Thousands of men live in North Country prisons. Have you ever wondered how these unseen neighbors perceive this place beyond the bars, floodlights and razor wire? A former drug smuggler describes the view from inside.
by Richard Stratton
When people ask what it was like to serve time in prison, I tell them in a word—lonely. Prison is the loneliest place in the world. You are constantly surrounded by other people, never alone, yet always lonely. Think what it might be like to take up residence in the men’s room at Pennsylvania Station, forcibly confined by guards who resent and fear you, and you have some idea what it’s like to exist in prison. The Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) at Ray Brook was different. Yes, when I arrived in 1988, it was crowded and paradoxically lonely, as crowded and lonely as any other joint. For the most part the guards were uptight and callous, interchangeable with dozens of hacks I’d encountered all across America. But, as prisons go, Ray Brook was also strangely beautiful and peaceful.
Originally built to house athletes for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, the physical facility seemed more like a junior college than a medium-security penitentiary. The housing units, set on a hill with a view of the mess hall, administration buildings, gym and prison factories below, were spacious, with sweeping walls and arced tiers. The cells were like mini hotel rooms; in the years just before my stay, prisoners even had their own room keys.
All that changed during the late 1980s and ’90s with the explosion in the federal prison population at the height of the government’s war on drugs. Soon there were two prisoners in rooms designed for one man. At one point, when the prison population swelled to over 150-percent capacity, a third cell-mate was made to sleep on the floor; then they set up bunks in the common areas where new arrivals snored and farted through the long nights. Still, what I remember vividly was when they released the units for chow call in the early morning, stepping outside into air so fresh and clean it shocked the stale night gasses from my lungs. I would look up and feel my spirit expand into the infinite blue skies. On the walk down the hill, I could transcend the prisoner’s confined perspective and gaze off into the distance, above the razor wire and chain-link fences, to soothing pine-covered ridges and the sheer rock crag of Scarface Mountain. Invigorated with a brief sense of freedom, I’d tell myself, Well, Stratton, if you’ve got to do time, this is as good a place as any.
I had visited more than my share of federal joints during my eight-year stint in the Bureau of Prisons gulag. Originally I was sentenced to twenty-five years and six months with no parole for smuggling marijuana. I was arrested in Los Angeles, where I spent a month at Terminal Island, the federal prison in San Pedro, California, awaiting extradition to New York. From Terminal Island I began a six-week trek across country, a kind of “Crooks Tour” of Bureau of Prisons facilities known to convicts as “Diesel Therapy.” The system was so overcrowded then—and still is, despite an unprecedented prison building binge during the nineties—that bureau authorities had to keep a healthy portion of the captured on the move in buses and planes until you were so exhausted and numb from being herded from prison to prison that you were compliant and ready to make a deal. Okay, you win. I’ll cop to fifteen years and tell you everything I know. Just please get me off this damn bus and let me go to jail.
But I was stubborn. It comes with being a Capricorn, sign of the goat. Though willing to accept responsibility for my own illegal activities, I didn’t feel it incumbent upon me to “cooperate” with the authorities by snitching on everyone I knew. This was my undoing, yet it also proved to be my saving grace. The judge who sentenced me in the Southern District of New York, Chief Judge Constance Baker Motley, stipulated on the record that she was giving me more time solely because of my refusal to rat. I became a jailhouse lawyer and discovered it’s illegal to enhance a sentence for refusal to cooperate. The court may reduce a sentence for cooperation, but it cannot attempt to coerce cooperation by giving the defendant more time. While at the federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia, I appealed my sentence on grounds it was coercive rather than punitive—and I won. My sentence was vacated, I was remanded back to court in front of a different judge and received a new sentence of ten years. By then I had already served six years.
Soon after I was resentenced I was shipped to the North Country. There came a banging on my cell door one day well before dawn.
“Stratton! Pack your [expletive]. You’re moving out,” a guard informed me and slid a cardboard box under the door.
“Where am I going?” I asked.
“You’ll find out when you get there.”
I was afraid the bureau had prescribed another dose of Diesel Therapy, a common remedy for what is known in the system as “writ writing,” or practicing as a jailhouse lawyer. Soon, however, I learned I was being “pulled on the chain,” prison slang for transferring a group of prisoners to a different facility for administrative reasons. Rioting by Cuban inmates over conditions at a penitentiary in Atlanta precipitated the move. The bureau needed to make room at Petersburg for prisoners from Atlanta, so they shipped a few busloads of convicts to the prison at Ray Brook. With my sentence reduced to ten years, my security level dropped, which made me eligible for the transfer.
