Each of the approximately 3,740 days I spent incarcerated in the prisons of New York State was divided into three shifts. The changeovers were marked by counts; the number of convicts in a prison has to agree with the central office’s official tally. The outgoing crew spends the final moments of its shift counting, and the incoming guards just starting their eight hours do the same. After the headcount came the phone call. Time stood still until the confirmation from Albany, but once everything was cleared, life returned to normal.
Interfering with the sacred tally was explicitly forbidden everywhere, but each of the 12 prisons I visited had different rituals. Standing up was required in the disciplinary joints, while the more easygoing facilities merely required the movement a man makes by breathing. For us convicts, the counts were just a nuisance until the final one in the evening, which signaled a break for everyone, guards included. The night shift was made up of only a skeleton crew, as more staff wasn’t necessary. And each prisoner was locked in his own cell for eight hours.
Eight hours locked in a cage may seem oppressive, but it was also a luxury. Night was safe. No one could stab you in the back for a whole third of the day. Smiling was allowed; the stone face I wore during daylight hours could be put away. We had a little privacy, and the porno came out. But that’s not to say nothing happened in the still of the night, and I don’t mean the sordid rumors about the double-bunked cells. Recent events have shown that quite a bit can happen: On Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a “crisis situation,” as two men were still on the run more than 24 hours after their escape from Clinton Correctional Facility. Prisons keep the frightening things in and unsettle society when they fail to. And not all of those frightening things are human.
Every prison I visited—during a 10-year stint for armed robbery, which ended early last year—was said to be haunted. The newer ones, having been built in the ‘80s, allegedly either sat atop Indian burial grounds or had served as experimental sites for the federal government. The herd of bone-white deer that came right up to the fence of 20-year-old Five Points CF made me less cynical about ”nucular” conspiracies. Natural selection was a poor explanation for that particular species’ camouflage. But it was the older Big Houses—some dating to the 19th century, and others having former identities as lunatic asylums and sanatoriums for epileptics—that boasted the best spectral entities. The larger and more venerable brick piles housed more than one.
As easy as it is to explain these supernatural manifestations as the byproducts of hyperactive, under-stimulated, uneducated, and trauma-ridden people, that doesn’t explain what tripped the alarms now and then. All we knew is they moved around at night and travelled to places we could not; the cops knew little more, but at least enough not to be alarmed by sirens set off by ghosts. If they escaped, it wasn’t their fault. Incarcerated spirits like Bloody Mary or the Peeper weren’t on the count anyway.
Prison slang has a way of re-purposing official language: Thus, to kill a convict is to “take him off the count.” In the 100-year-old cells I lived in, the thought that someone before me had likely died in that six-by-10 space seemed inescapable. But in Greenhaven CF, earning a place in Honor Block—which entailed years on a waiting list and absolutely no blotches on your record—also meant an intimacy with the Peeper. The new inhabitants were always warned of the rules: When you feel yourself being watched or catch a stray movement out of the corner of your eye, don’t try to look directly at it. You won’t succeed, but you will be punished for trying.
My friend Johnny was serving the standard 25 to life for murder: He had moved up to New York State from Florida and was part of a trio that solved a drug dispute with a 9mm only a few days into his new life in the North. He could paint wonderfully and had an intellectual curiosity; inside, a surfeit of time and the absence of any misbehavior reports eventually got him onto Honor Block. Despite receiving the usual warnings, he set up a mirror to catch a glimpse of something he had trouble believing in. He thought it was a trick of the brickwork.
The appeal of Honor Block lay in the larger cells: A pair of them was the size of three standard ones. This required a new wall, and security required a window built into it: The cops needed to see the convicts sleeping for night-counts. For decades, Honor Block inmates lived with the Peeper looking in, too. Since the ghost only used the window, Johnny glued a mirror across from it.
It was only a few nights later that it happened. While painting with oil on a canvas, Johnny felt a gaze. Perhaps it’s an observation that collapses quantum wave functions, or an instinct left over from our animalistic past, but who doesn’t know the sensation of being watched? Johnny didn’t flinch or even move anything but his eyes, turning them quickly to the mirror. A flicker of spectral departure was all he saw.
He suffered the consequences that same night. The next morning, Johnny came straight to me, a fellow skeptic and atheist, to renounce his life-long refusal to recognize the supernatural. He was woken up in the middle of the night by the horrible sensation of a weight on his chest that made him feel like he was dying; it passed eventually, but Johnny did not sleep again that night.
