April 17, 2014 started like any other day in Attica’s Special Housing Unit (also commonly referred to as the “S.H.U.,” the “Box,” the “Can,” the “Hole,” etc.) I woke up at 6:00 a.m. and started my early morning routine of washing up and brushing my teeth, then stretching, then meditation. Recently I had started doing my routine backwards because my neighbor complained that my rusty water button on my sink made noise when I pressed it for water. It wasn’t the first time I heard that, however. Even I knew that my sink sounded like a muffled bullhorn, and at 6:00 a.m. that could piss off anyone. But most of the people on my company had been there for months and was already used to my alarm clock/sink. Some people even made fun of me and my sink: “Touch that sink one more time and it’s over for you ni**a. And I ain’t playing!” My boy Flip from the Bronx channeled Pinky from Next Friday when he said that line to me. He’s got the best pinky impression I’ve ever come across; it’s spot on! Unfortunately, he said it to me while I was brushing my teeth and I almost swallowed my whole damn toothbrush! Of course, he found that funny too. Anyway, I decided to not “touch that sink” till 7:00 a.m. so I didn’t bother my neighbor(s).
7:00 a.m. rolls around and so does the mail cart being pushed by officer Robert Henson. For the most part, Henson had been fair with me during my stay at Attica, but that’s Attica’s standards of “fair,” not the normal prison standards of fair, meaning: If you needed a pen, tissue, etc. Henson would get it for you, but you’re gonna wait about 3 or 4 hours to get it. Compare that to most officers in Attica who might ask “Are you crazy?” when you ask for the basic necessities of life and you’ll find Henson to be fair. I handed Henson eighteen letters to be placed in the mailbox and he handed me eighteen new envelopes in return. Although prisoners are allowed to mail as many letters as they like, sending that much mail in Attica is sure to bring you some unwanted attention and retaliation. I’ve had my fair share of both, but exercising my rights to Freedom of Speech through writing was so worth it and by now Henson was used to the large amount of mail I sent out and received so he just put it in the box and left. I started to set up my “office” for the day. I grabbed my to do list and took a seat. But something felt so awkward this morning. Since I awoke that morning I had been feeling a funny kind of “out of place” feeling or a feeling like something was missing. My girlfriend of four years, Desiray was starting to become distant around this time and I hadn’t heard from her in months, so I just assumed that was the empty feeling I was feeling. I’m not the type of person to sit around and cry when things go wrong. I rather invest my time in trying to find a solution to the problem, so I brushed off whatever I thought I was feeling and tried to get a little writing done before breakfast came. What happened next would confirm my funny feeling, but Desiray wouldn’t be the reason for it.
“A yo E.N.Y., they coming for you!” Usually I’d respond to the sound of Big Kid’s voice. Big Kid and I had become fairly good associates during the months we spent around each other in Attica’s Box. I can’t recall us disagreeing or arguing about anything and most or all of our conversations were positive, and about growth and development. That’s rare, given the circumstances we were under. I’ve seen Solitary Confinement turn comrade against comrade, but that didn’t happen here. Still, I didn’t respond to him. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I was stuck on stupid about who was “coming” for me? Big Kid called me “E.N.Y.,” short for East New York—a nickname he would call me whenever the C.O.’s was around us or on the company. So I knew a C.O. was coming for me, but for what? This was very unusual, and the timing was way off. Nobody was being pulled out of their cell at this time of the morning unless you had to take an insulin shot for diabetes or it was an emergency cell search, and if it was a cell search, I’m thinking, what did I do wrong? It would be a few seconds before the C.O.’s made it down the long company to my cell, C-W-17. When they got there it was Henson again, and another officer I never saw before, probably someone filling in for Correction Officer Dean Bauer, Henson’s steady partner. It was always nice to wake up and not see Bauer’s face. Bauer was, by all means, the worst C.O. in Attica’s Box and he took pride in being so. However, for the last fifteen months or so Bauer had stopped harassing me and he had even (amazingly) slowed down on harassing other prisoners. Still, I had a history with Bauer, and he had done things to me and I had witnessed him do things to others, that would not allow me to settle my disdain for him. The fact that he tried occasionally to smile and joke with me only made me dislike him more, but I smiled back just to keep the peace. Anyway, Henson was at my cell, and he had some news for me. News that would tell me it was time to put that fake smile away. (At least for now)
