This Place Is Crazy: Mental Illness Treatment in Prison
John J. Lennon, a contributing writer at The Marshall Project, has written for Vice, The Atlantic, and The New York Times. He is currently in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. He will be eligible for parole in 2029.
Joe Cardo was out hunting for half-smoked cigarettes. From my perch at the white-boys’ table of the A Block yard, I watched his eyes scan the patched grass and cracked pavement. Shuffle, stoop, shuffle, stoop. It was evening rec period, May 2015. A warm front had settled over Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, and prisoners were taking advantage. Days earlier, on the ground where Joe now stood, a Crip had been shanked in the heart and dropped dead like someone hit his off button.
I called out to Joe. He snapped up his head and lumbered over. I introduced myself and asked if he’d answer a few questions. “John thinks he’s a reporter,” said Dave (not his real name), pointing at me. I placed a pouch of tobacco on the concrete table. (Wood, corrections officers learned the hard way, too easily concealed weapons.) Joe’s eyes went wide. He was thirty-four, white and slight—five seven, 165 pounds—with a scraggly beard and a two-car-garage hairline. “Oh, man,” he said. “Is that for me?” “Yeah,” I said.
“Then I’ll answer whatever you want.”
Weather permitting, the yard was where we spent most of our free time: Hour-long sessions, three times a day, morning, afternoon, and evening. A CO observed from a cage at the yard’s center; a few more COs walked laps, watching us watch them; another, armed with an AR-15, stood guard in a thirty-foot watchtower. No more than six prisoners were allowed at any one of the tables that lined the perimeter. Each was claimed. There was ours—the white-boys’ table, populated by a gritty group of high school burnouts, old in age but not in maturity, covered in faded tattoos of skulls and empty phrases like death before dishonor. The Puerto Ricans sat next to us; the Dominicans and the Jamaicans were nearby. The Bloods, the Rat Hunters, and the Latin Kings had tables, too.
My first question for Joe was whether he was a sex offender. A prisoner’s place in the pecking order is calculated in part by the transgression that got him here. Those whose crimes are committed against others in the life—gangsters, murderers, drug dealers—tend to land highest. Those whose crimes affect innocent civilians—burglars, perverts, assaulters—are somewhere in the middle. Sex offenders, especially pedophiles, are at the very bottom; talking to them can destroy one’s reputation by association. If Joe was in for rape or child pornography, our conversation would need to end immediately.
He wasn’t. In clipped sentences, he described how, in October 2014, with a BB gun in his hand and a knitted ski mask pulled over his head, he tried to rob a Smokers Choice in Oneonta, New York. “I shouted to the girl behind the counter, ‘Give me the money, bitch!’ ” As he spoke, his eyes flickered between sadness and fear. “She looked me up and down and shouted back, ‘No!’ Out of nowhere, this three-hundred-pound guy tackled me.”
As Joe spoke, Dave, whose all-American good looks had been whittled by years of heroin use—bad teeth, track-mark scars snaking across weathered skin—was rolling his eyes. I figured he’d bounce to the next thing if I continued to ignore him; he had the attention span of an excited puppy. But when Joe said, “I was glad when the police came,” Dave burst into laughter, and I couldn’t stop from joining. In prison, even humor is corrupted.
Joe said he was sentenced to two years. Attempted robbery in the second degree carries a minimum of three and a half years; the judge must’ve allowed him to plea to a lesser charge and given a “skid bid”—a short sentence. For most, that would mean time served in one of the state’s thirty medium-security facilities. But Attica is maximum-security, arguably New York’s toughest. Its notoriety mostly stems from a 1971 uprising that erupted over long-simmering complaints by prisoners of mistreatment. They took control of the prison, killing one CO and three prisoners in the process; five days into the standoff, under Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s orders, state police stormed the fortress, killing thirty-nine, including ten hostages. The whiff of distrust between COs, mostly white, and prisoners, mostly not, still lingers. “Why’d they send you here?” I asked.
“Bro,” Dave cut in, “he’s a bugout.” Prisonspeak for someone with mental illness.
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