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THE LIMITS OF RESPECT BEHIND BARS

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

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Far Rock-way Queens, NYC


If you live in Queens and happen to get arrested and locked up, you go to Rikers but you go to another part of the jail called VCBC. Or, more popularly known as, 'The Boat'. 


The Boat? You ever seen that move Carlitos Way? Remember when that white boy lawyer with the red hair went to visit that mob boss in jail? Remember that great scene when the camera pans out and upward, capturing his red head ass walking over that long side walk toward that big blue and white building? Well. That's, 'The Boat'. 


There's a saying among the inmates, that Queens County Court will indict a cheeseburger. 


ISYN that thing is a building built on top of a barge. Inside. I along with the other inmates and staff, feel the barge sway from time to night. And it was cold. I guess cause it's so close to the water an all.


But this story ain't about VCBC. This tales about what happened inside there. As well as a lesson on jail house politics that luckily I had learned long before. But unfortunately for one kid, school was in.


Most people know that there is a hierarchy behind bars. The Boat was no different. Before I was 'Housed' myself and a few other inmates were told that we were being placed into a 'Program' dorm. We all thought at the the time, that maybe this stint around may not be so bad.


From precinct to your housing unit takes two days. During that time I had three 'Youngins' with me. We had started out from the precinct together. And went thought the 'bullpen therapy' (from one bull pen to the next. spending hours in each one, and the long clinic process, where 10, 20 dudes all have to see the dr. one at a time. More bullpen therapy. Before finally given our sheets and hygiene kit then being taken to our housing unit.


These 'Youngins'. It was their first time on the boat. And they were in there on some very serious gun charges. While on our 'Bullpen therapy' tour. they asked me a lot of questions about how 'crazy' the jail is. They were just as nervous as I was during my first V.I. to the island. I did my best to reassure them that everything will be fine. To carry themselves in the right way. And things are never as bad as they seem.


They were worried if the rumors of the dorms being 'wild' was true. I told them the 'wildness' of each dorm (housing unit) is different. You can get placed in a unit that is laid back and chill. Or you can have my luck and  fall right into a gang infested fight-club.


The so call 'Program house' was anything but. It was the same rough house gang run unit that I was prepared for. But never, ever gotten used to. 

There was the boss (big black dude). The under boss (big black/Spanish dude with charisma). If an issue arose. Most inmates would come to the under-boss first. Instead if going directly to the 'shot caller'.


Then were the soldiers. The younger, louder, violent strong arms of the unit. All of these knuckleheads stuck together. You could catch them chillin in one big group far off in the back of the dorm. Which was my home now. These knuckleheads carried out orders from the bosses, reinforced gang rules, handed down consequences. They would get loud or unnecessarily violent or cross the line. But when that stuff happened. They could only be reined in by one of the two bosses. 


Go to any jail or prison. Whoever runs the kitchen, the phones or they cleaning schedules. They are the ones who control the housing units. 

Only one of my youngins was housed with me. The knuckleheads immediately had him in their sites. But I wasn't worried about youngin. He's from Hammel Housing projects in Queens. Was here on gun charges.


And was just as tough, just as young, and can be just as big of a knuckle head as any of the other ones there.


And after a few weeks. He had been fully integrated into their circle.

When you first come into a dorm, one must establish a president early. You do that by coming through the door, head high, holding your state issued necessities like you've been there before. My youngin and a couple other knew inmates learned this the hard way. while they stuck close to the cell door in a sad little group. I immediately walk passed the stating eyes of the inmates, making contact with some. Made my way through the day-room like I'd been there before, then made a b-line to the sleeping area to choose a bunk. There are no arranged sleeping areas. So you can find any bunk that's open and make it your own. 


Another jailhouse rule: During this time I am in my mid thirties. If I were in my 20s, I would have been expected to make a b line towards the back of the dorm. But being older, that rule no longer applied to me. I was considered an 'OG' (well over thirty). My place was now at the front of the dorm. But there were no bunks available in the front. So I had to look for a 'rack' more towards the back. Just my luck, the only one open was all the way in the rear of the dorm where all the bosses and their soldiers set up shot. 


