[by Jon Fontaine, a NYS prison inmate]
December 20, 2016
When my friends went back to their junior and senior years in high school, I was a freshman in prison. When they were in 2nd period math, I was working in a prison mess hall with murders and rapists.
I had just turned 18.
Something happened – what, I don’t remember. Maybe I got in an argument. Maybe a corrections officer yelled at me. Maybe I dropped something and snapped.
Either way, I cried.
It was the only time a state employee said something useful to me. A corrections officer (CO) saw me and called me into his office. He told me: in prison, if you act weak, people will take advantage of you. If you act tough, people will test you. But if you act crazy, no one will want to mess with you.
Shortly after that, I was sent to another prison primarily full of teens. This was an institution supported by taxpayers and run by state employees that was as lawless as you can imagine.
Officers brutally assaulting teens younger than their own children; sometimes a gang of officers on one 16, 17 or 18 year old, only to lie in reports and claim the teen assaulted the half-dozen officers. And then they’d have the kid criminally charged.
Weapons, drugs, fights, cuttings, stabbings, teens putting combination locks in socks and bashing each others’ faces in.
I watched one inmate use just such a weapon to attack another teen while he was on the phone to his mom. The teen was screaming, his mom was screaming through the phone that was left dangling and swaying back and forth. All over a pair of sneakers.
There, I did not act crazy. I was crazy. But so was everyone else. Any disrespect or off-handed comment was a call to fight. Not a fight like boxing or MMA. No refs. No rules. No towel to throw in. Weapons okay.
A life-or-death fight. No one there to break it up.
Five COs will jump a 120 pound 16- or 17-year-old. Beaten by 1200 pounds of adult.
And normal people wonder why I have a problem with authority and no respect for rules that are selectively applied and enforced.
I’d never been to a circus, but that first year in prison, I routinely watched a circus train of animals pass right outside the prison gate.
Who were the real animals?
That year, everyone I grew up with and went to school with graduated from high school. When they walked across the stage to get their diploma, I was in prison. When they went off to college, I was in prison getting a bachelor’s degree in criminal lifestyle.
I watched the Twin Towers fall in prison.
I wound up being released three days before my 19th birthday. I had earned my GED behind bars. My release was in late fall, and I immediately tried to enroll in community college for the semester starting at the end of January.
To my shock, the admissions office told me it was non-waivable policy that anyone released from prison had to wait six months to even apply. The way the timing worked out, that meant I would not start college until 10 months after my release from prison (two years after I was last in school).
I also learned there was no point in pursuing the career I’d dreamed of since childhood: architect. New York law would not give an architect license to a convicted felon.
So I tried to join the army. 9/11 was two months prior. My entire life, my only plan other than being an architect was joining the army. I had even been in contact with a recruiter when I was in high school.
I called him.
Despite the army’s need for cannon fodder in Afghanistan, the recruiter told me no branch of the military would take me, a felon.
Parole required me to have a job, or go back to prison.
Try getting a job as a 19-year-old felon on parole.
Why did I only have a GED? “I went from being a junior in high school to being a freshman in prison.”
“Sorry, but I can’t work after 9 p.m. because I have a parole curfew.”
“Sorry, I can’t travel… ya know… parole.”
“… and I’ll need Tuesdays off so I can meet with my parole officer.”
If I didn’t have a job, parole would send me back to prison. No one would hire me because I had been in prison and was on parole.