One of the few light moments associated with my one week incarceration came courtesy of a public defender who when questioned by my cousin (a suburban career woman) “What’s it like inside The Tombs,” he fairly exploded “They’re barbarians and animals!” This from a guy whose job it is to defend the accused!
Ok! So that’s his take on the population based on years of clients he’s represented on the state’s tab. But he’s never spent a week inside. I had my own take. One of the first questions I asked after getting locked up was “Doesn’t anybody white commit crimes in New York? What the fuck?” This of course met with applause from my new friends of color all of whom cited racial profiling as the reason what seemed like 95% of the inmates were black or hispanic (mostly Dominican and Puerto Rican).
In fact, of the 46 inmates housed in the unit where I was warehoused, there was one Asian, one caucasian (me) and 44 Afro-Americans and Hispanics. White boy in the mother fuckin’ promised land. That was me. Fortunately, I was housed in what was termed a work unit. Most of the inmates in my section had jail jobs and were more civilized (all things being relative) than the guys who resided in pods populated by gang bangers of one affiliation or another. Whether my landing in that unit was a matter of luck or happenstance I cannot tell you. But on balance, while I couldn’t honestly say you’d find my brethren out on the links or back at the pool sipping a margarita and talking bond portfolios, they really could have been a lot worse. Nobody called me white boy or fucked with me. And that was (I assume) a result of them having some sense of civility – and me knowing how to handle myself. Being token honky in all black bands, living in the multi-cultural East Village, and feeding the homeless all paid off. I did not come off as an entitled white asshole ripe for predation. And there simply was none of that going on.
Now to the corrections officers themselves. Surprisingly, the majority were women, almost all of color, and almost all what doctors would term obese using their height/weight ratio. Some were nice – and others, crude. Without their uniforms, it would be difficult to determine whether they were officers or inmates in some cases. A quote from a dark-skinned female CO who was beefing with an inmate about something or other: “Don’t even try it, homey! You know I don’t play that shit, mother fucker. Get back in your cell!”
Amazingly, while walking off and back to his cubicle, the Hispanic man responded “Fuck you, bitch!” She did not write him up…which could have landed him in seg (no leaving your cell and no phone privileges) or out to another unit. Which leads me to the relationship between CO’s and inmates.
This truly surprised me. I figured CO’c would survive in a bubble with a thousand yard stare. The distance between inmate and CO would be unbreachable. But to my surprise, I found CO’s approachable and incredibly friendly with the inmates. They’d do fist bumps, watch tv, and converse with the boys as if they were friends from the hood. While there was an occasional rude CO, I didn’t see them bullying inmates at all. The very most they would do is answer back with strength if say, an inmate called them a nigger or a spic (which happened more frequently than I ever would have imagined). Racial slurs in the joint abound as you might guess. The unit’s soundtrack echoed Samuel Jackson dialogue from “Jacky Brown.”
Male corrections officers were again almost exclusively men of color (I think I saw 2 white boys and maybe 4 Asians during my stay). Although they could be dismissive at times, I found them generally civilized and even on occasion solicitous. One white CO even sidled up to me to ask “What’d you do to get in here?” And “So what’s your take on this place?” He was apparently sociologically-oriented.
As I said, it was not uncommon for inmates to stand next to CO’s and converse with them on a friendly basis. In other settings, that could signal an inmate as a snitch and expose him to all manner of intimidation. But not at The Tombs. The CO’s attitude was “We’re all in this shithole together. The only difference is we’re getting paid to baby sit y’all and then go home while you’re stuck in here until somebody in authority says you can go.”
One anecdote before I go. Whenever you leave the unit for any reason (work, commissary, medical, or library), ya gets frisked by a CO. It’s something I got used to quickly. So I’m off to the library where the selection of reading truly surprised me (they had some good books), and am approached by a tough and very pretty female CO. The woman was obviously a no-nonsense hispanic with a body to match her attractive face. Immediately, I thought “Now this is a guard I could go for!” If I viewed all the frisking from CO’s as an imposition and invasion (which I really didn’t), with her it was going to be a privilege.
All CO’S have their individual touch and style when they run their hands up and down your body. And this woman’s touch and style reflected her overall primal appeal. The way she fixed my collar and ran her hands down my legs was an erotic experience that told me in no uncertain terms that whomever is this woman’s lover has really reached the promised land. I never saw her again but I can tell you that if it was her job to escort guys to medical, I’d have suddenly come down with something! You get the idea. She was hot!
All right. Enough of that. Now you have an idea of who resides behind bars at The Tombs – and the CO’s who baby sit the animals and barbarians. Again…not necessarily the people I’d choose to associate with on the outside but really, better than I expected. Tomorrow I’ll get into “The Ballad of Crackhead Charly,” the other white boy in the unit who sadly, exited all too soon after a monumental meltdown leaving me as the only colorless person for the last 4 days of my vacation.