In 2017, I began visiting federal prisoners as a volunteer with Prisoner Visitation and Support. One of the first men I met at FCI Otisville, a medium security prison known these days for housing former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, was Lewis. Lewis, 40, was roughly halfway through a 20-year sentence for cocaine trafficking. As a result of a rules infraction, the prison authorities had revoked his regular visiting privileges. He wasn’t eligible to receive visits from family and friends for a few more years, but he was permitted to see vetted volunteers. During our first few meetings, he came across as somewhat reticent and gruff. While I had to wonder what he was getting out of the visits, I also noticed that he never failed to show up when I came to see him.
As we got to know each other, I learned that even within the isolated world of prison Lewis found it necessary to remain aloof from the people around him. He avoided interacting with sex offenders so as not to be tainted by the stigma attached to them, and he chose not to play sports or games because they fueled rivalries that often devolved into contentious feuds. When he would go out in the yard, he would stick to walking the track. Sometimes his cellmate and another prisoner would join him. Rarely, he told me, did the other two men complete a full lap without stopping to engage in sociable argument in Yiddish, a language Lewis did not understand. So mostly, Lewis walked alone.
During my second visit with Lewis, he told me about his daughter’s plans to attend college. I mentioned that I was getting ready to begin graduate school. I told him that it had been 30 years since I’d been in a classroom and I was a little anxious about how I was going to do in school. “It sounds pretty demanding,” I said. “If you get a grade lower than a B, they put you on academic probation.” At the end of our visit, I asked him if he had any advice for me. He looked at me with a stony expression that reminded me of my father. After a moment he said, “You better not get no B-minus.”
IN OCTOBER 2019, I attended a PVS training conference in Mississippi. There I met Nick, an area coordinator who was looking for another volunteer to visit the growing number of men on his waiting list. Two months later, I started visiting prisoners at USP Canaan, a high-security federal penitentiary in Waymart, PA. Before the pandemic shutdown, I had a few visits with Mark, who was roughly 18 months away from his release date. Although we came from very different backgrounds, we got along well and always found things to talk about. If we’d met on the outside – if he lived up the road, perhaps – I imagine we could have easily become friends. He had a calm and engaging manner, along with a good sense of humor. His eyes would light up whenever he laughed. He was attentive and alert, but never distracted the way other prisoners often are by what’s happening around them in the visiting room. Unlike some of the other men I’ve visited, he had realistic plans for how he was going to live and earn money when he got out.
Mark told me that while he’d been awaiting trial a decade ago, he’d told his wife that he was considering entering into a plea agreement to avoid having to serve the maximum sentence. She’d kept urging him to fight the charge in court, to which he’d answered: “That’s easy for you to say. But you’re not the one who’s going to have to do the 20 years if I lose.” After deciding to take the plea deal, he’d told his wife she should “move on with her life.” In the decade he’d been away, he hadn’t had any visits from family or friends, who all lived 2,000 miles away. While living behind bars, he’d lost his mother and one of his brothers. His wife had gotten remarried, but Mark was still close to his former mother-in-law. They talked on the phone regularly and he still called her Mom.
AT CANAAN, I also got to know Ray, a gregarious, exuberant middle aged man from the West Coast. When he asked me about my work background, I spent a few minutes telling him about my experiences as a small business owner. Ray seemed unimpressed. Bored, in fact. He gave a small wave with his hand and said, “I used to make $10,000 an hour.”
Yeah, right, I thought. I could tell he was expecting me to follow up on his boast, so I asked him, “Oh, yeah? What kind of work did you do?”
Ray flashed a huge grin and thumped his hands against his knees as he leaned toward me. “I’m a bank robber, Ken!”
Later he asked about my family, so I told him a little about my wife, my siblings, my mother and my stepparents.
“How long you been married?”
He puzzled over that for a moment. Then his eyes got really big. “You mean to the same woman?”
During one visit with Ray, I learned something about the challenges of navigating the topsy-turvy moral sphere of prison, where virtue is often seen as a weakness to be exploited. Demonstrating a resolve to abide by the institution’s rules or attempting to peacefully resolve conflicts can sometimes lead to unintended blowback. Then again, any prisoner who comes into an institution like this thinking he can be a lone wolf or a maverick quickly learns otherwise. Every inmate, willingly or not, winds up being affiliated with what’s called a car – a coalition of sorts, usually based on one’s regional background, race or gang affiliation. Ray told me that members of his car had once planned to assault a certain prisoner because of a dispute. After persuading his allies that this person could be dealt with without resorting to violence, Ray was sent to do the talking. “I tried to reason with the man. And you know what he did?”
I shook my head and listened.
“He called me a bitch.”
“So... what did you do?”
“I put him in a coma.”
I glanced down at Ray’s massive hands and forearms. He probably outweighed me by 100 pounds, and I’m a big guy. I felt a chill go down my neck as I looked back at his grim expression.
“You can’t let somebody get away with that in here,” he said. “Lucky for me, he came out of it. If he hadn’t, it would’ve been manslaughter.” Ray gave another small wave with his hand, a gesture of resignation. “They added another five years to my sentence for that.”
NOT LONG AFTER I returned from a summer of graduate study in England, I went back to Otisville for a final visit with Lewis. During the first two years I had visited him, he had been resigned to the fact that he had another 10 or 12 years to serve on his sentence. But things changed in 2018, when the First Step Act (a criminal justice reform law which shortens mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenses) was signed into law. Lewis’s lawyer filed a successful motion in federal court, and the judge amended his sentence. We had our last visit in September 2019, just a few days before he was to be released. “The court took 12 years off your term,” I said. “You’ve been given the gift of time!”
Lewis spoke of his determination to have a successful re-entry, to stay out of jail and to put the past behind him. I made a point of mentioning the advice he’d given me about graduate school, and I thanked him for it. I told him it wouldn’t be easy adjusting to life on the outside because a lot had changed during the years he’d been locked up. We shook hands for the last time and looked each other in the eye. “Just remember,” I said, “you better not get no B-minus.”
IN THE EARLY weeks of the pandemic, the Bureau of Prisons suspended visiting at all its locations. Instead, volunteers and prisoners were allowed to exchange letters by mail, something that was normally prohibited. Three months into the lockdown, I received a letter from Mark. He was glad to know that my family and friends were safe and healthy. “I pray for all of Humanity because it is needed at times like this,” he wrote, “and if people don’t open their eyes now who knows what’s going to happen next!” As I read the next few lines, I sensed that he was building up to something significant – and that I probably wouldn’t be visiting him again. The big reveal came halfway down the page: “As I write you this letter it is seven minutes to midnight, Sunday the 7th of June, and I’ll be getting released from here sometime in the morning, Monday June 8th 2020. I got a 2-day bus trip back home and I can’t even sleep right now, so I guess I might snooze on the bus.” He was getting out a few months early. He thanked me for visiting him and told me he couldn’t wait to go camping and fishing with his kids and grandkids.
Since volunteers aren’t allowed to contact prisoners until at least a year after their release, I don’t know how Mark’s re-entry went. As I was writing this piece, I went online to try to look him up. Instead of an address, I found an obituary. Mark died suddenly on July 15. He was 53 years old, just 13 months into his new life on the outside. I’m left with a scanned image of his letter, memories of our conversations and more than a few unanswered questions. Having learned of his death, knowing that he’d made a point of writing to me during his final hours at Canaan holds even deeper meaning for me now.
Seven minutes to midnight.
I have a feeling those words are going to haunt me for a long time.
Editor’s note: Prisoners’ names have been changed. More information at prisonervisitation.org.