Frank PRESSLY Describes Prison LifeRickey Stokes
Posted by: RStokes
Date: Sep 09 2020 3:19 PM
BY FRANK PRESSLY
Posted on QUORA DIGEST
In November 1978, I had six months earlier been honorably discharged from a three year stint in the Navy and was sentenced to 20 years hard labor in the Commonwealth of Virginia for Armed Robbery. Convicted in Newport News, about three weeks later, I was transferred “behind the walls” to Richmond, otherwise known as 500 Spring Street . “The walls” were aptly named as the prison was inside the city and the walls around the prison were easily a good thirty-forty feet high. You could not see out and you could not see in. It was a cold, miserable place. At the time there was no shrubbery or trees or any living plant life inside the living area. Everything else was red dirt, concrete, iron and brick. Years later grass was planted in some areas of the buildings and tufts of grass peppered the athletic field in erratic patterns and lent a little color to the palette. Your only sense of the outside world was to look up at the blue sky and see the white clouds as they scurried by.
This is James P. Mitchell who was Warden of 500 Spring Street the day I arrived. He was a no foolin’ round kind of guy. This video gives you an excellent inside look at the prison after it was condemned and shut down. I see my old cell in Building Three on the top tier. Just seeing it again brought a sinking feeling and a spirit quenching moment.
I was assigned to Cell Block 3 (Segregation), West side, third tier. I spent the first day checking in, getting my clothing, bedding and hygiene products. Meeting counselors and doing paperwork. At the time, this prison was the most secure, maximum security prison in Virginia and I had been sent there because I had an administrative hold (warrant) on me from the State of South Carolina for another Armed Robbery. In the history of the walls Black men were electrocuted for TOUCHING a White woman. A decidedly racist environment. Anyone with an admin hold was deemed high risk for escape and was treated with extreme caution, which meant leg irons and waist chains everywhere you went outside your cell. It was a soul crushing, physically debilitating experience. You couldn’t run, skip or dance a jig; but, shuffled around with your leg irons cutting into your Achilles tendon and rubbing your ankle bones raw. If you were a problem or had a smart attitude a tactic to put you in your place, a guard would walk up behind you as you passed by and kick one foot behind the other causing you to trip. With no way to break your fall (with your hands shackled to your waist) an unexpected trip would result in a face plant and many black eyes and chipped or broken teeth. It was almost inevitably accompanied by an “Oops, watch your step” and laughter from the guard. There was no mercy for the convicted. Not all of them; but, enough to make your life miserable if they wanted to. You felt absolutely helpless. There are no witnesses to anything in prison. Shaky CO’s perform their deeds in private. Lots of blind corners, empty rooms and hallways in a prison. I think in hiring the guards they had put an ad in the paper, “Sadists wanted.” You just had to bow your head, make yourself as invisible as possible and tough it out.
Because I was awaiting transfer to SC for additional charges I was not placed in Gen Pop (general population); but, kept in the Ad Seg (Administrative Segregation) Unit on lock down. Lock down is staying in your cell 23 hours a day with one hour for a shower and exercise three times a week. Your world was a five by nine by eight feet concrete and steel box in a cavernous tomb like building built a hundred years ago. Everything was rusty and mildewed with black and green mold. The smell of urine and the mildew was stifling and within days you developed a hacking cough that produced a yellow slime from your lungs. During the Summer months the humidity and heat brought another stench, the smell of human funk. In the winter months we huddled under thread bare, scratchy wool blankets, our breath creating vapor trails as everyone wheezed with the flu which raged rampant in those close quarters. The lights never went out. The rats ran over the pipes and down the halls with impunity and cockroaches swarmed the cells, running over your face and body as you slept. It wasn’t unusual to wake up and find a cockroach perched at the corner of your mouth or eye looking for moisture. It was a 24 hour a day cacophony of doors clanging shut, locking levers and mechanisms being thrown in and out of battery, buzzers going off, loudspeaker announcements, whistles, COs barking orders, and shouting and screaming by other prisoners and guards. Every four hours a siren wailed and it was count time. You were required during standing counts to be at the door of your cell to be counted (three standing counts and three in-place counts every day). You were housed with another inmate you hoped and prayed was a decent sensible person. I was lucky, my cellie was a guy named Mitch from the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Like me, he was a young, early twenties fellow that was soft spoken, genuine and didn’t belong in this God awful place. We were both thankful for someone to lean on in this hellhole.
