Chapter 4

Macs and Stamps
To most people in the world, a stamp is just a stamp.  It is an accepted system of currency adhered to an envelope and used to ensure that the contents are delivered from A to B.  There are different kinds of stamps- they come in many different designs and colors and you can get them in a variety of denominations.  Because inmates are not allowed to have actual U.S. Treasury currency, they use stamps, instead of dollars.  How many dollars a stamp is worth can vary and depends on many things, but it is the main currency of the inmates.  They use stamps to buy items from each other, they use them for their poker games, and sometimes they even use them on envelopes.

Dan says there are inmates serving long sentences who have stamps that are twenty or thirty years old.  Most of the time, stamps are bartered in whole books- not as individual stamps- and they aren’t used for postage, so the books stay complete.  There are inmates who have hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of stamps in their possession.  This is not allowed (I am not sure of the limit but I know it is not very high) and since some inmates prefer not to tempt fate and get into trouble (others have no issue breaking rules), they do not use stamps as currency- instead they use macs.

What is a mac?  

I asked that too, when the term started showing up in letters from Dan.  He would write, “Got a haircut for three macs” or “Pedro did my laundry for two macs”.  I was slowly building up my prison slang but this was a new one. I'll just tell you because you won't guess- I didn't.
Macs are mackerels.  
Yes, like the fish.  
At MDC Brooklyn, they sell macs at commissary in a sardine type can.  People (not me or Dan) seem to like to eat these macs.  Therefore, they have a value- and since they have value, they are used to ‘purchase’ items and favors from fellow inmates.  The value fluctuates based on supply and demand.  During the weeks when commissary runs out of macs, these treats become very valuable indeed.  It made me laugh when I first heard it, I mean, if you would have asked for my guess, I would have said the most valuable food would be a Twinkie or some type of candy bar or protein like peanut butter for working out.  It also seems funny to use a perishable, edible object as currency. Kind of like a drug dealer with a drug problem- you'll never cut a profit. C'est la vie.

The Yard
Using the term "Yard" to describe the space the gentleman at MDC use for their daily hour of exercise is a bit of a misnomer.  It is really just a giant double height room (like two stories I think) that has mesh over the windows and a high ceiling.  There is a floor to run around on, some lines painted in case you can organize a game of some sort and basketball hoops on either end.  Don’t play basketball unless you are ready to either show up or get shut down.  These boys play hard mean street ball and the weak or meek need not apply.

Yard politics are even more complex than Washington politics!  Seriously- who you talk to, who you look at, where you stand, what you do- all of it is judged, weighed and measured.  It is like high school but so much worse because unless you want to be stuck inside the loud, noisy dorm every moment it is the only chance you get for a change of scenery and some room to move around. In prison, unless you are in trouble or there is inclement weather (I will explain that one later don’t worry) or some facility safety issue, you get one hour a day.  That is it.  Sometimes it is not even every day, depending on how the day went.  For instance, if the guy a few beds over gets mad because his best friend tells him on the phone that his girl on the outside is seeing someone else (a very common scenario) and then he slams the phone down and shoves someone or starts up…well.  Yard may be cancelled.  It might also be cancelled because the CO on duty that day does not feel like escorting the guys in that particular dorm to the yard and staying there for an hour.  

In MDC, the yard was not technically outside, although in other places it was, but it still was a chance to get out of the dorms and hopefully stretch a bit.  Dan had always been active and athletic so for him the constant inactivity was horrendous.  You always wonder why ex-cons have such a specific body type right?  Necessity becomes the mother of all invention.  These guys spend all day cooped up together so that hour becomes blow off steam time.  They create push up challenges, there are usually two handheld grips bolted to the wall that they can do pull ups (Oh my god the variations of pull-ups that exist on this earth are mind blowing.  I literally had no idea you could even move that way against gravity until Dan showed me some of the positions these guys come up with).  Sit ups, squats… basically these guys are proof that you don’t need a gym, equipment or really anything except the weight of your own body and a floor (or a wall) to get so utterly ripped you could compete in body building competitions.  Minus the drug test prerequisite of course.  Sometimes.  