“Zimmerman, the Cert. Team is here to get ya. You’re drafting out today. You’re leaving and going to another jail.” And just like that, everything around me stopped! Total Silence! No Movement, No Noise, No Nothing! It was so quiet that I could hear Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts blaring through my tiny earbud/headphone piece that was at least five or six feet away from me, which was surprising since Attica would sometimes put the news station on so low that one could barely hear it. All nineteen cells on the company was quiet, not saying a word. No one believing their ears. Big Kid called out again, “A yo E.N.Y., that’s you?” For some reason his voice seemed really loud, but not louder than the beating of my heart, which was beginning to sound like a little man was playing drums inside my chest! My body kind of locked up on me, like some sort of strange temporary paralysis. It lasted for about 2 or 3 seconds and I remember trying to move my right leg, but I couldn’t. Henson said something to me about my property, which snapped me out of my trance, and then another prisoner asked me something, but I can’t remember who or what it was that was asked. As soon as I was sure that I could speak proper English again, my first words to Henson was something like, “C’mon Henson. Don’t play like this. This ain’t funny.” I guess I was waiting for him to crack a smile or do something to let me know he was joking, but he didn’t. He just had a dead serious look on his face as if to say “this ain’t no joke.” And at that point, what I thought was sweat on my face from trying to change my underwear and clothes quickly, was actually tears coming out of my eyes. I was crying. Crying uncontrollably at that. I didn’t even know I was crying, but there they were, tears. And I’m not even the type of dude to cry. I had only cried once during my incarceration.
A prisoner’s rights activist named Virtuous Lydia White who, at the time, was affiliated with the Atlah World Ministry in New York City wrote me a letter while I was in Shawangunk. This was in 2003 and the escape allegations at Sing Sing was still front page news. Her letter said that my mom had contacted her about me, told her that I was being accused of the escape attempt at Sing Sing, and I needed help—basically someone to advocate for me against the escape allegations. Her letter was fiery. She told me that she knew all about the corruption in the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCC’s), the brutality and retaliation against prisoners, the violations of visitors rights, the abuse of power, etc. Her letter couldn’t have landed at a better time.
Jatanya and Tamara had just broke out on me, my other so called friends and associates wasn’t responding to my family’s phone calls and everybody else was distancing themselves from me because they didn’t know what was going on? (I can’t be mad at ‘em though, with that type of media attention I may have distanced myself from certain people too.) I was also having a lot of problems with George Karamonos, a C.O. at Shawangunk. He was a regular for my company and worked the 3 p.m.-11 p.m. shift, Monday through Friday, so I had to deal with him pretty much every day. He let me know from the first day I arrived at Shawangunk that he didn’t like the media attention I was getting, probably because the press was painting me as the “Handsome rapper from Brooklyn who’s girlfriends loved him so much they broke into a jail for him.” He never even asked me if any of this was true. He just proceeded to fuck with me every day. Most times I’d just ignore it, but a lot of times I would just sit there and ask myself “what is wrong with this guy and how did he get this job?”
Lydia White’s letter reached me at a time when I had little or no understanding of politics, the legal system, civil rights, prisoner rights (prisoner’s rights? Who knew prisoners had rights?) etc. And it was like she was speaking directly to what was going on with Karamonos and I. I grew up thinking that nobody cared about black people in urban America and with that misguided mentality, I automatically assumed certainly that nobody was going to care about what a C.O. did to a prisoner, or what Karamonos was doing to me. Ms. Virtuous Lydia White’s letter would be the first instrument to chip away at my pessimistic ideology toward society. She showed me that she cared. And that made me cry. Uncontrollably. Real Talk!
