FIFTY YEARS AGO – July, 1973













Mitchel Cohen, being taken in 1973 to RIVERHEAD and to YAPHANK PRISON, U.S.A., to begin a 4-month sentence for antiwar protests at SUNY Stony Brook, upon arrest 4 years earlier.

The walls are a mosaic of green weasel-snot. Something is crawling along my leg, I feel it under the blanket. Today is Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, I don’t know. Some noise is penetrating the darkness, an electrical buzzing that will not stop. It must be a hundred degrees in here.

The bed rocks. I am in the top bunk, Star Spangled Banner is blasting over the loudspeaker right over my head. Someone is endlessly coughing across the room, and the stink of cigarettes is everywhere. It is still dark out. The shadows of barbed wire line the window edges. Everywhere I look there are bars and barbed wire.

There is a pervasive shuffling of feet and meaningless noise. I drop down from my bunk bed, pull on my prison-grays, and follow the trudge-trudge-trudge wherever it goes. Twenty steps, 30 steps, the guards search every prisoner. Forty steps more, go through an electronically opened gate and get searched again.

We come to the “mess hall”. The line moves quickly. Fellow prisoner cooks slop some food onto the trays. I stop, sit down, see my face distorted in the stainless steel table. “No talking!” I open my mouth and shovel liquids and mush into it. Then the shuffling and noise begins again. I follow it. It leads back to my dorm. I climb back into bed. I sleep, I think, or I wake. Which is the wake and which is the dream?

A train whistle’s blowing, brakes screeching. A red-faced man in a uniform – a drill sergeant — is standing next to me, his mouth wide open and smoke pouring out of his ears. I roll over and pull my pillow onto my head. A steel-toed workboot smacks the tile wall, narrowly missing my face.

Slowly, I turn my head and glare across the dorm room that houses 24 prisoners. Four car thieves and drug addicts, Vietnam vets all, stop their conversation, glare back at me. So, this is how it’s gonna be? My first day in Yaphank Prison and this is the welcoming committee.

I bury my face sideways against my pillow, tuck a deep breath into a forgotten corner of my lungs and, without looking up, a quiet, forceful and altogether alien voice emerges from my throat: “Whoever threw that boot, come pick it up. While you still can.”

JeesUS, did I say that? Down boy! Where the hell did that come from? Now I’m in for it, these guys’ll tear me to shreds. But there’s another force controlling me. I’m on automatic pilot. I keep my head down after my challenge, feign apathy. But my legs are getting ready to kick someone in the head, and my heart, oh yes, my strong athletic heart that normally beats slowly at 50 pulses per minute is now chugging along in high gear. I can feel the whole bunk bed trembling.

A minute passes. Nothing. No one says a word. Another minute. A pair of feet shuffle over near my bed, stop, then shuffle again. A hand reaches down, barely grazes my face, picks up the shoe. I hold my breath. Then the feet shuffle away. I slowly let my breath escape.

I am an unknown quantity, nerves of steel. Can I keep up this pretense for four months? That toothless fishmonger verbally fragged by an anti-war long-haired commie rat returns to his bunk to sulk. His buddies razz him. My bunk won’t stop quivering. Stop it, dammit!

*   *   *

“Hey Red,” bellows Adams. “Y’ever eat pussy?”

“Hell no!” Red groans back across the dorm, his eyes rolling, voice warbling, caricature of himself as a Black southern sharecropper. “Man, you is disgustin. Ain’t he disgustin, though?”

“Hey Red” Adams calls again in his high pitched whine, “your old lady ever give you a blow job?”

“Man, whatsamatter with you?! I just gets down there, puts the ol’ man in the boat. I don’t mess around with funky stuff like you white boys. Don’t talk. Nuthin’. When we rocks it, we make waves! And then it’s so quiet you could hear a rat pissin’ on cotton!”

Red, you don’t know what you’re missing. And your wife don’t know what she’s missing either! Why, I bet you never even ass fucked!” Adams is in top form, and all 340 pounds of his white body shivers like fatty chicken soup, taunted by dill and parsley.

“Hey Red,” someone else gets in on the act, “I bet you never even fucked a sheep.”

“What you talking about man. Ha. The man should hear you talkin’ now. Hey home piece,” Red calls to the guard, “hey home …”

Hey Red, Adams fucks the sheep out on the farm every day. ‘Course the rules say you’re not s’posed to mutilate the animals, but that don’t stop’m. Ain’t that right, fatso?”

“Damn straight. Fuck’m, suck’m, turn’m inside out and do it all again.”

“Hey Lee!” Red calls out. “Lee, y’ever eat pussy?”