The only saving grace of this situation is you were not put out in the general population with all the crazies with multiple life sentences and thousand year convicts who cared about nothing and no one. Violence erupted at the slightest provocation or pretext of “disrespect”. You minded your own business, did not speak to anyone you absolutely didn’t have to and avoided protracted eye contact unless you wanted a confrontation. As a new arrival most confrontations were a test to see if you could be “punked”. Any sign of weakness resulted in the predators converging on you to see what they could scavenge. With little else to do, the predators were obsessed with the weak and toyed with and tested them mercilessly day after day. If you ever backed down or showed any sign of reluctance to fight, your life was hell from then on out. To get your “cred” back, you had to at some point seriously hurt someone (shank or club someone) to get the crazies to back off. Daily life was something to be tolerated and ended each day with a prayer, thankful that you were one day closer to your release.
A year later I was transferred to stand trial for my crimes in my home State of South Carolina. I was sent to the notorious CCI in Columbia. A crumbling, turn of the century dungeon that housed South Carolina’s death row and execution chamber. The conditions of this prison were horrendous, thus it’s name the “Prison from Hell.”
Thankfully once again, I was not placed in Gen Pop. Four more months of lockdown. By now I had been on lock down for over a year and a half [almost 13,140 hours 788,400 minutes]. It took about 120 days for my case to come to trial. I received an additional twenty years sentence to run concurrent (at the same time) as my Virginia sentence. When I returned to Virginia I was assigned to Powhatan Correctional Center (the State Farm) and was so thankful for being moved to Gen Pop and off lock down. Powhatan was another maximum security facility located on a sprawling farm next to the James River.
Inmate labor worked the farm and provided food for the facility as well as many of the other correctional units nearby. Because of my concurrent sentence from South Carolina I received a detainer on my custody status and remained at the highest security classification my entire term of detention. About four years in, my appeal was successful and a determination was made that I had not used a gun in the commission of this crime as the victim had contended. The victim had falsely and maliciously claimed I had a gun when I did not. This was pre video surveillance and a camera smartphone in everybody’s hands. Seven witnesses and no one else had seen a gun. My charge was changed from Armed Robbery to Strong Arm Robbery and my sentence was reduced from twenty years to eleven. Elation and tears of joy swept my body, I felt like I had won the lottery. Routine set in. I worked at various jobs in the prison complex. I did piece work as a seamster making prison uniforms. After taking a welding course I worked in repairs and construction for the surrounding facilities. My most distasteful job was working on the “kill floor” at the prison abbatoir. Just prior to slaughter, animals are walked up a raceway into the abattoir where they enter the stunning box. ... As soon as the animal is stunned, it is shackled by a hind leg and then the large blood vessels are severed to induce bleeding (a process known as 'sticking'). That was my job, the stunning and the sticking. I believe I was assigned that job out of spite by prison authorities, as my love of animals was well known. It was no secret I had a pet mouse and a pet cat in the institution. It was devastating to me and a mind numbing experience to be the taker of life on that scale. We processed tens of thousands of pigs and cows. All of whom were dispatched by my hands. Crazies kept their distance from me. After all, I was the only convict on the yard with a gun and a razor sharp ten inch knife. Every evening I would lay on my bunk, stare off into the distance and muse in disbelief about the enormity of it. Three days a week I tutored illiterate inmates, coaxing them towards their GED.
Unless you were independently wealthy before being committed or have well to do people on the outside, most inmates have to find a hustle to pay for the little extras that make life bearable in a prison environment. I was amazed at the ingenuity displayed by some who were sixth grade educated. You must understand from the onset that things of this nature were an “us against them” exercise. Hustles were generally victimless, except maybe the State. It was survivalism and ingenuity at it’s finest. I judged no one for their hustle. I pointedly didn’t have anything to do with their hustles, because if they flop or more importantly get caught you don’t want to be blamed as somebody in the know. Inmates who worked the kitchen plied the food trade. A fat, hot, grilled, real eggs and real cheese sandwich could be had from 4a.m. to 8 pm 7 days a week. For the right money (three First Class stamps or 5 stamps for two sandwiches). They were also the source for someone wanting to make “mash or pruno” (alcohol) as they could get the necessary sugar and yeast. Some of the kitchen workers ran delis. You could arrive each day to a selected table in the dining room and have waiting fresh vegetables and fruits and high end protein foods. Things stolen from the guards kitchen or just not available to the rest of population. It all came at a cost or trade. Inmates who worked the laundry hustled dry cleaning and wash & iron services for the better heeled. Then there were the stores. You could borrow food stuffs and cosmetics usually one for two back on payday (some items like Ramen noodle soups were two for three back). Then you had the guys who ran the gambling and drugs. Some of the better educated and savvy ran legal services and institutional infraction advisories. Some who worked outside the fence specialized in bringing contraband into the institution. Then you had your armorers you could buy weapons from. If you could cut hair or do braiding or any other kind of specialty with hair, you were always in demand.