The yard was also a place where the old timers could scope out the new fish and see if any of them were worth meeting.  Or worth not meeting.  Or could use a lesson in how to act.  It really depended on the day.  One way to make sure a new person knew exactly how welcome or unwelcome he was would be to get him to play some basketball and then overtly foul the hell out of him until he was forced to either push back or suck it up.  Dan wisely stayed away from the basketball courts.  

I did not really understand until much later that Dan never saw outside while he was at MDC.  I mean, it just never occurred to me because we literally take the idea of seeing sunshine so much for granted.  Not having the choice to feel the warm rays on your skin and have to squint your eyes… that is so very sad to me when I think about it.  Sunshine always cheered me up; just being warmed in the rays was enough to instantly make me happier. Stupid shady faux outdoor yard.

Phones and Commissary
Of all the ways to keep in touch with a loved one when they are incarcerated, the most important one by far is the phone.  It is really the only real time, low risk way to be in contact.  It becomes a lifeline, if you can afford to buy the minutes. While the BOP supports this method, they also make it a very difficult endeavor.  For example- there is a limit to how many phone minutes you can buy every month.  The general amount in most places was 300 minutes/month.  That works out to approximately ten minutes per day.  If you are smart you will buy a watch from commissary when you first arrive, then timing calls is not such a big issue.  To explain the phones a bit better, let me first explain commissary.

The lifeblood of any inmate is that stupid commissary account.  It is exactly like when you were in camp as a kid and there was a canteen that your parents sent money for your account, where you could spend a couple of dollars on food or whatever you needed that you forgot to pack.  Only in this case, there is a limit on quantity (like you can only buy ten stamps per week) and there is only one day a week when you can place your order, and a maximum amount of money you can spend as well.  If you miss your day to order or do not have enough money, too bad.  Dan and I figured out that if I deposited $300 in his account every month he was ok.  That worked out well since $300 was the limit Western Union allowed anyway, per transaction.  I became something of a Western Union maven, despite their customer service being a call center overseas.

You need money for everything- to buy phone minutes, stamps, food, toiletries, clothing, shoes, and headphone. The dumbest little items that you do not even glance at twice in your home are more precious than gold in prison. Batteries. You need them to power your radio, watch and your alarm clock.  A radio is such an essential item to make the time pass by in jail.  It is ironic that most prisons are made of concrete and therefore the radios get bad reception.  These radios are actual am/fm radios with headphones. Dan became a fan of NPR and other random talk shows, he would listen to them at night to fall asleep.  Sometimes we would coordinate and I would to listen to the same station as I drove to visiting, and then we would talk about the songs we'd both just heard.  

While the prison will give you basic essential toiletries, when I say basic, I mean BASIC.  Soap.  Toothbrush.  If you want say, deodorant, you need to place an order on your ordering day and get it a day or two later.  Same for shoes, underwear, socks- you get the idea.  And this is for people who can afford to have money deposited in their accounts.  Many inmates just do not have the means or ability to get money sent to them.  They are the ones who will work for macs or whatever the currency of that facility is- they might do your laundry for you, clean your bunk or whatever… and that is how they survive.

Back to the phones- you have to buy your minutes every month to use the phone.  Dan, being really observant, figured out that when he placed a call to me (and she would start talking to me in that detached recorded voice once I picked up) there was a short few seconds where he could hear whatever I said into the phone before the damned recording started telling me to press 5 to accept the call.  I could not hear him, but that was ok.

We worked out a system of him setting two times a day to call to check in. If I was ok, I would just say I love you over and over really quickly, or whatever I needed to tell him in the few seconds.  Then he would hang up and do it again, sometimes a few times in a row.  If I needed him to stay on the phone, I would say “pick up” and he would wait for me to press five.  I hated pressing five unless it was a pre-designated pickup call because I knew that every minute literally counted.  Moreover, that recorded bitch was stingy with minutes- go over by a second and you lost another minute, even if you hung up right away. We would both get frustrated if I veered from the "I love you" and he thought I needed him to pick up and we accidentally wasted precious minutes.

