Neighborhoods

Life on the Outside

by

The Homecoming | Apartment Living | Back To Jail | Job Hunting | Uptown Escape | Brooklyn Respite | Second Homecoming | Prison Reunion | Thanksgiving


Back To Jail

On her first visit to her parole officer, Elaine began badgering him to permit her to return to prison. Not to Bedford Hills, but to Rikers Island, where her younger son, Mel, was locked up. And to the upstate prison where Nate, her daughters’ father, was in the 17th year of a 25-years-to-life sentence.

Elaine met Nate when they were teenagers. Before their arrest in 1983, they had known each other for eight years. Carrying cocaine to Albany was her idea; at the last minute, he decided to tag along just to make sure nothing happened to her. While locked up in the Albany County jail, Nate and Elaine married. They were sent to separate prisons and stayed in various degrees of contact over the years. He wrote regularly; she stopped after several years. In 1990, he sent her divorce papers, and Elaine suspected an affair with another woman, someone who had been able to visit him.

Since Elaine had come home, Nate had called several times and sent a letter nearly every day. Guilt consumed Elaine when she thought about how he was doing 25-years-to-life because of her, about how Tara and Danae had grown up without their father. “It’s one thing to go to jail for your shit, but for someone else’s shit?” Elaine said. “That’s tough. I can’t forget about him.”

Elaine needed to see Nate, but first she wanted to visit her younger son, who had been on Rikers Island since October. “Nate will have to wait,” she said. “Mel is my baby.”

Of all Elaine’s children, Mel seemed to take her imprisonment the hardest. When his grandmother could not bring him to Bedford Hills, 10-year-old Mel would sneak out of the apartment and go by himself. He had memorized the route. Ride the subway to Grand Central Terminal. Transfer to Metro-North. Get off at the Bedford Hills stop in Westchester County. Hail a taxi. The guards weren’t supposed to let him in without a chaperone, but Mel discovered they had a hard time turning away children. At the end of every visit, Mel clung to his mother’s leg and kicked the guards who tried to pull him off. “Fuck that!” he shouted. “I ain’t going nowhere!”

By the time Mel turned 13, he was hanging around outside all night—smoking pot, stealing cars, selling drugs. Yvonne held nightly kitchen-table vigils, waiting in the dark until 3 a.m. for her grandson to come home. Then she would strip-search him, empty his pockets, and throw his cash and drugs in the toilet. Yvonne kept up her late-night vigils even as her diabetes worsened. But she was losing the war, losing Mel to the streets, where he graduated from selling pot and powder cocaine to selling crack and heroin.

Elaine heard stories about Mel getting into trouble. He stayed silent when she reprimanded him over the phone, so she tried waiting until Mel came to see her to lecture him about the perils of drug dealing. Once again, he didn’t listen. The next time Mel visited, Elaine punched her son in the face. “Don’t make me have to come over the fence, so the TV news says, ‘Woman escapes from Bedford Hills,’ ” she said. “I don’t want to have to come home and visit you in prison.”

Elaine’s threats failed. The ninth-grader stopped going to school, stopped coming home at night, and stopped visiting his mother. When Elaine tracked him down by phone at his girlfriend’s house, Mel promised to come see her. But she knew he wouldn’t. Trapped in prison, Elaine was powerless to counter the lure of Mel’s $2000-a-day income.

Eventually, Mel went to prison for the same crime Elaine committed: selling drugs to an undercover cop. To avoid a lengthy mandatory sentence like the one his mother received, Mel decided not to go to trial. Instead, he pleaded guilty and spent three years in Attica.

Now he was on Rikers Island awaiting trial in a related drug case. This time, the charge was “conspiring” to sell drugs. The new indictment accused Mel of two incidents of drug dealing—both of which he’d already served time for. But since “conspiring” to sell drugs is a different crime from selling them, Mel was facing another possible prison sentence. According to prosecutors, Mel had worked for a drug gang known as Dead Man Walking, which did a brisk business on the Lower East Side and had annual sales exceeding $25 million.

Elaine got permission from her parole officer to visit Mel and went three times to Rikers Island during her first few weeks home. On a Friday in early March, she took me with her. “So you can see what we have to go through,” she explained. Elaine thought that if more white people had relatives locked up for drug crimes, state legislators would have long ago rewritten the Rockefeller drug laws.

