In this chapter, Lorna teaches us about prison culture. Thug life, bro.
Anyway, I won’t keep you any longer.
“You making any progress on your missus getting you a knife in here, Johnny?”
“Nah, man, she’s on the straight and narrow now, telling me I shouldn’ta done the crime if I can’t do the time. Women, man.” The blond prisoner whipped his head around when the entire Sing Sing cafeteria went totally and rather eerily quiet. He slowly edged his face to the entrance of the dining rectory, where Don Way stood, scowling, henchmen shifting sulkily behind him as he was flanked by two burly guards.
Prison is such a backwards kind of place; a place where the lawless are imprisoned against their will, only for them to adapt to and fabricate laws of their own. Sing Sing, for example, at the time set in the late fifties and early sixties, had an approximate number of seventeen gangs (usually separated by race) that ran the various wings inside jail walls.
These gangs were more powerful than the guards, more powerful than the famed Warden-once you joined a prison gang, there was only one way you could leave it.
In a body bag.
If you were released as a reward for snitching on the gang, don’t be too surprised if you’re made lie down in the bed you made for yourself. One day, after you’ve come home to your wife and kids, you’re happy paying the mortgage and browsing through the Sunday papers, you hear a knock on the door. You open it, and the last thing you ever see is some empty, hollow barrel staring down your nose.
In prison, having a moral conscience is like owning a vintage car-it’s nice to have it and nice to boast about it, but in the end it’s just impractical. It’s either kill or be killed-no one’s gonna hold your hand and guide you along, tuck you in at night and kiss your forehead. Prison is harsh. The inmates know their rank and know they can be more of a force than the guards put together; they’re probably just as dangerous without weapons as they are with them.
Don Way decided today he would comply with prison rules for the sake of his wounds. (Last week he had strangled another inmate to death and had been beaten with a stick up and down his back-the blood was still fresh and thick.) He was wearing the hideous navy jumpsuit (nicknamed by Sing Sing alumni as the ‘blue tuxedo’) and combat boots with the laces trailing the ground. His hair was slicked in a quiff, hair neatened down by combing and pins. He spat his limp cigarette from his mouth and quenched it with a chaste turn of his heel. His handcuffs tinkled as he did.
Every inmate, from the youngest (apart from Frank, of course; a sixteen year old Boston boy who was in for two years on carjacking) to the oldest (an old-timer nicknamed ‘Leech’ who was in for murder in the first degree, and was in for two consecutive life sentences) swivelled on their benches and stared at the made man. Gerard sucked at his cheek, like he was majorly unimpressed with the entire thing.
“Whatta you fucks looking at?” A rounded guard called Johnson spat at the gaping prisoners. “Think he’s so special, do ya? His shit smell better than the rest? Well, he’s in this shit hole just like the rest of you scum,” he finished with a vile hiss. “So feel free to stare at your little hero all ya want. You fellas got aaaaaaall the time in the world.”
He quietened down, chuckling in a self-satisfied manner. The surrounding prisoners, poised in mid-dine, forks hovering, scowled in a mute reply.
The two guards flanking Way, both looking rather bullish (and yet strangely anxious) frog-marched the convict to a nearby table where other Italian-American offenders were seated. As I previously mentioned, inmates in jails frequently self-segregate into racially charged gangs; for instance, Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, African-American. Sing Sing being positioned where it is (in a remote, sparsely populated region of upstate New York) a quarter of inmates at the institution happened to be of Italian decent, usually involved in the Cosa Nostra.
Way was forced down onto a bench, a pair of meaty, thick hands securing his shoulders tightly. The criminal’s face remained impassive, almost bordering on tedium, as he was man-handled into submission. He did not protest when his wrists were shackled in front of him. He did not scream nor holler when a constricted leather belt was fastened around his boots to secure him to the floor. He continued his world-weary expression, which was monotonous but oddly terrifying. His eyes, mooned by purple bags, were like deep holes inside his sockets.
“This is payback for that shit you pulled last week on Pentigelli,” the guard sneered, throwing an empty plastic tray at the crime boss, who knew better than to flinch. “Until you tell the Warden what happened in Block D last week, you ain’t getting a fucking thing shoved into that dago mouth a yers.” He brought his face inches to the twenty three year old’s. “Got that, you sonuvabitch?”
The made man’s lips moved but no sound emitted. The guard leaned closer, frustrated his impromptu speech had not received the reaction he had desired. Way was stealing his precious thunder.
“Boys,” Johnson said in a lethal whisper to his surrounding guards; Romano, the man who had accompanied Frank Iero into the prison a week ago, emerged from the murky shadows of the kitchen. Johnson wore a surly smirk on his sausage-like lips. “I think the Italian boy has something to say to us.”
He ripped the Don up by his hair, causing the respondent to grunt in slight but not painful discomfort. The guard, standing at over six foot and three hundred pounds, yanked the convict from his leather binds and sent him sprawling on the floor. There was an audible crack as Way’s head smashed against the tiled floor. The crowd gathered of both inmates and guards looked on, shocked in awe and horror. This was not gonna be pretty.