I got dressed as fast as I could and put my hands out the feed up slot to be handcuffed, backwards. Sergeant Condone asked me if I had breakfast yet and I answered “No” but really I was thinking “You can starve me for a week. As long as I am leaving Attica, I’m good!” Big Kid, Blills and Malice was saying goodbye to me as I walked down the company, everybody happy (and shocked!) that I was leaving Attica, but nobody really wanting me to leave. I can be the life of the party, at times, depending on the type of people I’m around. If I’m comfortable, I’ll share knowledge, advice, history, strategy, etc. And (although extremely rare) I may tell you a few funny stories that happen to me in the past. But if I’m in a awkward space, and I don’t like the chemistry of the people around me, then I won’t say anything. Not a word! And I may go on like this for months. Before I left Attica I kind of liked some of the people that was around me and hopefully they liked me, (maybe?). But it was time to go now and there were four correctional officers, one Sergeant, two bullet proof trucks and a lot of guns and bulletproof vests waiting to take me somewhere, anywhere? I walked past Sergeant Bartello on the way out of the building and he said “So you’re finally going to Colorado huh? Dress warm, it’s gonna be cold!” During my last Hunger Strike he jokingly told me that they were going to transfer me to a prison in Colorado if I didn’t start eating. At first I thought he was joking as Attica employees can (sometimes) have a sense of humor, but every time I thought I had seen everything there was to see in Attica, Attica would do something new, and shock the hell out of me, so anything was possible. Also, around this time, I had come across an article in a prisoners rights newspaper that stated there was a nationwide movement going on to stop the Department of Correcitons from transferring prisoners to other states, simply because they didn’t have enough space in their own State to house their inmates. So was Colorado an option for me? Maybe, but anything would have been better than Attica. I think even my family would have rather visited me in Colorado than Attica. (Yeah, Attica is that bad!)
So I made it down the stairs with all my shackles on—Leg Irons, Handcuffs, Waist chain, Padlock, the works! This Certified Operation Team (which only handles transfers for so-called “high profile” prisoners like me) wasn’t as aggressive as the last team that had transferred me to Federal Court in August of 2011. Maybe that was because I was suing their boss, Donald Selsky and others, and they wanted to harass me a little. But on this transfer I was just going to another prison, not to court, so the team didn’t bother me. They were respectful and I was in return. I hopped in the truck, they buckled me in, and we slowly pulled away from Attica Correctional Facility. I looked over my left shoulder at the prison wall, saying a prayer for the brother that’s being picked out of the line going to breakfast. The line will continue on without him and when the coast is clear, fifteen to twenty C.O.’s will beat him mercilessly and unjustifiably. And he will be charged with assaulting them. This happens every day in Attica. Literally, every day!
While pulling off the property that surrounds Attica we passed the Hospitality House which is where the visitors can freshen up after the long six hour ride from the city. Looking at that place made me think about everything Desiray, my mom and my family had done for me since being in Attica. Every time they came up to see me they had to wait in that house (for hours) until their name was called to visit me. I now had a glimpse of what they went through every weekend. The truck made a right turn off the property and we started on our long journey, somewhere? I tried to take in as much scenery as possible as I had not been on the outside in three years, but one hour turned to two, and two to four, and four to six, and by this time I was really starting to think we were going to Colorado! At a rest stop, one of the officers was left to watch me alone and so I asked him, “Hey, where we going?” He looked at me for a few seconds, looked away and reluctantly said, “Clinton.” The word Clinton starts with a “C” and I thought he was about to say “Colorado” and, at that point, I may have believed him being that we were six hours into a trip to nowhere. But he said Clinton. And I thought “Clinton? Okay. Clinton sounds nice this time of year. I can do Clinton.” And we were off again. We was probably about an hour away from Clinton, but the rest of the ride felt longer than the beginning of the journey because the officers took the scenic route for the rest of the trip. I don’t know if they did it as a security measure so I wouldn’t know the highway route to Clinton, or maybe just to clock some overtime, but boy was that a looooooog ride! We past some cows, horses, bears, deer, sheep (I think we past the same sheep twice?) and some kind of animal that looked like a mixture between a raccoon and a hyena (and it looked hungry and was chasing us!). I never thought I would feel happy about going to jail, but when we got to Clinton I felt relief. Finally, we were there!
