Inside Sing Sing


I had expected a journalist’s tour when I visited Sing Sing Correctional Facility in July, the kind where I’d meet hand-picked inmates; visit only clean, curse-free cell blocks; and encounter corrections officers who were instructed to wear only their sternest and most focused expressions.
But this was a tour for mystery writers and no one seemed concerned we would rush back to our laptops, type up secret memos crudely written on napkins and passed to us by inmates of the maximum-security prison with stories of mistreatment, conspiracies or trumped-up charges, and then publish them, inciting public outrage.
I had no responsibilities and no power to persuade.
My status as a fiction writer gave me freedom.
It was a relief.
I came to Sing Sing seeking the realism that is critical to good fiction, and I got it.
Well, okay. So they didn’t open the doors to the isolation cells, take us through the psych ward or allow us to fan out in the recreation yards to mingle with the inmates, but I’m cool with that. And I fully understand the presence of Superintendent Michael Capra throughout our tour led to a wee bit more politeness than we might have experience on our own.
I’m cool with that, too.
With so many imposing gates locked behind us and in front of us, it was comforting to know we were accompanied by a man who could make the inmates’ lives even more hellish should they attempt anything at all.
Like many Sing Sing newbies, I got lost trying to find the entrance to the prison, which is located in Ossining 30 minutes from New York City. I was steered to the huge sage-green bars that protected the main doors by two kind strangers who lived in Sing Sing’s shadow. Its cinematic appeal is immediately obvious. The prison, with the skeleton of its oldest buildings mixed among its newer, yet still quite ancient facilities, sits on a hill overlooking a wide section of the Hudson River.
It would make an excellent site for a plush resort.
Our group of 20 members of Mystery Writers of America stood outside chatting until the officer at the gate had taken each of our licenses through the bars and then admitted us a few at a time. We emptied our pockets (I had to give up my gum! Apparently gum is useful for disabling locks.), stepped through metal detectors and got our hands stamped with that invisible ink that shows only under ultraviolet lights.
Sing Sing, New York State’s third oldest prison, is home to about 1,600 inmates and most are serving time for murder. With a ratio of one correction officers for every 60 inmates, they don’t mess around. Yet, despite the intimidating atmosphere, three inmates in green jump suits were allowed outside the gates to haul boxes down the steps we waited on. They were cautious and respectful, and the officers who oversaw them did so with a wary kind of trust.
As I watched them, I understood they were probably among the minority – the inmates unlikely to return, the ones who took advantage of college and vocational programs in hopes of succeeding when they are released. About 95 percent of Sing Sing’s inmates will someday experience freedom again, Superintendent Capra told us. That gives them hope, which is an important motivator for better behavior. The biggest challenge for Capra and the staff is getting inmates to recognize and embrace that hope so they never come back.
The superintendent began our tour with the auditorium and worship areas, where Sing Sing offers rooms for people of any and all religions. Like much of the prison, the auditorium is made of aging concrete and the rooms lack good ventilation. It feels and smells of an old, leaky basement, a good reminder that the people who worship there have major sins to address. Many years ago, an inmate lured a female officer to the adjacent chapel with a false phone call, the superintendent told us. The inmate raped and killed her where we stood.
Another good reminder.
Next, we toured the 88-cell honor block, where the cells are unlocked for most of the daylight hours and inmates can wander outside to work out, play volleyball or garden; play games or read on the picnic tables in the hallways; or venture to the basement to cook meals or do laundry. They also hold jobs and sometimes do paperwork for administrators.
The aroma from the basement was enticing as we descended. An inmate was making some kind of spicy pasta dish with food he’d bought from the commissary. Further down the hall, two inmates were doing laundry just steps from the shower area, where, unlike in the rest of the prison, inmates can sud-up behind curtains, enjoying a little privacy.
As the superintendent talked with the group, I chatted with an inmate about cooperation among the honor block residents, how they help each with laundry and meals. A corrections officer, with a hint of panic in his expression, ended the conversation after just a few minutes. Despite my curiosity, a part of me was grateful. Twice during my 11-year journalism career, I was lunged at by inmates, and both times it came out of nowhere.
It was good to know the corrections officer had my back.
The honor block, where feral cats feed out of dishes placed in the stairwell, can be deceiving. As Superintendent Capra reminded us, it is home to only a small percentage of inmates who have proven themselves over the years. Their living quarters are in sharp contrast with A block, where inmates stared down at us from four tiers of 8×10 cells (600 cells in all) either still locked up for the noontime count or on their way to lunch, cramped on the fenced-in catwalks that couldn’t have been more than about eight feet wide.
My plotting mind imagined what it must be like for a corrections officer, carrying only a baton (Guns are not allowed inside.) who must walk from one end of the catwalk to the other while the inmates are moving out of their cells. Corrections officers never know when they might get punched, slashed, spit on, covered in urine or hit with feces. One-third of the officers are females, who have other issues to deal with. It is not a job I covet, but it is a job I greatly respect, even more so after seeing first-hand the crowding on those walkways.
Our walk-through ended with an indoor recreation area with a basketball court, gym equipment and tables for gathering and playing board games. Days are divided into three parts for inmates. They must be active for at least two of those parts, working jobs for money toward commissary purchases, hanging out in the recreation yard or attending classes. No baggy clothes allowed during recreation. It’s too easy to hide weapons in clothing or blend in after an incident. No milling around in large groups either.
Then we talked about what we didn’t see – crisis intervention teams that track gang formations, counselors who wander among the inmates to study the culture and keep threats at bay, the inmates who are liaisons to the administration, offering ways to keep their fellow residents busy and out of trouble while also relaying expectations to the general population.
The superintendent treated us to lunch afterward in the administrative building and shared his views on the portrayal of prisons in fiction, both on screen and in print. For the most part, he said, the job of a corrections officer is not all that exciting, so he understands we have to spice it up a bit. Quite a bit. Historically, administrators have cooperated with groups that want to film at the prison.
He’s unbothered by it all.
But I found the reality truly intriguing and full of potential.
When the prison gates closed behind me and I stepped into the sun (with my gum once again tucked into my pocket ), my mind began swimming with possibilities – plots, characters, motivations, settings, the works – all stemming from what I had seen, felt, smelled and heard. The real stuff. Unspiced. Fresh in my mind.
Reality.
That’s what suspends disbelief.
That’s what elevates certain novels above the rest.
I’d most certainly gotten what I’d come for.

