Incarceration in Ithaca, NY

Christopher “The Animal” Hartman is sprawled out on the tattered, red couch at Ithaca’s Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources center, otherwise affectionately referred to as “518” – a nod to its street address by those who are frequent clients and users of OAR’s services.

He is wearing the same oversized, stained, beige blazer and ragged, light-wash blue jeans that he has had on for a few days now, and a crumpled up, half-smoked joint is safely curled up in his fist.

“I am just a misunderstood American hero,” says Hartman, whose last stint in jail was this past summer, for a charge he claims was unjust.

“Those bastard cops shot me in my back with a Taser gun and then kicked me when I fell down. They charged me with obstruction of governmental administration and, of course, this was right before they were all required to wear body cameras.” He smiles, as if he is privy to a police secret that he can’t expose.

As he goes on grinning the 39 year old reveals a set of already graying teeth, half of which are either chipped or missing altogether. Hartman is familiar with Ithaca’s Police Department. Born and raised in Ithaca, New York, Hartman was first incarcerated in 2000, for trespassing charges in Owego County. “I sat in that Owego jail for a few days, it was a hell hole. They all are.”

Hartman is also quick to claim that the IPD is just as corrupt a system as any of them, a topic he continues to harken back to throughout the conversation. Hartman will even go so far as to argue that an active cop currently on IPD has a past criminal record, yet most citizens wouldn’t know it.

His voice is rough and burly, and he often rushes through his words with a level of child-like excitement. Most of Hartman’s experiences with law enforcement has stemmed from his substance addiction, specifically to alcohol. Earning his nickname, “The Animal,” from his behavior while under the influence, Hartman has been struggling to overcome his dependence on the drug for decades.

After years of rebellion and spending time in multiple county jails, Hartman is now on the path to overcoming his addiction. He even just finished writing his first play, which recently debuted at Hangar Theatre in Ithaca. It took many years, however, to get to where he is now.

“My longest stint in jail was when I did a county year in Tioga County in 2004 after I chased someone off my property. I was charged with attempted assault but still to this day I don’t think I did nothin’ wrong,” argues Hartman.

As he is telling his stories, his eyes wander up and down the yellowing ceiling, his one hand protectively fingering the joint he still clutches, while his other is loosely draped over his forehead, as if to shield himself from the minimal light coming from the dim ceiling fixtures.

“Some crack-head came up into my house, threatened my family and claimed he would rape my niece. I chased him onto my lawn where I picked up a sledgehammer that was sitting on the grass and chased him off of my property and onto his. A neighbor saw everything and called the cops. All I did was instill fear in the guy, that was it, but they still got me with attempted assault. After that I sat in jail for four whole months without seeing a judge.”

A couple years later, and after a handful of brief sentences, Hartman has become so familiar with the surrounding county jails that he is now a self-proclaimed expert on which jail is the most desirable one to be locked up in once incarcerated; which ones provided the tastiest food, had the most cell space, and the least corrupt correctional officers.

“My days in the Ithaca jail were shitty. The food is decent; they just don’t feed you enough. I would say you’re malnourished in our jail. They feed you the minimum and if you don’t got commissary then you’re going to be one hungry motherfucker,” said Hartman. “Whenever they started to board us out because of overcrowding, I would always try to get shipped out to Tioga County. The jail may suck, but the food is good and they feed you plenty. They have like half a chicken night every Tuesday and taco night every other Saturday. I had like eight bowls of cereal every morning. Frosted Flakes, baby. The real Kellogg’s kind too, not the knock-off shit.”

Hartman laughs a deep-belly laugh, thinking back to his time spent at Tioga County jail.

“You know, in Tioga County you get your own cell, but here in Ithaca you live like nine guys to a room. And it stinks, people don’t want to shower, you know? But we’re all in it together.”

Hartman has been bouncing in and out of jail for almost two decades, something that many of those facing time in Ithaca are familiar with.

Hartman credits a lot of his success on his journey to sobriety and his lack of recent time imprisoned to the services of Ithaca’s Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources center.

“OAR is absolutely brilliant. Some of my favorite people ever. When I’m hungry, or I need a smoke, or to use the Internet, the bathroom, the shower, anything, I go to OAR. It is my home away from home. They got me out of jail,” reflects Hartman.

Christopher Hartman’s story is not an uncommon one, with many inmates finding themselves bouncing in between jails for a multitude of reasons over the course of many years.

