Prison, Freedom, Paradise
By Joel Thomas and M. Rutledge McCall, this is the inspirational, true story of a young man who went from college to sales management to prison …and then went on to establish one of the most unique physical training facilities on Wall Street while still in his 30s (no screen adaptation available at this time)…
Welcome to the Jungle, Baby…You Gonna Die!
I was given two options: go to state prison and do my full sentence, or go back to County and redo the program. All. Over. Again. All of it.
Imagine if you were told at the end of high school that you would have to do it all over again because you failed one big test. That was how it felt to me. Just the thought of the first time I had been sent back and my family was so disgusted with me they could barely look me in the eyes. But if I were to go back a second time, they would have nothing—absolutely nothing—to do with me. I would be an outcast, a pariah, the manipulator who could never come clean, poster boy of all losers, a daily, living example of how to kick a gift horse in the mouth.
But could I go to State prison for as much as four or five years—and come out as a felon? Could I go back to County and find guys like Danny and Jaime, who had protected me and tried so hard to keep me on the straight and narrow every single day in that vile, violent system…and then I get out and pull this crap? Did I spend close to a year of hard work in the County program only to face starting all over again because of one misstep on the outside after I finished and was released? Pride, ego, fear, defeat, all screamed NO!—no way would I subject myself to…to the detritus of myself.
I couldn’t do it over again. I wanted my life back but not if it meant going through the County program all over again. Sure, after I had completed the program and finished my first stint there, I was more positive than I had been probably my whole life, but I knew I didn’t have the internal fortitude to do what it would take to go through County again. I didn’t want to be at County at all—ever again! State was bad enough and the sentence would be maybe four, five times longer, but a year in County packed in that many years worth of violence.
I had no fight left in me for that.
* * *
My eyes bored listlessly into the short brown table that separated me from the lawyer. The room was small, stark, cold. His meaningless words echoed off of the bare walls. I fought through a haze of dejection, trying to string together some semblance of hope from the legalese.
Options, he kept saying. Options. Did I still have options, after all I had done? That sounded improbable. I felt confined, claustrophobic. As I tried to shake it off, I involuntarily kicked the table leg. My feet were in leg irons; the movement made an angry clanking sound.
He abruptly stopped speaking, and looked at me sharply, as if I was being disruptive.
He continued talking.
I looked at the ceiling, back at my cuffed hands, my mind wandering.
Why hadn’t it worked for me at County? What had I been missing? I honestly thought I had changed, because I had learned so much about myself there, about what I needed to work on, about my faults and shortcomings, needing to feel like a man who could take care of his family rather than being a man who was barely able to do so. A rich criminal, always looking over my shoulder? Or a depressed guy with a college degree that would net me $18 per hour—36 grand a year—to provide for a family of four? Fuck that shit. Fuck America.
…No—fuck me for getting myself into this mess!
A feeling of fear crept over me as I began to realize that I couldn’t trust myself. If I had become convinced, twice—along with professional, trained counselors—that I had grown, changed, become a new man, yet I had not…then who the hell was I? What was I? Would I always do the wrong thing? Always lie, deceive, deal? Was I genetically damaged goods? Too enthralled with the life of a drug kingpin? Well…maybe not “kingpin” so much, but doing pretty damn well compared to the squares struggling with impossible societal rules that no longer allowed a man to get ahead in fine fashion if he wasn’t born into wealth.
A few of the guys in County had tried valiantly to help me, but it was obvious I needed something else, something more, to really, truly change. Because that program, as good as I thought it had been, sure as hell hadn’t worked for me. But what would work? What would it take for a hardhead risk-taker like me?
The upside to County was far less time served and the felony would be downgraded to a misdemeanor upon successful completion of the program and no more arrests—for anything. Ever. But here was my problem: if I went through the County program for my last allowable time, I would never be the same when I got out. Because at 21, I was natural prey for the population in County and protection was expensive—on many different levels—and I couldn’t count on being lucky enough to find guys like Danny and Jaime a second time around. And if I did make it through without committing murder on some predator, I would come out as someone—something—else. Put me on Dilaudid or heroine or morphine because I’d be the living dead anyway. And as bad as that was, there was another downside to County: slip up just one time after release, like I did, even to say hi to a former friend you used to sell to who still uses, and I would go right back into County. Like I was facing now.
