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Chapter 3 from "Hell Behind Prison Walls" PDF Print E-mail


    I admit I did not really know what I was getting into.  I had lived in Elmira all my life and passed the prison many times.  It was a beautiful building perched on a large hill.  From the outside it looked peaceful.  Earlier I was on a baseball team that was invited to play the inmates in a game.  That was my first good look at the inside of the prison.  It was just like a city of its own; inside was another world I was not sure I was ready to enter.
    After accepting the job I soon established a three-job workload.  My work life started to fall into a schedule.  I would work in the factory full-time on the night shifts, in the prison during the day and in my own shoemaking shop on the weekends.
    I began my job at the Elmira Reformatory on June 21, 1966. That morning at 9:00 I was to meet Lieutenant Warner, a veteran of twenty years service in reformatories within the state.  He would introduce me to the vocational instructor with whom I would be working and take me on a tour of the prison.
    We began our tour walking through four heavy steel doors, each one locking behind us as we exited.  When the last door opened we entered a large yard, the size of two football fields where approximately two hundred and fifty inmates stood around.  Mingled voices were audible, but there did not seem to be any interaction between the inmates.  It was almost like the sound of angry insects buzzing.  I wondered about my decision. 
    “Be careful and watch your back,” said Warner.  “These guys are restless and anything can set them off in the wrong direction.”  I felt uneasy and was quite relieved when we finally reached the end of the yard where a tall steel gate opened ahead of us.  It opened into the center of the prison compound.
    “This is Center Gate,” Warner said.  “It’s where all personnel enter the work area.”  A guard locked inside a small booth near the gate operated the controls and received any emergency calls which in turn set alarms off, thus controlling the entire prison.  To me, it seemed to be a complicated arrangement and my discomfort increased since we were surrounded by inmates until the gate opened, and permitted us to walk on through.
    Other vocational shops, including a hospital, schools, and a foundry, were located on two separate floors in seven different buildings.  The rooms were open areas without bars or screens to contain or separate the occupants from each other or from the instructors.  Also inside this large inner area there was a ballpark, a swimming pool, and an armory where inmates gathered during recreation periods.
    We finally reached the shoemaking shop where I would be working.  There were about thirty inmates in the room and the sound of machinery created a busy atmosphere.  The smell of leather made me feel at home and eased the tension I had been feeling.  Warner introduced me to my supervisor, Joe Bono, who was standing in the doorway of the office, talking to Harold Cooper, the instructor.  Seeing us enter the room Bono came forward to greet us.  His raspy voice was one that I would hear in the future many times, often when I would rather not listen to it.
    As we were talking, Harold Cooper stepped out of his office to meet me and Warner introduced us.  I was his replacement for the summer vacation.  Cooper was a tall heavy-set man about sixty years old.  His penetrating look made me feel like he had gotten inside my head and evaluated my brain.
    “I’ll show you the ropes for the next couple of days, and then you’re on your own.  I’m leaving for my vacation on Friday and I’ll be gone for two months,” said Cooper. 
    “Cooper will show you around for now.  I’ll go and catch you later,” said Bono as he left the shop.
    Just then a small man came over to me and asked, “Are you the new instructor?”
    “Get the hell away from us and get back to work!” Commanded Warner as the man scuttled back to his worktable.
    I noticed grins on the faces of Cooper, Warner, and also the guard, who had started to enter the shop at the sound of Warner’s loud, angry voice.  We left the shop and continued our tour. Outside in the hallway I asked Warner, “Why did you shout at the prisoner when all he did was to ask me a civil question?”
Warner replied, “If you want to survive in this jungle, you have to show authority!” 
    This incident introduced me to the hostility that breathed on everyone in that prison.  The tour was over at about noon; Warner suggested that I go to the officer’s lunchroom and meet him in half an hour on the Cage Floor.