Up the river.
My arrival there was July 17, 1985, after receiving a fifteen years to life sentence under New York state's Rockefeller drug laws. To my eyes, when the transport bus stopped in front of the gates, the view of the river was awesome, spreading out from the prison like a smooth, still carpet. The contrast of the natural beauty of the surroundings and the daunting facade of Sing Sing was mind-boggling. Then, once inside, as the bus inched past the giant concrete wall, I looked up and saw gun towers with armed guards. Seagulls circled high above, giving the prison the look of a medieval castle.
In the heart of the prison complex was the state shop, where new jacks (prison speak for new inmates) were processed. There I, and the others with me on the bus, were taken off and steered like cattle into a holding pen. Our cuffs and chains were removed and, one by one, we were called to another room where we were reunited with our property and given our cell assignments.
I was assigned to B Block. With some 660 prisoners, this is reputed to be the world's largest cellblock. To get there we had to travel past other parts of the prison. Long, concrete corridors and tunnels connected Sing Sing's many buildings, most of which were in horrendous condition. Slabs of peeling paint hung from the ceilings. A thin film of moisture, residue from the nearby river, covered the battleship-gray walls. The smell of mildew, disinfectant, and body odor from the 2,300 men who filled the prison made me nauseated.
At several checkpoints along the way we stopped while guards known as turnkeys opened the steel gates that were strategically placed throughout the facility. Prisoners couldn't travel beyond these checkpoints without an escort officer or an authorized movement pass. About 300 yards and countless steel gates later a door swung open and I took my first steps into B Block.
The noise hit me like a freight train. Rap music from radios hanging on cell bars blasted throughout the tiers. Prisoners shouted at one another from across the rows of cages stacked one on top of another, four stories high. The voices of hundreds of convicts ricocheted off the steel bars, creating a thunderous din. The block resembled a giant airplane hangar full of human cargo.
While I stood there, stunned, another set of gates opened. A guard led us to a cell that had been converted into an office for the officer in charge. This OIC ran the daily activities of the block and attended to the custodial upkeep of the prisoners who lived there. I was astonished by the enormity of his task. As I gazed out over the tiers, I saw prisoners running buck wild up and down the corridors, hanging out in each other's cells, shouting to men on the other side. The place was filthy, raucous, and crowded.
The cell I was assigned was a windowless, fifty-four square foot solid metal cube, number W-429. It contained a small bed with steel springs and a torn, piss-stained mattress. A toilet with an old, porcelain bowl squatted in the corner next to a small metal locker. A portable lamp with a built-in electrical outlet was clamped over the bed. Graffiti covered the walls. I threw my property sack on the floor, sat on the bed, which was more like a cot, and held my head in my hands to drown out the noise.
Shortly after, a guard cracked the cell gates, signaling it was time for lunch. I followed a group of prisoners to the mess hall and took my position in line. This place was as loud and confusing as the cellblock. Hundreds of prisoners, some eating, some leaving, some standing in line, filled the massive, high-ceilinged room. At one point I made the mistake of reaching over another con's food tray for some bread. "Hey, motherfucker!" he screamed in my face. "What's wrong with you? Don't ever reach over my food again or I'll kill you."
I backed away and apologized. I learned quickly that this gesture, like so many others in prison, was a sign of disrespect. The subculture there carried its own set of rules, known as the "convict code;' which prisoners lived and died by. The best that a new jack could do was to learn the code as quickly as possible and pray that in the meantime his rookie mistakes wouldn't get him murdered.
One of the worst parts about life as a new jack was being checked out by all the other prisoners. Not having a crew was dangerous. The prison was infested with predators and scam artists searching for men who hadn't hooked up with a gang for protection. B Block was more dangerous than the other blocks because it was a transit-housing unit. Prisoners were constantly coming and going. Prisoners in transit status knew that they would be moving out so they lived for the moment, not caring about anything or anyone.
The way for a new jack to protect himself was to join a crew and find safety in numbers. Some inmates joined racial gangs for protection, but you could find just about any kind of group to hang with to show that you weren't doing time solo. You'd start by playing basketball or handball with someone, then meeting his friends. If they liked you, you became "one of the crew."
I found a crew by pumping iron with two older Puerto Ricans. After we'd worked out together a couple of times, Roberto, who was doing twenty-five years for murder, took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. He told me that it was important to always have a weapon handy in case something went down. I said I wasn't looking for trouble. "It doesn't matter," he said. "Trouble has a way of finding you whether you want it or not." Later that day, we were hanging out in my cell when Roberto opened his green army jacket. From the inside pocket he removed a shank--a six-inch sharpened piece of metal with the end wrapped in black electrical tape. He offered it to me.