I came to resent phones in general, and mine in particular.  What represented such a lifeline to Dan was such a ball and chain to me.  I panicked if my battery was low, I never put my phone down and the few times I did it was always close by on my body and within eye sight.  I had extra chargers everywhere, in every purse, vehicle, location I could think of, plus a few backups.  To this day I refuse to allow anyone to make me feel that way about a phone and will even turn mine off or put it down and ignore it if it rings.  I have very specifically told people not to call, only to text me.  My voicemail says please do not leave a message, text or email me instead.  Like I mentioned earlier, there are aspects of this that will always haunt me- and the dreaded phone ringing is one of those things. Even having a super awesome ring tone like "Bittersweet Symphony" can't make it better.

Along with the delightful monthly minute limit, the phones had another phenomenal layer of complication.  Depending on the facility, there was a time limit per call and then another time limit of how long you had to wait BETWEEN calls, also the phones were shut off at a certain time at night and turned back on in the morning.  Because some places had limited movement, (I will explain that later) there were times when the line of men waiting for the phones would get extremely long.  Prison seems to be about waiting in line.  Even if you were not sure what the line was for, you got on it, because you might need to get whatever was on the end of it – food, medicine, supplies you ordered.  Dan would routinely wait an hour or more just to talk to me at the end of each day before they shut the phones off for the night (oh, yes, and they stayed off until an officer remembered to turn them back on the next day).  

He got really good at figuring out the ‘quiet’ times when the lines would be short and he could do a quick hang up call with me just to let me know he was thinking of me and was ok.  My young nephews had a running inside joke about me answering the phone- they would mimic me picking up a phone frantically spewing “I-love-you-I-love-you-I-love-you-I-love-you” and then dissolve into giggles. It is really embarrassing when you get an unknown call (that is how they always showed up from Dan on the caller id) and it turned out the person I just professed frantic love to is actually my banker or some other individual who cannot quite fathom why the hell I am answering the phone that way.  I grew oblivious to the random looks I would get from strangers too, when I would answer like that in public, immediately hang up the phone, and then repeat the process again a minute later. 

You know how on TV and in movies prisoners wear this brilliant eye-gauging shade of orange jumpsuits?  That is accurate. But, as it turns out, it has a specific and special meaning in the BOP.  Not everyone gets to rock such a hideously flurescent shade of citrus. This neon orange jumpsuit is reserved specifically for inmates who are serving their time in the SHU a.k.a the hole or the box.

The first time I heard the term ‘SHU’ was when my husband was in it.  About a month into his sentence, he suddenly stopped calling.  Odd.
The first day I was sad thinking the line to get to the phones must have been really long and he was not able to call. The second day I started panicking and by the third day I was freaking out.
Then I got a letter in the mail. 
“My love, something has occurred, there was an incident with another inmate where he was anti-Semitic to me in front of a CO and since that was deemed a threat against me, I have been put in the SHU.”
Still does not explain where/what SHU is, but at least I know he is still alive as of three days ago. It's the little things, right?

SHU (stands for Special Housing Unit, Secure Housing Unit or Segregated Housing Unit depending on the reason you need to be there and no that is not a joke) is basically a fancy way of saying solitary confinement.  Sort of.  If an inmate breaks a rule, he put in SHU as punishment and loses all privileges.  If an inmate is threatened, he is put in SHU to keep him away from other inmates.  If there are no beds on a regular tier when inmates first arrive at most facilities, they sit in SHU for a bit before they get to general population.  A cell in SHU is usually a tiny room with a bed and a toilet/sink hybrid.  To differentiate SHU inmates from general population, they all wear the hideous orange jumpsuit- in some places the sheets, towels, socks and shoes are orange too.  The shade is bright enough to make your eyeballs bleed. A calming shade of sea foam green or lavender might be better suited, but what do I know.

