Release Day: June 5, 2007. My Last Day in a Federal Prison, by Jeff Grant. An Excerpt from My Unpublished Book, “Last Stop Babylon”.
Allenwood Low Security Correctional Institution, White Deer, Pennsylvania
June 5, 2007. Release Day. I am humbled and grateful to God, and to my family, friends, fellows, Fellow Travelers, colleagues and clients – and my wonderful wife Lynn – for the second chance I have been given over the past 15 years. – Jeff Grant
As I’m sure I’ve said once or twice already, the hardest parts of a prison bid are at the beginning and at the end. My bid is finally at its end.
My case had been situated in the Southern District of New York; I appeared and was sentenced on Pearl Street in Manhattan. But even before I was arrested, my family had moved to Connecticut, where we lived for over four years now. Complicating things further was the fact that my wife and I were separated, so I really had no home in either Connecticut or New York. Without a home, I would not be eligible for early release for good behavior (three and a half months) nor would I be eligible to go to a halfway house (five weeks). The math was simple: if I didn’t find a home soon, then I would have to stay in prison the entire eighteen-month term of my sentence.
I started making calls. My best shot was with my best friend Peter. Peter had been in A.A. with me since the beginning, was like an uncle to my kids; I was like an uncle to his daughter Jamie. Peter had my power of attorney; certainly he’d let me stay with him for six or eight months. That would be long enough to satisfy probation that I was being released to someone, and somewhere, secure. After Peter had split up with his wife a few years prior, I had furnished his new apartment with the basement furniture from our old place in Rye. So in essence I was be asking him if I could move in to be reunited with my old stuff. That evening, after waiting the usual one-hour for one of the four phones outside the guard’s office in the unit, I actually got Peter on the phone. Even though Peter was a Harvard graduate, I still had to meticulously walk him through the steps of why I wanted and needed him to put me up for the next year or so. He had a three-bedroom apartment, he had an extra bedroom, and I would pay rent. I expected him to wrap his arms around me and welcome me home. Well, of course that didn’t happen. Instead, he told me that he’d get back to me.
Peter made me wait almost three excruciating months for his reply; months where I could have, and should have, pursued other options. In the end, he turned me down; he told me it wasn’t convenient because his girlfriend sometimes liked to come over and play scrabble with him in the evenings. It was never really made clear to me this was really an excuse for some other reason he didn’t want to discuss. But I did learn a huge lesson. There was no way I could ever again expect the type of treatment I received when I was a big shot lawyer.
I suppose I can’t really blame Peter. He took things very hard. We met in our AA home group in Greenwich. He had six months more time than I did, but we were always traveling different paths. He was Italian, and had spent most of his entire adult life living and working in the Far East. Like the rest of us, he suffered big losses for his drinking and drugging. But he just couldn’t accept any of it; after all, he was a Harvard man, the one who was supposed to have it, and do it, all. But there I was giving him advice for almost the entire four years before I went to prison. It should have been a case study in how you can’t change anybody. Three days before I left for Allenwood, I found Peter curled up in a fetal position in his bedroom. I’d been around a lot of guys who needed help by this point, and I knew that just another AA meeting wasn’t going to do it. I roused Peter sufficiently for us to call his psychiatrist, who had been giving him a steady supply of Klonopin to make it through the day. With his doctor’s instructions, I called my alma mater, Silver Hill Hospital, and arranged for Peter to check in. So three days before I self-surrendered to Federal prison, I drove Peter up to the beautiful rolling hills of New Canaan, Connecticut where we spent the day in admissions.
Now I was in a panic. I had only a few weeks remaining before I’d pass the point of no return and be denied good behavior time and halfway house. My friend Nina, who lived in New Canaan (coincidentally only a mile or two from Silver Hill), occasionally rented out her guestroom to alcoholics. But, as far as I knew, she only did so to women. Nina was lovely, older, lived alone, and I always thought she had kind of a crush on me. That was a big card to play. The most important thing was to get Nina onto my approved phone and visitors list so we could discuss things.