"No, Roberto, I don't want that."
"Don't be stupid, Tony. You gotta have something." He looked at my locker and reached for a small box full of batteries. He snatched my laundry bag and pulled out a sweat sock. "Perfect," he said, loading the sock with a handful of batteries and knotting the end. It became an instant blackjack. "You can use socks for a lot of different things," he said, "from brewing coffee to smashing someone's skull." He placed a boot on my bed and demonstrated, raising the lethal sock over his shoulder and smashing it down on the boot. "One good crack and that motherfucker is finished!" he said. "I broke many heads like this, and cracked many nuts, too," he laughed.
"Not the kind you eat. The kind you get when you're backed up."
"Backed up?" His explanations were starting to confuse me.
"Yeah, backed up because you got no pussy." He reached for the jar of Vaseline in my locker. Instinctively my fists clenched and I looked around for a guard. Roberto grabbed another sock from my bag and filled the inside with a scoop of Vaseline. "Here," he said, handing me the sock. "When you get lonely, all you got to do is stick your dick inside and you'll be all right."
I looked at the sock and tried to imagine fucking it. "I don't think so," I said shaking my head in disbelief.
"Look," he said angrily. "You'll do a lot of things you'd never thought you would. I've been down for a decade and have fifteen more to go!" He was yelling now; the veins in his neck bulged. "I did shit even I couldn't believe but I had to in order to survive. Doing time will change you--face it." He calmed down when he saw the look on my face. He could tell his sermon rattled me. "lust keep an open mind, Tony. It's the only way to beat all this time you gotta do."
I'd never thought about time and its consequences. In the street, "time" was a relative concept, flowing in and out like the tide. Sometimes you had more, sometimes less. Here, it controlled you, grabbed you by the throat and made you hyperaware of your existence. Roberto spent many hours educating me about doing time. His lessons probably saved my life.
One day, he asked me if I'd do his laundry for him. "Sure" I said.
"Wrong answer." He waved a finger in my face. "You never do nobody's laundry." Doing someone's laundry was the first step toward becoming his punk, he said.
I remained on good terms with Roberto and his Latino crew but, despite having a crew, danger still existed. Much of the danger was brought on by drugs. Sing Sing was awash in them. And where there are drugs, there's violence. Different crews would fight each other over distribution turf. I tried to keep a low profile but learned that what Roberto had said was true: trouble has a way of finding you in prison, whether you're looking for it or not. To survive in this environment I had to become comfortable with violence. I wasn't a violent person on the outside, but I learned that violence was deeply imbedded in the prison culture, where the strong preyed on the weak. Either you defended yourself or you were victimized, plain and simple. It could start innocently, like the time I was walking the yard when a young blond-headed guy complimented me on my sunglasses. I made the mistake of letting him try them on. A week later I was walking through the block when I ran into the same guy. He was leaning against the steam pipes with two other prisoners.
Casually, he walked over and stepped in front of me, blocking my path. He took a broken, rusty razor blade out of his pocket and waved it in front of my face. "I want those sunglasses, motherfucker," he said. Because I'd let him try on my sunglasses, he figured I was easy prey and now he was testing me.
My friend Roberto had taught me to look at the size of the weapon before reacting. As a rule of thumb, if the weapon wasn't deadly, you should fight back at all costs. If you didn't, word spread that you were a coward, which meant that your ass would be on the line with others. If the weapon was too big, though, it was okay to run but always return with an equal-sized weapon.
I looked at the razor blade. It was less than an inch long. It couldn't kill me, I figured. I made my choice and looked square into the guy's face. I was ready to fight because I knew that my survival at Sing Sing depended on it. lf I let him take my glasses, I'd be pegged a pussy. The predators would find out and make my life more hellish than it already was. "Use that," I growled, "and I'll kill you" I stared him down with pure hatred in my eyes, thinking about how I'd fucked up my entire life, lost my family, and now I'd be spending my best fifteen years in this rat hole. The piece-of-crap con must have seen the fire in my eyes and everything that was behind it. He quickly put away the blade and tried to make a joke out of it. I walked away; the incident was over.
