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Don’t Be Cruel

Notes from an Especially Ugly Place

June 22, 2023

This piece is the first in a new series of contributions from currently incarcerated writers and artists. Spectre wishes to thank Empowerment Avenue for making this series possible.

Superintendent Delta Barometre deliberately chose the cheapest and cruelest way to resolve a phone usage issue at New York’s Otisville Correctional Facility. On May 11, 2023, she issued a memo with the header, “SUBJECT: Incarcerated Individual Phone Policy.” In this memo she rescinded a phone policy that permitted each prisoner two thirty-minute phone calls per day (at the officer’s discretion). This was during the suspension of in-person visits due to the pandemic.

The Superintendent was intentionally indifferent to an already oppressed people. She justified rescinding this policy by citing pre-pandemic protocol: Facility Operation Manual #201 and Directive #4423, which only permitted one phone call per day for prisoners on the housing unit. She went on to say that taking away the additional phone call was the only way to ensure everyone had equal access to the housing unit phones. Most other medium-security facilities permit two daily phone calls on the housing unit. This inequality makes Otisville an especially ugly place.

Otisville had a fresh feel of soft pleasure when I first arrived. I stepped off the bus in December 2021 and saw lush green and sky for as far as the eye could see. There were no hard lines. That oppressive gray, thirty-foot wall was no longer there. I thought I could forget twenty-three years of being behind the wall, until now. Otisville is starting to feel cold, and akin to the maximum-security prisons I called home, like Attica.

I was personally hurt by the Superintendent’s decision. I’ve been in prison over a quarter century, and this is the first time that the big boss was a Black woman. I was initially proud when I saw that Superintendent Delta Barometre was Black—until she proved herself a maker and enforcer of policies that are systemically racist. Prisoners of color are the most ill-effected by this policy. I expected better from her. I was wrong.

The cruelty of her choice came out on Mother’s Day 2023. It crushed me when I saw several young men crying in bathroom stalls because they couldn’t get through on the phone. I covered my eyes in shame because I couldn’t get through either. Collectively, we watched the phones just hanging unused and felt like cowards because the entire situation was foul.

Back in 1994, I fought back. I was in C-74 on Rikers Island. I engaged in violent hand-to-hand combat just to use the phone for a few minutes a day. We all did. We were adolescents at war. We got animalized to survive like savages. Two years later, I was released back into society, a wounded animal. In the summer of 1997, I got smoked for a robbery/homicide and sentenced to twenty-five years to life.

I was initially proud when I saw that Superintendent Delta Barometre was Black—until she proved herself a maker and enforcer of policies that are systemically racist.

Almost a quarter century later, I found myself serving as the Inmate Liaison Chairman at Fishkill Correctional Facility. It was during the onset of the COVID crisis in 2020. During my tenure, I advocated to have the phones placed on all prisoners’ JPay tablets. The administration denied my request twice. During both meetings, I swore I would never stop advocating for equal and fair phone usage for all prisoners. I took my advocacy to work and published prisoners’ pain in the Marshall Project. As a result, I was transferred to my father’s house, to survive or die.

I arrived at Otisville Correctional Facility in December 2021 and decided to thrive. My father’s name was also Otis. He left me to live or die too. On the path to my redemption I found feminism, and I doubled down my Quaker beliefs and practice.

On May 15, 2023, I took a leap of faith. Rabbi Zajac and Reverend Pelle were making rounds in my housing unit. I gave them the following spiel: “This phone situation is a human rights violation. The Superintendent intentionally chose to enforce a policy that is systematically unfair, racist, and cruel. Sirs, you are men of God. I’m begging you to please help us. Please!” I reiterated using my words to direct their eyes to the empty phone booth.

Faith had fallen from grace. During times of normalcy, our facility chaplains tell us, “God would intervene on our behalf if we believe.”

That was a fake out. I was taken aback by their response but not surprised. “You should all file a grievance and pray,” Reverend Pelle advised me. And then he left us prisoners hanging—much like the unused phones in the housing unit.

One of the younger prisoners turned to me: “Ayo, Ceez! Ain’t you going to parole board soon? Why you putting yourself out there? You know how foul the system is. They gonna come shooting at you. Don’t you wanna go home?” he asked.

I snickered in a phony tough guy posture as I faced away from him. I didn’t want him to see the tears in my eyes mixed with blood. “Of course I wanna go home. No, I don’t want to be moved all over the state in retaliation. Nor do I want to be set up or beat up. Getting knocked down sometimes comes with standing up for what’s right.”

I went on to say, “I refused to return back to society the same young punk I came in as. The man I’d become could not and would not wait for a fleeting release date that was flimsy to begin with. The parole board is just as foul. Whether here or out there, I’m obligated to do the work worth doing.”

“What work you talking about?” he asked.

“The people’s work, little homie. People died for us to have it a bit better. We got to put our share in the pot too. This is how I like to fight,” I said and slid off because the tears had begun tearing me to pieces.

I didn’t get to speak with my mom on Mother’s Day. But I did connect with several young men. I showed them a better way to fight—a way we can all heal from the atrocities that I had to endure to use the phone when I first came through the system. This my plea to Superintendent Delta Barometre: Please don’t be cruel.



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