On the other hand, four or five years of my life gone after getting out of State? Even with early parole for good behavior it could be a three year stint—with a felony record and never being allowed to vote again. And forget getting a job and get used to living on the streets because nobody hires or rents to ex-felons. The only upside to State was that if I served my full sentence and refused early parole, I would have no release terms to adhere to, because I will have paid my debt to society. I could never be jerked back into the system for anything related to the same crime.
So, State, where I come out free and clear but lose five years of my life, can’t vote, can’t find a job, nowhere to rent, and I still have a daily fight for survival while I’m in, because I’m young enough to be natural prey there too? Or County, where I come out with an angry chip on my shoulder the size of a .44 magnum and can be yanked back in for any violation of any law?
It was a devil’s deal all around.
“Prison,” I said, answering out loud the thoughts running rampant in my mind.
The lawyer stopped talking.
“What?” he said, puzzled. “What do you mean?”
Maybe I was punishing myself. Maybe I was giving my entire life a death sentence. I didn’t care. My life was pretty much over anyway. With nothing left to lose, you tend to become fearless.
If a man could convince himself that he has changed, yet he has enough crap in him that he will still lie, still game the system, still deceive, still deal, then he has not changed. He is still the same man, just with a more convincing smile. At that point, fearless is where a man like that needs to get to in order to stop BS-ing himself and everyone around him. If he genuinely wants to be a different man, a man unafraid of truth, a man unwilling to lie, a man hard set against wrong, a man who hews unwaveringly to a moral compass, then the old man in him must be crushed out of him completely. I wanted to be that kind of man. And I knew that because I hadn’t yet done what needed to be done—what I had been given chance after chance to do to become that man…then I had to be ready and willing to die if that’s what it would take to have even the tiniest hope of not just change, but of utter rebirth, of reemergence as the man I desperately wanted to be—had to be, for my future’s sake.
The decision that had wafted out of my jumbled thinking wasn’t exactly logical and I knew it wouldn’t make a lick of sense to the lawyer, but I knew it was what I needed. Either I was taking a leap of faith or a leap into a bottomless pit.
“I’ll stay in prison,” I said evenly.
He blinked in surprise. We looked at each other for a moment.
Going to prison for years as an alternative to reentering a 12-month behavior modification program would definitely be a hard way to learn a lesson, but I wasn’t new to that. I could sum up my whole life in four words: learning the hard way. County had been horrible. But anyone who has grown up with an abusive parent understands that practically everything else in life is easier after having lived in that kind of oppression. Having someone constantly lay hands on you, shove you into walls, jerk you out of the shower, debase you, belittle you…that kind of crap ratchets up your resiliency and toughness, if you survive it.
My stepfather had been dishing out hell on me long before I was old enough to even understand the comparison to prison. Prison, to me, would be a cakewalk in comparison. And I sure as hell wouldn’t take my changes with County all over again.
“I don’t think you understand what you’re choosing,” the lawyer said.
Then he launched into a spiel about all the ways in which a felony would irreparably ruin my life.
What he didn’t know was that all my life I had been told by one authority figure after another that I needed to be better. But in challenging me physically with his onslaught of abuses, my stepfather had broken me mentally. As a broken man (essentially a child in a grownup body), I didn’t trust myself or anyone else. I had always fought myself just as hard as I’d fought the world. Maybe this war inside me was something prison could help put an end to. I knew I couldn’t live with me anymore and I had gotten to the place where I was willing to do anything if it would make me into a new me. I knew what I was choosing alright. I was choosing not to be placed in a jail system where my long-chained temper would finally blow and I’d kill someone.
Then it would be State prison for life.
The lawyer was still talking.
“You won’t be able to get a proper job. You will never be allowed to vote. They won’t let you—”
“—Give me my damn felony,” I cut him off, hard and even. “I earned it.”
He took a breath, let it out, looked down at the table, and nodded.
With that decision, I was about to be cut down to the most raw and vulnerable position a man can assume. It was do or die time.
And I’d have to go through hell to get to my final prison destination.
* * *
The name “Riker’s Island” strikes fear into the hearts of the hardest of men. And it’s not even prison.