Before I could call anybody from the phones outside the guards’ office in the unit, I had to fill out and submit a contact list to my counselor. I was only allowed to have twenty names and phone numbers on the list at any time, but I could rotate names on and off the list as many times as I wanted. But there was no way to gauge how long it would take to get the names approved. So, I was always juggling, taking names off and putting others on so that I could speak to people I needed to call. Some names were permanent fixtures on my list, like my kids, my sister Andrea, Lynn, Peter, George (my AA sponsor) and Dr. Delvecchio (my psychiatrist). Having people on my contact list was one thing, getting access to a phone was another? Sometimes the line to make a single fifteen-minute call could be as long as two hours. Of course, there were always much shorter lines at the end of the month because everyone had used up their 300-minute monthly time allocations by then; this was not exactly a culture in which people were willing to delay gratification.
I called Nina and she was thrilled to hear from me. I practically could hear her gushing over the phone. I explained my situation to her and, unlike Peter she didn’t hesitate at all. I explained that a probation officer would come interview her and inspect her home. No problem, Nina was a pro that had been through plenty. She wanted to know if I needed to be picked up at prison. She was game for anything. I told her I’d be in touch. The problem now averted, I had to go put my paperwork through and apply for halfway house approval. There is only one Federal Bureau of Prisons approved halfway house in the State of Connecticut. It’s in the Westside ghetto of the city, near Asylum & Sigorney Streets (pronounced Sig-a-knee to Hartfordites), and it housed releasees from both the Federal and the Connecticut Department of Corrections systems. I was soon to find out that this was not a good thing. Nor would much be about my halfway house experience. But from my view right about then on the line to see my counselor, the halfway house was one step closer to home.
I called my sister Andrea to discuss some strategy for when I got out. Andrea was the only person, other than my kids, who stayed squarely on my side. But the ordeal of coming to visit me was too much for her too. She managed to visit me twice in those fourteen months, but she never really got comfortable with the entire situation. I explained to Andrea that I would be released on June 5th and then would spend up to eight weeks at Watkinson House in Hartford. If I got lucky, I could spend the last three weeks under home confinement at Nina’s place in New Canaan. I had no car, and wouldn’t be able to drive one while I was at the halfway house or under home confinement. But after that, a car would be very helpful since New Canaan is about fifteen miles from my kids, my friends and my AA home group that were all in Greenwich. She told me that she would work on it.
Days in prison are counted down to release, with the last day being your “wake up.” As the days grew closer to my release, I started my countdown in prison lingo: 30-and-a-wake-up, 29-and-a-wake-up. More and more of my “friends” left the compound for various reasons. Some were going off to have their own halfway house journey. Like my cellie, Les. He’d been locked up for eight years. In that time, his son had grown from two to ten years old. Les had only seen him twice. His ex-wife had been re-married to, and divorced from, a crystal meth dealer who beat her senseless while she was pregnant with his child. She’d given birth to the child, now about four, and was now pregnant with another. Les was considering going back to her once he reunited with his son who was now living outside Myrtle Beach. Others were Canadian citizens stuck in U.S. prisons on detainers, struggling to get the Canadian consulate to transfer them to the more lenient Canadian penal system. Hundreds others were undocumented or naturalized Latinos who were awaiting deportation proceedings. Allenwood was located in a region of about fifteen prisons served by a central immigration hearing office. Others got into fights and were escorted to the SHU, never to be heard from again.
Once Les left, I moved to his bunk and mine was filled by a crazy Russian kick-boxer who used to enforce for the mob. Or so he said, but I believed him. He had a very short fuse, and threatened me a few times in the last couple of months before I left prison. Thank God for Ricky, who seemed to know how to communicate with the guy? After I left, a corrupt accountant named Steve filled my bunk; he had no patience for the Russian at all. I guess the Russian had no patience for Steve either. One night the Russian had had enough of Steve, spun around and kicked him in the face, shattering his nose.
