By Jeffrey Deskovic
“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.
Last week I began to describe my 16-year prison ordeal, having been wrongfully imprisoned at 17 years of age. While it is not a blow-by-blow account it is, nevertheless, of such length that it is necessary to present it in three parts.
I was determined not to turn my time in prison into a total waste of time. I would take advantage of the educational opportunities that were there. I obtained my GED, got an A.S. Degree, and completed one year of study towards my bachelors degree, majoring in Psychology, before Gov. Pataki took office and all but eliminated educational funding for prisoners. As a result, I could not graduate or advance my learning, whereas prior to that I could have not only gotten my B.A. and therefore been that much further along in my education, but I also could have obtained my Masters Degree, which had been available in the system.
When they took away opportunities for formal education, I continued my education informally. I read a lot of non-fiction books, concentrating primarily on self-help and relationship books, both in the area of psychology. I also read presidential history/political and governmental abuse exposes.
I received training on how to tutor adults and was a teacher’s aid, working on the GED level and also on the Adult Basic Education level, helping prisoners to read and write. I completed vocational trades in the fields of typing, general business (everyday business applications of he computer), plumbing, computer repair, and became qualified as a painter’s helper. The problem is that all of what I did sounds a lot better than it really is because the classes merely taught me the basics of how things used to be five years ago. To give a concrete example, in plumbing class a lot of work consisted of working with metal pipe whereas today pvc pipe is commonly used.
I also obtained a certificate in Food Service and became what in the ‘free’ world would be the equivalent of a manager, generating paperwork from the computer for the civilians, maintaining written and computer records and being able to produce them on a moment’s notice. I was trained to take care of any discrepancies in the workers pay, making sure that everybody received their raises on time. The pay grades were .16, .22, .25. .32, .35. .38 an hour. There were four .42 positions and one .45 position, all of which were higher than the normal “pay” of other programs. Although even these amounts were small, getting raises on time was very important to the inmates, since their primary purpose for “working” there was to be able to eat and make a little bit more money.
(It is customary, according to Islamic teachings, to say “peace be upon him” whenever Prophet Muhammad’s name was mentioned. That is the reason for that phrase being in parentheses)
Six months after being in prison I was introduced to Islam. I was very depressed and was not very far from taking my own life. I saw a man from a distance who had a look of peace on his face, despite the fact that his identification number indicated that he had 11 years in prison. I wanted that kind of peace for myself, so I struck up a conversation with him. He gave me some study materials and invited me to the prison mosque as a guest. He also read some sections of The Quran, which he explained was revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). I can say, without a doubt, that Islam saved my life because, firstly, I would have killed myself otherwise. And, it was the reason that I didn’t lose my mind.
There are five prayers a day at specific times which are to be said, which are considered to be obligatory. When it was prayer time I was able to leave the prison mentally for a few minutes before, during, and after prayers, and get a kind of spiritual recharge. Despite this, however, let no one be mistaken; it was extremely hard for me mentally and emotionally being in prison. For a long time, as I was growing up in prison, the Islamic community gave me people to interact with who were safe, and a few people who looked after me and gave me advice, and whose general presence warded off the riff-raff. But by no means was it a panacea. It simply deflected some problems.
I also had to overcome the stereotype that inmates, in general, had about white Muslims, that I “was a Muslim for protection”. The idea that I would do so, out of genuine religious convictions, seemed to some to be far- fetched. There were a few times in prison when my religious beliefs cost me. I could not bring myself to simply watch and do nothing as people who prayed with me, fasted during the month of Ramadan as I did, and who I talked with and ate with, were assaulted right in front of me. I therefore provided assistance in warding off attackers, and had to endure the penalties which came with “fighting.”
Islam is a universal religion, which has members of all races and nationalities. In prison, however, the majority of Muslims were black and there were not very many whites. Some of the whites in prison, out of ignorance, thought of me as a race traitor and therefore disliked me. This was true also of some of the guards and a number of them would make comments. They did not know that many whites worldwide claim Islam as their religion, including Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens. Over time, however, the guards got used to me and I gained their respect because of my sincerity.
Over the course of approximately fifteen and a half years I built up my own personal Islamic library because I wanted to know as much about the faith as possible, For a time, when my mother was able to afford it, I took classes from an Islamic school via correspondence. I taught religious classes to some other Muslim prisoners and occasionally gave sermons during services on Friday afternoons, which is called Jumuah.
There is an informal leadership structure in the Muslim communities in various prisons, and I held various positions of responsibility, including, 1) being in charge of teaching non-Muslims about Islam when they came to the mosques in order to broaden their horizons. At one point I held a position equivalent to being Secretary of Education and School Principle all in one. I was, in fact, what in the outside world would be equivalent to being a Vice President.
In general, within the Islamic community in prison I was accepted and well respected. However, there was also a subtle form of racism, when it was time to select the spiritual leader of the community called an Imam. The selection process was supposed to be about who knew the most about the religion, in terms of memorization of the Quran and also the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), as well as who embodied those teachings. Instead of qualifications being the criteria that people would use, it often turned into a popularity contest in which race was an outwardly unmentioned but definite factor. For many of them I could be their brother in faith, but only to a certain point after which, in their mind. I became the ‘white guy.’ Based upon the racism and oppression that blacks have historically endured and, in other forms, continue to endure from some whites, they were not comfortable with putting someone who was white in a position of responsibility for their affairs.