The word about Clinton was if you didn’t bother the officers or the staff, then they weren’t going to bother you. I had heard this from numerous prisoners throughout the years and, although 5½ hours from the city, several prisoners I knew wanted to do all of their time in Clinton. Of course, I ran across a few prisoners that told me they were assaulted by officers for no reason, so I took that into account as well. But for the most part, I figured Clinton would be a better atmosphere than Attica and that I would make the best out of my time there. Still, I had Sing Sing hanging over my head and no matter what jail, prison, courthouse, etc. I go to in America, that will follow me (or might get to the institution before I do, as staff is usually notified ahead of time that a high-profile prisoner is on the way.) The way people respond to my case can be categorized in three ways: (A) You will have the officer that will be informed about my situation and may have heard about it in the media and might have even been to my website www.freenicholaszimmerman.com to check out my music, my book and to learn more about my case. This officer won’t say anything to me about it however, or if he does it will be brief and to the point. (B) The “B” officer will know everything the “A” officer knows, but he will be more inquisitive about my case—where I’m from, who I know, etc. He will be friendly and want to make small talk, and I’m cool with that because I’m not anti-police. I’m anti-corrupt police. (C) The “C” officer will know everything the A and B officers know, however this officer will make his hatred for me known, either intentionally or inadvertently. He will fuck with me for no reason and I don’t have to do anything to warrant it. He will do it just because. Being high profile and in prison brings you a lot of attention. Sometimes good attention and sometimes bad! The jealousy is also prevalent, but it’s worse when it’s coming from someone with authority that can abuse their power simply because they don’t like you. And you don’t have to do anything for them not to like you. They just won’t like you because they just won’t like you. Simple! I’m not the type of person to care if a certain person likes me or not, but when your dislike for me turns to harassment, that’s when problems occur. I wasn’t looking for any problems in Clinton and actually I was hoping there were a lot more A&B officers there than C’s, but I would have to be patient, as only time would tell.
So the officer unbuckles my seatbelt and I hop out the truck and hop to the front door and walk in, all the while still shackled head to toe. I’m directed to a holding cell where the Certified Team starts to take off all the shackles and handcuffs. Once that’s done, the cell door closes behind me and one of the officers says “Alright Zimmerman, see yah.” I say “I-ight” and they’re gone. At that point I am now officially “Clintons’ Property” (as they say) and part of normal procedures, a Clinton officer directs me to hand him my clothes to start the strip search. I complied, but I noticed that this officer was a little aggressive in his speech—talking loud and stern. Immediately I thought to myself “possible C officer,” but I wanted to wait before I thought the worst of him because I wouldn’t want someone to judge me based on the first 10 minutes of meeting me. If I was having a bad day, and I responded to someone in a bad way upon meeting them, I wouldn’t want them to think I was a bad person, all around the board. So I gave him the same benefit of the doubt. Once I got dressed, a supervisor came over to me and introduced himself as Sergeant Stewart. He was polite, well spoken and had a cool laid back demeanor. He even made small talk with me, asking me if I ever did time in Comstock. (Great Meadow C.F.) At first I said “No,” but then he asked me, “You didn’t come through there a few years ago?” At that point I remembered that I stayed at Comstock for a few days in 2011 for my Civil Rights trial. It was the closest state prison to Albany, N.Y., so DOCC’s decided to house me there until the case was over.
“Yeah, but I only stayed there for a few days for court,” I told him. “Why? You was there?” I asked.
He said, “Yeah, I was. I thought I remembered your name,” and from that point on our interaction was respectful. I was given the normal rundown on how the Box was run and told “If you act like a man, you will be treated like a man” by the officer. (As a prisoner, you will hear this line throughout your whole bid and, at first blush, it sounds fair. But its meaning has a double-edge sword. In reality, what I’ve come to understand of this statement is if a officer harasses you, don’t file no grievances, no complaints, no lawsuits and don’t complain to any supervisors. Basically, whatever is done to you by an officer is fair game and, in some way, you brought it on yourself. So just “act like a man” and stay quiet about it. On the other hand, if you file a complaint, you are not acting like a man and you deserve to be beat up by ten officers when nobody else is looking. That’s pretty much what that statement means) I said, “Okay,” and I was led down the hallway to a cell. On the way, Sergeant Stewart told me that everybody starts off on “one company” and that if I was quiet I would be moved to three or four company, which are the best companies, in a few weeks. I assured him that I had no intentions of being a problem and they placed me in a cell, eight cell to be exact, and left. I immediately realized why everybody started off on one company. It was the worst company in the Box and eight cell must have been the worst cell in the entire SHU. The thick cloth mattress looked like a bunch of wild hogs had been sleeping on it for years (and smelled like it too!) It had stains everywhere. Some of it looked like blood stains. The floor was covered in thick dust, as if it had not been swept in months. The base of the toilet was covered in what could have been feces, but I think it was more like rust from not being flushed or cleaned in months. I didn’t smell a feces type smell, so I concluded it was rust. The walls were filthy, stained and written on by prisoners who wanted other prisoners to know that they “were there.” And, the worst thing about it, the sink was stopped up and water was spilling over to the floor. I thought to myself, “So this is my initiation into Clinton, huh?”
