Monday, March 28, 2011

Prison Visit Diary: “LWOP guys don’t get no programs.”

Jermaine has a large tattoo on his forearm, a picture of two little kids inside a heart with their names scrawled above it. One of them, his daughter, is now 18. The other, Jermaine Jr, died when he was two years old after a hospital visit where he was given too much anesthetic. Jermaine was already locked up when it happened; “They came and told me, ‘the chaplain needs to see you,’” he remembers. “Nobody wants to see the chaplain. The chaplain’s like the grim reaper around here.”

Jermaine is younger than most of the guys I’ve met here—35—and it shows. He seems restless, his whole body moving when he talks. He gets especially animated when discussing things that upset him—the bombing of Libya, for example, which strikes him as a ludicrous waste of money given the state of things on U.S. streets. He has glasses, dimples, and a short, neat haircut—a testament to his years working at the barbershop at Elmira, another prison further upstate. Jermaine has only recently arrived at Shawangunk, which he’s not particularly thrilled about. As a newcomer, he has to “double-bunk,” which means that he’s currently sharing a cell with a convicted rapist, a crime for which he has no tolerance. His ex-wife, he explains, the mother of his children, was sexually abused when she was young. He says he has to restrain himself from taking out his anger on his cellmate. “I’m no bully,” he says, “but I verbally beat him up.” Part of his anger probably comes from the fact that his cellmate is supposed to get out of prison one day. Not Jermaine. He’s serving Life Without Parole.

"I want to keep my hope," he says. He has to. If he loses hope, he says, he fears he’ll go crazy like some of the guys he’s seen in other prisons, guys who throw feces and do other unspeakable things. Prisons are becoming warehouses for the mentally ill, he says. Or they’re making people crazy. "They come in one way and come out different," he says. At Shawangunk, "you have 29 individuals serving LWOP, myself included. You know who is in the law library every day? Me."

Jermaine grew up in East New York. Like many in his neighborhood, he got caught up in crime early. When he was 20, he was found guilty of first-degree murder for the shooting of a 28-year-old man after a dice game gone wrong. Jermaine maintains that the shooter was actually his 15-year-old co-defendant, who acted impulsively, but he eventually pleaded guilty for fear that he would be sentenced to death. “They’d already killed me in the media,” he says. Indeed, the local tabloids depicted Jermaine as a remorseless murderer; it was only the second capital trial since New York had brought back the death penalty in 1995 and the DA seemed determined to use it.

Today, the death penalty is no longer on the books in New York and Jermaine feels he was coerced into his plea bargain, saying life without parole is “worse than death.” Part of the problem is that there’s nothing to do, so “they porter you to death;” lifers who want to work spend a lot of time mopping the floors. But also, for those like Jermaine who wish to start in-house organizations, like the lifers group, or the veterans’ group, it’s an uphill battle. The way the administration sees it, he explains, guys like him pose a threat and are not encouraged to organize or meet. It’s not so much about the crimes they’ve committed—although they are considered the “worst of the worst”—but rather that they have “nothing to lose” and thus are dangerous. My friend points out that all the evidence suggests the opposite: that long-termers are actually the least likely to cause problems in prison, especially the older they get. Jermaine says it doesn’t matter. “LWOP guys don’t get no programs.”

So he reads a lot. He recently read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, which made a big impression. “Coming from the types of areas [she writes about], we never really looked at it like that,” he says. He also has a typewriter, which he uses to write novels—“urban fiction.” So far, he has written five, at the encouragement of his wife, who he married at Elmira. About his last book, “she told me, ‘Boo, this is a hit!’” He smiles, a little embarrassed. As far as he’s concerned, his brother got the brains in the family. All he could ever do was “run fast.”

Jermaine’s wedding ring is silver and in need of a shine. “I asked her to marry me right out there,” he says, pointing to the window. Outside there are red picnic tables where visitors can sit when the weather is warm. “Everyone started clapping. It was summer—it was real hot. Everyone was out.” He doesn’t see his wife very often, but they talk a lot. It helps, too, that he’s in touch with his daughter. Also, he has a pen pal who he vents to in his letters sometimes. “My wife doesn’t wanna hear it,” he says, smiling. “She’s like, ‘you gotta man up.’ But sometimes, I just want to man down.”


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