That summer of ’94, about 40 of us got off the bus in the old stone back courtyard of Lewisburg Penitentiary, the “Big House.” We were all hold-over prisoners in-transit. Inside the walls, the prison itself looked like some ancient medieval fortress…maybe a home for monks or something.Opened in 1932, the maximum-security prison had held the likes of Al Capone and John Gotti, along with a long line of political prisoners like Jimmy Hoffa, Leonard Peltier, Wilhelm Reich, Alger Hiss and Bayard Rustin.
Stone corbels accented the outside part I could see, and the interior was French-gothic architecture. The doors were these huge arched, oak and beam affairs a good 4” thick. They were hung on these over-sized ornamental hinges that shut quite solidly.
Be a great place for Jennifer Love Hewitt to shoot her Ghostwhisperer. Of course, back then she would have been only 15.
All the guards wore these “Can Do” patches, probably because they were easy to spell. As we were lined up, they did their comedic best to read off our names. The first group of prisoners were marched to the hospital area, the rest us went to the “hole.” My luck.
As the 2-man holding cells were being filled, one guy, Tony, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into his designated cell with him. The guard started to object, then shrugged and made an adjustment on his clipboard. I assumed that Tony wanted the only other white prisoner in the crowd as his cellmate. Either that, or he was in love…
Tony was a gregarious, chatty con. When I got his full name and found out he’s from Brooklyn (I’m from the Bronx), I asked him, “Like _________, the mobster?”
“Yeah,” he said, “he’s my uncle.”
Great! I thought. This guy’s uncle was one of the Mafia’s most notorious stone-cold killers.
“Ahh, Tony?” I asked tentatively, “You in the ‘family business’?”
He answered, “Made man, my brother, made man.”
Of course, how friggin’ lucky could I get?
The cell was a real stinkhole. From what we could see by the hallway light thru the small barred window in the door, maggots and roaches competed for available space in the sink and commode.
The floors were sticky with something and the thin, plasticized bunk pads weren’t much better. Requests to the “Can Do” guards for cleaning supplies met with can’t-do laughter.
Eventually getting to sleep, I was awoken by a startling, high-pitched screaming. I jumped off the top bunk asking Tony, “What the f***! You all right? What’s the matter?”
“Rats!” He keened. “They were all over me!”
Looking around in the poor light, I couldn’t see where there were any holes big enough for rats. I figured maybe it was a mouse or two, or some large roaches. He was real spooked and it took awhile to calm him down.
I invited him to sleep on the top bunk. He was grateful, wouldn’t stop thanking me.
The next day we were expedited out to our respective destinations. Sometimes, that’s as funny as it got…