I NEVER HEARD THE DOORS CLOSE:
REMEMBRANCES OF A PRISON OPTIMIST
LUCIEN X. LOMBARDO
It all happened by accident. A brother’s phone call to a friend about a rug; a concerned mother’s inquiry about a job for her son; my life had been changed.
My hometown, Auburn, NY, sits in the middle of the State. In the middle of my hometown sits a prison. It’s an old-fashioned prison with concrete walls that climb thirty feet high. It was built sometime around 1815. Local legend has it that the town’s people chose having a prison rather than the state capital. The prison, they believed, would bring a better class of people to Auburn, at least better than politicians. When I was very young I remember my parents and relatives referring to “the college on State Street” where people who caused trouble were sent. I was never quite sure why people who caused trouble would get sent to college.
On September 16, 1969, I walked through the doors of this college to begin my career as a teacher. At the same time I continued my career as a learner. Though I had just completed six years of college, my appreciation for learning, my desire to learn and my strategies for learning would be shaped by the experiences that were to come. From September 1969 to August of 1977, I taught prisoners at the Osborne School of Auburn Prison. During these eight years I learned a great deal from all those I encountered: the inmates, the staff, and the administrators both at Auburn and those from the state central offices in Albany. Looking back, I now know that the few steps that took me from the outside to the inside began a journey of personal learning: learning about people, institutions, the world and myself.
When I decided to apply for the job I had no idea what prisons were all about, let alone what it would be like teaching in one. I thought that people working is such a setting really knew what they were doing. I was the novice. But looking back, I guess I was like most people who worked there, just looking for a job. No thoughts of bringing a little knowledge to the poor unfortunate prisoners. No visions of rehabilitating hardened criminals, of helping them leave their lives of crime. I had never even heard that infamous word “rehabilitation”. When I applied for this job I couldn’t tell a hardened criminal from a softened one. I never thought about punishing criminals. I never thought about crime. I never thought about punishment.
If I thought anything about prisons I suppose it was that they were places to be avoided, not places to work in or even think about. Until I was initiated, I guess I believed that prisons were places that only criminals should know. Since I never thought of committing a crime, there was no reason for me to think about prisons or the people who lived there. Even though I had spent nearly twenty years living 4 blocks away nearly in the shadow of this prison, I had never consciously thought about what it actually was, what people did inside of it, and what it did to people. It was as if the 30 foot high grey walls were meant to do more than keep prisoners in. Those walls save those of us on the outside the trouble of recognizing and learning about the lives and years which are passing day-by-day in the space they surround. These walls tell us free citizens to ignore the people and happenings within. They prevent the prison from reaching us. It’s as if they were built with extra strength to withstand the human pressure that the lives lived inside produced. Should I be given a job in this prison that I so easily and unknowingly ignored for so long, the luxury of such detachment would soon come to an end.
The night before my interview I lay in bed slowly realizing that I had in fact met the prison before. My mind dredged up memories of these forgotten contacts. There was a softball game played in the prison a few years earlier. I remember thinking then that playing ball in a prison was going to be something significant. Winning or losing wasn’t important. Playing inside was an opportunity to see this isolated, seldom-seen world. I thought the event was going to be something exceptional in my life, yet I hadn’t talked or even thought about it since.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, during the summers softball teams from the outside went into the prison nearly every week to challenge the best the convicts had to offer. The community teams invariably lost, leading to stories bordering on legends. Inmate pitchers could beat any outside team any day of the week. They were faster and had more “stuff” than anything we could imagine on the outside. This was quite a complement to the prisoners in a town that had plenty of softball legends of its own. On the outside “Monk”, “Fireball”, and “Dudley” had reputations for being among the best in the state, but according to legend, the prison pitchers were better. Inmates sliding with utter disregard for their bodies on the asphalt diamond the convicts called “Ebbits Field” after the former home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, “da bums”. I guessed that the prisoners identified with the underdogs. Stories circulated about convicts lifting three, four and 5 hundred pounds in weightlifting contests, denied world records because nobody knew. Perhaps these local legends were only excuses the outsiders made up to explain their losing, but at least in my mind there were images of superhuman beings living behind those walls.
As our team waited outside the prison gates all of these stories were nervously repeated. We assured ourselves that we weren’t afraid of the ‘cons” and kidded that the cons would probably beat the hell out of us if we did manage to win. If we lost, what the hell! We knew the convicts had all day to practice. What did it matter anyway?
It seemed like we waited forever on State Street in front of the prison. Finally, the twenty-five foot square green metal door that kept us safely out began to slide open and invite us in. I had seen this gate open and close hundreds of time before as I passed by the prison on State Street going to ‘uptown’ Auburn, but this was the first time that I was to have more than a brief, partially obscured glance inside. As we walked in the guard closed this portal that stood between the outside and the inside. I looked on as everyone turned around to watch and listen to the “slam” as it was closed. We were now stuck between the large green gate behind us and the barred gate in front of us (a ‘sally-port’ – the two doors were never opened at the same time). It was as if our freedom to leave were being taken away. But unlike the prisoners, we were voluntarily allowing it to happen. What fools! We looked at each other nervously and laughed. My mind began to dull. I realized that I now didn’t have any control over what was happening to me. Once the gate shut, I looked straight ahead, concentrating on what was coming up, not on what I had left behind.