One more ghost, an absconder. Bloody Mary lived in Groveland prison, which had formerly been a sanatorium for epileptics of both sexes. At the time the state bought the grounds to address the explosion of crime in the ‘70s, it also had budgetary problems, so in lieu of the usual 30-foot-tall walls, the powers that be opted for a double row of fencing with a lot of barbed wire on top. In between was a DMZ, or more accurately a Dead Man’s Land: Pressure sensors alerted the guards to the weight of a person, and no plant life was allowed to grow there. The sensors were tuned so that squirrels and seagulls couldn’t set them off, but nobody expected the supernatural to cause the problems it did.
I was present for one of the alarms caused by Bloody Mary’s peregrinations. When the siren rang, we were all wakened for an unplanned count. Most interesting was the code I overheard on a cop’s radio. The watcher in the sole tower sent it across the entire band, and the numbers had an immediate effect on the cops counting us, who all slowed down and chuckled at this surreal element of the job: There was no rush to catch the theoretical prisoner who set off the lockdown, since it was just Bloody Mary out for a stroll. In my two years at Groveland, a supernatural event of that sort never occurred again, but for the Correctional Officer lifers, it happened often enough to merit a code of its own.
Of course, it wasn’t the moans of the afterlife that comprised the score of the ongoing Night Shift in Prison symphony. The screams and calls for help emitted by violent men dreaming of violence disturbed me at first, but I grew used to their occasional peals in the dark and slept through them. The snoring was worse. Nevertheless, the trauma-laden population held the night to be a special time, when sleep can mean freedom. Even the meanest cop knew to wake up a sleeping man by shaking his cot rather than touching him. In the prisons of Russia, where tattoos are not ornamental but symbolic, “Don’t Wake Me” is inked on the eyelids, only visible when the bearer has them shut. It’s only two words in Russian and done by inserting a teaspoon under the lid to protect the eyeball.
It was immediately made clear to me upon arrival to the incarcerated world that I’d better have a good reason for waking a sleeping prisoner in any fashion. Despite the possibility of nightmares and desperate pleas for help that punctuated the night, one could also feel freedom when dreaming. That was not to be interrupted. I soon understood and had many dreams that I did not wish to wake from. Every night ended with a morning count and the reality of another day in prison, so why rush it?
Any medication with a soporific effect can be sold on the black market in the yard, but American convicts have also discovered a way to make their dreams especially vivid. Willing to risk equally believable nightmares, the men looking for a real trip inserted a wad of chewing tobacco between the gum and lip, right before going to sleep: The steady drip of nicotine has an effect on the subconscious, which holds sway at night. Over a lifetime of experience with nicotine, ingesting tobacco in every possible way (including the inhalation of snuff), I did not believe in this side effect. My own night with a dip in proved unlucky, in that I had a nightmare, rare for me. It was vivid enough to make me swear off further experimentation; I knew I was dreaming the horrors pursuing me, but could not wake. I certainly did not feel incarcerated that night, but also caught a tremendous scare. I never liked chaw anyway.
While scientists are still arguing over the true purpose of dreaming, let’s just agree that the part of our brains responsible for dreamtime is a slow learner. It took six months for prison to enter my dreams, a special honeymoon period that the other convicts were aware of and suggested I cherish. I dreamed of sundry family life: the warmth and safety totally missing from my life. Awakening from these whimsies was bittersweet, and I often lay in bed with my eyes closed, hoping things wouldn’t be what I knew they were. I could hear it all anyway.
The anxiety and fear that life in prison entails soon became frequent feature of my nights as well as my days. Cops, riots, betrayals, ambushes … my dreams circled around the extreme parts of my life, even during quiet interludes. If not exactly nightmares, they were dreams expressing discomfort. I never got used to prison; they lasted my entire decade. And they only disappeared six months after my release.
Since there is a lack of stimuli for convicts, often it was our desires that dreams relied on for the plot. When dieting, I dreamed of food I didn’t get to eat; when withdrawing, I was tempted by drugs I had never tried in the waking world. And of course, I dreamed of sex, like many a convict. And since we all shared the limited pornography, after the memories of carnal delights we’d actually once enjoyed had all been tapped, images from magazines like Buttman took their place. On any given night, the most popular porn stars (Belladonna, say) were visiting several of us; wet dreams, like in adolescence, returned, starring many of the same characters. Just like medieval monks visited by succubi, we were often ridden by Sasha Grey. Perhaps if the girls knew the pleasure they brought incarcerated men, they would consider their fields public service.