“What the fuck you say to me, you no good cocksucker?” The guard hissed, slightly breathless from this sudden adversity. “You fucking said something, boy, I wanna know what it was. Surely you don’t wanna let your men down,” he mocked, gesturing to the prisoners behind him. It was safe to say Way had them very much under his thumb. “Let’s hear what you had to say, you little ginzo cunt.”
The Don breathed a short, curt puff of air between his lips. He murmured something, again too silent for the guards to hear. Toro and Bryar could only look on in amazement. The only prisoner not paying attention was a certain short-haired brunette boy (who also happened to have Italian heritage) who was picking at his potato salad with disinterest. Mikey had seen many of these types of situations happen during his tenure at Sing Sing; nine out of ten times they tended to involve his older brother.
“WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY TO ME, FUCKER?” Johnson roared now, jabbing his fist in the Don’s eye.
Maybe it was then that the crime boss snapped; that his infamous, notoriously beastly temper cracked like a fractured jug and caused him to burn with rage and suppressed anger. Maybe it was because Frank wasn’t with him at the time, and the boy, for the last seven days, had provided him with a comfortable sedative from prison life. Maybe it was just because today they were serving chicken and the boss didn’t like chicken-but all that is truly known is that then, the Don drew himself to his full height, leaned in to the guard’s pudgy, smashed-in face, and said:
“I said, why don’t you suck my fucking dick, you goddamn motherfucking piece of catshit.”
Mayhem erupted. Guards ripped from their static tracts and began beating Way with heavy lead batons, brining all of their bodily force down on the made man. Enraged by a gang-leader being beaten, other inmates jumped from their benches and snatched home-made weapons from their form; crooked shivs deisgned from sharpened spoon handles, makeshift Molotovs by mixing gunpowder and soda. They hurled weapons at the guards and joined the growing heap descending on Don Way. Younger, newer prisoners (nicknamed 'Fish') simply grabbed handfuls of food and took messy yet accurate aim.
In all the chaos, no one noticed Mikey Way sigh and slope out of the eating quarters.
While Hell on Earth was taking effect in the rectory, Frank Iero was waiting anxiously below in what is commonly referred to in prisons as “The Lucky Room”-that is a reference to the people who are enabled to attend this certain area whenever they are called.
It is a small, cramped room that smells thickly of fresh paint; although the last time Sing Sing was painted was at the very beginning of it’s existence in 1826. It is split into two separate compartments by a panel of bulletproof glass. On either side of the glass, a ledge extends out about one foot in length. On both of these ledges, a black, thick telephone sits. Frank is sitting there now, facing the black telephone. His eyes travel across the engravings on the handle; Imperial Electronics, Toledo, Ohio. 1946. His head snaps up quickly when the door opens on the other side.
A short woman in a respectable cream dress steps into the room. She does not belong here, in this dreary excuse for a building; she is not a malevolent criminal sentenced to die in the hell-hole, nor is she a cruel-hearted, sadistic prison guard. She is pretty and youthful, her pleasing appearance defying her thirty six years. She, like her son, is thin and brunette, her locks styled in a neat perm, curls bouncing on her slim shoulders. She wears Russian red lipstick and her best pearl necklace. When she sees her child beyond the glass pane, she waves her handkerchief frantically and desperately at him, as if he wouldn’t be able to see her effort.
She places herself down at the opposite chair, dabbing at the mascara trickling down her cheek. She lifts the telephone receiver to her ear (careful to mind her earrings) at the same time her son does.
“You got ten minutes,” a rough voice greets them both. “Remember you are forbidden to discuss your crime and/or felony, rules of the prison and anything in relation to prison daily routines. Your conversation will be recorded and monitored.”
“Hi Momma,” Frank said quietly into the receiver. He caught Romano’s eye (he smirked) and dodged his vision quickly. He sniffled. “I've miss you.”
“Oh Frankie,” she whispered back, and the sound of her laboured breaths, weak from her crying, made him cringe with guilt and homesickness. “Oh Frankie-boo, my poor baby, look at you. You’re so pale.” She looked at him directly through the glass, her hazel eyes piercing his with a maternal glow. “You’ve lost weight. You look so tired.” She broke down again, slapping her palm to cover the sobs leaking from her mouth. “You’re such a good boy, you always have been, why are you locked up in this godforsaken place…”
“No discussing the reasoning behind imprisonment,” the bored voice reminded her.
“Sorry, sorry.” She put her hand to the glass and he slowly raised his to the pane; he could feel the warmth of his mother’s hand as their skin was separated by three thick inches of rock. “How are you, precious? How…how are you doing?”
Frank took a sharp intake of breath, carefully considering his answer. He had to pick his words carefully, as so not to either scare of worry his mother. She already looked like she had been through Hell and back. He saw bruises decorating her pale arms where her sleeves cut off; no doubt his father was the generous contributor to her injuries.
“I’m doing okay, momma,” he replied, trying desperately to smile. “I really am. It’s okay in here, I mean it. The food kinda sucks and sometimes it’s really cold inside because there’s no heating but it’s way better than I expected.” He avoided eye contact with the woman and stared at a curious crimson stain on the beige carpet. “The people in here are way better than you think. They’re not really that mean for murderers and stuff.”