According to the Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources center of Tompkins County, there are, on average, between 79 and 90 inmates sitting in Tompkins’ County Jail during any given week; though the capacity is set at a maximum of 72 people. In the year 2015 there were 886 inmates booked through Tompkins County Jail.

The majority of those imprisoned are white males as they make up 70-80% of the jail population. The female population is much smaller compared to their male counterparts, on average there are about 13 incarcerated women. Additionally, because New York is one of two states that charges adolescents of 16 years or older as adults, there is a fair amount of inmates under 20 in the jail, but rarely more than one to two 17-year-olds due to the lack of cell space in Tompkins County Jail.

In 2015, the average age of those inmates was between 21 and 35, with around 300 of those who were incarcerated in total falling between the ages of 20 to 26.

The center in charge of keeping track of those going in and out of Tompkins County Jail is OAR, which is known among the incarcerated community as a safe haven, with resources unparalleled to any other type of services available in Ithaca.

The OAR Center is located at 518 West Seneca St. in Ithaca, New York. In one of the back rooms of the center is the office of Anita Peebles. Peebles is sitting behind one of three wooden desks located in a small, crowded room. A bowl of assorted jolly ranchers and white lifesaver mints sits out next to a clutter of papers.

The documents range from assigned counsel forms to letters written by inmates waiting to be enveloped, stamped, and delivered to loved ones. Important phone numbers of local lawyers, judges and surrounding county jails are hung up next to her desk, and a large white dry erase calendar board hangs in the center of one of the walls. The calendar marks the days of the month as well as how many “phone relays” OAR has provided each month. In just March 2016, more than 450 phone relays were completed.

“One of the most important services we do is phone relay,” explained Peebles. “Inmates at Ithaca County jail call into OAR, speak to one of us, and then we will relay that message to their loved ones. We provide that vital communication that otherwise would have been lost. We also allow family members and friends to come into the center and we set them up with a phone call to the jail so the middleman is taken out of their conversation, that way their call is also free. To set up a call on their personal phone to the prison costs like $25 for three calls, and each call can only be up to three minutes in length. For some, that just isn’t in their budget.”

Peebles has been a client service worker at OAR since Jan. 2014. Filling the spaces at the two other wooden desks are Megan Wheeler, a senior client service worker and Jess Shepard, a client service worker assistant. It is because of these three women and the services provided at OAR that clients like Hartman are offered a real chance at a successful recovery in Ithaca.

Peebles describes the services offered at OAR as two different parts. “We provide office work: people can come in at anytime for things such as birth certificates, state IDs, stamps and envelopes, which we pay for. If they are searching for jobs or housing we have a computer or phone they can use. If they need a bus ticket to get to parole if they just got out of prison, we will provide that for them. Or if they just want to come in and talk, we are here,” said Peebles.

The other facet is the actual visitation with the inmates at Ithaca’s county jail. Peebles and Wheeler go to the jail about four times a week. There they meet with their clients, take care of necessary paperwork, relay messages from family members, and most importantly, provide inmates with assigned counsel forms; which is necessary to obtain an attorney for court.

One of the newest court ordered laws, passed in 2015, requires that when a client is first arraigned and needs to appear before court, they must have an attorney present with them. “This is so that if you are drunk or belligerent you can’t run your mouth to the judge and get yourself in more trouble because your attorney will be right next to you. Most people have no idea about the assigned council form, or how to even get an attorney; things they need to know,” Wheeler said.

Similar to the services and recovery help offered at OAR is another alternative program in Ithaca called Day Reporting, with its headquarters located on West State Street.

Day Reporting is an alternative incarceration program in Ithaca. The program offers convicts other options of recovery and repentance instead of doing hard jail time if their sentence is short enough. It is also a place of support for those in Ithaca who are dealing with the courts after being released from jail, going through a rehabilitation program, or are waiting for a sentencing. The center provides services such as resume help, community involvement opportunities, and classes and counseling for life after jail.

 

Sitting in her usual spot around the large, square table in the group meeting room at the Day Reporting Center is Annette Wilson. Wilson is in a long-sleeved, grass green hoodie sweatshirt, with the bright yellow “John Deere” emblem printed across the front, which she paired with light wash, baggy jeans. Her white Skechers sneakers are scuffed and worn down, and her brown hair that is beginning to gray is styled in a modernized mullet fashion. It is lunchtime, and she is pushing around a carrot and potato stew that she brought from home. Every so often in between her sentences she will glance down at her stew, push it around with her white plastic spoon, maybe take a bite, then go on talking.

