All Prisoners Lie Transcript

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Prisoners tell lies. Every corrections officer knows this. In fact there's even a joke about it: "How do you know when a prisoner is lying? When he opens his mouth."

I spent almost a year working as a state corrections officer, or C.O., up at Sing Sing. I wasn't there for the same reason as my fellow officers, who were there for a paycheck. I was there to learn about the life and be able to write a book about it. But the inmates didn't know that and so they lied to me, the same as anybody else.

For most of my time, I worked in a place people called B Block. It's a massive human warehouse with almost 600 men in it. One of those men was an artist, a Latino guy named Sunny, about 25 years old, slightly built. He had a giant set of felt tip markers. And for the price of 4 packs of cigarettes, another inmate could pay him to do a customized greeting card for any occasion. Easter: "Mom, I miss you," whatever. But it would say the name of mom. And it would have anything else personal you wanted in it.

These things, these works of art - and they were, it took him 2 or 3 days to complete and I'd watch him admiringly, and he was a friendly guy and I got talking to him. And one day I said, "Sunny, what are you doing in here?"

I had him pegged for some drug offense, you know, some massive sentence for a relatively small crime. And he made a gun out of his hand and he said, "Murder. Murder, C.O. - triple life." And I thought, "Whoa, you? Murder?"

About a month later the department put an inmate look-up page on their website so you could enter a person's name, and it helps if you have their number, too, which I did. And when I did that for Sunny it came back, "larceny." So, Sunny was a burglar, a thief, he wasn't a murderer, but he was in a place where you want everybody to think you're as tough as you could possibly be. And being a murderer is a good thing in Sing Sing. And I understood why Sunny had told me that.

I had another inmate on the other side of that floor, was one of the very few white guys on the floor. There are 112 inmates I supervise, 4 of them were white. He was one, he was a middle aged guy, glasses, not much hair left, and constantly afraid of the other prisoners. You could just see him, he's always looking over his shoulder. He was afraid. And maybe that's one reason he was friendly to me. And I liked him OK, and one day I said, "Hey, VanNess, so what brings you here anyway?"

And he looked sort of ashamed, he said, "Attempted murder, C.O. Attempted murder. I tried to kill my business partner."

And I said, "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."

And I went home and I went home right away and I looked up VanNess, and he was in for second degree sodomy, which means sexual intercourse with somebody under 13 years of age. And you can see why somebody like that would be afraid in prison. And you can see why somebody like that would tell a lie.

The most common, I suppose, was the one you hear almost every day, which is just, "I didn't do it, C.O., that's not me. I'm doing somebody else's time. This is a bum rap. I was framed."

You hear this every single day and at first I was kind of interested, and I thought, "Wow, a travesty has occurred and I want to know more." But it doesn't take long and you just filter that out. You just add it to the rest of the noise you deal with every day.

And officers have a way. I have a response. They don't say this to the inmates, you don't want to stir things up, but the response we tell each other is, "Yeah, well, OK, he didn't do that, but you know he did something else."

And it's cynical, but you know most crimes go unsolved. And when a person is sent to Sing Sing, when they are convicted of a crime, almost always it's been more than one crime that got them there. So, it may be the officers are right, though that idea always bothered me.

There was one inmate I talked to even though I didn't like him. His name was Wahir Al-Habib. He was an older man, I'd say late fifty's, tall, handsome. Wore a kufi and other Muslim garb and he loved to yell at the C.O.s. He loved to get a good rant going.

And mine came one day when I asked him for his ID card. He had no reason to dislike me but, bing, "ID card? You mean transit pass, don't you, C.O.? You mean transit pass because this is South Africa. This is the apartheid system here. This is the white man oppressing the black man. This is a bantustan. You heard, C.O.? You know what that word means? I bet you don't, do you? Bantustan, C.O., look it up!"

And that's an unpleasant thing to hear, but I was interested because the only other explanation was the C.O.'s explanation of why there was this terrible, terrible racial imbalance in prison. And the C.O.'s explanation doesn't even bear repeating.

So, I was interested in what Habib had to say. Problem is I couldn't tell him so because any C.O. who admits to accepting an idea like that, that the system might be a little rigged, loses all credibility, not only among C.O.s, but among the prisoners. They don't want to hear that from you, you are there to stand up for the law and stand up for the system.

So, I didn't say that to say to Habib, but I did ask him other things. He got so much respect from all these prisoners and I learned one reason is he'd been in so long. He had a bad limp. He had a limp because he had a bullet in his butt against his hip. He had the bullet there according to him because the state wouldn't pay to take it out. The bullet had come from a state trooper during the Attica uprising in 1974, I think. And Habib was respected for that. If he wanted a shower and it wasn't his day for a shower, the younger guys would say, "Hey, Conover, give my shower to Habib. Habib can have my shower."