“Only on weekends,” my bunkmate snorts. “Now shut the fuck up and let me get some sleep.” Uh oh. Bad move. A barrage of knotted socks come flying across the dorm. The war is on. “The commie corner! Get the commie corner!”

“You had to open your mouth,” I glower at Mark Lee from the top deck. We manage to stay out of it for a while, but ChopShop Sal, ever ready for a good sock battle, has stashed away six pairs of smelly old socks the guards didn’t find in searching the dorm. “This one’s for that Mongoloid Bartholomew,” Sal trumpets, invoking the name of the sadistic guard everyone hates. Sal leaps out of bed, hurls half his stash, and is back under the covers before the guard turns around in time to see who’s throwing the socks.

The NY State prison in Yaphank — the “honor farm” — draws its guards from the surrounding community, as do most prisons. Yaphank, and a few other towns on Long Island, such as Freeport and Ronkonkoma, served as KKK and Nazi bases leading up to World War II in the 1930s. As late as 2022, that heritage, such as it is, erupted into a county-wide fight over renaming a street that all these years has been named after a Grand Cyclops of the KKK.

When I first got to the Yaphank minimum security prison farm, all anyone ever talked about was fucking. Not beautiful sex. Not anything resembling human relationships. Mark and I play a lot of chess; we talk a lot about sexism, politics, books, and life. More and more inmates come around our bunk.

One night a scantily clad woman tries to sell us a car in a t.v. commercial. One of the nerds springs up to the screen and starts kissing it, and everyone else in the room screams “yiowwww!”

“Oh, Jesus, Mark, I’ve gotta get out of here. Let’s dig a tunnel.”

“Hold on, man, only 9 weeks for you to go.”

And then Adams begins his routine again, with Red. And Red answers, the same words, night after night: “Oh, man, ain’t you disgustin’.”

And the circle remains unbroken.

The only reprieve comes from ChopShop Sal, who brags about how quickly he and “his guys” can strip a car. He impersonates the guards in Donald Duck talk, throws his voice like the best ventriloquist, and we’re all in stitches. They never figure out where it’s coming from.

Mark and I start breaking down that circle. We talk about how people are brain­washed, how they view each other as objects. “They set us against each other, make us compete to buy things, and we don’t even need’m.” Mark agrees.

“Hey, Professor,” Red nicknames me. “What’re you some sociologist or something?”

“Me? No, I’m just an anti war student.”

“Anti war,” Red says, “that’s a good thing to be. Now I bet you eat pussy … Got that, Adams?”

“Damn fool war, if you ask me,” Sal sneers without once looking over to the vets. “But if my country’d ask me to serve, I’d go.”

“Who’d ask you?” one of the vets bats an eye in Sal’s direction. Sal responds with a sock, and a new battle begins.

How should society be run? What is wrong with the way things are? Everyone joins the discussion. Some of the older inmates tell us to shut up. They’re losing control. We’re breaking out of what we’re allowed to talk about and upending all the rules.

*   *   *

First week they took me to Riverhead’s maximum security prison. The corridor holds a column of 22 cells, each one clanging open onto a common area eight feet across, running the length of the tier. Stainless steel tables are polished and re-polished until they perfectly reflect the fluorescent nothingness. A television is hinged to the wall on the other side of the bars and beyond the reach of the inmates. Every 20 minutes or so, someone calls the guard — “Hey Key! Hey Key!” — to change the channel.

There are 22 men on the tier, 13 Whites and 9 Blacks. The big debate my first night is over which program to watch, and it breaks down along racial lines.

Actually, there are only four prisoners who want to watch television at all. The rest play cards, talk, or sit in their cells reading, as I was doing. I must have read that Time Magazine issue three times already, and I’m willing to read it once more if it means staying out of the argument. What the hell did Thoreau know, anyway? His one night in some bucolic jail cell talking with Emerson. “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Emerson asked. “Ralph, what are you doing out there?”, Thoreau famously quipped, in defense of his Civil Disobedience. Hey, Henry David, did you ever eat pussy?

And what a fight! Should we watch “Born Free” (two White guys wanted that one), or “The F.B.I.”, with Efram Zimbalist Jr. collaring another criminal? A Black inmate wanted that one. Finally, it was decided to vote. The two honchos (one Black and one White) began polling the prisoners. The White guy in the last cell shouts out “Born Free”, even though he can’t see the t.v. from his cell and obviously has no interest in watching anything. The first Black guy says “The F.B.I.”, and it dawns on me what’s going on. The outcome is predetermined. They all know it already so why are they even bothering to vote? Sounds like the U.S. Presidential election. It’s my turn. I pretend not to hear. “Hey, Jew­boy, whatcha wanna watch?”