Naturally, while both fast asleep and wide awake, we dreamed of escape. Every prisoner daydreams of it when a breach in security appears. At night, however, I dreamed I was released, but expected to come back and was running late. Furloughs have lost their appeal in most states: Michael Dukakis was punished by voters in 1988 for one he granted while serving as governor of Massachusetts. Willy Horton’s 1986 rape and murder committed during a weekend of liberty tolled the death of the practice; the political risk became clear, while the benefits of compassion toward men who couldn’t even vote sealed the deal. For those with little chance at parole, like the two men who recently escaped from Clinton CF, the absence of anything to hope for leaves only desperation. Night becomes a time of meticulous preparation, followed by risks taken, and finally the act of getting around the night counts. The escapees left a note saying, “Have a nice day” with the dummies that mimicked their sleeping forms, but you can guess that the prisoners who didn’t escape won’t be having very nice nights: Standing counts will be the only the beginning. If precedent allows predictions, the pair can expect to get caught. They’ll be brought back, but never forgotten.
Escape artists are heroes in prison. I only met two genuine self-liberators over my decade; each had used the cover of night to shorten his sentence. Upon recapture, an additional seven years was added to their terms. One who was serving life anyway, so it hardly mattered, while the other suffered for his shot at freedom: The seven additional years were long enough for his wife to die of cancer before his first parole board. The first man had run from a trip to the hospital and said he would do it again if given the chance: He wasn’t.
The other was more of a planner. He had stuffed a bundle of clothes into his bunk to mimic his sleeping form for the night rounds, a luxury possible because it was an “honor prison” without standing counts. To get out, he cut a hole through the roof; the three days of cashless hunger he spent in the scrub were free, but the price was heavy. I asked him what he did before hypothermia and hopelessness drove him to reveal himself. He said the best he could think of was to masturbate first, “a last free nut.” He was still going to parole boards at two-year intervals when I left.
Both of these men were marked for life as security problems. A designation as an absconder from Albany’s central office was a cross to bear, and I shared the experience. A man I split a cell with kicked out the back window of a police car at the age of 16; a full 20 years later, he was still considered a special case. Living with him meant frequent searches, some of which came in the middle of the night. He apologized for the ongoing hassle the day I moved in.
The rare two men who actually escaped prison experienced incarceration differently from the rest of us, as will the current “stars,” assuming they’re brought back alive. After their punitive time in solitary, they will be marked with an asterisk on every list (metaphorically: It might be a happy face in their case). Transportation will be a special burden. Prisoners classified as “high risk” do not travel by bus and shackle; they get leg- and hand-irons like anyone, but are moved in a dedicated van that also carries multiple armed guards. Their property, quarters, and even body cavities will be inspected frequently; even the man who ran from an MRI machine did not stay in one cell for more than two months at a time. Escape makes life harder for them, but also has its boons: Both enjoyed the respect of the entire inmate population.
The oddest denizens of the night were the “vampires,” men who had arranged a no-show job or program and lived on a schedule opposite from everyone else. Their condition was usually caused by a combination of mental illness and circumstances. Because of the privacy the night offered, they ate, painted, read, and lived their lonely lives through the night shift, and managed to sleep away the days. I only learned of them during a Greenhaven CF fire drill, when I saw several extremely pale, recently awoken men emerge to join us in the lineup. After a year or two, all of the 2,000 faces in any particular prison were familiar, but not these. Their nature was explained to me by the old-timers with derision. Vampires were thought cowardly for avoiding the challenges of prison.
When the novelty of the yard and its regulars wore off, I yearned for a vampire’s coffin myself, so I could listen to NPR, read, and write in peace. But it was never to be: The no-show programs were reserved for those who had already put their decades in. In maximum security, my sentence of 12-flat was considered short time. And besides, if you add up the hours spent resting, I did more than three years of my sentence asleep.
The consequences of incarceration are inescapable no matter how much you try to keep your head outside of the walls. They follow you, at a lag, even when you fall asleep. They definitely pursue if you escape, but prison follows the released, too. In the first six months of my life at liberty, I may have slept with my wife in our bed in Brooklyn, but my dreamtime was no different from what it had been in prison. I had punched walls and strangled pillows inside over the years, subconsciously expressing the frustration and stress of being locked up. Petra, my partner, did not freak out when I did the same in Brooklyn.
I am blessed with an understanding wife. One night, I even put her in a headlock while sleeping. It was one of the worst incidents during my transition back to a free man: I could only apologize for my nocturnal behavior, but I had no control over it. At least I did not scream through the six months it took to banish imprisonment from my subconscious. Petra only told me in the morning how I scared her with my dreaming self: She knew that waking a convict requires a serious reason.
Daniel Genis is working on a memoir of his incarcerated reading life for Penguin/Viking, titled 1,046 for the number of books he read while in prison. You can also follow him on Twitter here and read his other work here.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
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