But I had been in the same situation before. Drawing on my experiences of those situations, I knew my best defense and offense was...silence.


Another jailhouse rule: Anytime you come into a new dorm (particularly if your fresh off the streets). You make you bed them head to the shower. The old heads and the guys who have been bidding for a while notice things like this. Without saying a word, you've let them know that you know the system. And that this ain't your first rodeo.


The only 'program' in 3AA, was the program that the bosses set up. There was 'slot time'. So they controlled the phones. they controlled the food. So seconds were rare. By the time they've stolen or 'looked out' for their buddy or fellow gang members, there were only residue and bones left. As for the juice, they would take these big litter bottles they've saved from commissary, and filled like ten of them up to the brim for their own personal use later. If you were the few unfortunate ones at the back of the chow-line. There was a very good chance you'd be drinkin water with your meal.


The only resemblance of order was Calvin, the 2 shift C/O. Cal was an older gentleman. Had work for the DOC for a long long time. Id say he was late forties. Fifty at the most. He spoke loud. And clear. He expected the inmates to act like men. And he would treat us as such. Everyday his shift started at 4, he would turn the TV off. Then he'd direct all the inmates into dorm room to sit on our beds. And made his daily speech. 'Gentleman'!. The way he'd always begin. 'I shouldn't have to tell you what to do gentlemen. You know when the television goes off gentlemen. Lets not have a repeat of last night. Gentlemen! There is no reason why the day-room and the dorm should not be cleaned yet and the television is on! You must wait for the workers to finish cleaning before any TV, before any card-games, or before anyone try's to take a shower during that time! And to my kitchen workers. There is to be no food taken back to your bucks unless you check with me first! No-one should be on the phone either while my workers are cleaning! You know these things gentlemen! I shouldn't have to repeat myself everyday. Everyone in here is a grown man. Act like it!'


The whole time he's speaking he paces up and down the isles with with his hands in a prayer position. Making eye contact hand with with the ones who he doesn't think is listening. But everyone did listen. We didn't call him 'Killer Cal' for no reason. He would do 'Standing counts'. While the other C/Os would make us just sit on our bunks. He would then ask if anyone had questions. And if so, he answered them. Then in closing, he would always say 'That's all gentlemen! Lets have a smooth shift tonight!'


Try as he might, 'Killa Cal' could not be in two places at once. So on the days when he focused on making sure everyone got a chance to use the phone, the food and juice came up short. And on the days he would be called into 'The Bubble' to take the place of another C/O, it was a free for all.


Other than the fact of hording food for themselves and their gang, and treating the jacks like their own personal cell phones, these bosses actually not all bad. They never started fights. They kept the peace for the most part. I'd seen them handle many disputes among other inmates with diplomacy other than violence. The bosses had a way to talk to C/O a knack of convincing them to forgo serious punishments for infractions. Like fighting, or being caught with contraband. 


The gang along with the bosses would usually congregate in the day room in the evening after dinner.


Play cards, watch movies. When this happened. Every one knew not to sit in the first two front row seats in front of the television. 


With good bosses, a wild dorm can be made fairer, quieter, safer. This was the case in 3AA during my first 2 months. Until they all got transferred. 


I don't know who told what why how or when. But I know someone, C/O or inmate told someone something. Either a C/O with a good eye or sense of what's going on; or an inmate complained to the right person for long enough about not getting phone calls or food and knuckleheads stealing anything that wasn't nailed down. Whatever it was, one-day, a bunch of C/Os  came into our dorm one-day and called out all the bosses, shot-caller and soldiers by name. Then said. 'Whoever's name got called, pack up! you've been transferred to another part of the boat!' 


The bosses and soldiers were upset to say the least. Not only because they were leaving. But because, when your in a form for a while. Things become familiar. The people there. The schedule. The C/Os. The routine. You get...comfortable. 

And now. Going to a completely different environment where there are people, schedules and routines you do not know.

Switching dorms is like your first day. Your starting  over. You have to establish yourself again. Learn the rules of the new dorm. And especially, you have to find out who the bosses are.