My running partner and best friend was an Italian kid from Brooklyn, of course his name was Anthony and he went by Tony. We had a very specialized hustle. We could bring back through the visitation shakedown process (which involved stripping naked, raising your nut sack and spreading your buttocks and opening your mouth rolling your tongue around fingers through the hair) the contraband brought in through the visiting room. Most contraband brought to an institution was brought on visiting days by visitors. Visitors went through very strict pat down and some strip search routines if they were suspect of anything illicit; but, the right to visit, if you had done nothing wrong, was kind of a sacred right as people sometimes came great distances to visit. So however people were able to smuggle items into the visiting room was up to them. It was then the package was handed off to us and we made it disappear from the visiting room and reappear on the prison yard, for either a cut or a fee. We used this dodge at least a thousand times for the seven and a half years of my incarceration in Virginia and were never caught. Tony left first and when I left I sold the method for $2500. My personal hustle stemmed from that ability to bring in contraband. My visitors would bring me cigarettes. I would tell you how we did it; but, out of respect for whomever is still there, someone may still be using this hustle, so I cannot divulge our method. With the advent of tobacco being restricted from prisons, a cigarette was worth what dope was. During those years, with the price of a pack of cigarettes being it what they were (1978 $0.36 1979 $0.40 1980 $0.45 1981 $0.49 1982 $0.60 1983 $0.63 1984 $0.72 1985 $0.78 1986 $0.85 1987 $0.94) you could get as much as a dollar (or equivalent) a cigarette. With a cost of two to five cents each and selling for a dollar, it was more profitable than cocaine or heroin. In addition it was a whole lot easier for a visitor to explain a pack of cigarettes on them than an ounce of dope and with tobacco not being per se illegal the worst they could do to me were institutional charges (not outside criminal court). With good time, work credits and education credits I maxed out that 11 year sentence in 7½ years and was returned to South Carolina.
In South Carolina, with 7½ years under my belt and no detainer I quickly moved into “trustee” status and was housed at a minimum security housing unit, which meant dormitory style housing with more freedom but less privacy. Now I was close to home and had people who knew people, which definitely helped. The warden, “Ms. Rick”, was a member of a church my father had preached at when I was a boy. It was good to be home. I was assigned a plum job as a driver to transport inmates from prison to prison and from remote camp units to prison hospitals and court appearances. My van was assigned a single guard who accompanied me everywhere I went. My assigned guard was a five foot, chubby Black woman I called “Mrs. G”. She was the best. Many times when we were on our way to or from an assignment she would tell me to pull into a McDonalds and she would treat me to a Big Mac, fries and a shake. She had a strict policy of foregoing fries to watch her hips; but, she ate TWO Big Macs. That little woman could put down some groceries. After eight years of incarceration, this was manna from heaven for me. Mrs. G mothered me and after a year of working together she even trusted me to go into malls unaccompanied and walk around and just look at everything. After so many years of institutionalization any exposure to public things was mesmerizing. She would give me a dollar, or two if it was payday, to buy a soda and a ice cream cone. As I said, she was the bomb.
Many people have asked what a “day in the life” of being a prisoner is. I have to tell you it is different for every single person in that prison. Other than shared communal activities and meals, everyone and everything is a wild card. Everyone has their path to making this journey. That being said, a day in my life as an inmate had many variations. During the time I was in Ad-Seg was one set of circumstances. Then during the time I was in Gen Pop doing distasteful work another. Or when I was a trustee with considerable freedoms? They were all very different “days in the life” of a man behind bars.