Once my sentence was handed down, I was sent to the “Tombs” at 100 Centre Street in New York City. From there, I was transported to Riker’s Island, a jail and holding facility for people who were on trial or being held for sentencing before being sent on to a prison facility to serve out their punishment.
I was led from the police vehicle, through the gates and into the booking area, full of bravado. I wasn’t going to be bullied by anyone. What greeted me was a population of criminals, mostly black and Latino. I was booked, stripped down, cavity-searched, deloused and then re-dressed and released into the general population yard—where I was surrounded by angry, conniving, violent, dangerous men with hair trigger tempers who’d slice their own brother for a shot at freedom. And those were the nicer guys. Their faces would stain my memory for a long time. They loathed being there and truly believed they had been wronged by the system or by someone who had done them wrong and they didn’t belong there. The chips on their shoulders and the grudges in their hearts were the size of cannonballs and every bit as explosive.
They wandered around the yard in plain street clothes, looking pitiful and deadly at the same time. It didn’t take long to discover that every one of them had the same ego problem I had. They spoke in slang, cut each other off, joked and grimaced at one another, got in each other’s face with a swagger alone that held more brute power than anything I could muster. I shrank back as I watched them from the sidelines. I was in trouble.
I knew, for the most part, that I could probably smart-talk my way into getting enough respect to avoid a beatdown, but some of these guys were quicker with their words than I was—and they had the extra height and the body mass to back it up. I sized in at five-feet eight and wasn’t a wide-body. When it came down to it, I would never be able to back up my words with physical force alone. A feeling of dread and defeat caused me to shudder. This place was packed with lowlifes who would call you on your shit in a heartbeat in the one area where I could usually rely to get me out of trouble: my own lying tongue.
What have I gotten myself into? I wondered for the hundredth time.
For the most part, the inmates were unsupervised. We roamed the crowded space with little to do except keep a sharp eye on the guards. We outnumbered them 40 to one and that made them very nervous and constantly ready to pull the mace or crack a head with a baton. They didn’t react much to our fights in the yard, just as long as they were small and quick. Rumor had it, though, that if they did decide to mix it up with us, they would come in swinging with batons and full riot gear.
One day as I was milling about, keeping my head down and avoiding eye contact, a fight broke out in the yard not far from where I was standing. I cringed, noting the relaxed pose of the guards, none of whom bothered to wade in and break it up. That’s when I realized that I was on my own if someone didn’t like me and decided to prove it.
The fight that day was short. They tended to resolve themselves that way, with one winner and one clear loser. After the scuffle, the yard went right back to normal, as if a dust devil had suddenly whipped up and just as quickly fizzled out. The spectators, entertained for a moment, resumed wandering around the yard, still in their street clothes.
The fight-or-flight adrenaline rush from watching the scuffle left my hands and face warm. Emotionally exhausted, I slumped against the fence and waited for the day to be over. Eventually, I would be transferred upstate, but for the time being I was placed in bunker C73. I stepped into the wide, open room of the bunker. There were no dividers or walls, just rows of bunk beds sitting side by side, from one end of the room to the other. I chose a bed and laid down.
Snippets of jabbering, bravado, trash talk and complaining wafted to my ears.
“Nah, nigga, I ain’ fuckin wit that bitch no mo. She be straight up crazy ‘n shit! She think I’m a write her like tweny times a week. She be trippin hard, my nigga.”
“Sheeit, I hear dat, G.”
It was a madhouse. It never ended.
When night fell, the bunker became a jungle. Everyone wanted to fight because everyone had something to prove. At the end of the hall, someone discovered the television. It sat on a short, wooden stand in front of a few plastic chairs. I nodded off to the sound of a football game of referee whistles and cheering crowds. When I woke up, the game was over, replaced by the excited drone of a sportscaster deconstructing the highlights of the game. The room settled into a steady hum of voices, punctuated by sounds coming from the TV.
I looked up when the voice of the sportscaster was abruptly replaced by rhythmic gyrations of Latin music. Somebody pumped up the volume. I sat up and craned my neck to see what was happening. A large Latino man had just changed the channel. A black guy stood up in front of the Latino man, flexed his arms and scowled. He reached over and tapped a button on the TV. It switched back to the sportscaster.
