9: Making Chicken Soup in Prison!

9: Making Chicken Soup in Prison!

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

Making Chicken Soup in Prison!

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

~Kelly Clarkson

“Take off all your clothes and wait in there.” I walked into the small cell and waited twenty minutes as a corrections officer took my clothes and put them in a box to be mailed to wherever I asked. A large man then examined me from head to toe and then some.

I signed some form confirming where my clothes would be sent together with a half dozen other forms, one of which was my designation as to where they should send my body if I died in the federal prison into which I was now being processed.

After the mug shot, fingerprinting and DNA swab, I was given a handful of green prison shirts and pants, together with some underclothes, and directed to walk a half-mile up the road from the “medium” prison where I had “self-surrendered” to the “camp” where I would spend the next year and a day. I had pled guilty to two tax misdemeanors wherein I declared all my income, filed accurately and on time but didn’t enclose a check. I had always managed to pay my taxes somehow, if not perfectly on time. I always seemed to be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat around tax time but this time I had run out of rabbits. Then I ran out of hats.

I followed the driveway to the camp and was greeted by the unofficial “mayor” of the camp who showed me around and finally helped me set up my bunk. I had the top bunk in a room with seventeen others who nodded hello to me. This was not The Pierre hotel on Fifth Avenue where I often stayed as a guest of a major network for whom I worked as an on-air legal analyst for several years. There was no mini-bar and I had no cell phone which would ring often as some cable news producer would call me for a “pre-interview” before I would appear on CNN or MSNBC or FOX to opine about the interesting case of the day.

In some manner of ironic injustice or perhaps, justice, I had become the interesting case of the day. As I told a reporter on the courthouse steps at my sentencing, “I screwed up and the judge was very fair. My life is not over and I hope to learn from this experience.” Many people watched my mini-speech on YouTube and told me how impressed they were that I was so upbeat. Only I knew that I was lying to myself. I was convinced my life was basically over.

As I lay in my upper bunk I kept trying to reassure myself that this time would pass quickly and maybe I would have a decent life to go back to. Again, although I was considered an effective advocate in the courtroom and on television, I consistently failed to convince myself that there would be a life after this prison camp.

After essentially hiding under the covers for three days in my bunk, I came to the conclusion that Ashton Kutcher was not going to run up to me to tell me I was being “punked” and this was an elaborate prank. I really needed to meet all these guys and get to know them. They would be my family for a long time. All they knew about me was I was some moderately famous lawyer in 56 upper. I later learned that the PNN (Prisoner News Network) had me tagged as a lawyer who bribed a juror. I hesitated to correct them when I heard that — it was a more interesting crime than the tax misdemeanors. When I did finally dispel that rumor, I substituted it with a story that I beat up some bikers in a brawl on the Jersey Shore. Absolutely nobody believed that but the story got a lot of laughs.

I spent a lot of time listening at first. I wanted to learn the language. By the time I had been “down” for a week, I had picked up so many new words and phrases that I kept a journal of them for a book I began writing. Oddly enough, the prison library had a copy of my first book, How Can You Defend Those People? Like I said, irony ruled here.

It was my fifth or sixth night in 56 upper when I began to think about the scene in the great Bill Murray movie Stripes where all the newly inducted soldiers introduce themselves. Each one is wackier than the next. The best is a character named Francis who insists that everyone call him “Psycho.” In a loud and appropriately maniacal tone, I found myself belting out his lines from that scene to the general population of my seventeen bunkmates.

“IF ANYBODY TOUCHES MY STUFF . . . I’LL KILL YA.”

Dead silence in the bunk room as the other inmates tried to assess whether I was having a nervous breakdown.

“IF ANYBODY TOUCHES ME . . . I’LL KILL YA.”

Now a few were laughing — they had seen the movie or it was just so damn funny coming from this sixty-four-year-old Jewish lawyer who has been under the covers since he got there.

“IF ANYBODY CALLS ME FRANCIS . . . I’LL KILL YA.”

Everyone was laughing and from that moment on, until the day I left the camp, my fellow inmates would come up to me with some variation of the “I’ll Kill Ya” line.

A few days later there was a “roast” in the dining hall celebrating the discharge of one of the guys who had been there for a few years. I had only met him briefly but the class clown in me asked to be one of the speakers. I opened with “I never gave a speech to a captured audience before but . . .” I then crammed all my new prison words into a speech about nothing, making sure I used all the prison terms in the absolute wrong context. I got a lot of laughs and again it broke down so many barriers between myself and the very diverse collection of inmates. We all had our own mug for coffee or juice or whatever. To mock my lack of “prison creds” I drew a big skull and bones on my mug with a black magic marker. A few months later I learned that the skull and bones were the “colors” of a major nationwide prison gang!

For the rest of my time at the camp, I did my best to meet and really get to know as many of my fellow inmates as possible. They were fascinating and I really made good friends with so many. Oddly enough, once one is discharged from a federal correctional facility, it is against the rules to continue any such friendship. Go figure.

I felt very fortunate to have had the means to allow other inmates to feel comfortable with me through my offbeat humor. I met and became very friendly with a variety of people with whom I shared only some measure of criminal conduct. Yet, I learned to like and trust so many of them. The level of civility and simple courtesy that existed in the camp was greater than one could possibly imagine.

When I left there, I promised to stay in touch with everyone but, as mentioned earlier, it is not allowed. I wish it were.

My life was not over. As was mentioned in a news article about my return to the practice of law, I never thought I would need to hit the “restart” button. I recently heard from some of the inmates who read that article about me. They were happy for me but more importantly, very happy to see that there can be life after a prison camp! My experience gave them hope. That almost makes it all worth it.

~Mickey Sherman

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