I came to learn that I could get out of most situations simply by feigning toughness, or "fronting," as prisoners say, putting on a certain face or using certain words and speaking with absolute conviction. There were times, however, when violence was unavoidable. Often it boiled down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One day I was walking the flats, the ground-level area of the block, when I saw this guy Nicky whom I knew from the weight room. At 6' 2" and 240 pounds of solid muscle, Nicky was a monster. The week before, he'd noticed my sneakers and asked me what size they were. "Ten," I said. Funny, he wore the same size, too. Since I'd once seen Nicky whack a guy over the head with a forty-pound dumbbell just for looking at him the wrong way, I figured it'd be a good idea to get on his good side. I told him I'd give him my sneakers when I got a new pair. He'd nodded and thanked me.
The next day, Nicky spotted me at the rear of the cellblock and motioned me over to him. As I got closer I noticed that his face wore a strange expression and his eyes were bloodshot. From his breath I could tell he was drunk on jailhouse wine. "Give me your sneakers," he demanded.
"I didn't get my new ones yet," I said.
"You think I give a shift" Before I could answer, he unleashed a powerful upper cut that caught me square under my chin. I sailed backwards to the floor--and my sneakers came off! He hit me so hard I literally flew out of my sneakers. To this day, I don't know whether they'd been untied and flew off from the impact or if he'd knocked me unconscious long enough to yank them off my feet. Whatever the case, shortly after hitting the floor, I popped back up and ran for my life.
Friends told me to forget about it. No one wanted to start trouble with a guy like Nicky. Besides, people said he went crazy every so often, usually when he was high or drunk. If I left it alone, Nicky would be fine with me, they said. It was good prison politics.
Sure enough, the advice was sound. The next day in the weight room Nicky acted like nothing had happened. "Hey Tony, what's going on?" he said, slapping me on the back and flashing a smile. "Thanks for the sneakers," he said. I noticed that he was wearing them.
"Hey, all right," I replied. "They fit okay?"
"Sure do, man, thanks again."
It was good to have guys like Nicky on your side.
About six months into my stay I tried to get a job as an electrician in the prison. Getting assigned to certain jobs could guarantee general population status if a prisoner had a skill the facility needed. And this would get me transferred to A Block, the main housing area. After that, I wouldn't have to worry about being shipped out to a possibly worse facility elsewhere in the state.
I went to the chapel where the administration had set up a committee to assign qualified prisoners to work assignments. I approached a counselor and said I'd like to work as an electrician. I said I had skills to offer Sing Sing and that I wanted to spend my time doing something constructive, something that could get me a job in the real world once I got out.
"Look everyone," the counselor called out. "This man wants to be rehabilitated!" He doubled over in laughter.
I looked at his pudgy face, red with glee, and I thought of everything I'd gone through to get to this sorry place, how I was standing there like a fool, begging for a job that paid pennies. This time I didn't want to contain my anger.
"And what about it?" I shot back, not bothering to disguise the hostility in my voice. "I know lots of guys in here who want to improve themselves." A few heads turned. The room grew quiet.
"Rehabilitation does not exist," the counselor said flatly, glowering at me.
"Really," I continued. "You mean to tell me that your job amounts to nothing more than locking people up? You don't believe in giving prisoners a chance to do something constructive with their time?"
He didn't respond. I knew I should've kept my mouth shut, but I was sick of the crap. All the prison was good for was warehousing men, infantilizing them, and then churning them out like so many widgets on the day of their release. I stepped closer to read his nametag. "Mr. Cody," it said. He was a civilian employee, not a cop. Fuck it, I thought, feeling empowered for the first time in months. "You know, Mr. Cody," I said, enunciating both syllables in his name. "With that kind of attitude maybe you shouldn't be a counselor."
He stared at me hard and tapped his pen nervously on the desk. I decided to back down. "Look, man, I'm sorry. I got a family to support. I could really use a job."
"I don't have a job for you," he said, his voice rising. "Now get out!"
As I left, a counselor sitting in the rear of the chapel got up and walked out with me. He introduced himself as Dennis Manwaring, the Special Subjects Supervisor. "I heard what you said about your family," he said. "Why don't you come by my office tomorrow morning and we'll see what we can do." I looked in his eyes and I trusted him.
The next day, after a brief interview, Dennis signed the necessary paperwork and got me general population status. Just like that, I was staying at Sing Sing.
While in prison, Anthony Papa became an award-winning artist and received clemency in 1996 from Governor George Pataki. Today he is an artist and a drug law reform activist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is excerpted and adapted from his recent book, 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom, published by Feral House of Los Angeles, California. The article illustrations and cover art are by Anthony Papa. Jennifer Wynn is author of the critically acclaimed Inside Rikers: Stories from the World's Largest Penal Colony.