“Nuthin”‘, I say. “I just wanna read.”

Within 30 seconds, a delegation of both White and Black prisoners arrives at my cell. I suddenly thank my first weekend’s jailer for locking me in.

“Hey, Cohen . . .

“Call me Mitchel.”

“Cohen . . . Good thing yer new here.” It’s the White guy talking. “Mr. Simpson, here, has something to tell you.”

Simpson, the Black honcho, clears his throat. “Listen, Cohen, it’s your first time up, so you probably don’t get it. We run this tier democratically, see. Danny and me are the chiefs on this tier.” Danny, the White guy, nods his head. “When we calls for a vote, you vote! Understand?” Danny adds: “Whatsa matter witt you. Don’t you believe in democracy?”

Too scared to be a wise-ass (although I wisely censor the dozens of potential responses sailing through my brain), I say simply: “Why are you voting? All the Black guys vote whatever the Black chief says; all the White guys vote whatever the White chief says. No one gives a shit about the program for themselves. And the Black guys will always lose!”

“Hey, you must be a smart cookie. You’re catching on quick.” Danny and Simpson rub fists, and smile.

“So next time,” Danny says, “you vote. And make sure you vote with your own kind.” He says “your own kind” again, hesitantly, as if the thought had never even crossed his mind before that a White boy might do otherwise.

*   *   *

I tell this story to the great South African poet Dennis Brutus a decade after apartheid was defeated and shortly before he died. He can’t stop laughing. Dennis had been imprisoned for many years in the notorious Robben Island, alongside Nelson Mandela. I ask him why he’s laughing.

“Well, we don’t have that problem in South Africa,” he says, trying to contain his laughter.

“What do you mean?”

“Whites have their own prison. Blacks have their own prison.”

“Even now, after the end of apartheid?” I was incredulous.

“Yes, even now.” He now is in full uproar. I was interviewing him for my radio show, “Steal This Radio.”

“Some things never change.” It’s a very short journey from laughing at the Absurd to tumbling into the Pathetic, in an ocean of tears.

Dinner in Brooklyn (July, 2008) with Dennis Brutus. From Left (clockwise): Robert Gold, Dennis Brutus, Julio Velasquez, Murray Gordon, Alison Cichowski, Cathryn Swan, Frank LeFever, Mitchel Cohen


An hour later Danny is back at my cell door. “Hey Cohen,” he says. “You went to college?”

“Stony Brook. Haven’t finished yet.”

“But you went there. So what you doin’ in jail?”



“Anti war demonstrations.”

His look conveys his sense of bewilderment. Not that he took one side or another, “mind you”; just that he couldn’t imagine someone concerning himself with such questions as foreign policy, self-determination, imperialism, and civil rights.

“What was your major?”

“English.” It was actually math, at first, and I was in the process of ending up with a degree in Liberal Arts, but I didn’t really feel like explaining.

“English?! Hey, do you read poetry?” I nod. All else is forgotten in the excitement, of the moment. “Here, take a look at these poems I wrote. Let me read’m to you.”

“Her lips are like ice blue veins
Sending shudders up my spine.
As she says she will be mine;
The devil in me can’t wait
As I press against her thigh
And she trembles, and undresses
And I sigh.”

“Whaddya think?”

“Well, I can’t really . . . err can’t really . . . Listen. I’ve got some really good poetry books coming this week. You ever read Neruda? Or Shelley?

“Hey! Get a load of the professor here! He wants me to read his books.” There is a general chuckling throughout the tier. “Hey, Cohen, professor, you get Danny to read anything but Playboy and I’ll give ya a Suzie Q’ Free! ”

“I’ve written some poems here, if you want to hear’m,” I say. Danny is livid. His red handlebar mustache and red hair pale before the color his face is turning.

“What?,” he screams, “you! How could they be any good . . . Naw, I don’t want to hear any of your Jew poems. Cohen.” I notice his language change. He is making a conscious effort to enunciate clearly, to stop slurring his words.

“Look,” I said, “you don’t have to read them, you know. You’re still the chief poet here.”

Danny was thoughtful for a moment. That was the first time in a long while I kissed someone’s ass. “Yea, you really mean that?” he said.

Who’d want to take on an enraged 230- pound Irish bruiser. “All right, Cohen, I’ll read your poems.” And, as happens so often from unexpected quarters, his criticisms are actually quite on the mark, although it takes me a few days to calm down and realize it.


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