It took the better part of a full day to get to the mountainous reaches of northern New York from the rolling flatlands of eastern Virginia. Ankles shackled, hands cuffed and fastened to a belly chain looped around your waist, there you sit, barely able to move while the bus drones along the endless highway. About the only good thing to say for prison transportation is at least you get a glimpse of the world through barred windows. After hours trussed up in chains, your arms and hands go numb, your shoulders and back ache, your bladder wants to burst, your head throbs from caffeine withdrawal, and all you want to do is get there, anywhere, even if it is only another prison. Guards hand out brown-bag meals of baloney sandwiches while convicts amuse themselves telling war stories. On this trip the anecdote of the day was about a prisoner who yakked and bitched so much during transfer that the lieutenant in charge wrapped his head with duct tape to shut him up. He shut up all right; he suffocated and died.
The skies were dark when we entered the Adirondacks. We got to see little of the surrounding countryside. Dense stands of tall cathedral pines made the journey feel like a long ride through a tunnel. As I trundled down from the bus and looked up I saw a glittering hail of stars that appeared so close as to be showering on our heads. I took a deep breath of air that smelled of pine and felt like medicine for the soul. For the next ten hours we were processed into the institution, never a pleasant experience. Your body cavities are inspected for contraband. You are made to sit or stand for hours in group cells known as bull pens while the receiving and discharge staff try to figure out where to put you. Because of my previously long sentence and high security level, it was deemed prudent to put me in solitary, also known as the hole, until I could be reclassified and released to general population.
I spent my first ten days at FCI Ray Brook in a dark, narrow stripped cell with graffiti-scarred walls, a bunk and stainless steel combination sink and toilet. How crazy is this?, I thought. Here I get my sentence reduced, I’m transferred to a lower security joint, and I wind up in the hole.
But prison taught me patience and that from every downward turn of events comes some good. It’s all a matter of attitude, trying to stay tuned to the positive in every situation. At least it was quiet in solitary, and I was definitely solo, not just lonely but alone with my thoughts. I could meditate, do my in-cell exercise routine, contemplate past mistakes and try to come up with a plan for the future. After all, the end was in sight. Although I had no set release date—still waiting for a new sentence computation based on time served and accumulated good time, with more than six years in on a maximum of ten—freedom hovered on the horizon just beyond the concrete walls.
It was spring when they finally released me from segregation onto the compound. I looked around. No gun towers. No high walls. And there were—what was this?—flowers! Yes, flowers. Turns out the warden was a freak for flowers. The convicts on the campuslike compound were wearing civilian clothes, jeans and warm-up suits instead of army-issue hand-me-down khakis. And they were strolling around, not rushing from location to location, during a “controlled movement,” a ten-minute-on-the-hour break when prisoners were required to move from one place to another. At Ray Brook in those days it was open movement; as long as you had a pass you could go where you needed when you wanted. Things were definitely looking up.
That is, until I settled into my new cell and was reunited with my property. All my manuscripts were gone. The results of years of work—writing stories and briefs in longhand on yellow legal pads, copying them over through revision after revision, then typing them up in the law library—had disappeared. My legal writings, my short stories, poems, plays, a novel, all gone. When I asked the unit manager for an explanation, I was told something I already knew: It is illegal to operate a business from prison. My work had been confiscated on the grounds that it was the product of the business I was supposedly running from inside. I objected that I wasn’t being paid for the writing. Yes, I’d won one prize, a PEN Prison Writing Award for short fiction, for a story called “A Skyline Turkey,” but no cash had changed hands, so how could I be in business? I had to file what is known as a BP-9, a request for administrative remedy, to try to get my work returned. After weeks of filing and refiling and waiting for answers, I was told that my writing would all be sent home.
Gradually the comfortable rhythms of routine settled in with the regularity of the movement of planets. Routine is the prisoner’s sustenance. Convict wisdom has it that the way to do a long stretch is winter/summer, winter/summer. Skip fall and spring, which wasn’t hard to do at Ray Brook. Up early in the morning while it was still quiet in the unit. Stretch, do some yoga, meditate. Outside as soon as the doors of the unit were unlocked, inhale the new day and head down the hill to walk the track. I made friends with a brilliant nuclear physicist doing time for allegedly attempting to poison his mentor at Princeton who had taken credit—and received a Nobel Prize—for work my friend claimed he had done. We would walk the track and contemplate the nature of the universe. Then he returned to his cell to work on his equations, and I went to the law library to study and write. In the afternoon I worked out in the gym. At four o’clock every day there was a stand-up count. Prisoners were made to stand in the door of their cells to be counted. Once the count cleared with bureau headquarters in Washington, we were released for the evening meal. The days were all the same; only the weather changed. Nights were the loneliest time of all.
I joined a creative writing class and began work on a novel, Smack Goddess, published just before I was released in 1990. At Ray Brook I found the one thing people hope for most in prison: I was left alone to do my own time. The convict axiom, Don’t serve the time, let the time serve you, became my mantra. Even with the overcrowding, Ray Brook was a mellow joint in those days, before the early-nineties influx of street gang kids with way too much time and no hope for rehabilitation. There were a lot of Mafia guys from New York, New Jersey, Boston, Rochester and Buffalo. Mob guys ordinarily do good time. They spend their days playing cards, eating, talking on the phone. A good sixty percent of the population was made up of nonviolent drug offenders, and many of them worked in the prison factories making furniture and road signs for twenty-seven cents an hour. I remember hearing of no more than one or two incidents of violence in the year I was there. About the most exciting event was a mild earthquake that rocked the joint and reminded us we were still part of a greater world that existed on the other side of the fences and coils of razor wire.