Linda Iero could not believe what she was hearing. Her son, her precious little gumdrop, Frank? Becoming a prison-junkie? She gaped at the small boy, looking so frail, swamped in a navy jumpsuit sizes too big for him. He still acted like a child, and his eyes now were as huge and ocher as ever, defying the words spilling from his mouth. She had fought relentlessly with her husband, Frank Senior, after he had returned from the drive to Sing Sing after dropping their son off at some prison for the criminally incurable.
“Oh Frankie,” she said in a choked voice. “Please don’t tell me you’re in a gang, cherry pie. I just couldn’t take that.”
“I’m not in a gang, momma, I promise.” He locked their gaze tightly to exhibit his sincerity. “Just that everything’s okay here, I promise.” He was sucking the tears in, refusing to cry in front of his beloved mother, refusing to let her suffer more than she was already. “I’m taking my medicine and everything.”
“Do you share a cell with someone?” She rasped. “Frank joked about you being in a room with some rapists, baby, tell me it’s not true.”
Frank blushed when he thought of the mysterious person he bunked with. Don Way and he had grown closer the past week; they still had not exchanged affection, not even embracing, but they had chatted amiably both morning and night. It was more than a desire to be protected from other lethal and equally deadly gangs in the jail-he felt some strange tingle in his stomach when the two conversed. Frank rarely left his cell due to his food being brought to him (Romano had been ordered to by the boy’s mother) and the fact that showers had not yet commenced.
“No, no…” he murmured vaguely. “No, he’s not a rapist. He’s…he’s nice.” He evaded her look again and began to pick at the fraying white paint on the ledge that chipped away easily when he attacked it with his nail. “He’s really nice. I like him a lot. He’s young, like me.” He paused. “He’s twenty three.”
“Pookie!” She gasped. Frank blushed, red creeping down his neck and beneath the navy material-the affectionate name was a particular favourite of the Don’s to call him. “That’s eight years older than you-he’s a man when you’re just a baby, sweetheart-I can’t let you in the same cell as someone so old.” She paused and leaned forward. “He hasn’t…done anything to you, baby, has he? Has he hurt you, Frankie?”
“No,” he answered. “No, he’s never ever hurt me. I told you, he’s nice.” He was praying to any God willing to listen his mother would not ask the million dollar question; what the crime Frank’s mysterious cellmate had committed in order to end up in such an establishment. He changed the subject. “How’s everything at home, momma?”
“Oh, fine, honey, everything’s fine.” She coughed weakly again and more tears dribbled down her face pathetically. She tried to smile; Frank wished she wouldn't. Smiling did not belong in here. “The house is so quiet without you, Frankie.”
He blinked away the rebellious tears and faced her. “Does Daddy miss me?”
Her mouth opened slightly to try and fabricate something to comfort and perhaps lift her son’s spirit, but to no avail. Frank had seen her hesitate in her reply and knew immediately that his father had not, indeed, miss his presence back at the Iero family apartment back in NYC. No doubt hi father had been busying himself with other illicit activities whilst Frank was behind bars. Since instigating his son’s stint at Sing Sing Correctional Facility Frank Iero senior had passed his priestly duties onto another minister.
“Well…I do, sugar.” Frank tipped his head up slowly to see her clearly…he noticed that her blouse was buttoned incorrectly, and her cardigan was wrinkled compared to it’s normal meticulous appearance. She cleared her throat and spoke softly, almost repentedly: “You might be out sooner than we first thought, Frankie. We made some…” she looked away from him. This was different than accidental straying-she was deliberately avoiding his pleasantly curious gaze. “Some deals, sweetheart.”
Frank may not have experienced formal education, but he had enough mental capacity to put two and two together. Between the guard’s taunting smirks and his mother’s hasty dressing he was well aware of how his mother had negotiated a so-called ‘deal’; it was plain and obvious, even to the most oblivious person: his mother had traded her integrity, her dignity and her self-respect in return for a few days knocked off of her son’s prison sentence. He felt a dank, dark pool of guilt, shame and pity settle in the pit of his stomach.
“Oh momma,” he cried tightly into the receiver. “Momma, you shouldn’t have-please-“
“Time to go,” Romano announced gleefully, yellowed teeth poking through his lips as he placed a hand on Frank’s mother’s shoulder. Linda bowed her head in disgrace and muttered something that sounded ominously like a prayer under her breath. She looked up to her son, ignominy in her shining eyes.
“I left some home-made cupcakes at the reception,” she whispered into the phone. “They said they’d give it to you later, honeybunch.” She was pulled up by the bull and she cried frantically: “Goodbye, snokums. I love you, baby. Oh God, I love you so much.”
As Romano lead Missus Iero away, he twisted his head back to give a dry, sinful smirk at the boy who was now crying steadily, kneading his eyes with his baby-plump fists. As he did, his maroon crucifix swung and beat against his chest. The wooden figure, half-clad and weeping blood, had his mouth pulled in a sickly grimace.
Where his God was now, the young inmate thought, he seemed to be ignoring Frank.