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Life Without

Living in Prison Today
Second Edition

Victor Hassine
Inmate AM4737

Pennsylvania Department cf Corrections

Edited hy:

Thomas J. Bernard
Pennsylvania State University

Richard McCleary
University of California, Irvine

Richard A. Wright
Arkansas State University

Foreword by
John Irwin

San Francisco State University

Roxbury Publishing Company
Los Angeles, California

Page 2

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Hassine, Victor, 1955-
Life w^out parole: living in prison today / Victor Hassine; edited by Thomas

J. Bernard, Richard McCleary, and Richard A. Wright; foreword by John Ir­
win. — 2nd ed. ^
p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 1-891487-13-2 (alk. paper)

1. Prisoners—Pennsylvania—Case Studies. 2. Hassine, Victor, 1955- 3
Life imprisonment—Pennsylvania—Case studies. 4. Prisons—Pennsylva­
nia—Case studies. 5. Graterford State Correctional Institution. I Bernard
Thomas J. II. McCleary, Richard. III. Title.

HV9475.P2H37 1999
365 .6 0922748 dc21 o«_iQ/i/in


Copyright © 1999 by Roxbury Publishing Company. All rights reserved under
International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this publi­
cation may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form
or by any means, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior
permission of the publisher.

Publisher and Editor: Claude Teweles
Copy Editor: Arlyne Lazerson
Production Editors: Carla Max-Ryan and Dawn VanDercreek
Production Assistants: Kate Shaffar, James Ballinger, and Cathy Yoo
Typography: Synergistic Data Systems
Cover Design: Mamie Kenney

Printed on acid-free paper in the United States of America. This paper meets the
standards for recycling of the Environmental Protection Agency.

ISBN: 1-891487-13-2

Note; All author royalties for this book are being donated directly to The Families
(^Murder Victims Program, a nonprofit organization ciliated with the Antivio­
lence Partnership of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Prison
Society s Ted Klugman Memorial Fund. The Pennsylvania Prison Society is a
nonprofit organization dedicated to prison education and reform.

P.O. Box 491044

Los Angeles, California 90049-9044
Tel: (310) 473-3312 • Fax: (310) 473-4490

Email: [email protected]




This book is dedicated to the memory of Ted "Tefka"
Klugman, a good and courageous man who dedicated his^
life to helping those in need. The world has lost a hero L
while heaven has gained an angel.

A Needed New Additon
It first began in tragedy only to become a journey of love.
With all my heart, forever, I do .. .


mailto:[email protected]

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78 L^e Without Parole

whites, they're strong-arming appeasements and concessions. The
administration, they get the most out of it all. Violence and hatred
in prison means more money, more guards, more overtime, and
more prisons. What incentive is there to keep prisons safe and
humane? All staff has to do is sit back and let the men here tear each
other apart. Then they can cry to the legislatures and tell them how
much more money they need to control their prison. Just like with
the prison swag men, dope boys, and laundry men, there's some­
thing being sold and money being made. Only it's a lot more money
than most of the guys in here can ever imagine. It's a lot easier for
everyone to profit from hatred than it is to help the poor and igno­
rant do something positive with their lives."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Come on, Omar, you
can't believe that stuff. You're sounding real paranoid, like there's
a conspiracy everywhere." His views were similar to those of Dou­
ble D, who believed the administration was actually encouraging
gang activity. But I wasn't ready to believe either one of them. The
prison system was too chaotic to be that deliberate.

Omar replied, "Well, then you tell me why, with all the guards,
guns, locks, gates, walls, and money, they still can't stop what's
going on in here?"

I had no answer to that. "Okay, if this is all a game and every­
body knows it, then why do the men in here play it? Why do they
play when it can get them hurt and even killed?"

Omar smiled assuredly. "It's like a Dodge City crap game in
here, Victor. Everyone who plays it knows it's crooked, but they play
it anyway—^because it's the only game in town."

Chapter 8

Saying Goodbye

t was a hot summer day one particular weekend. Most of the
inmates were wearing non-prison sweat suits, sweat shirts, or
ragtag gym clothes homemade from scraps of stolen cloth. Many of

them chose to spend all their recreation time on the block, most of
them serious gamblers or avoiding the sun or avoiding a fight.

The gamblers were the easiest to spot because they always
played cards on the most private picnic tables in the deepest interior.
To a man, they slumped low in their seats, ready at a moment's
notice to reach for their weapons. These weapons were usually
hidden somewhere below the table, waiting for someone to be
caught cheating or prematurely grabbing another man's money.
Most other block loungers just milled around, talking, smoking, or
drinking coffee as if they were somewhere other than in a maximum
security prison.

