by Daniel Genis
Leisure time, unstructured and purposeless, generally makes up most of an American prison inmate’s day. Most convicts are just sent to the yard, where they socialize, exercise, play games and sports, and make their deals. Entire lives are spent in the incarcerated world, typified by the sexual compromises and prominence of violence that most free men and women never have to consider. But those extreme elements aside, prisoners eat and work and live as best they can within their limitations. A friend of mine sentenced to 25 years at the age of 60—he was once an actor, before drunkenly stabbing his best friend to death with an SS dagger, of all things (both were Jews)—came to terms with the inevitability of dying in prison and found peace. He began painting for leisure. It’s not a great life, but it’s a life nevertheless, and most death row inmates would beg for it.
The victims of the Russian gulag were sent into the Arctic for lumber, felling trees with ropes because they weren’t trusted with saws; victims of the Nazis often suffered far worse. The overwhelming majority of totalitarian regimes’ victims were innocent of any crime, while the admittedly large American prison population is overwhelmingly guilty of some crime, even if over-sentenced compared to the rest of the world. Almost two million Americans live in state facilities, the largest incarcerated population of any nation. Separation from family, friends, and greater society is painful, but no one is hungry, and everyone tries to keep from getting too bored.
Outside, after graduating NYU, I had started a career in publishing. But soon, two years of heroin addiction made me desperate enough to try my hand at mugging. I wasn’t very good at it, apologized to my victims a lot, and was arrested a few months after my weeklong spree in 2003. The newspapers dubbed me “The Sorry Bandit” for my contrition, but thanks to the pocketknife I wielded, I was still sentenced to 12 years for five counts of armed robbery. After serving the minimum of 123 months, I was released this February.
Born in New York in 1978—immediately after my family escaped the Soviet empire—I grew up with talk of the camps, and of course their literature, much of it brilliant, and some of which I read for tips. So when my own sentence began, I was surprised by the absence of forced labor. Not a salt mine in sight. Instead, there was a dirt yard with exercise equipment, and we spent most of our days there lifting weights and smoking.
Several prisons have “Industry” programs, which are factories manned by inmates; it’s a privilege to get a position there because of the pay, which, while still far from minimum wage in the free world, can add up to about $100 a month. (Commissary visits happen every two weeks, and the most you can spend on food at one time is $55 dollars.) Many prisoners burnt their outside bridges long ago and need the money; workers give up their leisure time, but they’re set financially. I never participated. Despite being a married man and on my way at the the age of 30, my family put me on an allowance inside. I lived on a hundred bucks a month for 10 years. It’s sad to say, but I was considered wealthy.
Most inmates just spend their days bouncing around the prison yard; I only needed an hour or so for exercise, but was afforded the whole day. Convicts love socializing with each other, but I was not as amused, and looked for an occupation to give meaning to my time. Teaching seemed the natural direction, although they almost didn’t hire me because I couldn’t present a GED; my bachelor’s degree baffled them, and I finally had to have my high school transcript sent in before I could start earning a quarter an hour as a teacher’s assistant.
The civilian employees who taught were all jaded, even if they didn’t start that way: I witnessed a young woman with fine intentions become just as uninterested in only a few weeks. Her tipping point was being threatened with “a bunch of dicks coming at her.” My own month within the program was less overtly dangerous, but nearly as dispiriting. Prisoners without high school diplomas must take GED classes, which the men resisted, as it cut into their leisure time. But I had enjoyed teaching before, so I tried to do it again.
I failed completely and left quickly. There was an incident. After drawing a map of Europe on the board and trying to explain WWII, a young African-American kid raised his hand and said, “Do you think you are better than us? Because you know more? Well, we ain’t impressed. You in our world. You the nigger now—you just remember that, and you’ll do fine.” I soon resigned, something the salaried employees didn’t have the luxury to do.
The kid could tell I was new and was trying to help me. I returned to the empty days in the yard. Later on, I did find meaningful work, first in helping the mentally ill, and later in staffing four facility’s libraries, but I literally had years of free time as well. There are many ways to occupy oneself, some healthy and many not.