With about six days left (that’s 5-and-a-wake-up) things started to speed up. Tradition at Allenwood has it that the guy leaving throws a big dinner in the unit the night before he leaves. Any money left in an inmate’s commissary account is given to him by check as he is leaving the prison upon release. And, unless you are being transferred to another prison, it is an absolute sin if you leave with any prison clothing or gear whatsoever. It doesn’t matter what you paid for it, or how emotionally attached you became to any of it; you give away everything to your buddies before you leave. You go out the door with the clothes you are wearing, period. The guys on the inside need the stuff a lot more than anybody does after they leave; it’s kind of a code of honor thing. Of course, I saw more than once a guy give away all his stuff expecting to get released, only to have his discharge get held up for a few days. He had no clothes, sheets, blankets or towels. What a mess. But I was not one to buck tradition and I started to make arrangements to give away all of my prized possessions too.
There were big plans in the works for my going away party, and I’d been hoarding all sorts of stuff from the commissary to throw a big good bye for everyone. I had Spanish rice, assorted smoked fish in foil packets, packages of tortilla wraps, vegetable flakes, cookies, pretzels, potato chips. On 1-and-a-wake-up, I had about ten guys working the dining hall for all three meals, bringing back bags of smuggled food and vegetables, which we put on ice all day. I’d hired the best cookers in the unit. Immediately after dinner, I gave them all of the food that had been collected over the past few weeks, and smuggled all during the day. They brought it all back to their cubes and told us they would need ninety minutes. We spread the word that there would be a party at our cube at about 9:15, right after evening count.
Earlier that day, my name came up on the call out sheet with the code: “Mer-Go-Rnd”. It was the day I had to go around to each department on the compound and get them to sign-off that it was okay for me to be released, hence Merry-Go-Round. I received the check off list from my counselor in the unit, which was my first and last all-day, all-point compound pass in my stay at Allenwood. I returned to my unit with all the necessary signatures, and I was free to go. At 7:45, I went to my last pill line, and said good-bye to the staff and the nurse who gave me my medication every night. Back inside, I waited for count and prayed nothing would go wrong on my last night.
I had a lot of reason to think things could go wrong. Just the week before, I was standing by the phone waiting to make a call when two guys got into a fight. It was a particularly brutal fight, with blood flying everywhere. One of the guys lived in the next cube; his name was Flaco. Flaco may have been his nickname as there were a lot of Latino guys on the pound called Flaco (it means “skinny” in Spanish). The guards broke up the fight and took both Flaco and the other guy away to the SHU. SAS (prison FBI) came in, roped off the fight area, and investigated. When SAS was done, the blood spill team went to work. Inmates who need to make a lot of money and who presumably aren’t squeamish about infectious diseases man the blood spill team.
It turns out that a fight night was a very bad night to have a nosebleed. The air was very dry in these sealed units. So as I sometimes did, I had a little blood in my nose, wiped it on a tissue and threw it in the garbage of our cube. An hour later, the overhead lights came on with the speaker blasting,
“All feet on the floor, all feet on the floor.”
Five guards walked up and down the hallway screaming,
“Shirts off, hands out.”
They wanted to see if anybody else was involved in the Flaco fight. They got up to our cube and Les, Ricky and I were standing there, looking tired and innocent. That’s when one of the guards shined an ultraviolet flashlight into our garbage can and saw my bloody tissue. I think there were fewer alarms at Pearl Harbor than went off in the next minute or two.
There I was at midnight, about a week from my release, in a small office on the other side of the compound sitting across the table from two SIS officers who were looking pretty pissed off. They wanted to know exactly the “facts and circumstances” surrounding the bloody tissue in my garbage can. I answered every one of their questions to the best of my ability, which of course didn’t really matter a lick in that fun house. I told them that I had a bloody nose. They asked me if I could explain how I happened to get a bloody nose the same night as the fight. I told them that the air is dry every night. They asked me why would a fifty-year old man be in a fight with a couple of young Latinos? I told them that it was a hypothetical question, that I had a real bloody nose most nights. It went back and forth like this for a little while. Then they thanked me for my time and told me they’d be in touch.