I guess the most painful “day in the life” was while I was on Ad-Seg lockdown and not any given day, just the whole lockdown experience. Making a home out of a coffin-sized living space brought back memories of my Navy bunk on a guided-missile cruiser; but, without the camaraderie that makes it worthwhile. Your personal space gets real small. The monotony of nothing to do was ever present. I read a lot of books and found reading to be the escape I needed to breach those walls. Unless you were an early riser, a day started with the 7 am distribution of breakfast. A cup of coffee stretched with chicory flavoring. A biscuit with some yellow stuff in it (supposedly eggs - probably artificial - they were poured from a carton) and some fatback to chew on (extra biscuit one First Class letter stamp). 8 am was the first standing count of the day. After breakfast and count, we started a cleaning routine that involved scrubbing the entire cell down with toothbrushes and lye soap. Done daily it was probably overkill; but, it took up about two hours of every morning and made sense to us being in a constant state of lockdown and close living conditions. After cleanup, it was exercise time. Pushups, situps, resistance curls, squats, and jogging in place. We were pretty creative when it came to outfitting our personal gyms. Breaking a sweat was our objective and it took a good hour to achieve. Two thirty minute sessions because there was only enough floorspace for one person at a time. After a good sweat and a brief birdbath, it was time for the 12 noon count and then lunch. Lunch was an orange, apple, or banana with a bologna and cheese sandwich and a carton of milk. Mustard packs were quite the commodity as the only thing that brought the bologna sandwich to life. Getting an extra sandwich cost one stamp (another stamp for an extra slice of bologna, one slice of cheese and two mustard packs – another stamp for extra fruit). From 8 am - 4 pm we were not allowed to be in or on our bunks. So we sat on the floor, leaned up in one corner or another, as we spent some quality time reading or snoozing. The afternoon was sprinkled with medical appointments and counseling sessions. After the 4 pm count, we could lay on our bunks again and 6 pm brought supper. A thin gruel of some kind of soup and a fist-sized chunk of cornbread/or brown bread washed down with one eight-ounce cup of sweetened tea (extra cornbread/brown bread and tea – 1 stamp). 7-9 pm brought showers and one hour of exercise three times a week in a caged in twenty-five by twenty-five feet enclosure, open to an inky night sky above. This rec area was shared with the death row inmates. After returning to our cells, some letter writing and making entries into my personal journal kept things real and in perspective. More reading until I fell asleep. Wake up in the morning and do it all again. I spent 788,400 minutes on lockdown in Ad-Seg. Possibly some of the longest minutes of my life.
A day in Gen Pop worked around the same counts as the rest of the institution. After 8 am count, work crews formed at the gates and inside workers got on their brooms and cleaning duties, or whatever their assigned tasks were. Your daily job was scheduled from 8-4 with a ten-minute break each hour. Bag lunches were distributed at noon and after another count eaten on the fly during breaks. The same fruit and sandwich (workers got two cartons of milk); but, for variety added SPAM and other coldcuts to the offerings. Just that little variety probably kept us from going nutso. You eat a baloney and cheese sandwich every day for five years and see if it doesn’t make YOU a little twitchy. From 4 pm count to 8 pm count was free time. You could go to the yard, run around the track, play cards in the common areas, watch TV, eat supper in the dining hall, workout at the weight pile, get a haircut, hang out at the [law] library, engage in any religious or educational objectives, take a shower, wash clothes, clean up and arrange your “house” or just sit in the sun, catch some rays and top off your Vitamin D. After an 8 pm standing count we were in our cells for the night. Reading, drawing, writing, playing chess/checkers or cards whiled away the time until you fell asleep. At midnight and 4 am we were counted while we slept. Wake up the next morning and do it all again.