Prisoners play a surprising variety of games; I deliberately avoided cards due to the inevitability of gambling. Consequently, I never learned pinochle or bridge, complicated contests of strategy that convicts become very good at. I also never availed myself of the infinite poker game that took up at least one table in every jail. I’d seen it destroy many men with gambling problems. The buy-in was a pack of cigarettes, and it was possible to win or lose a lot; some players walked back from the yard in their socks because of that table. In a society of crooks, playing fair is a liability. Once, someone flooded a prison’s economy with dummy packs, full of paper and glued together to look real; it disrupted the system, and all the cigarettes were opened and smoked, to flush out the counterfeits and reboot. Cops confiscate decks of cards if they suspect gambling, but it doesn’t matter. Prisoners love them so much that in some cases of need they draw a full deck by hand, using cardboard or, at worst, a ripped-up sheet. Regardless, the game always goes on.
Also popular and widely played enough to form a ranked community is chess. Its stars are known throughout the system; I played occasionally for years and never won. The true enthusiasts devote their being to the game, reading books, trading strategies, and easily spending eight hours a day at play in the yard, even in the depths of winter. Most have waterproof sets made of plastic, as the rain doesn’t stop them. I’ve also seen chess sets carved from soap or molded out of spit and cardboard. In solitary confinement, men play chess against each other by screaming; both parties have boards made of paper and ink, and instead of the complicated official system (E2 to E4 and so forth), they have the squares numbered from 1 to 64. It’s torture to hear the numbers yelled through the night.
Unfashionable games from the past, abandoned by the free world in favor of the digital, have survived in prison. Men still like cribbage (which requires pegs), horseshoes, and Dungeons and Dragons. Although some prisons actually forbid the latter out of a belief that it spurs nerds to violence, inmates own the books, draw the fields of play, and hold elaborate campaigns. It’s like the ’80s all over again: What flourishes as a nostalgic novelty in the free world serves as a present-day necessity inside.
In New York, a prisoner can possess either a musical instrument or a typewriter. I opted for the latter, which goes for $350, so expensive because it has to be made of clear plastic. (Only one company sells them, so it sets the price, and over my decade I had to purchase three of them. The machines don’t travel well.) But many other inmates tried their hands at music. Availed with guitars, trombones, harmonicas, basses, violins, and keyboards alongside the drums kept in music rooms, I have witnessed true talent and bad taste in incarcerated musicians. Many men play despite little knowledge of musical history or theory. Now and then, a professional artist, like the punk-rocker Spike Polite, would do the whole Stones catalogue; in the next prison over from mine, the somewhat-famous rapper Shyne was serving his decade and performing as well. But amateurs put on decent shows, especially the bluesmen, who certainly sounded authentic in this context.
An instrument is a great way to spend your cell time, but the keyboards were outlawed when their recording capacity was noticed; plus, they could make a machine-gun noise, which freaked the cops out. Soon, new electric organs with no recording feature showed up in the catalogues that prisoners use. (The specialized companies try to stay in sync with the rules.) All of the keyboards could also make beats, and so a lot of aspiring rappers with no interest in piano sonatas owned them as well. I thanked the stars for headphones, NPR, and college radio at those times.
Sports of all sorts are played in prison; each joint has a staff member whose entire job is to keep prisoners involved in basketball leagues, softball tournaments, and football games. (No tackling, by the way.) A Christian softball team of volunteers called the Saints travels the prisons of America, challenging the inmate teams and handing out pamphlets. Healthy for the body, useful in teaching the value of teamwork, and capable of giving a sense of achievement to those with little or none to start with—what could possibly muck something like that up?
Gambling, that’s what. With softball bets that reached four figures—payable by Western Union transfers, as there are not enough packs of cigarettes in a prison to make up such sums—I watched an acquaintance earn a fortune by pulling every crooked trick in sports history. (Not coincidentally, he was a bookie before attempted murder made him a convict.) First, he composed a softball squad of the best players by bribing, blackmailing, and intimidating the men to leave their teams for his. Then he paid off the referees. Once, for a big-money match, he even bribed an opposing player; the wagering must have been heated, because the batter throwing the game earned $500.
Even the civilians working the sports world get pulled into dishonesty of some kind, because whether they tempt with money, drugs, or even sex, the gamblers always buy their angle. I’ve seen two “Recreational Directors” fired. Watching the games in a tense audience, with the prospect of violence in the air, was also unappealing. I only got into sports when I reached a jail with a tennis court, though I did lift weights for years. No gambling on bench pressing, or doubles.
