Pen Pals

Burying the Dead and Unloved

By Bert Burykill


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There are times in everyone’s life when something profound occurs to us—events that should change us by teaching a valuable life lesson. I’d venture that I experienced countless lessons while in the ol’ clink-clink, but time and time again, I think back to a time when I was up on the Canadian border in the early winter of 2007 at a relatively bonerable “labor camp.” Unfortunately, these minimum-security camps are now all closed, but they allowed inmates to go out into the real world and work in the community. Granted, we got paid 15 cents an hour, but in hindsight, it was a pretty great place, as prisons go.

I’ve always enjoyed physical jobs like landscaping and such. Most of my labors at the camp reminded me of my upbringing in suburban Connecticut—I shoveled snow, raked leaves, and mowed lawns with an enthusiasm that made our boss (a.k.a. the CO) happy to have me as part of his five-man crew. In appreciation for our hard work he bought us eggs and bacon for breakfast, which we cooked up at our off-site shack that came equipped with an electric stove. His wife even used to cook us barbecued chicken every once in a while, and he would bring us venison occasionally—either ground up or made into sausages. He was a good man at the end of his career who admitted severely mistreating inmates in the past after he saw one of his co-workers get murdered by an inmate at Great Meadows in the 80s. It took him a long time to realize that not all inmates were scum and it was important to let his anger go and deal with inmates on an individual basis, just as you would any human. Many COs don’t treat inmates as real people, so just having a normal employee-to-boss relationship with him was nicer than you can imagine. Little things like this made incarceration more bearable.

I worked with that crew for about six months before I got shipped out to another facility. It sounds crazy but I got comfortable at this camp and was a little sad when I packed up. The next spot I went to was awful. I started working there in January, and almost immediately some guys who had been working the grounds for a couple years, started joking about the bodies piling up in a shack by the prison cemetery that we would be burying as soon as the ground thawed. I honestly thought they were fuckin’ with me.

Nope.

It turned out that part of our 15-cent-an-hour job was burying inmates who perished at Clinton Max and had no one who could claim the bodies, or else didn’t have anyone who gave a shit to arrange a proper funeral. The sadness of that situation is really unfathomable to me, and all the inmate workers considered it silently as we prepared to bury these bodies—I’m sure we all thought that we would never allow ourselves to become old men who died alone after life spent in and out of prison.

A backhoe basically did the hole for us, but we had to hop in with shovels to better chop out coffin-like shapes. As we dug the four holes that first day on the job, an eerie feeling washed over us. We found what appeared to be a human jawbone and a rib, which was a little confusing since these were supposed to be fresh graves. But maybe they reused them without telling us, or these were bones left over from the Indian days. I don’t know.

The coffins were shoddily made pine boxes with broomstick pieces that served as handles. We carried them out of the shack and placed them next to their holes, then, with two men on each side, lifted them into their graves. I wish I could say we were cracking jokes and taking it lightly, but really a funny thing was that the only person who showed up to perform the last rites for the dead (a Muslim, a Jew, and two Christians) was an imam. One alpha-dog inmate thought it necessary to chime in with his inane two cents and said, basically, “Bless these men in the next life,” like that really meant anything.

After the bodies were deposited, the backhoe dropped the earth onto the caskets and we heard each one pop as they caved in. We put the finishing touches on the graves and left behind pretty little mounds to await the plaques that would simply list the inmates’ names and birth and death dates.

Of the five guys on our crew we all returned to jail, so I guess this shit didn’t scare any of us straight. But it was scary. I guess it doesn’t really mater where I get buried, or who’s there when I’m dead, but dying in prison—then getting thrown in a hole by some criminals you’ve never met seems like a serious disrespectful way to end to one’s life. It’s one of my worst fears. And that job is the scariest item on my resume.

Bert Burykill is the pseudonym of our prison correspondent, who has spent time in a number of prisons in New York State. He tweets here.

Previously: HardWhite and Harry Potter

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