Up the Hudson River, just north of the new Mario Cuomo Bridge, one of the oldest prisons in America litters a hillside with fences, swirls of concertina wire, and slabs of walls. It’s Sing Sing; it’s my home. Armed guards and octagonal watchtowers scan the black-topped exercise yard with claimed metal picnic tables—the white boys, the Puerto Ricans, the Muslims, the Bloods. Behind a handball wall is a fenced area with weights, known as the Pit, where the men pump iron. A guard locks and unlocks the caged door on the half hour.
I feel anxious preparing for the yard every morning. Ten years earlier, I was in the Green Haven prison yard in Stormville, New York, and I’d planned on hitting the heavy bag. A familiar face bopped toward me, sporting an army coat, greeting me with a dap and half a hug, real smooth. I turned away and—whap whap whap whap whap whap—six blows, a sharpened piece of fence, to my side, under my arm. Happened too fast to hurt. My mind was jarred: Wait, you’re stabbing me—I thought you were greeting me. Then came pain. Breathing deep hurt. Oh, man, this can’t be it. . . . I stumbled over to the guards shamefully.
They took me to the clinic, then an ambulance took me to a hospital, where doctors patched up my punctured lung. It was a dose of prison justice.
Back in 2001, I’d snuck his friend on a Brooklyn street, just like he snuck me in the yard. Shot him dead. He was 25, me 24. We were friends, then enemies.It’s fast and fickle, the life. We sell drugs, we get fly, we make one another jealous, we cross one another, we kill one another, we flout murder to elevate our status in the subculture. I took my medicine from the judge: 28 years to life for the murder and selling drugs.
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I’m 42 years old now, wiser, sober, twice married and twice separated, ambitious and alone. Living in a cell for more than 17 years, I am self-absorbed. I, I, I. Journalism helps me. I report. I empathize. I write. I publish. I’m not eligible for parole until 2029. I’m depressed, I know I am. No antidepressants, though—scared they will fuck up my creativity. My balance is earned in endorphins. Nowadays, workouts have become more for my head and heart—free weights, calisthenics, running.
Staying fit in the joint is about being ready, but not to the extent that the media portray it. Like you guys out there, most of us in here exercise to experience that good, tired feeling, to let out frustration, to quell anxiety. To stay healthy, we have to do our thing in the most unhealthy part of the prison, the part where most prisoner-on-prisoner violence goes down. We have to do our thing in the yard.
Today, it’s Monday, and I’m jumping in on a back routine with Red’s crew. Red is a legend in New York’s prison system. Daniel Connelly, or Red, 45, came in at age 19 and is serving 40 years to life for double homicide. Mythic battle stories boost his cred: like the time in Clinton prison in Dannemora, fresh from a stint in the Box, a-thousand-pushups-a-day strong, when a posse of Puerto Ricans came at him and he took an ice pick to the face, yanked it out, and chased them down; or the time in the yard when guards had Red and a buddy cuffed facedown on the ground, a man screaming about his nose being bitten off, guards scouring the area: “All right, Connelly—where’d you guys spit the nose?” Red didn’t do it, but everyone from the Sing Sing superintendent down to the Bloods knows he’s a nut. Chiseled, muscular physique, bald head, crazy eyes, deep voice—Red’s like a hyper dog barking and bouncing around the yard. Show him fear and he’ll bite.
Red thinks of his workout partner, Zach, as a little brother. Zach always shows up in the Pit. Red likes that. Sometimes Zach’s a bit soft-spoken when others ask for weights. Red doesn’t like that.
“Yo, you using the 185 right now?” asks a black guy called Murder.
“Yeah, we’re about to use it,” Red tells Murder, then shakes his head at Zach. “Stop that shit!”
Miserable Matty and Albanian Val, the B Squad, stroll in before the guard locks the gate.
“Where you guys been?” Red says. “Sucking dick . . . ?”
With no warmup weight, we jump right into a two-teamed routine: bent-over rows with the 185-pound barbell (weights welded, no clamps necessary); one-armed rows with dumbbells (80s, 90s, 100s); rear delt flys (30s); and 225-pound barbell deadlifts. We go light because we all have lower-back pain due to sleeping and sitting on thin mattresses, no chairs in the cells. And then rear extensions (reverse situps).
Red holds Zach’s heels, his pelvis at the head of the incline bench, as he swings up and down. Red sticks his tongue out as if he were giving Zach a rimjob and then gives me a big-gummed, wicked smile. Red’s workout is like his personality: lots of verbal abuse, lots of white-boy gay jokes. The black guys cringe at these antics, but Red doesn’t care. An Irish Brooklyn kid, he grew up around black people and has spent his entire adult life with them in prison. He even uses the n-word—casually, not viciously.
Red hears Matty frustrated with Val’s performance. “He ain’t cheatin’ us,” Red spews. “He’s cheatin’ himself!” “Damn, you’re kinda harsh there, sweetheart,” Bakhosheq Allan, or Box, tells Red.
Red’s crew is strong not only because of the weights but because of his tough love. They learn character in committing, even though it comes with torment—“Push, muthafucka! Pull, muthafucka! All the way up!” I envy Red’s leadership, mental strength, and motivation—a man who will see the parole board at 60.