In fact, more than 94 percent of New York State’s drug prisoners are African American or Latino. “When you give people power and authority, they just overdo it because it doesn’t affect their sons and daughters,” Elaine said. “They don’t have to go through the pain and suffering we go through. They wouldn’t be able to deal with it, anyway.”

Our journey to Rikers Island began at 11:50 a.m., when we boarded the F train on East Houston Street. Today, Elaine wore Apache’s parka and Tara’s Polo shirt. To give Tara a break, Elaine was bringing her granddaughter Tenéa to Rikers Island. Soon we were at Queens Plaza, lining up for the Q101. Elaine slipped her new MetroCard into the machine next to the bus driver, hiked her granddaughter above her hip, and headed down the aisle.

By now, Tenéa was 10 months old. A diaper bulged beneath her hot pink ski suit, and she wore tiny gold hoops in her ears. When Tenéa rode around the East Village in her stroller, strangers stopped to admire her sparkly brown eyes, long lashes, and near-constant grin. But now, as Elaine settled into a seat near the back of the bus, Tenéa was frowning. Worried eyes peered out beneath a white ski hat adorned with Baby Minnie Mouse. “You look like you know where you’re going,” Elaine said to her granddaughter.

For many New York families, the journey to Rikers Island is a familiar ritual. Each year, inmates in the city’s jails get 500,000 visits. Elaine herself has been making the trip to Rikers Island since she was a teen. Back then, whenever her brothers Kenneth or Don Juan went to jail, she would walk from her mother’s house in Corona, Queens, to the bus stop next to the Rikers Island bridge. Later, when her boyfriend, Nate, got arrested, she would bring her children when she visited him. And now Tenéa was making her first trip to Rikers, sitting on Elaine’s lap as the bus crossed the East River and the familiar stench of salt water and sewage filled the air.

It was 12:20 p.m., and Elaine wasn’t looking forward to the rest of her day—to the metal detectors, pat frisks, dingy waiting rooms, gruff guards, slow lines. She wished she had good news to report, but if she waited that long, well, who knew when she would see Mel? After clearing a security checkpoint, the Q101 turned into the parking lot of the visitors’ center. A guard shouted his welcome. “No beepers or cell phones allowed inside!” Elaine knew the rules; she had left her beeper at home.

To get to the jail where Mel was housed, Elaine had to take another ride, this time aboard a refurbished school bus with ripped leather seats. As she exited, her gaze climbed the slate-gray walls of the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, searching for the tiny third-floor window belonging to her son.

Once inside, Elaine followed orders. She stuck out one hand so a guard could stamp the back with invisible ink. She dropped Tenéa’s Winnie-the-Pooh diaper bag on the metal detector’s conveyor belt. She walked to the front of the waiting room and gave a card with Mel’s name to the officer behind the desk. She picked a locker, slid in a quarter, and stuffed her earrings, parka, and diaper bag inside.

Elaine settled into a front-row seat. She had waited more than 16 years to leave prison, and since coming home she still seemed to spend most of her time waiting—for her parole officer, for her welfare caseworker, for a chance to see Mel. Being trapped in the slow grind of yet another bureaucracy always left her feeling frustrated. “There’s no time to waste,” she often said. To pass the minutes, Elaine bounced her granddaughter on her lap. “Te-naaay-a!” Elaine sang. “Te-naaay-a!” The attention did little to improve the infant’s mood; every few minutes, Tenéa spit her pacifier onto the floor.

The guard at the front of the waiting room called out a few prisoners’ names, but not Mel’s. After more than 30 minutes, Elaine considered asking the guard at the front how much longer she would have to wait. On her last visit to Rikers, she had asked the same question. “Did you hear me call his name?” the guard had shouted. “All right, then, we didn’t call it. Have a seat.”

After years of being yelled at by women and men in gray uniforms, Elaine did not think she could take much more. She had wanted to scream back, but she forced herself to stay silent. She didn’t want her parole officer to hear she had tussled with a Rikers guard. Today, Elaine decided, she would not ask questions.