After 20 years, I heard her laugh

Originally posted DEc. 1, 2008

When I think about what kind of mother I want to be, Sylvia Bouchard comes to mind. She has been on my mind for nearly 20 years, ever since the day a jury declared her son guilty of murder.
I covered the case. I stood near her in the courtroom. She cried no tears that I could see. She simply clutched her purse and walked up to her son, who had laid his head on the defense table.
Her son, Steven Barnes, was 23.
So was I.
I was a reporter for The (Syracuse, N.Y.) Post-Standard. I was just barely a year into my career. Sylvia Bouchard and I both knew that Steven Barnes did not kill 16-year-old Kimberly Simon, a cheerleader from the small Oneida County community of Whitesboro.
He did not rape her.
He did not strangle her.
Many in the community knew that too, and they rallied behind him. They raised money for his defense when he was indicted more than three years after the 1985 homicide. They filled the courtroom during his trial. They offered his mother a shoulder to lean on, but I never saw her take it.
What I saw was a woman who was focused and determined. A woman who knew she could not afford to break. She was determined to prove her son innocent, but she was also determined that he would be a model prisoner and that, if all efforts to free him failed, he would serve as little of his 25-year-to-life sentence as possible.
She succeeded on both fronts.
On Nov. 25, Steven Barnes received a call in prison. He turned to tell anyone who could hear him that he was going home, thanks to the Innocence Project and DNA analysis. The guards cheered. The prisoners cheered. They loved Steven. He had all the privileges any prisoner could have. He was good. He was honest. He was the boy his mother had raised him to be.
Steven Barnes was a victim. I am generally forgiving of jurors and even of prosecutors. They are people, just like us and they can easily be wrongly convinced. But the trial of Steven Barnes was a joke. The jurors should be ashamed and remorseful. The prosecutor should be investigated. The police who investigated the case and testified should be on trial themselves.
Their evidence consisted of tire treads, soil samples, hair samples and a 35-year police force veteran who said he saw Steven Barnes driving away from the murder site at about the time Kimberly was killed and that he could clearly identify this stranger as his pickup truck passed at 25 mph.
The expert who presented the soil and hair samples made it clear that the tests were not reliable. The police officer and two other witnesses who claimed to have seen Steven Barnes that night gave grossly conflicting testimony to the grand jury, testimony that was presented during the trial.
No one saw Steven Barnes with Kimberly Simon. No one presented a valid motive. No reliable physical evidence connected him to the crime. No witnesses gave reliable testimony.
Yet the prosecutor pursued the case and the jury found him guilty.
It was enough to make any mother crumble.
In the face of it all, Sylvia Bouchard stood her ground. She did not cower with fear. She did not collapse in despair. She did not let down her guard, at least not publicly.
She was strong.
She was reactive and proactive.
She was mother to her son through two decades of imprisonment.
I talked with her and her son on the phone this evening. It had been 18 years since I’d spoken to her. Throughout the trial and the appeals and the fund raisers, I had never heard laugh. I don’t recalled ever seeing her smile. All I saw was that focus, that determination.
This evening, I heard her laugh.