizza with Boboli crust and fresh mozzarella; Irish Tommy made collard greens and sweet potatoes cooked in real maple syrup from the sugar house. We even had hot rum and pumpkin pie for dessert. Afterward, we went for a boozy walk outside around the yard, sipping hot rum and smoking cigars as we went, every so often catching a glimpse, in the distance, of the lights of civilization through the leafless winter woods on the other side of the razor-wire topped fence.
We didn’t have a lot, but we had we had each other, some really good food, and a glimmering sliver of hope for a better tomorrow, and that was more than enough. It was perfect.