I’m sure Sergeant Stewart knew that some of the cells on one company was dirty, but I don’t think he knew just how bad eight cell really was. I think that “possible C officer,” knew, and purposely put me in that cell. Maybe if I asked Steward for a mop, a broom and cleaning supplies he may have arranged for it, but I decided against asking them for anything. I was a new arrival to Clinton and I didn’t want to make any noise about anything. I’d be better off just following Stewart’s advice, staying quiet, and moving to a better company as soon as possible. So I fished two bars of soap, a small broom, shampoo, an old towel and a homemade mop from my neighbors on my left and my right (you’d be surprised what you can find in the SHU!) and I got busy on cleaning that cell! While I was cleaning, my neighbor told me how good the shampoo smell was coming from my cell and so he started cleaning his cell too. Two or three other people starting cleaning their cells as well! I chuckled quietly, happy that the brothers were following my lead on cleaning their cell. I turned a negative into a positive, not bad for my first day at Clinton.
Over the next few days I started to learn more about my surroundings. Turns out that the last three prisoners that were in eight cell had all complained to the officers that the sink was stopped up in that cell and had tried unsuccessfully, as I had, to unclog it with a plunger. I figured if the officers had yet to call the facility plumber to fix the sink, that they had no intention on doing so. They wanted the sink to stay just like that as an added inconvenience to prisoners. Of course, I made a request for the plumber, but I was told things like: “We only have one plumber for the whole facility and he is busy,” “The plumber don’t work on weekends,” “We called and left a message,” “I’m not sure if we have a plumber,” and “Why do you need a plumber anyway? Nobody else is asking for a plumber . . .” Some issues I’m willing to stay quiet about because in dealing with the government, more specifically the Department of Corrections, you must learn the art of picking and choosing your battles. But hygiene issues is not one of the issues that I am passive on and my clogged sink was starting to become a hygienic problem for me, so I figured it was time to say something about it.
The next morning a white shirt makes a round and I stop him to speak to him about the sink. I don’t know who he is, so I ask him and he says, “Lieutenant Something?” I don’t remember his name but I know Lieutenant sounded good enough for me. Just then, he introduced the other white shirt that had caught up to him. “And this is Sergeant Something? He’s my Sergeant. One of the best Sergeants I know. He runs this Box and he does an excellent job at it. If you have any issues he will address them,” and he walks off leaving the Sergeant to talk to me. I understand the language of politRicks really well and this is where DOCC’s and I differ vehemently. Because I can detect when someone is lying to me (or when DOCC’s is lying to me) they retaliate against me. They actually get mad at me because I am not susceptible to their internal conspiracies. I’ve been studying political science (intensely) for more than ten years (which makes me an expert in that field by some standards) and in doing so, I’ve picked up the ability to know when someone is lying; akin to a reporter in his search for the truth. I may not be the smartest man on the planet Earth, but I am far from the dumbest man on Pluto, and with that said, I know bullshit when I see it. Assuming that Lieutenant already knew who I was (which I’m quite sure he did, but even if he didn’t . . .) what he was telling me in politRical language was that no matter what that Sergeant had done in the past, or may do in the future (to me or to any other prisoner), he was going to justify it and co-sign it! He was letting me know, up front, that he was not going against the establishment no matter what, and so any complaints I sent his way about any staff members would be denied, without investigation. He knew I was a Pro-Se Litigant and he was letting me know that he didn’t care anything about my litigation skills. (To be honest, he didn’t have to say that. I’ve been dealing with DOCC’s since 2002 and I already know that no DOCC’s official is going to investigate a complaint against another DOCC’s official pertaining to a prisoner. It just ain’t happening!) But I respected the Lieutenant’s stance. I always like it when a government official is up front with me about their views and opinions on prisoners, and prisoner’s rights. It makes for a better prisoner/officer relationship.
Clinton, Dannemora by Nicholas Zimmerman. Coming Soon!