I had just returned to my cell to change into state whites for my
infirmary job. To me, the only difference between hard labor and
imposed idleness is the change in a man's appearance. In the end,
both will break a man's spirit as surely as his sentence will make
him older.

As I left my cell, I heard a distant commotion from the upper
range. Hearing it too, the table gamblers slumped a little deeper in
their seats, easing closer to their weapons, their eyes never leaving
their cards.

Soon I could make out an inmate called Hammerhead Fred,
running toward me down the narrow walkway of the tier above,
with guards in hot pursuit. He was carrying a five-gallon plastic
bag, the kind used to dispense milk from a cafeteria cooler with a


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80 L^e Without Parole

rubber nipple on one end. But this one was filled with homemade
jailhouse hootch.

As he ran the length of a football field. Hammerhead lifted the
bag over his head and forced the booze to flow into his open mouth.
Much of it poured onto his face and chest, glazing his protruding
forehead and staining his dirty clothes. The heavy bootlegged load
was slowing him down, and ihe pursuing guards were gaining on

The whole cellblock was in an uproar, every man cheering him
on. "Go Hammerhead! Fuck those hacks! Drink that wine! Don't
give it up! Hammerhead! Hammerhead! Hammerhead!"

Just as the lead guard caught up to Hammerhead, an inmate
suddenly stepped out of his cell and "accidentally" collided with
the ^ard. The two fell down, and the other guards toppled over
them in Keystone Kops fashion.

This gave Hammerhead enough time to take an extra long swal­
low of hootch. Then he jumped off the second-story walkway and
landed upright on a tabletop below. Amazingly, he managed to hold
onto his five-gallon bag. His legs spread boldly across the table.
Hammerhead guzzled more wine until he had had his fill. Then he
hurled the container at the frenzied crowd around him, beat his
chest, and gave a savage victory cry.

The crowd screamed, hollered, and beat their chests as they
drank from the contraband container, passing it from man to man
in a victory-sharing ritual. Finally, the guards got themselves to­
gether enough to force Hammerhead down from the table. The
inmates booed and hissed as they escorted Hammerhead away, no
doubt to a waiting cell m the Hole.

Hammerhead couldn't have cared less, because he was too
drunk to feel any pain and more importantly because today was his
last day in captivity. He had served all ten years of his sentence, and
he owed no parole time or probation. He was out tomorrow, free
and clear.

This was how Hammerhead wanted to be remembered and how
he would always be remembered. This is also how I have always
remembered Graterford and its Kingdom of Inmates, since the day
I myself said goodbye and good riddance to its wretched concrete




n this second section, Victor Hassine presents a series of inter­
views with fellow inmates, each with a specific theme. These per­
sonal views serve to broaden the author's perspective on prison life.

Readers should be aware that in some cases the interviews have
been edited to disguise and to protect the true identities of the in­
terviewees, but otherwise the interviews are largely verbatim.

Page 98

178 Without Parole

spent the first five years of his sen­
tence, from 1981 to 1986, in the
state's largest maximum-security
prison—the "Kingdom of In­
mates," he calls it.

Going in, he had expected rigid
structure. What he foimd, he said,
was mayhem.

"Fights, stabbings and weap­
ons were commonplace," said
Hassine, 41, in an interview at
Rockview state prison here, where
he has been since 1989. "Prison
gangs robbed with impunity. Staff
smuggled in contraband. Enforce­
ment of rules was arbitrary. It
wasn't what anybody would want
in a prison—or on the planet."

Hassine's book reinforces the
picture that has emerged in the last
year of a turbulent Graterford. In
May 1995, there was the Robert
"Madman" Simon scandal. Paroled
from behind its walls, with the rec­
ommendation of Graterford staff,
Simon then allegedly killed a New
Jersey state trooper. At the legisla­
tive hearings that followed, wit­
nesses described Graterford as vio­
lent, drug-ridden, and out of con­

Last October, state prison offi­
cials staged a massive drug and
weapons raid. They transferred
some staff and inmates and re­
duced the number of volimteers en­
tering the prison for such programs
as literacy tutoring, Bible studies
and gardening.

Last spring, 10 Graterford in­
mates were indicted for making $2
million in illegal credit card pur­
chases from prison telephones. So
officials installed a new system re­
stricting inmates' calls.