It sounds like a good idea- keep the troublemakers locked up in a small cell alone (or possibly with one roommate).  Put inmates who are in danger in a locked room where no one can get to them.  However- the obvious flaw in this system is that SHU is on one floor- so the inmates who break the rules and the inmates who need protection end up right next to each other and sometimes even sharing a cell together!  Not on purpose of course but sometimes scary stuff would happen before the roommate situation got resolved. I would like to think that error was made out of innocent stupidity, but I might be giving too much credit here.

Due to the inconsiderate thug who threatened my husband, and the vigilant CO who witnessed the exchange, Dan got to experience SHU firsthand even though he did not report the person who threatened him and he most definitely did not want to go.  Being in SHU is the sole thing to this day that he fears about the system.  You are completely alone, cut off without phone calls (you get one fifteen minute call every thirty days in SHU). You get escorted to the showers every two days,  are allowed outside to the rec for an hour once a week, and slide written requests under the door hoping a CO picks it up and acts on it… it is very difficult to endure for long and most people do not handle it well.  You also lose all of your property because everyone knows you are in SHU and aren’t going to be back to your bunk right away (anything that doesn't get looted first gets boxed up until/if you get back to general population or it gets mailed to your family). So you are locked into a room 24 hours a day with absolutely nothing to do, no human contact, no extra food to eat aside from what they deliver to you at meal times and nothing to occupy your mind.  

Dan did still eventually receive my letters while he was in SHU, and I sent one every day, but some of the rules about what I could send changed (no printed articles or pictures) and I could not order books for him either.  After a few days he managed to get a piece of paper and pencil to scratch out a letter to me, but it took him two more days to convince a CO to give him an envelope and a stamp.  The only food you get is what is on the menu, so he could not order extra food from commissary and he literally lived on apples and bread for a week because the meals tended to be partially frozen or weirdly burnt. There was a considerate CO who slid a book from the prison library under the door and when he finished it, he was able to trade it for another with an inmate across the hall (they slid them to each other).  It helped pass the time.

I had to visit him in SHU at MDC.  That was a terrifying experience I was unprepared for.  Instead of being brought to the regular visiting room with the chairs and vending machines, I was brought up in the elevator by armed guards to the floor where SHU is.  The cells are steel bars so you can see right in- and out.  Walking past men locked up in SHU is awful- they openly leer and talk about you.  It was the first time I ever felt unsafe within a prison, although not the last.  I was led down a long hallway to an empty cell and locked in.  It was really hard not to panic, watching the guard leave me in there and hearing the key turn in the lock, knowing there were all these eyes watching me. And that I was locked in. In a real live prison cell.

I waited for a bit, and then I heard shuffling coming down the hallway and saw the bright orange jumpsuit. They brought Dan into the cell, hands cuffed behind his back, and he had to turn around and slide his hands through a slot in the door to get uncuffed before they locked us both in together.  We sat in plastic chairs across from each other, not touching or holding hands.  You don't even get your before and after hug in SHU visiting- it's no contact whatsoever. I could tell he was a wreck, he was skinnier and very pale, but seeing him alive and getting to just hang out for a few hours really helped us both.

There was a murderer in the cell next door getting a visit from his ancient mother, and he was very friendly to Dan and said hi to me before I left.  I didn't want to respond but Dan whispered that I should be polite and acknowledge him after he greeted me. It was at that moment that the thought first crossed my mind- he is in here with actual criminals.  Violent criminals- bad people who physically hurt others, admit, it and brag about it.

Say what you will about the white collar guys- at least they are not violent- and that core difference really stood out to me at that moment.  It remains with me, the unfairness of housing white collar and regular inmates together.  It is a part of the broken system that needs fixing- white collar should be separate for obvious reasons. Even just using common sense- stop putting all the different types of criminals together because they all just talk about their specialties and teach each other and then you have actually contributed to the education and building of a better criminal!