So how did I spend my time instead? Growing up with a writer for a father in a home holding a trilingual collection of 10,000 books, reading has always been my favorite form of leisure. Prison allowed me time to indulge in it; the memoir I have coming out with Penguin next year is titled 1046 for the number of books I read during my decade inside. But my previous experience was atypical: Some men only learn how to read in prison, while others only enjoy it for the first time in their lives when suddenly left with few other options.
Books can be sent from home or ordered through catalogues, though there is a list of censored works. I tried diligently to learn its contents, but beyond four redacted pages of Ted Conover’s account of becoming a prison guard inNewjack, plus the whole of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and (strangely) Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, I failed to see what else Albany banned.
New readers usually did not have the type of family that sent books. However, every prison has a library, and I worked in four of them. I’d like to think that I left an impression on many men who read better books because of me. Each facility had an employee librarian, one of whom I was shocked to learn earned $85,000, but typically I did most of the work and dealt with the crowds.
There are jailhouse favorites, like the works of James Patterson, or the violently pro-criminal pulp novels published by unconventional presses and wildly popular for their high quantities of sex and violence. I understood that the library patrons wanted to read for pleasure, but pushed them to literary works that offered similar joys with far greater sophistication. My guidance resulted in many a prisoner’s first experience with Salinger, Vonnegut, Hemingway, and Kerouac as leisure instead of schoolwork. Casual reading, so natural to me, was new and thrilling to many convicts. It made me proud to see them move up the ladder; it was a pleasure to witness a once-illiterate man take an interest in James Joyce. He used his free time wisely.
I’ve saved the most common and (at times) extreme way to waste time for last. Like adults everywhere, convicts enjoy inebriation, but are forbidden it universally, unequivocally, and ferociously. The consequences for having smoked a joint, as would be revealed by the frequent urinalysis prisoners undergo, are often harsher than those meted out for violence and theft. In New York, the first offense merited three months in the box, the second six, and the third a whole year in SHU. And this is a reduction in policy. Before new legislation passed a few years ago, men with long histories of dirty urines were serving many years in Special Housing Units; the most I witnessed was five, although admittedly it was his eighth offense.
But whether the danger is the current maximum of a year or the more draconian punishments or yore, most prisoners get intoxicated in one way or another anyway. The official line on why the consequences are so severe is that drug dealing requires smuggling, and is a root cause of gang activity and violence. My experience tells me otherwise: The enforcement is so vehement for the very reason why inmates take the risk. While high or drunk, the prisoner enjoys forgetting his circumstances, whereas the state prefers its wards face their time with grim sobriety.
Many inmates are experienced with narcotics, having sold and/or used them their entire lives; smuggling in drugs is simply a continuation of their pre-prison careers. Others deploy their ingenuity with the resources at hand. The risk of apprehension is high and the consequences severe, but they won’t be swayed in their quest to live a full life that includes euphorically disorienting the senses. The methods are numerous. Whether it’s thanks to the jailhouse pharmacy or the baker’s yeast and juice from the storehouses, even convicts without a dime to their name find ways to “party.”
Drugs brought in by wives and friends need to travel from the visiting room to the compound in a human anus. The drugs arrive in condoms; prisoners prepare for the insertion with a dab of vaseline carried behind the ear. The process of anal smuggling is called “boofing,” and experienced veterans can fill themselves with much more than one might think. It’s no accident that the colon is called the “prisoner’s wallet.” Swallowing the balloon is another option, but it takes longer to emerge and has killed many “mules” via overdose when stomach acid deteriorates the rubber.
All prisoners are strip-frisked after contact with outsiders, including a squat maneuver familiar to everyone who’s been in. But without an x-ray machine, this “cavity search” (which also includes the mouth, hair, and belly button) cannot detect a balloon in the rectum. Those suspected of having one must spend three days in a “dry room” where their feces is inspected. Three samples is the standard; the way to defeat this inspection is to swallow the shitty balloon once it comes out. Many have done it; to fail is to face a year in the box and a criminal charge for the visitor suspected of bringing the contraband. The usual sentence for that felony is a year, which is hard on wives.