As we walked, I constantly looked for convicts. If they were superhuman, I wanted to see them. My curiosity grew with each step along the 20-yard wide 300-yard long roadway running behind the cellblocks. I still couldn’t believe that people actually lived there. It looked like a zoo. Through the windows of the cell blocks I could see barred cages piled up upon barred cages. Down the roadway, around a corner, we walked between high walls as if we were rats in a maze. Through another gate and around another corner we went. I lost all sense of direction, realizing that I couldn’t get out if I were left on my own. Powerless, I was at the mercy of the guards leading us around. Two more corners and into a dark low tunnel. We were approaching the center of the maze. Through the heavy six-inch thick door at the end of the tunnel and without warning, the sunlit yard filled with over a thousand convicts literally exploded in our faces. There it was and there they were. Black faces mixing with brown and white; a mixture of noises bouncing off concrete and metal. Everywhere it looked and sounded like chaos.
Shocked, surprised and at the same time underwhelmed, I stood there staring. No towering brutes, no superhuman. No gangsters with scarred faces peering out from under their grey prison caps. No Cagney’s or Bogart’s talking out of the corners of their mouths so the screws couldn’t hear. The people I saw looked just like ordinary people.
There was a team on the diamond going through warm-ups. I was amazed. As I watched them practice, I thought of the minor league players whose warm-up rhythm I had so often enjoyed at Falcon Park, the home for Auburn’s minor league teams and a place the filled many of my evenings when I was younger. Those ball players weren’t convicts, but they were the same: Latinos, Blacks, and Whites. Listening to the infield chatter and the pop of the ball in the mitts, there was no difference between these men any others. All differences I saw seemed superficial. The prison ball diamond had a blacktop surface instead of dirt and grass. Convict players might slide on the blacktop scraping their legs, arms and backs. But as kids hadn’t we done the same thing behind the St. Hyacinth’s School when we were in elementary grades? We did it without thinking: the instinct of baseball. I guess these convicts did the same.
Watching and listening to these convicts as they joked with each other gave me a warm feeling. Their sense of humor was sharp, they’d laugh at anything. It seemed as if they were in a hurry to get as many laughs in as they could. One old-time con (at least he fit some movie stereotype) continually tried to bum cigarettes. He talked out of the side of his mouth apparently to keep his activities from the guards. I played catch with him before the game. As we started, I had the distinct feeling that this insignificant act was probably against some rule. I don’t know why, but I expected some guard to jump in and stop us. No one did.
The old-time con acted like a big shot, a real “wheel”. Just like many of the guys I knew in town. Old timers, hangers-on who showed up at all the sporting events hoping to relive some of their past glories. The old con kept talking down the other convicts, telling us to watch out for the convict umpire, he was crooked. I was assured that he could be bought for a couple of packs of cigarettes.
I remembered the iced-tea we had in our dugout. It had just the right amount of lemon and just a touch of sugar. It was the best I had ever had, or maybe the circumstances made me think this. The old-timer would wander around in the dugout and we’d give him some tea. And even when we gave it to him, he still seemed to be sneaking it. Later I noticed that our opposition only had ice water. No tea for the convicts to drink. I couldn’t understand why there weren’t two buckets full of tea instead of one. I was confused.
As I lay in my bed, becoming more anxious about my interview, other long buried memories escaped from my unconscious. I remember a scene in my mother’s kitchen. It was in the early 1950’s. I was seven or eight. My parents, an uncle, an aunt and a neighbor were discussing the prison.
“Yes, they’ll probably have a riot here.”
“With all those murderers in there what can you expect?”
“They’re doing life anyway, they’ve got nothing to lose.”
“Remember ’29 and the riots? People got killed. It was a mess!”
I remember not fully understanding their discussion, but the thought of that conversation pulled up a memory of Ben Grauer reporting the events of the 1929 Auburn prison riots on the network television show, The Big Story. Quite an event, I thought, having something that happened in our community portrayed on television. This was something to be proud of. I remembered images of anguished faces, confusion in long corridors, people hurriedly climbing and descending the darkened stairways of the prison’s main building: gun shots and smoke; eyes darting in all directions in search of security. Town’s people were arming themselves against the convicts’ escape. Little did I know that it would be but a short time before I’d experience these same scenes for myself, when Auburn Prison experienced a riot in 1970.
I tried to think about my up-coming interview. What would the warden ask me? I couldn’t fall asleep before one more prison encounter flashed before my eyes. It was 1957 and I was 12 years old and in the seventh grade. The seventh and eighth grade classes were going on a field trip to the prison. I couldn’t understand why we were going, but I guess it was to see how the bad guys were punished, just as we had done when the Cub Scouts went on a field trip to the police station and saw its lock-up with mattress-less steel beds hung from the walls in the tiny cells.
We were to leave for the prison at one o’clock, but I wasn’t allowed to go. A friend and I had written our names in some freshly poured cement and somebody “ratted us out”. Losing the privilege of going to prison was my punishment. I laughed to myself and fell asleep.