My time as a trustee was probably the easiest time I served. Being a “AA –Driver” trustee meant I was on permanent “out count”. Which meant I was the responsibility of the assigned guard to my van and I didn’t have to be any particular place when the rest of the institution had standing counts. I could come and go out the gates of the institution to the vehicle pool whenever I wanted to. From 6 am to 8 pm I had free run to be almost anywhere in the institution inmates were allowed; but, for the most part, I was on the road, picking up and dropping off inmates at various institutions and work camps. Up at 6 am every morning by 6:30 I was out the gate cleaning, washing, and fueling up my van with a cup of real coffee in my hand from the guard’s shack. Depending on the schedule for the day Mrs. G and I were on the road by 7 am. Mrs. G’s daughter worked at a Dunkin Donuts so Mrs. G had an endless supply of DD coffee and brought a giant thermos full every day. She also had a hook up with the guard’s kitchen (her husband was a supervisor) and had them pack biscuits with real butter and real eggs and sausage and Smucker’s grape jelly. Mrs. G loved to eat. Giant flakey biscuits with butter, eggs, sausage and grape jelly, I could get five stamps apiece if I smuggled one back into the institution. The van was my kingdom. I drove, operated the two way radio with ten codes and times, reporting our progress to Central Communications, and delivering an ongoing count of how many inmates we had with us and where we were going next. I made sure we stayed on time and schedule, read the maps if necessary while Mrs. G watched the road for what we called “pirates” (civilians who would interfere with the operations of the van or try to pull off a rescue of an inmate) and kept an eye on the prisoners we had on board. A two feet long mirror above her head gave her a bird’s eye view of everything/everyone in the van; but, she hated it because it also showed the bald spot on the top of her head. In the year and a half I drove vans, we never had any escape attempts; but, we did have one incident.
We were headed to Columbia, SC with a van load of prisoners from outlying camps headed to the main prison hospital for medical appointments. I noted Mrs. G had been quiet for about 30 minutes. I looked over and saw her with eyes closed taking what looked like a brief siesta. This was highly unusual with prisoners in the back. About five minutes later Mrs. G’s coffee cup slipped out of her hand and crashed to the floor. I looked again and saw her head lolled to the side and her eyes were rolled up into their sockets. We were still an hour from our destination at the prison hospital. It was absolutely forbidden to stop the van anywhere with prisoners on board, except inside an institution’s gates. I didn’t care, this was Mrs. G. I drove until I saw the next blue “H” sign at an off ramp, designating a hospital at this exit. Driving like a bat out of hell, I pulled into the Emergency Room entrance, jumped out and ran inside to summon help. Mrs. G was a diabetic and had a blood sugar event which had lead to a heart attack. I called in the emergency and explained the situation to Central Communications and while we sat waiting I regaled the ten prisoners in the back about how we would all be getting time cuts for this. I wasn’t sure about that; but, I was mainly concerned with trying to keep an escape from occurring compounding my decision to stop. In about an hour, prison authorities arrived without incident from the nearest prison facility. The doctor said in fifteen minutes it would have been too late. Mrs. G was out for sixty days; but, when she came back we were as thick as thieves and I was her adopted son. Instead of being reprimanded and punished for breaking protocol, they cut five years off my sentence.
June 1986, I went before the parole board for the first time and was denied, which was not uncommon. No one made first parole unless they paid some powerful lawyer a God awful amount of money. June of 1987, after nine years of incarceration, I again went before the parole board and was released on parole. In August of 1987, I started college and completed a four year degree in three years. Graduating in 1990, I received a BS in Business Admin. and Computer Science from Erskine College and never looked back. Within that three years I also paid off the Court ordered restitution to my victims and shortly after graduation, maxed out my 15 year sentence with 12 on a 15 (because I had paid off my restitution I forewent the customary period of probation after parole - I was a free man). I worked for Lucent Technologies in Atlanta for the ten years (1996–2006) of its existence as an IT Manager. Working on an MS in Criminal Justice from Purdue. Went to Piedmont Technical College and got an AS in Machine Tool Technology/CNC programming. I intermittently worked for JACOBS engineering for years as a precision millwright doing turbine and motor alignments making $125,000/year. Between stints with JACOBS I took short term contract work overseas as a translator for our American troops and various NGOs in Afghanistan. After thirty-five years I received a full pardon from both South Carolina and the Commonwealth of Virginia. I became a notary public, an ordained minister, got my Concealed Weapons Permit from South Carolina and an FFL from The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' (ATF) Federal Firearms Licensing Center (FFLC) [currently seeking SOT]. I now own my house, vehicles, a lake property and a boat free and clear and with 7 grandchildren have had a very fulfilling life. It was all because of the kindness of the people from my hometown and church who were willing to give me a second chance. My special thanks to Lee and Eleanor, Bill and Emilie, Jim and Sandra. They were with me, in a supportive role, every step of the way.