After participating in an illegal drug conspiracy, I spent one year at the infamous Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. I arrived in terrible physical and mental condition. I’d recently suffered a major concussion in addition to battling addiction to benzodiazepines and methamphetamine. I felt overwhelmed by shame, anger, fear, and despair. I knew nothing about what would happen in jail.
For that year, I lived in a 120-man dorm in MDC’s old building. My fellow inmates came from across the United States plus places like South America, Central America, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Romania, Albania, Russia, China, Canada, Yemen, Pakistan, India, Palestine, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Germany, and more. We shared a single room for sleeping, eating, showering, toilet, and everything else.
Warehoused together in Brooklyn, we had no access to a yard or a gym. Fluorescent lights stayed on twenty-four hours a day. The hundred shouting voices could rise to deafening levels. Tensions remained high as inmates did not always conduct themselves like gentlemen. One man heard about his mother’s death on the same day another man went free. A vicious fight could erupt between cousins or friends. Once, a man died while sitting on the toilet.
Despite the stress, jail certainly saved my life. I received good mental health care, meeting with the psychiatrist in the guard’s office. Slowly, I developed a routine. I woke up every morning and ate breakfast with the other early risers. Next, I did my job—wiping down the unit’s glass surfaces. Eventually, I found a way to get fresh vegetables and prepare a healthy afternoon meal. Towards bedtime, I joined the Christians to sing Spanish church songs and pray for our families.
At first, I couldn’t understand how certain people could laugh and play games. I thought, “Are you crazy? Don’t you know you’re in jail?!” Soon, I realized that I had the wrong attitude. I started observing the men with the best temperaments. I wanted to adapt and find a way to survive. I knew my life had gone off the rails. I knew I was there as a result of my own actions. I knew it would be a long journey back to freedom and peace.
I wore a one-piece tan jump suit during business hours. After hours and on weekends, I wore shorts, a t-shirt, or a sweat suit. One inmate operated the washer and dryer. For a customary payment, he’d fold the laundry and return it my bunk. I remember some winter nights without heat and summer days without air conditioning. Of course, there were no windows to open or fans to turn on. Inmates lined up to bathe in five separate, individual shower stalls. I usually showered after my morning exercises to avoid the evening rush.
Many jail employees did a good job. The best corrections officers kept the peace with respect and even some warmth. One officer said, “We all know it could be you up here and me where you are. This uniform is just how I pay my bills. Now let’s try to get through this together.” At mail call, one officer pretended to scan each letter with his walkie-talkie, which made me laugh every time. Other officers did not conduct themselves in a professional manner. Once, the unit refused dinner to protest one surly officer, who was subsequently removed from duty.
Visiting day came weekly. At the appointed time, a jail employee announced the list of inmates with visitors. The lucky ones rode a freight elevator down to the visiting rooms. Inmates and their visitors sat side-by-side in rows of plastic chairs. Guards kept watch for prohibited physical contact. The rules allowed for one good-bye hug at the conclusion of the visit. Afterwards, we left the visiting room and submitted to a strip search. I quickly got accustomed to this strange and practical ritual.
To impress their visitors, some inmates ironed their jump suits and put creases in the pant legs. For whatever reason, authorities allowed that iron on the unit. For grooming, two inmates took turns as the unit barber. They would get clippers from the guard then set up shop in the television alcove. Informal grooming occurred between friends, particularly elaborate hair-braiding and precision beard-shaping.
Inmates played cards and dominoes every day. On each turn, players slammed dominoes on to the tabletop, adding to the ear-splitting din. Players gambled with the local currency: small packets of mackerel filets. An officer once brought a Monopoly board onto the unit. The four competitors played standing up, flying through each turn, making side deals along the way. I’d never witnessed such a fast-paced, exciting game.
I remember waking up in my bunk on Christmas morning and on my birthday. I remember reading about old friends’ success in the newspaper—friends who’d left me on the ash heap long ago. I remember hearing about the birth of my third niece. She’d been born premature and I could not go support my brother. I recall long conversations with my lawyer which I enjoyed, but which changed nothing. In the few quiet hours of the morning, before breakfast, I’d feel the sting of humiliation. My mind raced and raged, marching off to lose the same war each day.
An hour could feel like an eternity. Some days would never end. Then weeks rushed by and a month would be over. When I focused on productive activity, time flew. When I focused on myself, time stopped cold. My brain wanted to replay the past over and over. Or, it would picture worst-case scenarios for the future. I did well when I learned something new or helped someone else. I had my best days when I focused outside my own skull.
Day by day, my thinking improved as my brain healed from the concussion and the drugs. I read books for the first time in years. I wrote long letters by hand to friends and family. I bought a small radio off the commissary list. Incarcerated in Brooklyn, I listened to a wide range of public and commercial radio programs. I could feel my mind rebooting as my body came back to life.
I never felt threatened with violence or sexual misconduct. In fact, I saw no sexual misconduct of any kind, nor heard of any happening. Fights, while brutal, occurred infrequently. I think we benefitted from being crowded into a single room. No one could retreat into a cell. I believe this pacified the room. Also, the inmates on my unit were older. Several had spent decades in prison and knew how to keep the peace.
I experienced intense emotional pain at MDC-Brooklyn. I watched other inmates go through moments of genuine agony. Sometimes, a man would hear bad news, then howl or collapse. Some men lived in that room for years, others passed through on their way to another prison. I will never forget the night of the 2008 Presidential election. The room filled with joy when the networks called the election for Barack Obama.
I wish I had known Justin Paperny or Michael Santos before I surrendered at the federal courthouse. Their teams at Prison Professors and White Collar Advice do a great job preparing people for incarceration. I didn’t know anyone who’d ever been to jail. I surrendered to jail with no tools nor good direction.
Justin and Michael encourage their clients to prepare, not just for jail, but for life after jail. I always thought of jail like a coffin. Now I know it is merely a penalty box. Justin and Michael develop concrete plans for each client. They emphasize personal growth, education, physical fitness, and productive activity. Clients use their time wisely and well. They stay in touch with their professional networks and get ready to rebuild their lives. Thanks to Justin and Michael, many clients leave prison with a practical, optimistic game plan for the future
Prison Professors and White Collar Advice offer expert content and consulting services. They have more than one million words published on their website. Their YouTube channel features more than one thousand videos. Michael has produced over five hundred audio podcasts. Justin has appeared with Dr. Phil and on national new broadcasts. Whether you are the defendant or a family member, please visit their website.