Wilson is also familiar with the incarceration process in Ithaca, having previously gone to jail and dealing with the judicial system for multiple drug- and alcohol-related charges; she is now waiting to go back to court for sentencing for her latest DUI charge.

“I must have gone down to the bottom of the bottle that day. The last thing I can remember is pouring myself a drink, going over to my neighbor’s house and then coming home. I can’t understand why I would want to get behind the wheel of my car, but I did,” said Wilson.

Wilson has lived in Ithaca her entire life. Now, at 52 years old, she has experienced divorce, death, incarceration and all of the repercussions associated with the jailing system. Her voice is raspy and shaky as she talks, a hint of the nervous energy she is feeling toward her sentencing date, which is approaching in just a few days.

Her exhaustion is evident, she constantly sighs, placing her head in her hands as she does. She fiddles often with her paper napkin, but continues on in detailing her history with drugs and alcohol, her battles with sobriety and the intoxicating cycle from which she just can’t seem to escape.

The latest charge Wilson is facing is alcohol induced, as all of them have been. On Aug. 23, 2015, Wilson got behind the wheel of her Jeep and drove her car off the side of the highway, down into a ravine where she eventually hit a tree, and by a miracle ended up in the backseat of her car rather than through her windshield.

“Right now I’m facing the charge of an aggravated DUI. The legal limit is .18 and I blew a .28. I also don’t have my license, so that’s another charge for unlicensed operation. To be honest, I’m not sure how I made it out of that crash alive. I totaled my Jeep and broke a few ribs, but that is about it,” reflected Wilson.

Much like Hartman, Wilson has been bouncing around Ithaca’s judicial system for many years. Her addiction to alcohol has prevented her from the stable life and healthy relationships she has always desired. For her, the liquid kryptonite is vodka. “You can put a beer or glass of wine in front of me and it will sit there untouched or unopened for days. But there is something about vodka that I can’t resist, and I usually always find the bottom of a bottle before I take myself to the hospital,” said Wilson.

After that crash on Aug. 23, Wilson found herself again in the hospital in mid-September. She transferred to the psychiatric ward where she stayed for a couple days before releasing herself.

The next time, Wilson was not as lucky. In October 2015 she landed in the Intensive Care Unit of the Psychiatric Ward. This time it was the combination of a bottle of vodka and two bottles of prescription pills that earned her a ticket back. “It’s not that I’m suicidal, it’s hard to explain, I just can’t bring myself to stop once I start.”

Wilson’s story is not uncommon and she has struggled with alcohol dependency since she was just a teenager living in Ithaca.

“I started having a relationship with alcohol when I was 17. I’ve only been sober for about eight and a half years my whole life. Growing up in this town I was a teenager running the streets and there was really nothing else to do besides go to the arcade, roller skate or go to one of the multitude of bars,” said Wilson as her voice began to deviate to a whisper. “And my parents are alcoholics, so alcohol was just the way to go. They used to take me to bars when I was underage and get me drinks and stuff. My entire life was all about drinking for me.”

Incarceration isn’t the only obstacle Wilson has had to overcome in her lifetime. Often her binge drinking has been the result of heartbreaking events.

In 2002, Wilson’s marriage to her husband Larry ended. This led to a quick succession of two DUIs for Wilson in just under ten months. She did a five-day sanction in jail, but when her court-ordered drug test came back positive for cocaine, a drug she claims she uses only sporadically, she was sent off to rehab for 21 days. The much-needed wake up call for Wilson was losing custody of her children. So she tried to pull her life together, and after three years and a graduation from felony drug court she was granted back the parental rights of her children.

The next eight and a half years of her life were the longest – and only – period of time that Wilson has stayed sober, “We lived a simple life in a trailer park and I worked forty plus hours a week to support us. I stayed sober… I wish I could just go back to that.”

 

It was in 2010 when Wilson met a man who was formerly married to her cousin. He asked her out and they went on a date where he offered her a drink of Absolut vodka and cranberry; she accepted it. One vodka cranberry was all it took to jumpstart Wilson’s downward plummet back into her alcohol addiction, and decimate the nearly nine years of successful sobriety.

“I was eventually drinking a two liter bottle of vodka a day. It did take some time to get back into it, I could go some days without drinking but it eventually got to the point where I was drinking that much and sleeping very minimally. I would get up in the morning and I would try to beat the puking in the garbage basket while I was going to the bathroom. Then I would start again. It would take me a two liter bottle of 90-proof vodka just so I could be normal again,” said Wilson contritely.