Now. There is a power vacuum that has to be field. I knew from experience this was gonna be a tumultuous month. Alot of joking for vacated positions. Alot of jail politics. And a lot of violence. The turmoil will be among the third tier gangsters attempting to 'up their ranks. These were the quieter and less aggressive ones while the big dogs were here. But now, they began to morph into completely different inmate. Doing and saying things they would never dare to say and do before the bosses left. 


Slot time and kitchens duties were past down to them. But things did not run as smoothly as before. More food and juice was stole. The positions got lighter. And the freedom and relative safety and peace that the lower tier inmates (the old, the scare, the weak) enjoyed was now disrupted by these guys. Trying to gain control by force. Access to the television was challenged more often. Tables and chairs in the day room were now restricted. Unless you were part of a certain clique. 


The new wanna be bosses were out of line. Shmacking the weaker guys. Talking slick to the guys that have been there a long while. And challenges to fight rose significantly. For no other reason but to make themselves look tough.

But these tactics were not used on everyone. The was a small, strong minded group of inmates who these third tier guess did not cross. This group was made up of old, but not that old guys. Men in there 30s and 40s who were still physically fit to handle themselves. Went about the normal routines. Were quiet. The read. Talked to only one or two associates, or simply stayed to themselves. Most importantly. This group of older, strong minded, and physically able men, although aware, wanted nothing to do with the gangs or the power struggle taking place around them. 


On the occasion or two that one of these knuckle heads did cross the line with one of these men. A quiet, meek personality would instantly change into a full fledged soldier. No fear. And confronted the instigator head on with wisdom and a willingness to fight. Seeing a man who is usually calm, respectful and quiet suddenly turn into a roaring lion is intimidating to anyone. Especially to a wet behind the ear 'tough guy'.


Then a group of new guys came in. Filling the dorm back to its original max of 50 inmates. Most of them were Spanish. Puerto Rican. A couple of them were big. A few were facing serious charges and looking at prison time. They are all young. And from the look in their eyes, and how they carried themselves. The thirst for power and respect was in them as well. 


After laying low for a few days, they began to signs of a power grab. They spoke out more. Called the station on the TV more. They asked about 'Made' jobs. Like the kitchen and clean up crew.


The power structure that was left over had no choice but to accommodate their requests. One of them even picked up his own slot time. Passing over many other inmates who had been in the dorm for much longer. 


After landing a couple of 'Made' jobs in the pantry and clean up crew, the Puerto Ricans began to let their nuts hang. A few commissary's go by. Couple people owe them. And just like that, they were made. Not bosses yet. But the writing was definitely on the wall. There was even talk among them to commandeer another phone for Spanish speaking people only. 


None of this directly effected myself. Nor the few that I associated with. Like I said. By this time I am a veteran of the justice system. My many many costly past mistakes and misreads taught me how not to act, what not to say, and most importantly, who not to associate with. 


The only storm I saw on the horizon was Marino. Marino was a left over soldier from the old guard and hung onto every bit of power he had left. He even took the Big Bosses old bunk when he left. The sweetest bunk in the dorm. Its way in the back by the fire exit. Its the darkest spot once 'lights out' time comes. Its the furthest rack from 'The Bubble'. Making it just out of eye sight from the gaurds. Its the place were all the bosses, soldier and made guys met up. It's the place where they smoked. It was a symbolic throne.


At first. The Puerto Ricans played nice with Marino and the few remaining soldiers of the old guard. They talked, watched TV, played card, smoked and hung out in the back together. Marino had a job in the main kitchen. So he was out of the dorm half the day. 


Sometimes he would bring the new guys food if they asked. Nothing big. Just some left over beef paddies or some fruit or left over bread.


Marino was never a loud talker when the old bosses where here. He got in where he fit in on the outer fringes of the 'made' guys and put in work for them here an there. But when they left. Marino took on a completely different persona. He was louder. Alot louder. Talking shit to everybody. Especially when football was on and he had bet on a game. Controlled what was on the television. His whole shwag was different. Walking between the beds instead of using one of the two wide main walk ways on either side. Which was an unwritten no no on the Island, because it put people too close to another inmates bunk, their possessions, as well as their personal space for no good reason; other than to take a short cut to the day room or back to your rack. 