It was a particularly balmy summer night as I walked back to my unit, and I stopped for a moment to gaze at the stars.
After count, guys started streaming into our cube for the going-away party. The cookers delivered over 100 fish and vegetable wraps. We had huge dishes of pretzels and potato chips, and over 50 chilled bottles of soda. Ricky surprised with a chocolate cheesecake he had commissioned by one of the unit bakers. It was excellent. Everybody in the unit was there: Bobby the disco king; the Canadians, Steve and Bill; Dennis, the new accountant who would soon get his face smashed by my new cellie the Russian arm breaker; Randy, the new Jewish kid who loved guns. We swapped stories and laughed, bonded by our situation. I knew that I had experienced something that most people would never see or understand. In a strange way I would miss this place. I gave out the last of my stuff and we all exchanged last good-byes. I snuggled off to my last night’s sleep in prison.
In a sea of nights in which I had laid endlessly awake, on this night I fell fast asleep.
Ricky walked me to the bench outside R&D at about 7:30 a.m., the same bench where I sat with Les only three months before. Les and I had about an hour of prison postscript before he had to leave. He gave me lots of notes on how I should handle myself while I was still on the compound and I told him what he could expect when he hit the street. So many things had changed in the eight years in the eight years Les had been behind bars. He had never seen an iPod or a Blackberry other than on television. Clinton was in the White House when he was arrested; now George Bush was soon to be on his way out. We talked about the twenty-two hour bus ride to his halfway house outside Myrtle Beach. This is where many ex-offenders are faced with their first tests: booze, drugs and women. Les had remained sober now for his entire prison bid. The only women he had seen up close in about six years were the female guards since he’d had no visitors. Les left without a whimper, just like all the others had. And now it was my turn. Ricky and I sat on that same bench talking, watching all the guys leaving their units heading for breakfast at the dining hall, morning pill line, and their early morning jobs, the same as they did every other day. But for me, this wasn’t any other day. We promised to stay in touch with each other, but in our hearts we both knew we wouldn’t.
The door to R&D swung open and the guard called out my name. Ricky and I gave each other a quick hug. I flung my little duffel over my shoulder, waved goodbye and stepped inside the door. I hadn’t been inside R&D since my first day at Allenwood and it looked nothing like I remembered it. That day seemed so long ago now, and such an ethereal part of my experience. There was now a little processing to do and some paperwork concerning my transfer to the halfway house. I had exactly five hours to drive to and check-in with Watkinson House in Hartford, Connecticut. They gave me a copy of my orders and a MapQuest printout. They also admonished me not to stop anywhere along the way because if I missed my check-in at the halfway house I would be sent back to prison for the balance of my sentence. I told them I understood. After about a half hour, two guards escorted out the front of R&D, out across the grassy courtyard that separated R&D and the visiting room from the front entrance of the prison. Once in the huge front entrance room, the one I had first entered with my friend Tom thirteen and a half months prior, the guards shook my hand, wished me good luck, and left. And that was that.
I walked out the front door of the prison alone, a little startled and not sure where my friends were. In order to be transferred to the halfway house, I had to submit for orders requesting specific people to transport me. I had asked Tom to drive me and he jumped at the chance. After all, he and his girlfriend Alexis had driven me up to prison, and both had visited me several times. He told me on the phone a few days before my release that he had a special surprise for waiting for me. I wasn’t sure if I could handle any more surprises, but I trusted Tom. I walked outside the doors and headed toward the parking lot, duffel over my shoulder wearing my last remaining prison uniform. On my feet was a brand new pair of Nike Air Force One’s that I had purchased at the commissary. There in the parking lot, standing next to Alexis’s Volvo station wagon, were Tom and Peter with the two biggest smiles I’d ever seen. Blasting on the stereo, with the windows rolled down, was Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. The music grew louder as I walked towards the car.
Thirteen and a half months in prison and I finally got my boom box scene.