After spending close to my first week in the Manhattan “Tombs,” I felt that I had finally caught a break when I met a female drug counselor from Rikers Island who was going around signing guys up to transfer over to her program.
So, I decided to change my “home address,” and hopefully, my luck as well!
4. TRYING TO GET ACCUSTOMED
I woke up on my own that next morning. In fact, I hadn’t slept much at all the entire night. I brushed my teeth and took care of my morning business, and then walked around my small cell, trying again to analyze this new life I had made for myself. I still couldn’t accept the fact that I was in jail and had lost my freedom over a lousy six hundred and forty dollars that I owed my bookmaker. The NBA finals between Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and Karl “The Mailman” Malone’s Utah Jazz was on television this whole week, but I was too distraught to watch. And for a huge sports fan and compulsive gambler like myself, this was big news.
For three days now, I had been wearing the same clothes, minus my sweatshirt, which the police had confiscated as evidence, and which they had replaced with a blue bathrobe. But my clothes were starting to stink, so before returning to my cell after eating breakfast, I went over to the C.,O., who had just begun her shift, and told her my dilemma.
“I’ll try to get you a few pairs of socks, tee shirts and shorts a little bit later, baby,” Ms. Williams, a tall, big-busted, black woman said. I was lucky to come into contact with one of the few nice correction officers working in the Tombs.
“Thank you very much,” I answered.
I returned to my cell, feeling like I had finally gotten something accomplished in a week straight out of hell.
There was about ninety minutes left until all the cell doors would be unlocked and everybody had the option of coming out for daytime recreation (watching television, playing cards, board games, reading, writing, etc.). Because it was summertime, I knew there would be people outside at that early hour, but since I hadn’t looked outside my cell window at all since I arrived, I didn’t know what a great view I even had.
The Tombs is located right in the middle of New York’s Chinatown, and I watched the hustle and bustle of rush hour pass right before my eyes, powerless to join in the activity. This was tough to take for a guy like me, who is usually part of the action, but who now had to watch from the sidelines like a caged lion.
There were the hot dog vendors, the businessmen in their three-piece suits, the secretaries, the merchants, and the joggers all going about their business, while I was just beginning what would become the longest vacation of my life.
I lay back down in my bed until it was time to come out for rec. Then, Ms. Williams informed me that I had to go to the clinic for a complete physical, which all new arrivals were required to do.
When I returned a short time later, I learned that Mrs. Williams was true to her word; she had come through with those socks, tee shirts, and shorts that she promised to get for me, and I quickly returned to my cell to change clothes. I washed what I had been wearing for three days in the sink and hung them on a plastic chair in the rec area to dry. Then I sat down near the window and observed everybody during rec.
There were the Spanish guys playing dominoes, the Jamaicans busy battling each other in cards, and, of course, the young black brothers trying their best to sing rap songs. Besides me, there was only one other white man, named John, and he was reading, as usual. I was content just watching everybody else and actually preferred to be left alone.
After an hour of my sitting around doing nothing, Ms. Williams announced that anyone who wanted to go to the law library could. So I signed my name on the list and went, desperate to find out whatever information I was able to.
To begin with, I learned that my next court date was just six days away. I also found out that Governor George E. Pataki had just recently signed Jenna’s Law, named after a young murder victim, into legislation, whereby anybody convicted of a violent felony, as robbery in the second degree is, must complete at least 85 percent, or six-sevenths, of his or her sentence before being eligible to be released, thereby effectively eliminating parole. What made matters worse was the fact that I was considered a predicate (second-time) felony offender, having already been convicted (upon my plea of guilty) in 1994 of robbery in the third degree, and thus, if found guilty again this time around, would be subjected to an enhanced sentence, which, according to the new sentencing charts, was anywhere from five to fifteen years on each of the three counts charged against me, for a possible grand total of forty-five years in the big house!
“Isn’t there any good news you could tell me?” I asked the law library coordinator, a caucasian female civilian in her forties.
“All I can tell you is to keep coming to the law library as much as possible and read up on the law, and robbery in particular,” she said, appearing genuinely honest and persuasive, so as to provide me with at least a small glimmer of hope in what otherwise appeared to be a fruitless situation.
With that bit of inspiration, I returned to 6 West, deciding right then and there that I wasn’t going to take things lying down. After all, I thought, I was high on drugs and alcohol at the time of the crime, was lied to by the police detectives, and was Jewish, which were three factors I felt were definitely in my favor. But I also felt that I didn’t have a very good attorney, so I knew that my work was cut out for me.
After lunch was over, I wanted to go back to the law library, but was told I had to wait until the following day. So I just hung around the rec area again, constantly thinking about returning to the law library, eager to get on with my research and undo the mess I had done to myself and my family.
For the next two days, I tried to do just that. I attacked the books in the law library like a shark hunting down a wounded seal. I read up on robbery, police promises as they related to coerced confessions, the effects of drugs and alcohol on criminal intent, and anything else I felt might be relevant to my defense. I found many cases I could cite on my behalf that were defense winners, and I showed a few of them to the coordinator to see what she thought.
“Some of these are good,” she admitted, “but you have to keep looking because somewhere in these books there is a case similar to yours.”
If that indeed were true, I knew that I would find it.
The next day was Friday, June 19, 1998, my sixth day being incarcerated. When I came out of my cell for daytime rec, I saw this strange woman, a civilian, sitting at a table talking to a few of the guys, so I went over to see what was going on.
She was a drug counselor from Rikers Island, there to sign up those who seriously wanted to change their lives around and enter a drug program. She told us that the courts look favorably upon anyone who is trying to help themselves in a different light, and very often send these defendants into an inpatient drug treatment program rather than prison.
I wasn’t crazy about transferring to Rikers, perhaps the biggest jail in the United States, but knew that I had to do something for myself in order to get off drugs and alcohol and get on with the rest of my life in the right way. Plus, I reasoned, if entering a drug program was going to help me avoid going to prison, then how could I NOT do it?
So I signed my name to the list.