In the Big House

Harper’s, September 2004, p. 16–19.

“From an interview with Lorenzo Steele, a former corrections officer at Riker’s Island, in the fourth anniversary issue of Don Diva, a magazine for ‘the underdogs of the underworld.’ The interview was conducted by Susan Hampstead.”

What kinds of violent incidents occur?

One time I was looking out the window at the little yard. One inmate was doing push-ups, and another dude stood over him and grabbed him by the neck and was just cutting him, boom, boom, boom, with a razor blade in his face. The windows were faded so I couldn’t see the razor blade, but I saw all the blood, because the dude had cut him like seventy times across the face. There was another incident where a female inmate was on one line with her unit and a men’s unit passed by in the same hallway. She threw her hood on and jumped into the men’s line and went back to her boyfriend’s unit. She was gang raped and beaten into a coma.

Where do they send inmates after they’ve been cut?

They generally go to another building, but we may just change their housing, in which case they will meet that person again. In may be in the mess hall, gym, or on the visit, but they will meet again. There have been several incidents with inmates meeting up in the visiting room with their families and being cut from ear to ear right in front of their family. The shit is crazy. That’s one thing about prison: there is no hiding. There are some individuals who are labeled as “cutters”—these people have to wear mittens made of a thick burlap-type material.

How do inmates get weapons?

In sneakers coming on the visits or in packages. Someone once smuggled a small gun in the sole of a Timberland boot, and that’s why inmates cannot have Timbs anymore—they can’t even have sneakers with bubbles in them, because people cut the bubbles and stuff razors and drugs in them. Officers bring shit in, too.

What are some of the tools they use to make weapons?

The tiles in the ceiling have metal rods, so they go in the bathroom, lift up a tile, and take the metal pieces. You can see the marks on the floor where they sharpened them. I sharpen my shit the same way they do.

Officers have shanks, too?

Yeah. We aren’t given guns, and we have to protect ourselves. We’re in jail, too. I ain’t gonna die in there, unless somebody gonna die with me. If we gonna get it on, then let’s get it on. I had my little ice picks, one for each hand. Shit, I’m not the only one—most officers got knives and shit, too.

Do the officers get cut as well?

Hell yeah, the officers get cut. Some of this stuff you don’t really hear about. Like in the paper it might say, “Officer assaulted,” but sometimes these things don’t really make the paper. You can’t show any fear. If you show fear they will pick on you, throw shit at you, cut you, and beat you. It could get to the point where inmates are extorting officers, making them bring in things like razors, food, and drugs. Some COs do it just to make their shift easier.

How often do you shake down the cells?

It depends on if there was an incident, or sometimes they pick random houses and find razors or shanks. A popular way to conceal razors is to wet a wad of toilet paper and then place the blade inside of it and then throw it up against the wall and smear the tissue flat until it appears to be a pice of the wall’s plaster. Inmates are legendary for keeping razors in their mouths. Being able to ‘spit out a razor” is like a magic trick in jail. You could be in the mess hall, get into an altercation with another inmate, and the next thing you know he’s spit out two razors from both sides of his mouth and your face is slashed up. I know of an incident where an inmate was handcuffed behind his back, and he was able to pull his body through his arms, get his hands in front of him, spit a razor out of his mouth, and cut someone from ear to ear. A nigga will become Houdini when it comes to survival. Spitting razors became such a problem that inmates immediately punched other inmates in the mouth as soon as an argument began. This was so that if the other inmate did have razors in his mouth, he would cut his own mouth up before even getting the opportunity to spit them out. Then there is “boofing.” That’s when an inmate who’s being taken to a visit or to court steals a rubber glove and cuts a finger off of it, then wraps a razor in toilet paper and sticks the wrapped razor blade into the cut-off finger, ties a string to it, greases his asshole, and sticks the finger in his ass. When he sees the person he wants to cut, he pulls the string and gets the razor. You can take away all access to weapons and shit, and in order to survive a nigga will adapt and get creative when his life is in danger. It is really survival of the fittest in prison—the shit is a jungle for real.

What happens if an inmate gets caught cutting someone?

Prison officials have started re-arresting people and giving them new charges, so you get extra time put to your original time. Some people are in there for jumping turnstiles and end up getting twenty-five to life because somebody cut them and the have to defend themselves and retaliate.

Tell me about some of the names they have for these cuts.

You got the “Buck Fifty,” meaning you got 150 stiches. Also the “telephone cut,” meaning you violated somebody’s telephone and the cut goes from the ear to the mouth.

Explain the phone situation.

You get six minutes on the phone a day. The officers are supposed to make sure everybody gets to use the phone, but a lot of officers are scared to do their jobs. I can understand though, because it’s serious. There’s a lot of racism on Riker’s Island, so if you’re black you cannot just walk up and use the “Puerto Rican phone,” and the vice versa. So whoever is controlling the phone is controlling the house. Every now and then someone would exceed their boundaries, and the consequences were getting cut or shanked. A lot of people cut just for recreation, to make time go by. Or if there’s an officer on duty that they don’t like, they would cut another inmate and the officer will have to stay several hours past their shift so that he/she can write a report explaining why they “allowed” the incident to take place. Meaning, now you can’t go home either.

What about the condition of the prison?

I used to do the tour at nights, and I would see rats and all types of water bugs running around. The phones are dirty and the place is just plain ol’ filthy. The food is horrible. You will be served just about anything—rotten fruit, half-cooked chicken, burned food, whatever. No one really cares, so there is no recourse. For the most part you better get used to bread and water for real. It is not a joke.

What is actually in the cell?

You have a filthy toilet with no cover, a rusty sink, and a metal frame they call a bed. Inmates use the toilet as a refrigerator in the summer to keep milk cool. This shit is just disgusting. The conditions are not fit for a human being. You are literally treated like an animal.

Why did you agree to talk to us, knowing that there might be repercussions?

For these young kids, who have no clue what’s going on in prisons. Nobody’s telling them, and it’s just hell. It’s hell for me and I go home every day, but I’m still scared for my life. I’m traumatized for life from the things I see and hear. You got adolescents coming through getting twenty-five to thirty-five years because of how they carry themselves in there. It’s a trap designed for these kids to fall in.