This was not the only time he was in SHU. Somehow it remains at the forefront of those terrifying experiences because of how shockingly detrimental it was to my otherwise relatively thriving husband, considering the circumstances. Dan started to fall apart emotionally, and physically the entire ordeal was taking a visible toll on him. It was the mental strain of being in a room alone for great lengths of time, cut off from everyone and everything that broke him down more than anything else.  So he was scheduled by the staff for an evaluation with a counselor at the facility.  At the evaluation, he found out from the counselor that if he maintained that he was not coping well on a general floor, he could get to K-81 also known as the psych floor. Plot twist!

Some people are just not cut out for prison, for a variety of reasons.  At MDC Brooklyn, those individuals are placed on the top floor unit, the one known as K-81.  The other units are basically big dorm rooms with bunk beds where the inmates are all roommates. It can be great because there is always someone to talk to, but it can suck because there are always people talking and no privacy.  There is also a lot of racial segregation in prison, so certain areas are off limits to certain races- things get very political in the TV rooms especially.  On K-81, there are individual cells where most inmates get their own room although rarely they have a bunkie they share a cell with. There are much fewer inmates housed on the floor, which leads to a better quality of life, even if you do get classified as a psych patient on your official BOP record.

Due to his frayed nerves from SHU, Dan was reassigned to K-81 after the psych evaluation.  At first I was very much against this move- I mean, there are some genuinely crazy or disturbed individuals on the floor.  I didn’t want it notated on his file that he could potentially have a mental issue either- I felt like that could be used against him somehow by the BOP.  It is a lot quieter up there though, and once you meet a few people and find your groove, it can be relatively pleasant.  There is also a lot of extra food, since extra trays are sent up to fewer inmates and in a phenomenal turn of good luck, K-81 inmates all seem to work in the kitchen.  Democracy at its finest.

It turns out that while there are some nutty inmates housed there, the majority are older inmates who have been serving time for years and got tired of the new fish constantly coming in, starting chaos, so they get themselves sent up to the quieter floor to live in peace.  And maybe get an extra orange for lunch.  Really, they are not crazy at all- these inmates are brilliant- playing the system perfectly to have a more pleasant experience.

Speaking of brilliant plays, these guys literally spend all day playing chess or dominoes.  They play poker too but not out in the open, no gambling allowed.  So that image of the old foreigners sitting in the chess parks in NY all day--- just apply it to this situation only these guys aren’t smoking cigars and hanging out by choice.  They do take their chess very seriously though, and being that Dan was such a great player he learned super fast that he had to let them win.  Like, every time.  It was not worth the attitude and issues that would arise if he won a game.  If he forgot and won a game, somehow his meal would disappear that day- strange right?  Apparently, it just never made it out of the kitchen and up to his cell.  Once again, he learned how to conveniently avoid issues like that by either not playing in the first place or making sure he lost every time.  I reiterate- prison politics are more complicated than Washington.

One of the individuals placed on K-81 was Peter Gotti, the former New York mobster and boss of the Gambino family, also the older brother of deceased Gambino boss John Gotti.  I owe him a tuna sandwich, and I believe Dan owes him a pair of shorts and shower shoes.  Trust me on this: I will make certain he gets back all three one day.

I met Pete during one of my regular visits (non-SHU) and had no idea who he was.  He had a few people visiting him, who I think were his nephews.  I was waiting for Dan to come into the visiting room and Pete was waiting for his visitors to bring him food.  As we sat waiting, he leaned forward and asked whom I was there to see.  Not really thinking much about it, I told him Dan’s name, he nodded, and said Dan was ok.  (Later on I wondered what would have happened if he had not thought Dan was a decent person?!?).  When Dan came in a short time later, I quickly whispered and filled him in on what had happened.  He instructed me to NEVER EVER do that again- because you never know who is who, and who might have a problem with someone and don’t ever talk to anyone except a CO, if they talk to you first.  Oops. I have to stop being so polite.