An hour passed, and the guard finally put down her cigarette, picked up the phone, and called Mel’s last name. “Paschall!” Elaine joined the line. When she got to the front, an officer told Elaine to remove Tenéa’s Baby Minnie cap. Hats are banned.

“No one told me that,” Elaine said.

“This is my steady post,” said the guard. “I’ll tell you what you can bring in.”

Silently, Elaine plodded back to her locker, then returned to the end of the line. A few minutes later, she finally made it past the metal detector. An officer whisked her through a large room buzzing with visitors and prisoners and into another, quieter visiting room, which contained several cages, each holding one table and a few chairs. The guard gestured toward a cage in the back corner.

Mel had to see visitors inside a cage because he was confined under Rikers’ highest level of security. He had been assigned to the Bing, officially known as the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, which is reserved for New York City’s worst-behaved prisoners. For fighting with another inmate, Mel had been slapped with 90 Bing days. Now he was locked in a 70-square-foot cell for 23 hours a day, and he received meals through a slot in the door.

Elaine carried her granddaughter inside the cage. It was 2:30 p.m., about two hours since she had arrived on the island. She stared through the steel bars at the parade of men entering the visiting area and tried to force a smile. It wasn’t easy. Coming to Rikers meant confronting not only a slow-moving bureaucracy but also her own mistakes, guilt, and regrets. If she had never gone to prison, Elaine thought, Mel would now be passing the hours earning a paycheck or a degree instead of more Bing days.

Soon a familiar face appeared. Mel lit up as he neared the cage and realized who had come to see him. “Maaaaa!” he shouted.

Before he could embrace his mother, Mel had to wait for an officer to unlock the cuffs holding his hands behind his back. The short, scrawny boy who had come to see Elaine in prison—who had smiled at her for years from the Polaroids decorating her cell walls—had disappeared. Across from Elaine sat a six-foot-two-inch man who shaved his head to hide a bald spot.

Mel could pass for 30, though he was seven years younger. He wore the jail’s orange jumpsuit, accessorized with Versace glasses and Tommy Hilfiger sandals. His biceps bulged, the result of tens of thousands of push-ups and pull-ups he had done in his years behind bars. And along his right cheek, a jailhouse enemy had left a signature with a razor blade, a 12-stitch scar interrupting Mel’s carefully trimmed beard.

“How have you been?” Mel asked.

“I’m all right,” Elaine lied.

She handed Tenéa to Uncle Mel, and immediately the baby began to cry. “Are you scared of the orange jumpsuit?” Elaine asked. She took Tenéa back and began to rock her.

“Did you hear me on the radio?” she asked Mel. The morning after her release, Elaine spoke on WBAI about the Rockefeller drug laws.

“I was listening and I had a couple people listen also.”

“Did you hear me talk about you?”

“I caught a little bit of it, but my batteries were really going.”

Before his mother left prison, Mel had not seen her for seven or eight years. To learn details about her criminal case and clemency campaign, he had studied the news stories about her. Mel was proud of his mother, of how she had survived such a long prison sentence with her dignity intact. When she spoke, he held her hands and listened. He did not talk back. Here, in jail, Elaine’s own 16-year imprisonment gave her a certain authority, at least in the eyes of her younger son. “My moms is what keeps me strong,” Mel told me later.

Mel kept a picture of his mother on his cell wall, and he had written a song for her:

I never asked for this life

It was given to me

Everything was all good

Or you pretended it be

Never told me about the world

And the struggle for dreams

Left when I was seven

Not even near to my teens. . . .

After he went to prison, Mel became a father. Little Mel, now four years old, lived with his mother in Queens. Mel had not seen his son in more than a year.

“Why didn’t you bring Little Mel?” he asked.

Elaine rolled her eyes. Tensions between Mel and his baby’s mother had made it nearly impossible for Elaine to see her grandson.

“You gotta come home and deal with your own shit,” Elaine said.

The conversation darted from Mel’s siblings to his court case to his girlfriends to the weather to prison radicals like Assata Shakur and the Soledad brothers. (Mel said he was reading about them.) There were too many topics and not enough time. The time limit for all Bing visits is one hour, and soon a guard would appear at the cage door. Elaine decided not to tell her son she had been clashing with his sisters; she did not want to burden him with problems he couldn’t fix. And Elaine knew he was not telling her about the pressure that led to his stint in the Bing.