“Try that again,” he said, “and I’ll break your fingers on the button.”
The Latino guy looked out over the three rows of white lawn chairs spread in front of the television. A few men sat there unmoving, refusing to get involved in the argument.
“You guys with me or with him?” he asked them.
The men said nothing.
“Don’t bother asking them,” the black guy snapped. “We’re not changing the channel. You’re not watching the fuckin’ Latin Music Awards, man.”
The Latino stepped toward the black guy, closing the small gap between them.
“I’ll watch whatever I want to watch, and you can’t do a damn thing about it. Bitch.”
Oh, great, I mumbled to myself. Here it comes.
He switched the station back to the award show.
In the second it took for the black guy to cock his head and spit on the floor at the feet of the Latino, someone swung one of the white chairs high over the head of the Latino and decked him to the floor. He quickly sprang back to his feet and it was on—bodies raced across the room and waded into the melee. I was under my bunk before the fight was in full bore. I knew what came next.
In prison, just because you were locked up already, didn’t mean laws didn’t apply. Crimes such as assault and battery were still crimes and guys still got charged with felonies they had committed while locked up. I didn’t like fighting, of course, but no way did I want another charge on my record. And even if I allowed myself to somehow get dragged into a fray, what if I accidentally struck a guard? I didn’t need an assault charge on top of the felony I was already working off. I’d be in there until my hair turned gray. I shut up and enjoyed the show from my perch under the bed.
Within moments, the Turtles swarmed in, emotionless behind their masks and riot gear, protective vests, leg guards and round, black hardhats. Their gear gave them the appearance of the cartoon characters, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but they were not in the least bit funny or cute. Prisoners were wrestling each other to the ground when the Turtles muscled their way to the center of the throng, batons swinging high and landing hard. I cringed at the sound of human skulls meeting wooden bats. Men were knocked against the walls, the room reverberated with the sounds of battle.
It felt like hours before the noise died down to sounds of small scuffles here and there, broken by sharp commands shouted by the Turtles. The fight was finally over. I had survived this one on the periphery. But it would only be a matter of time before another one broke out.
That night as I lay in bed, visions of my probable fate flooded my mind. What am I doing here? I’m not a criminal! Something I’m sure every man in there probably thought. As nighttime deepened its grip on the block, the sounds of the room melted into snoring and heavy breathing. The fight had worn everyone out, but the guards were watching us closely.
I curled up on my side, feeling like I was the only one awake in the whole place. A fight like that would never have broken out at the County facilities. We were reprimanded just for using slang, let alone arguing or cursing. After two stints back-to-back in County, I had been conditioned to automatically avoid this kind of conflict. Maybe I had an advantage over these prison mates. I had gone through a program that gave me the tools to curb my anger and put my ego on the back burner when confronted. Now would be the perfect opportunity for me to learn how to put those tools to use under the worst conditions: among the most violence-prone members of society.
It was attitude that was going to determine if and how I would survive in prison. If I was going to make it through without getting the stuffing knocked out of me, I would have to man up. That didn’t mean learn how to fight—I already knew I wasn’t going to do that. For me, manning up would mean gaining control of my emotions no matter what was going on around me. Because in prison, if you weren’t in control, everyone knew it, because you either had Turtle splinters flying all over your ass or someone of a different ethnicity beating your ass. In Riker’s, you control yourself or you get a fist in your face and a broom handle elsewhere.
I decided that I was going to take it like a man and make this my line in the sand. I would have a few years to change myself into someone who could make it in the world after I got out. I was going to become a positive influence while I was in the joint. In order to pull that off successfully, my motives had to be pure and my actions exemplary. I would take positive and productive control of my life. I would take grad school classes and make sure I got out with a master’s degree. My desire, my internal drive, had to be powerful enough to propel me forward on my own. If I didn’t, then prison would take control and I would end up in a deepening spiral of ever-increasing trouble.
My plan was simple: keep my mouth shut, my head down, stay in class and stay out of trouble—no matter what.
And then I got the news that I was being transferred to a prison other than the one I had been scheduled to be in. One with a chilling reputation …one that would sorely test the “no matter what” part of my plan.