As Peter’s visitors were leaving, he leaned forward and handed me half of a tuna sandwich.  NOW I was nervous, if I take it- well technically I owe him right?  And if I refuse… could that be misconstrued as an insult?  I took the stupid sandwich, waited until he was gone, and then threw it out.  Also, visitors are not supposed to interact with inmates who are not the one they are there to see. It was a very stressful incident for me. Dan later filled me in- that Pete was actually a decent person, just old and trying to get through his time without issue.  When Dan first arrived on K-81, he had nothing but the set of prison clothes he was wearing. Everything he had bought was gone because he had been in SHU and they only gave him back the regular inmate uniform that they had given him his first day. Peter gave him a pair of shorts and a pair of shower shoes.  The shower shoes were these ugly plastic flip-flops and you might think that shower shoes would be considered a luxury but no- they are probably one of the most necessary items ever.  Inmates treat the showers like toilets; they are not cleaned properly and are used by a high volume of men, often.  Trust me- shower shoes are gold.  Thank you Peter Gotti.

Dan’s time on K-81 was ok, and he slowly started figuring out how prison worked.  One thing that constantly drove me nuts was his inability to stay below the radar.  He would get so excited on commissary day that he would order a few extra candy bars.  He would give a few away to other people who did not order anything, just to be nice.  However, what he just failed to understand EVERY SINGLE TIME is that doing anything like that within the system looks like favoritism or repayment.  By the time he was two years in, he finally learned that lesson but it was something that caused other inmates to resent him in every facility he was in.  He’s lucky he was so damn helpful with other stuff- like fixing the typewriter’s or computers, because I am certain that saved him on more than one occasion- in fact, I know for certain one time that it absolutely did.

Inmates are master MacGyver’s when it comes to re purposing everyday items for their own uses.  Pringles are not allowed in prison because the bottoms of the cans make really good knives- as demonstrated by the guys who figure out that you could fold them in half and use them to cut prison-made pizza.  Another genius invention was using the paper slip from a Hershey kiss, dipping one end in a cup of salt water and a paperclip and somehow you had an incendiary device that could spark a flame.  In addition, they can make cheese- they use vitamin c, milk and a microwave… and probably some other ingredients, I cannot really remember, but yes- with enough ingenuity you can actually make your own prison-grade cheese.  It never ceased to amaze me what sort of inventive things they could come up with.  

Meanwhile I still burn the toast in my high tech toaster oven.  I forget to insert the carafe into the coffee maker properly resulting in steaming hot coffee with coffee grinds overflowing all over the machine and onto my counter.  Sometimes I realize the jam in the fridge has an entire sub planet growing in the green fur that has taken over the inside of the jar.  It is a wonder I have survived on my frozen prepackaged dinners and/or pop tarts this long!

So Dan is in Unit K-81 in Brooklyn and settles into a daily routine, awaiting his transfer to California.  Remember?  He was never supposed to be in prison in New York in the first place!  That he spent any time there at all was due to a paperwork error when the Judge signed his sentencing documents.  The Judge ordered a self-surrender date but failed to designate Dan to a facility.  Even though he had ordered previously that Dan could go to Taft Camp, it was left off the form, so the BOP never assigned Dan there.  The BOP also does not have to send you where the Judge recommends, unless it is a signed order, which is what we later had to obtain.  By the time Dan turned himself in to start serving his sentence, they had no beds available for him at Taft… so he sat in MDC waiting for a bed to open up so he could transfer over. This also meant that I crashed at my parent's house in New York long after the wedding and had to keep coming up with excuses as to why I was there and not back in Los Angeles with Dan. It felt awful to lie to everyone but the truth seemed worse, so I tried to seem normal and every once in a while asked to borrow the car for mysterious excursions to Brooklyn.

On August 19, 2008 I was able to confirm with an officer who treated us nicely at MDC Brooklyn that Dan had finally been designated… to a place called Terminal Island in California.  I had to look it up.  Terminal Island is a very famous prison- it is located between San Pedro and Long Beach.  You know where the Queen Mary and other cruise ships dock?  You have never even noticed but if you look past the shipping containers and giant ships, there is a giant complex on the very tip of the island with barbed wire and towers.  Welcome to FCI Terminal Island. You know what this means don't you? ROADTRIP!