“Ma, you don’t need to be coming here,” Mel said. “You’ve already done enough time.”

“Of course I’m going to come visit you,” Elaine said. “I know what it’s like when people say they’re going to come visit and they don’t.”

The conversation continued even as a guard came by and cuffed Mel’s wrists.

“I love you, Ma!” Mel shouted over his shoulder as the officer led him away. “I love you!”

“I love you too,” she yelled. “Now, you behave!”

Across the room full of cages, Elaine watched her son as he stood in front of a door, waiting for an officer to escort him back to his cell. The steel cuffs kept him from waving, so he shouted one last goodbye.

“Ma, I love you!”

Soon a familiar face appeared. Mel lit up as he neared the cage and realized who had come to see him. “Maaaaa!” he shouted.

Before he could embrace his mother, Mel had to wait for an officer to unlock the cuffs holding his hands behind his back. The short, scrawny boy who had come to see Elaine in prison—who had smiled at her for years from the Polaroids decorating her cell walls—had disappeared. Across from Elaine sat a six-foot-two-inch man who shaved his head to hide a bald spot.

Mel could pass for 30, though he was seven years younger. He wore the jail’s orange jumpsuit, accessorized with Versace glasses and Tommy Hilfiger sandals. His biceps bulged, the result of tens of thousands of push-ups and pull-ups he had done in his years behind bars. And along his right cheek, a jailhouse enemy had left a signature with a razor blade, a 12-stitch scar interrupting Mel’s carefully trimmed beard.

“How have you been?” Mel asked.

“I’m all right,” Elaine lied.

She handed Tenéa to Uncle Mel, and immediately the baby began to cry. “Are you scared of the orange jumpsuit?” Elaine asked. She took Tenéa back and began to rock her.

“Did you hear me on the radio?” she asked Mel. The morning after her release, Elaine spoke on WBAI about the Rockefeller drug laws.

“I was listening and I had a couple people listen also.”

“Did you hear me talk about you?”

“I caught a little bit of it, but my batteries were really going.”

Before his mother left prison, Mel had not seen her for seven or eight years. To learn details about her criminal case and clemency campaign, he had studied the news stories about her. Mel was proud of his mother, of how she had survived such a long prison sentence with her dignity intact. When she spoke, he held her hands and listened. He did not talk back. Here, in jail, Elaine’s own 16-year imprisonment gave her a certain authority, at least in the eyes of her younger son. “My moms is what keeps me strong,” Mel told me later.

Mel kept a picture of his mother on his cell wall, and he had written a song for her:

I never asked for this life

It was given to me

Everything was all good

Or you pretended it be

Never told me about the world

And the struggle for dreams

Left when I was seven

Not even near to my teens. . . .

After he went to prison, Mel became a father. Little Mel, now four years old, lived with his mother in Queens. Mel had not seen his son in more than a year.

“Why didn’t you bring Little Mel?” he asked.

Elaine rolled her eyes. Tensions between Mel and his baby’s mother had made it nearly impossible for Elaine to see her grandson.

“You gotta come home and deal with your own shit,” Elaine said.

The conversation darted from Mel’s siblings to his court case to his girlfriends to the weather to prison radicals like Assata Shakur and the Soledad brothers. (Mel said he was reading about them.) There were too many topics and not enough time. The time limit for all Bing visits is one hour, and soon a guard would appear at the cage door. Elaine decided not to tell her son she had been clashing with his sisters; she did not want to burden him with problems he couldn’t fix. And Elaine knew he was not telling her about the pressure that led to his stint in the Bing.

“Ma, you don’t need to be coming here,” Mel said. “You’ve already done enough time.”

“Of course I’m going to come visit you,” Elaine said. “I know what it’s like when people say they’re going to come visit and they don’t.”

The conversation continued even as a guard came by and cuffed Mel’s wrists.

“I love you, Ma!” Mel shouted over his shoulder as the officer led him away. “I love you!”

“I love you too,” she yelled. “Now, you behave!”

Across the room full of cages, Elaine watched her son as he stood in front of a door, waiting for an officer to escort him back to his cell. The steel cuffs kept him from waving, so he shouted one last goodbye.

“Ma, I love you!”

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