My parents were still alive, living in Massachusetts. They made the trip to visit once during the summer and were impressed by the beauty of the place. The warden’s flowers were in full bloom. Generally, though, I discouraged the bittersweet visits, especially when I thought I was “getting short,” close to being released. Prison staff tends to treat visitors worse than they treat prisoners, as though they can’t accept the fact that mere inmates could have people who love them. The hardest part of visits is saying good-bye.
Convict wisdom teaches that the best way to do time is to keep your head off the streets. Focus on the task at hand. Get me through this day, this week, this year. Spend too much time thinking about life on the outside, and time on the inside becomes even more burdensome; it can drag you down into depression and despair. Or you become afflicted with what is known as “rabbit fever,” the prisoner’s fixation on escape. The trick is not getting free of the prison, it’s getting out of the immediate area, the region, the state, the country. Most prisons are located in isolated hinterlands for just this reason. Ray Brook is no exception.
I know of only one successful escape, the woman I based my novel on, another prisoner of the war on drugs. She fled from the federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia, made it out of the area and all the way home to London, England, where she lived for many years before she was given up by a disgruntled ex-boyfriend. I wrote a short story, “The Great Escape,” about a young man at Petersburg who tried to break out by building himself a nest reinforced with scrap wood inside the trash compactor. FBI agents called in to investigate found him two days later in a landfill, crushed to death, oozing out of a half-ton block of compressed trash.
The prisoner is of the world but not in it, so it behooves him to create a new world inside his head. I don’t think I ever had any real discussion with anyone about what lay outside the fences. Bears, we thought. Trees. More trees. Mountains. Lakes. And it was cold. Even some of those summer nights could be chilly. But that was out there. We were in one of the most beautiful areas of the state if not the country, yet we were locked up in here. My world became the imagined landscape of my writing.
Surely one day I would be released. I filed BP-9s asking for a new sentence computation and confirmed release date, but none came. I had tripped into a Kafkaesque nightmare of the indeterminate sentence. Winter arrived suddenly and that early morning plunge into fresh air cracked like electricity and froze my nostrils shut. I skied down the hill on the heels of my work boots. My pleas for a new release date were met with confusion. It seemed the personnel charged with computing custody were overwhelmed by the sudden surge in population. It’s one thing to do time when you know there is an end, or even when you know there is no end, but when you wake up in a cell each morning with no idea how many more days you’ll be held captive, that is the stuff of obsession. It seeps into your unconscious. Now, sixteen years after my release, almost twice as long as I was locked up, I still have a recurring dream of being caught in some abstract prison with no release date. When do I get out? Will I ever get out?
Finally, my demands for a release date became too much and I was shipped out for another blast of Diesel Therapy. I left Ray Brook on a spring morning just over a year after I arrived. On the way out I saw as much of the Adirondacks as I was to see until some years later when I returned, a free man, to give a lecture on prison culture and criminal justice to a gathering of defense lawyers in Lake Placid. I avoided the prison then; it was too soon to stir up these memories.
This is God’s country, I thought on the day I left Ray Brook, as the bus strained up hills and swayed around curves. The United States incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other country in the world. I wondered what it says about our culture that we have chosen to fill this blessed land with colonies of the damned.
A month later I arrived at the grim federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky. Built in the 1930s to house moonshiners and bootleggers, Ashland was as old and cramped and damp and smelly as Ray Brook was fresh and airy. The joint is hunkered down in the Ohio River Valley, an area boasting one of the highest cancer rates in the country due to the coal mining, steel and chemical manufacturing industries. I had gone from the mountain to the valley. Life is all about mountains and valleys. Anyone can rejoice on the mountain; the true test is enduring the valleys.
As I negotiated a firm release date, I consoled myself with the thought that one of my heroes, Dashiell Hammett, served six months at Ashland for refusing to testify before the McCarthy Committee. If Dash could do it, lungs wracked with cancer, so could I. We lived in stalls, known as cubes, in dank, noisy, barnlike dorms packed with prisoners. I wrestled with the Bureau of Prisons for every day of earned and meritorious good time with no clear idea when I would be released until two weeks before I walked out the front door, on June 30, 1990.
Free at last. Hallelujah!
Richard Stratton is the author of Altered States of America: Outlaws and Icons, Hitmakers and Hitmen (Nation Books, 2005) and Smack Goddess (Carol Publishing Corp., 1990). His writing has appeared in Details, Esquire, GQ, High Times, Prison Life, Rolling Stone and Spin, among other publications. He co-wrote and produced the feature film Slam, the Emmy Award–winning Thug Life in D.C., and created the Showtime series Street Time. Stratton lives in Manhattan.