But these violations were not serious enough to get someone of Marinos stature in trouble. Violating unwritten rules, talking loud, talking shit was tolerated. It is jail after all.


What gets guys like Marino caught up, and something he had yet to realize. The holding onto power and control, particularly in that type of violent environment. Takes more than talking shit all day. 


The day was slow. I'm on my bunk reading when I heard a commotion between one of the left over bosses and the most aggressive of the Latinos. But they were not arguing about themselves. They were in agreement about something Marino had did wrong. In jail. One mattress means a lot. But having two mattresses is a symbol of ones power, and standing within the dorm. All bosses and a couple of soldiers had two mattresses on their bunks.


But this was a big no no to the C/Os. And they were constantly kept busy managing mattresses. You see. When a person left. His mattress would stay there and be put in a storage closet inside the dorm. But sometimes the guys would catch the guards not looking or paying attention and would ask the inmate who's living to throw him his mattress.


Going home. Guys had no prob doing things for guys that were staying behind. The inmate would then take the mattress and cover it with his sheet and blanket in-order to disguise it as one. 


This was such an issues, that nearly every-time new inmates came in. There were no mattresses in the storage room. Which made the C/Os go from rack to rack to find out who had more than one mattress. 


By this time. The Spanish guys were making a name for themselves. And the more aggressive one demanded two mattresses. These was none to be had. Except for Marino's. 


Marino shwaggered back into the dorm after working his shift in the mess hall. After talking to a few people in the day room, he makes his way back to the 50 racks. The left over boss and the Puerto Rican still talking about him and about his mattresses. He try's to head off the storm that was brewing. 'What's wrong'? He asked the boss. 


'Yo you gotta give up one of them mattresses son'!  Apparently Marino had three. 'I know you heard this man (the Puerto Rican) sayin he what his two and you sittin there hiding the shit'! 'Ok bro. you got that. I didn't even know he wanted another mattress'. He then started mumbling words under his breath.

Marino walks to his bunk. The 'Throne' in the back. And begins to untie the corners of his sheets, in-order to extract the mattress. While he did so, the more aggressive Spanish one walks up to Marino. 'What did you say? What did you say mother fucker?!'


Now me. Still on my bunk, reading. Having been through so many fights and arguments of my own, I did not want to see any anymore. So I kept my head down. And kept reading. 


I only heard the first shmack. But I did see the second one. While Marino was still unraveling his sheets, the more aggressive Puerto Rican stood right in front of his face, and shmacked Marino again. Based on the loudness of the first shmack, I guessed it to be an open handed one. But this one was a classic back hand.


Marino kept his down. Too embarrassed to look at anyone. The bunk room was only about a quarter of the way full. But there were still enough witnesses to guarantee his downfall. 


But that was only the beginning of Marinos fall from power. After the shmacks, the more aggressive Puerto Rican says 'You no what!' Then he snatched the blankets and mattresses out of Marinos hands. Then threw one mattress and one sheet across the isle on top of another bunk. 'That's where you sleep now'! He then grabbed two of Marinos plastic buckets of personables, and slid them across the isle toward the same rack. Marino had lost the 'bunk for bosses'. And much more.


But it got even worse for the old soldier. To ram home that he was now one of the new bosses if not the new boss. The more aggressive Puerto Rican says to Marino; who was by this time sheepishly making up his new bunk. 'You know what?! I changed my mind! Get up on that top bunk! In the back of the dorm there were four racks with top bunks. The only top bunks in the dorm. Nobody liked to sleep on them. 


'Get the rest of yo shit and get up on that top bunk! You a top bunk nigga now!'

Marino gingerly did as he was told. He even asked the guy on the bottom bunk if it was OK for him to keep his plastic buckets of personables under his rack. 

The last time I looked up from reading. The more aggressive Puerto Rican, was laying on his new rack, on his two mattresses, laying on his back, hands behind his head, his bare feet crossed, rocking rapidly from side to side.


I looked towards Marino. He lay on his back as well. But with his arms to his sides, face towards the ceiling. perfectly still.


true story written by -jonathan d riley

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