Photo via Flickr user woodleywonderworks
I’m approaching the tenth anniversary of my lap dance with the law that climaxed in a big mess in my lap and a stiletto stomp on my sack for good measure. If I behave myself for two and half more months I will be done with parole and off paper for the first time in a decade. In that time I’ve gone from being a carefree, reckless kid to being a somewhat paranoid and bitter curmudgeon. The change was gradual and I learned my lesson very slowly. Similar to how a close family member or friend passing away changes one’s life perspective, having your freedom being snatched away by the system really funks you head up.
About a year ago, I made a silly mistake and, since I was still on parole, ended up spending a couple months in county jail—that wasn't great, but it was a relief to know that I’d be out in only eight or nine weeks instead of years, especially as there were dudes doing some serious football numbers.
I bunked next to one gentleman who introduced himself as Big D and who, many years ago, had been part of what could be called a drug trafficking ring that brought cocaine from New York City up to the Albany area. It was hugely profitable, but the guys got too greedy and the narcs caught up to them after wiretapping their phones. Some of the men involved had gang affiliations, the Feds got involved, and they were prosecuted under the RICO Act. Inevitably, some of the people involved talked to the cops after they were arrested (remember kiddies, don’t say anything unless there’s a lawyer present!), and even though Big D never got caught with any drugs on him, he did ten years in federal prison. He was 32 years old when he got out, and he slowly fell back into the dirt—it’s a played-out story, but what the fuck else was he going to do? Either work in a kitchen job for peanuts or sell drugs, which is much easier and more lucrative. He decided to sell weed, ‘cause it’s safer and you don’t do that much time if you get caught. However, since he was hustling in some pretty rough neighborhoods in Queens, he figured he’d be safer carrying a gun, and that’s what got him in the trouble he was in when I met him.
In New York State 40 years ago, you might have only done a few months in prison if you got snatched with a gun, but now you’re going to do YEARS, even if the gun isn’t loaded. It’s incredibly difficult to get a permit to carry one (it would have been impossible in Big D’s case since he was a felon), so in practice, most guns are illegal—and in some crime-stricken areas, practically everyone has a gun.
Following the reprehensible murder Russel Timoshenko by two hardened criminals with illegally obtained handguns in Brooklyn in 2007, legislators passed a law that put in place a mandatory minimum of three and half years for anyone caught with an illicit loaded handgun. (Of course, if you have $100,000 you can pay your way down to two years, a la Plaxico Burress.) For felons, that mandatory minimum jumps up to five years. It’s a sure way to make sure a lot of people keep going back to prison for a long time.
Big D, a big man who’s well over 300 pounds, is super-stupid stubborn—a lot like a NRA nutzo right-winger—about carrying a gun with him to the grave. That’s why he had a 9-mm Glock in his underwear when he went up to meet a girl in a scuzzbag neighborhood in Yonkers. The cops ran up on him claiming he was walking funny; evidently, they were suspciious enough to search him, and found the gun in his buttcheeks. At the time I talked to him, his only chance of not getting locked up for at least five years was threatening to sue the cops for pulling his pants down on a street corner. Often, that’s how the plea-bargaining process works... basically the defendant has to hope he has some leverage, some ammo (no pun intended) to challenge the prosecution into thinking that there could possibly be a juror who would be sympathetic to a black man being strip-searched on the corner when he wasn’t bothering anyone.... Or you could look at the case as stop and frisk policies successfully taking a dangerous armed criminal off the streets, I guess...
I’ve lost touch with Big D. I think it’s quite possible that a year later he is still in the county lockup getting ready to go to trial to fight his case. The other inmates and I figured he’d get anywhere from four to seven years, not due to the severity of the crime, but because guns are controversial now. Unfortunately for Big D and me, drugs being transported up from NYC was the hot-button topic 13 years ago, so we got hit with heavy sentences, and now it’s guns... If D gets a decent lawyer to fight for him and point out that he has no violence on his record, was carrying a gun for personal protection in a bad neighborhood, and was stopped for no reason by police and stripped in public, maybe there’s a chance the prosecution will be frightened that one juror could feel bad for this man, who had just finished serving ten years for a nonviolent drug charge, and refuse to convict him. If I was on the jury I’d give him not guilty all day (which is why no prosecutor will ever let me serve as a juror). I don’t think a man should go to prison for half a decade for not really even committing a crime.
It’s a really complicated situation in big cities where there’s too much gun violence—you want to stop people from killing each other, but really aggressive antigun laws just end up putting people who never had any intention of committing a violent crime in prison for long-ass periods of time. It’s like a vicious cycle where the violence makes people in rough areas think they need to carry guns, and since it’s really hard to get a permit to carry a handgun in a place like New York, a lot of those people end up putting contraband weapons in their pockets and waistbands, and of course some of those people will get thrown in jail by cops who can stop you for no reason at all. Meanwhile, there are a bunch of states where getting a license is easy and then you don’t even need a permit to carry. I visit Arizona periodically and definitely notice more than a few people strolling around with some serious guns on their hips. I bet that cuts down on petty crime bullshit when everyone knows that the dude you’re robbing is packing heat... Hell, maybe motherfuzzies would stop honking their horns incessantly if they could see a gun rack in my back window? It’d be a different world, chicken chow mein, John Wayne?
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: Sexx Money’s Open Letter to Miley Cyrus