While in some ways this is understandable, the reality was that all of that baggage is supposed to be checked at the door, and strictly religious criteria applied. The person who is the most qualified is supposed to be selected regardless of anything. Either he stacks up against the others or he doesn’t. But very few were thinking along those lines. Thus I experienced reverse discrimination in a small microcosm and realized what it must be like for some black politicians. The experience was frustrating to me over the years as the reason for my failure to win or ever garner more than 12 votes, losing to newcomers who had less than a quarter of the public service that I had became more and more obvious. Over time it became apparent than no matter what I did I would not be able to overcome this. I felt like a second class citizen, so I walked away from the prison congregation, while still maintaining my beliefs and practices.
I returned to the congregation twice upon promises that racism would be combatted through teaching, but was disappointed both times. Additionally, at the end, the power structure started running things like it was a gang, rather than a congregation of religious worshippers. I became a political dissident, and was seen as a threat by the leadership because of my knowledge of the religion and my speaking out against corruption, and practices such as people being banned from coming to services at all, officially sanctioned violence against community members and misappropriation of resources from fundraisers.
I left each time so as to not get caught up in violence and jail house politics, and to keep focused on my goal, which was to go home. There was never an official community policy not to talk to me, but that didn’t influence those members who were not in power and whose hatred of me ran deep. I lived that way for years, and I always kept my personal faith in Allah (God) and in the religion of Islam, and it provided meaning for me.
There were some officers who were good people and were friendly. Then there were some who were not friendly, but who did their job and who could be talked to. There were also those who were indifferent, who merely wanted to come in, do their 8 hours and go home. For the most part they were lazy, and didn’t care what went on in the prison. The problem was that if a fight occurred or someone got cut, they would turn their backs, walk away, and pretend they didn’t see anything, because they could avoid having to fill out paperwork. Then there were the officers who were really bad.
They brought their problems at home to work with them and took it out on the inmates. They used abusive language and had bad attitudes, and my main goal every time they were on duty was to avoid being noticed by them. Finally there were those correction officers who were even worse, officers who even their fellow officers disliked because they realized they represented a threat to them insofar as they might start violence or a riot, which other officers could get sucked into. Nonetheless neither fellow officers nor supervisors would reel them in. When any of this worse type was on duty, I had to walk on eggshells, the main focus of my day being to somehow make it through his shift without getting a report written on me.
It was a waste of time to file complaints because nothing would happen to the officers and they would find out about it and take further retaliation. So whatever verbal abuse happened the best course of action was to bear it and be quiet.
The recreation schedule in Elmira, where I spent a total of 13 1⁄2 years, was as follows: recreation was every other night from 7 P.M. to 9:45 P.M. However, the way that it actually worked out was that the rec bell would ring at 7, but they would not start letting the prisoners out until 7:15, gallery by gallery, sometimes taking 2-3 minutes per gallery, starting at the top. There are 8 galleries per housing block, so the further one was from the top floor the more recreation time would be lost. Additionally, sometimes they would purposely slow down the speed at which the prisoners were let out. Sometimes they would even wait until 7:30 or 8 o clock before beginning recreation.
Often as I was waiting for them to run recreation, once it was time for it to have begun I would wonder what was going on and if we were going to have it all that night. Often when recreation was cancelled they didn’t bother to inform the inmates, and we would just be left wondering until several hours later when it became obvious. So, although in theory we had 2 hours and 45 minutes, it did not work out that way. Considering that recreation was a time period in which the inmates could shower, use the telephone, exercise, or play sports, any delays or cancellation of recreation was most distressing.
On those days when there was no evening recreation, we had it for one hour from 3:30 to 4:30 in the afternoon. But, once again, it did not always work out that way. Going to recreation from the cell block rather than from program assignments, as I did for the last several years, resulted in getting to recreation very late. The officers were often slow to open the cells, and along the way we would be slowed down so that by the time we got to the recreation area so much time had elapsed that the general announcement of “last call to the showers” was made. In actuality I only received 20 minutes of recreation on those days.
It’s important to note the process of going to recreation itself was fraught with peril because I, along with the other inmates, was subject to a random pat frisk after going through the metal detector, which meant that guards would grope your body.
Going to the library was also done during the recreational period at night during the week. The way it worked was that I would have an opportunity to go twice one week, one time the next. But at the slightest excuse the library would close. If it was the week when we only had the library one time, closing it would mean I would have to wait a whole week before the next opportunity. Of course, on paper, we were supposed to get 30 minutes in the library. The way it actually worked out we only got 10-15 minutes, because of how slowly the escort officer would get us there, and, because of his frequently arriving back to get us a little early.
Books were kept behind the counter, and could not be accessed without a clerk. Given that the ratio of prisoners wanting books to clerks was 15 to 4, and sometimes 15 to 2, that created even greater time pressure. Additionally, only a small number of books were in plain view and the rest required telling a clerk what subject or author one wanted, adding to the time constraints.
There was a variety of newspapers and magazines that the library would have subscriptions for, but again, given the small allotment of time, not much reading could be done.
There reached a point where I started running out of books that I had not read before regarding my favorite subjects. That placed me in the dilemma of taking out books other than on those subjects I was most interested in to at least secure something to do while I was in the cell. Otherwise, I would have to fill out an interlibrary loan request form which would take about the whole time and still most likely not get the book anyway. In time I hardly ever put them in.
“Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Jeff is now a practicing attorney.
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