When her drinking picked up again, so did her tumultuous relationship with her children.

The children moved out, this time of their own accord. “Alcohol is a huge factor in everything I do. I have pretty much destroyed all of my personal relationships… This all sounds really bad when I say it out loud,” chuckles Wilson, as she shakes her head and rolls her eyes, as though after all these years she is still in disbelief that what she is saying is a description of her own life story.

Not all inmates, however, who enter into Tompkins County Jail system do so under substance related charges. Some, like Donatella Luciano, find themselves incarcerated for more serious offenses.

 

Perched on the edge of one of the two brown couches in the OAR conference room, with her hiking backpack filled with all of her belongings tucked safely behind her legs, is Donatella Luciano, a fifty year old New Jersey native, who is currently living in her own personalized version of a hell-like limbo. Luciano is trapped in New York state as she waits to hear from her parole officer if her request to transfer home to New Jersey had been approved. Though Luciano has been out of prison since Feb. 16, 2016, she has been enduring this wait for what seems like an immeasurable amount of time.

Luciano has spent the past five and a half years of her life waiting. At first it was waiting for her court date, then it was waiting to hear her sentencing, then waiting in prison, waiting to be transferred to and from facilities, waiting to receive news on when she might be released, and now waiting to be approved to leave behind the town in which she carries her harshest and most unpleasant memories.

When Luciano first moved to Ithaca, New York, from Massachusetts, she was a well-established, educated woman following her partner after he accepted a new job at Cornell University. With a background in organizational psychology and business management, Luciano originally turned down an office job at Ithaca College to work for a small local business, Gimme! Coffee.

Luciano was named Vice President of Human Resources and she quickly catapulted the small, local business into the twenty-first century. She created and built their online database, executed effective marketing plans and brought them to life. Yet, for her partner it was never enough. “Our relationship became very volatile and violent. I was a victim of domestic violence, so I started taking money to give to him so he would feel better about the fact that I wasn’t making that much money on salary,” explained Luciano.

“I started at Gimme! In 2006 and then after about two years, in 2008, I slowly started taking money. I had never committed a crime before, I was never in trouble. I don’t know why I thought it was alright to do that, I truly don’t.”

For two years, Luciano would slowly wire money from Gimme! Coffee’s personal accounts into different banks she had set up in New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York. Eventually, after two years, the amount she wired herself had amassed to over $60,000.

“It horrifies me when I look back at it. Not only was it the money, but it was the betrayal. The owner trusted me, we had dinner together, we were friends,” said Luciano.

As she talks Luciano continuously runs her hands through her short, coarse black hair –pulling it up into a high ponytail, letting it fall back down, only to pull it back up again.

“I didn’t know this at the time, but they [police and private investigators] had been following me for about a month before anyone confronted me. They entered into my house without me knowing, sat in cars that were parked on my street, one even went running at the same time I ran every morning with my chocolate lab,” laughs Luciano, as though she should have picked up on the investigation.

Her thin, black framed glasses sit atop her head and her wide and exposed dark-brown eyes tear up every so often as she reflects back on her time spent in prison. “I had settled for a plea agreement right away. I had done the crime I wasn’t going to sit there and lie about it on top of everything. My lawyer got me a deal stating that I would do five years probation and six months county jail.”

It took a year for Luciano to go to trial for her sentencing. During that time she had secured a job at Ithaca Bakery, handling money every single day, hoping she would do her time and move past this ugly stage with as few scars as possible.

Eventually Luciano had her sentencing hearing, and it was from that day her real nightmare began.

“There was a new judge on the bench, just starting her career in Ithaca. And she slammed me. She thought my plea agreement was too lenient, chastised me for stealing from a small business. She sentenced me to two and a half to seven years in prison. I couldn’t believe it,” said Luciano.

Once in the system, Luciano bounced between three New York prisons, ranging from minimum to maximum security. The reception jailing center where every New York State inmate is initially sent to is Bedford Hills, a maximum security prison. This is where Luciano spent her very first week in prison.

“Once I got to Bedford Hills, that’s when the real horror began. They strip search you right when you walk in the door. They take all of your stuff. You have to shower and everybody is in a row. I kept thinking that they should just line everyone up, get a fire hose and hose you down. You could see everyone naked in a row next to you and the officers were like three feet away watching every move that you made. It is humiliating and degrading,” choked Luciano.