Mostly, I’m motivated to train to maintain my sanity in this place, but God knows, it’s also about vanity. I refuse to let myself go. Unlike Red, I’ll likely get out in my early 50s, unless the governor springs me sooner. On a recent prison phone call, Mom rambles about how I need to eat the skin on apples because it has lycopene and that she’s mailing me a box of beets from a company she saw on Shark Tank that ships ugly fruits and vegetables. I thank her and then somehow we get on to my release. I’ll be dead, she says, but you’ll look gorgeous if you stay healthy. “Men get better-looking as they age,” she groans, Parkinson’s making her phone hand bounce in my ear, tap tap tap.
I’ve also had some short-term motivations over the years that made me go hard. Conjugal visits come to mind. I’d met a smart and funny blond from California on one of those prison dating websites, a free spirit, just crazy enough to marry me in prison. The visits take place within the wall in modular units. Think of a modest two-bedroom apartment, cheap but nice, especially for a guy like me who sleeps next to a toilet. Before my first conjugal some years ago, I was working out hard. That morning, I’d arrived in the unit before her. In the bathroom, I saw a big ol’ mirror. For many years, mind you, the 12-by-10-inch cell fun-house mirror was it, so I started peeling off my clothes. Flexing, hitting angles, popping my pecs, enjoying the results of my work. That poor girl had to compete with the mirror for 48 hours. No shocker that it didn’t work out.
A Dominican girl from Brooklyn, my second wife was beyond marry-a-convict crazy. We were passion and pain. We’d argue, and she’d curse me out in rapid-fire Spanish. I unintentionally stood her up on our last conjugal because I couldn’t provide the necessary urine sample under the guard’s gaze. I knew about the test, drank plenty of water. But anxiety seized my system. The brothers in the bullpen had all given their samples, and I was holding them up. They sucked their teeth and looked at me like, Damn white boy, don’t play yourself. You got pussy waiting on you! The three-hour limit came, the conjugal was canceled, and the wife left. We’re now separated. I’m alone and relieved. I don’t request to see the psych because of stigma. Plus, he can’t prescribe Xanax. So I exercise.
It’s Tuesday and I’m thinking cardio. Out of my cell window, I see misty rain and fog hovering over the Hudson. It’s an excuse for me to skip the yard today and stay in my cell, safe. I’m both relieved and depressed. I feel it in the back of my neck, my forehead, my cheeks, my gut. I feel like doing nothing, I feel like doing something. It’s 9:00 a.m. I know if I go out and work out, the depression will clear. The guard blares over the PA, “Let me get the yard run.”
I clear the metal detector and see Miserable Matty ahead of me on the canopied downhill path from which we see sailboats on the river and cliffs for miles. “Sweet torture” is how I once heard a prisoner describe the view. Hearing the herd, we whip our necks to see the men’s faces as they rush past to get a phone spot. Hypervigilance is now a part of us. I ask Matty if he feels anxiety going to the yard, since he had a shank broken off in his eye years ago. He practices Siddha yoga, he tells me, and meditates for hours, so no anxiety. Yet he’s still miserable. He’s been in
for 20 years, earned a master’s degree. He wants out. We see Red, the first in the Pit, shirt off, faded jailhouse tattoo of a Celtic cross and a shamrock wrapped in the words irish pride. I don’t bother asking Red about anxiety.
Running helps with mine. Today, I’m working out with Mikey B: Michael Brown, 34, was 21 when he shot a man outside a Manhattan nightclub and received a 16-year manslaughter sentence. He trains hard twice a day. I can’t keep up. His release date a month away is his motivation. We hit the track. It’s a slanted blacktop; grass sprouts through the cracks. It’s for football and soccer, G-mackin’ and blowing bud. We kick aside the Black and Mild cigar tips used for rolling spliffs. We weave through men loitering, waiting to be next for one of the 23 phones in the cramped cage, dodge a disheveled old man oozing mental illness and dragging his heels, hunting for cigarette clips: shuffle, stoop. We pass Africa, who’s gender nonconforming, speed-walking alone. He wishes he were running too, he says, but is being lazy. No motivation. Depressed. I get it.
As we run the perimeter—eight laps equal a mile—we take in snippets of prison life. It’s lap 21 and Mikey has dropped out. Three more laps are three miles. Time to turn it up. I see a face who is an ally of the guy who stabbed me; we make eye contact, and the next time around, I see he’s talking to someone else, and I think, Are they talking about me? Does he think I hold him responsible? I should tell him I don’t. I pick up the pace, extend my stride to avoid a glob of spit on the track, and breeze through a waft of weed. I’m super-self-righteous when I run—They all suck, I’m the best, and everyone needs to get the fuck out of my way. I sprint
for a few seconds and stop. Heart pumps. Chest rises and falls. I feel good.
“Johnny! Come here, you sexy muthafucka!” Red yells to me from the Pit as I walk off the run, feeling motivated for the day. “Yard closed” comes over the PA, and I join the crowd filtering into a tunnel that leads to the cellblocks. The guard at a midway landing closes the gate and holds up the crowd. It’s stupidly loud and dangerous. In front of me, a homie stomps his feet and slices his hands through the air in cadence with the syllables he’s spewing. Behind me, someone pokes my back, and I quickly turn. “Don’t worry, Johnny,” Red says, putting his arm around me. “If they come for you in this yard, they’ll have to hit me too.”
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