And I'd say, "OK." And one day I said to Habib, "Habib, what are you here for?" And he said, "Oh man, I'm locked up, I'm locked up for rape, man." I said, "What?" And I believed- I thought- first of all, I thought he was telling me the truth, but I couldn't understand all the respect he was getting if that was his crime, because that's only slightly higher on the scale and than VanNess' crime.

So, I was intrigued by Habib. I was worried about him, but I was intrigued. I thought he had a lot to tell. And he left Sing Sing before I did. His arthritis got so bad he couldn't climb the steps. There's a lot of steps there, so he got sent to the geriatric unit of another prison. Yes, there are many geriatric units for prisoners these days.

And when I quit, a few months later, I thought, you know, all the people, all the interesting people I met in prison who I really didn't have a chance to talk to, Habib is at the top of my list. So, I went back to that inmate look up page. Habib is now at Green Haven Correctional Facility. I wrote him a letter. He wrote me back, and 2 weeks later I'm sitting in the visiting room of Green Haven. He's the only inmate I ever went to visit. And he is so happy I'm there, because I'm the first person who's visited him in more than 5 years.

And I was happy, too. I was happy because I thought for once one of the walls is down. I'm not wearing a uniform. He knows I'm interested in him as a person. He's going to be candid with me. And the first thing I want to know about is this rape thing.

And it's the same rap I heard time after time at Sing Sing. "I didn't do it, Conover. It was a set up. I was, you know, I'd been let out. I'd been paroled. I'd been free like 2 months and they're looking for a con, they're looking for a con to lay this crime on. And I was in my late fifty's when I got charged with that. I didn't do it. I got a good lawyer, though, Conover. I got a good lawyer. She's been trying to get me out for years. She's going to get me out. I think it's going to happen real soon.

And I said, "OK, Habib, you've got a good lawyer, I'm glad for that. Tell me what else, tell me what else you went to prison for.”

And he had a long story. It started early on. He ran numbers in Newark. He was called Newark Red. Then he told me he became a gangster, "I was a stick up man, Conover."

His second bid, his second prison term was for robbery and assault. And then he went in once for extortion. He converted to Islam during his third term.

He said, "It wasn't until then I came down off my high horse, Conover. I learned, you know, there's more important things in the world than me."

And Islam had been good for him. You could see it filled his life with purpose and discipline. And I liked hearing about all that. And he was glad to tell it, and he was glad I was there, too, because of all the vending machines around us. And in prison you get kind of tired of the food and in the vending machines there's pies and sandwiches and I bought a lot of those for us and we spent a pleasant afternoon that way.

I couldn't figure out how to work Habib into my book. He was such an interesting guy, but, you know, I didn't think he was telling me the whole story. And I went on writing, I stopped thinking about him until about 4 months later. It was a hot night in August. I was lying on my bed, almost midnight. I was falling asleep. I had New York One news on and the announcer said something about another inmate exonerated on DNA evidence. “Barry Scheck, today, got another inmate free on the basis of DNA evidence.”

And I sat up, and I looked, and damn if it wasn't Habib coming out of Green Haven prison with his lawyer Ms. Peel and Barry Scheck. And I said, "Oh my God!"

And I woke up my wife. And I said, "Margaret, you're not going to believe this, but this is the guy. This is the guy who said he was innocent and he was innocent!"

And it shook me up. I'm still shook up and I couldn't sleep well that night. First thing next morning I call the guy I worked with who is now an NYPD officer and I said, "Terry, remember that guy, Habib, he used to yell at us?"

He said, "Oh yeah, I remember." I said, "Remember, he said he was innocent?" And he said, "Well, I suppose, everybody said that." And I said, "He was innocent. I just saw that on T.V. Barry Sheck just got him off." And he said, "Huh, that's interesting, Conover. But, you know, if he didn't do that crime I bet he did something else." And I thought, "Oh man!"

And the problem- the problem that stuck with me was both that, in this occasion maybe he did do something else, but he was doing time that wasn't his to do. He did 6 years. He did 6 years that were not his crime.

The second thing that got me was I was part of his punishment. I was the guy who locked him in every day. And that bothered me.

I moved to New York about 15 years ago from Colorado, and I thought, "You know, to make it in a city like this you're going to have to be a little more tough, going to be a little more suspicious, going to have to watch out for yourself, and you're going to have to question what people say. Be a little less trusting, don't take things at face value."

And especially, well, Habib taught me this lesson. I mean, let me step back.

Especially in a place like prison, you had to be skeptical because you hear untruths all day long. But the lesson Habib taught me was this, that if you don't question that reflex, if you don't imagine now and then there's cotton in your ears and stop to listen to somebody who is not listened to, you might just lose your ability to hear the truth when it comes at you.

So, thanks. Thank you very much.