The long-sleeve canary yellow shirt that Luciano has on is much different from the same exact orange garb she had been sporting in prison. Her old tennis shoes are scuffed and her jewelry is minimal but that is to be expected since she hasn’t been allowed to dress herself for the last five and a half years of her life.  She doesn’t need material items to make her happy anymore.

After spending a week at Bedford Hills, Luciano was transferred to Albion, a medium security prison.

It was in Albion that Luciano spent almost all of what would turn into a five and a half year sentence. “Albion is like a college campus. Meticulously kept, rolling hills, the buildings almost look like dorms, but then you look up, and you’re surrounded by razor wire, and you realize that you’re not in college anymore.”

Once inside the jail, the living situation resembled a dormitory-style of housing. In lieu of jail cells, like at Bedford Hills, the living space was separated by cubes, which enforced limited privacy and personal space.

Luciano attributes her survival in prison to the jobs she worked and clubs she became involved with during her incarceration period. Her favorite job assignment was the in mess hall, where she worked as a cook.

“They let me work all the time, as many hours as I wanted. That mess hall was always jamming, it kept me busy, and helped the time pass by,” explained Luciano, a trace of gratefulness in her voice. “If I hadn’t worked in that mess hall I am sure that I would have killed myself.”

Eventually, two and a half years had passed, and Luciano was due for her first parole board meeting in 2013. She was blindsided and sentenced to another two years at Albion.

“They acknowledged how good I was, the lack of trouble and my work, but no, I got two more years for the nature of my crime,” said Luciano as her eyes began to gloss over. “The owner of Gimme! wanted a pound of flesh, he must have written in a letter speaking against me for the hearing.”

In those next two years Luciano found herself transferred to the minimum security prison Bayview. She was there when Hurricane Sandy struck, destroying the prison, with the inmates being the last in town to be evacuated.

Luciano eventually ended back up in Albion, and though she was glad to be back in a familiar place, she emphasized the horrible treatment of the women by the correctional officers.

“You could not imagine what these officer do, and how they talk to women. It really just blew my mind, they were so verbally abusive. The would be like, ‘You fucking bitches better shut up, I don’t want to hear a peep, or the whole dorm will be in trouble. It was like science fiction to me,” said Luciano.

After two years passed, Luciano met for another parole board hearing, because of the nature of her crime, she was again sentenced to another two year stint of imprisonment.

In the state of New York, however, there is a law called a conditional release day, meaning every inmate is to be released on their scheduled day; Luciano’s was Sept. 24th, 2015. Instead of appealing the parole board’s sentencing like she did her first, she decided to just wait out the next few months for the conditional release day, when she would be allowed out, and ideally transferred back home to her home state of New Jersey.

When Sept. 24 finally rolled around, Luciano was still sitting in jail.

“I voluntarily sat in jail for six months after Sept. 24 because that’s how badly I didn’t want to stay in New York. But I eventually couldn’t do it anymore, so on Feb. 16, 2016, I was released from prison. I later learned that my counselor never even submitted my inter-state transfer forms,” said Luciano.

Life outside of prison for Luciano is, in many ways, similar to others who have been released. A large majority of released convicts quickly land back behind bars because they find it so hard to re-assimilate to the life they once had. Many will face severe anxiety and experience a loss of social and interpersonal skills due to having little to no daily interactions with a society or a community outside of prison.

“Every time I try to cross a street I feel like I am going to get killed. Everything is moving so fast out here, and I haven’t crossed a street in five years. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to talk to people or even know what to say,” said Luciano.

But Luciano emphasizes that she was lucky to have a support system, her family– specifically her sisters– to rely on when she left prison; something many find themselves without.

“Some of the women who are still in prison, I know that when they get out it will be so difficult for them. The system is a nightmare, any bureaucracy needs to be looked at and re-tooled. It’s so degrading and so humiliating. If you have a reasonable sense of self when you go into prison you just won’t have that when you come out,” reasons Luciano.

Luciano is currently working in the kitchen in one of the dining halls at Ithaca College, where she is still waiting to be approved for her interstate transfer. She plans on moving home to New Jersey with her sister, where she will hopefully find a job and move past this chapter of her life.

“This was not part of my life plan, schlepping around in Ithaca College’s kitchen,” said Luciano.

 

“While I was in prison I kept feeling like I was living out that one song by Coldplay, ‘Viva la Vida.’ You used to rule your own world, and now somehow all of us ended up back at the bottom.”

 

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