If narcotic smuggling is the top, huffing shit is the bottom. The lowest level that a prisoner can stoop to is getting high on one’s own feces: You ferment it in a bucket via a technique known as “Jenkem,” collecting the vapors and inhaling them for a high. In New York, there is a rule against storing body liquids for this very reason.
As for what exactly is being smuggled in, it’s usually not cocaine, which doesn’t sell well. Marijuana and heroin were once the prison-yard mainstays, but this changed around five years ago with the advent of synthetic marijuana (K2 or Spice) and Suboxone. The marijuana substitute—only recently made illegal, but still available in many gas stations—is much more concentrated than the real thing, so a high volume can be smuggled in, plus it’s cheaper and harder to test for. Only now have the prisons added a urinalysis screen for it; New York used to only test for THC, cocaine, and opiates.
Buprenorphine is the active ingredient in Suboxone, the chemical that has destroyed the heroin market in prisons. Created to fight addiction (often replacing methadone), it is repurposed in prison. Concentrated and very cheap, the sublingual orange strips are smuggled in and sniffed after being dissolved. Since one strip has a street value of five dollars and is enough for eight men to get high, there is much less of a reason to bring in the bulkier and costlier heroin. “Orange Crush” or “Tang” is just as addictive and somewhat cheaper than dope, so it has flooded the system with new addicts. Each of the eight men sharing the strip pays two packs of Newports for his dose; it’s within range of everyone.
Not all prisoners want to use narcotics, of course; the risk scares off some, while others never acquired the taste. In my first year, I saw a German who had once been a UN translator die of a morphine overdose; he had been so miserable that he overdid it. Such possibilities turn wiser convicts off from the hard stuff, but alcohol is always in demand. Buying a water bottle of vodka from a guard requires $50 and a connection, but brewing hooch can cost nothing at all. Yeast works best to ferment fruit juice, but is only available in the rare prison with a bakery. The chemical reaction that turns sugar into ethanol requires heat and a trigger; without yeast, bread works to activate the reaction. Citrus juices provide the fructose, and heat keeps the microbes at work; finding a warm place to store the bag of fermenting liquid is crucial, as is filtering out the chunks. Having experienced the effect, I cannot recommend it. Hooch is a harsh drink which I’ve never had without eventually vomiting, but it does the job.
The pharmacy is another source of jailhouse pleasure. Sick and old prisoners often get pain meds, and support themselves by selling them; pilfering pills is an art, as there are many procedures in place to prevent this, but every jail has its dealers of pharmaceuticals. A pack of cigarettes for 60 milligrams of morphine is not a bad deal. Percocet is available as well, but desperate prisoners often get high by sniffing the anti-depressant Wellbutrin or loading up on the muscle-relaxant Flexeril instead. Baclofen is swallowed in large doses for a kick. For those who like uppers, certain allergy medications contain ephedrine, the same chemical processed into crystal meth by outlaw chemists; some people snort these pills, others smoke them, but most just eat them in huge doses. Getting high on these questionable chemicals is common in prison, but largely unheard of in the free world, where availability is less of a problem.
So inevitably (if inadvertently), the sheer amount of leisure time allows for prisoners to become masters of chess and poker, or drunkards, or excellent batters and jump-shooters, or gamblers and addicts. In the spirit of rehabilitation, the team sports and mentally challenging games are healthy, but the inebriation and wagering is not. Continuing the same habits that probably played a part in many an inmate’s conviction is a prediction of recidivism. The authorities fight the smuggling of drugs, whether via the visiting room or the pharmacy, and look for the milk bags that are used for brewing hooch (they come with a vent, so there’s no danger of the vapors bursting the brew), and drag prisoners in for urinalysis. But the drive to escape into a nod, or numb yourself to the sharp-edged reality that might be yours for decades, is strong enough that the majority of convicts chance it.
The free time is a gauge of a prisoner’s odds at ever again being a law-abiding citizen. If he fills it with healthy activities, his chances are good, while chasing pills and tiny bags of dope (often bought at a 500-percent markup) all but ensure that he’s coming back to jail. A friend of mine inside seemed all right, enjoying reading and exercise. He wrote and learned to speak Spanish. But he also did his entire time in prison on morphine to dull the edge, and was released this year with his habit intact. So far he had has gotten around parole-mandated testing, but it’s only a matter of time. Parole violations are meted out in years, which will give him another chance to fill his leisure time in better ways.