Hassine considers such at­
tempts to regain control as superfi­
cial and misguided. "[Administra­
tors have] done nothing to reduce
the number of men jammed in
there, and they've cutback on posi­
tive programs," he said. Instead,
"what they're doing is poking a
stick at the inmates."

Neither Graterford officials
nor state prisons Commissioner
Martin Horn had read the book and
could comment, according to then-

The book, however, has gotten
favorable reviews in professional
journals and praise from academ­
ics at schools, including the Uni­
versity of Scranton and Troy State
University in Alabama, where it
will be used.

Hassine's work is welcome be­
cause "most of the good prisoner-
written books now are 20 years old,
and so much has changed since
then—overcrowding, budget
freezes, the lean-and-mean move­
ment, the gang bangers," said Rich­
ard A. Wright, a criminal justice
professor at [Arkansas State Uni­

The book's harshest critics ap­
pear to be Graterford inmates.
Hassine has heard they fear it will
be used by state officials as reason
to further tighten the reins.

"That was not my purpose," he
said, "but I also think the men at
Graterford should talk about
what's really happening."

In Hassine's analysis, Grater­
ford authorities began losing con­
trol in the early '80s, the beginning
of a surge in the inmate population.
During his confinement &ere, the
number of men swelled from 1,900

Appendix B 179

to 2,600—750 per cell block, with a
handful of guards.

The population has since
grown to about 3,600.

Among the newcomers, he
says, was a more aggressive and fa­
talistic breed of social misfit. There
were the mentally ill, who com­
manded much of the staff's atten­
tion; the drug addicts, who would
do anything to get high; and the ju­
veniles, who became targets for
rape and created havoc to attract
"parental" attention.

The "older heads," Hassine
says, were dismayed at the young
inmates who cared more about
making themselves comfortable in
prison—by getting drugs and other
contraband and forming gangs—
than about working on their ap­
peals and parole applications and
otherwise trying to get out.

"Most of these guys have al­
ready been in and out of juvenile
facilities," Hassine said', "and
they've been told, 'This is your life.'"

At one point, Graterford ran
out of room in the "hole"—the dis­
ciplinary unit for troublemakers
and mmates who want to be pro­
tected from them. "When things
got so bad that inmates couldn't
even commit themselves to protec­
tive custody," Hassine said, "the
population knew they had to fend
for themselves."

Gangs proliferated, both for
predation and protection, and
guards, afraid for their own lives,
usually looked the other way.

For Hassine, one of the defin-
ing moments in this inmate ascen­
dancy came in 1983, in the "Super
Bowl Sunday Chicken Riot."

First one inmate, then many
more, defied the prison rules by
openly bringing their chicken din­
ners from the C-block dining hall
to their cells to eat while watching
the game.

Along the way, they fought off
the guards who tried to stop them.
Only when the game was over, and
the chicken bones were picked
clean, did prison officials move to
discipline some of them.

During those years, too,
Graterford's underground econ-
omy grew and thrived. If he
wanted his laundry done, Hassine
says, he would pay an inmate laim-
dry worker with cigarettes to have
it picked up, cleaned and deliv­
ered. If he tried to send his laundry
through the authorized system, he
probably would not have gotten it

He also had at his disposal
"swag men" to deliver freshly
cooked food, smuggled from the
kitchen, to his cell; and drugs and
homemade hooch if he wanted

Hassine finds irony in the ille­
gal commerce: It may have saved
Graterford from becoming even
more violent, for the inmates had a
financial stake in some measure of

^ Egyptian Jew whose par­
ents immigrated to Trenton when
he was a child, Hassine took refuge
in the prison's synagogue, where
he helped establish halfway houses
for inmates gaining release. "When
you met volunteers from the out­
side, you were encouraged, you
had a name, and whatever good
values . . . you had were rein­

Page 99

180 L^e Without Parole

But for inmates not involved in
such activities, there was a different

"Prison is a crude commu­
nism," Hassine said. "You're told,
'You're no different than anybody
else.' Ambition is discouraged.
They want you to do X, not less than
X, but also not more than X."

Hassine's book does not detail
his murder case or raise the issue of
whether he deserves to be behind
bars—although he has elsewhere
maintained his innocence.

According to trial testimony,
Hassine and his partner in a Mor-
risville meat market hired an ac­
quaintance to murder a man who
had gotten into a dispute with the
partner over diluted drugs sold
surreptitiously at the market. The
hit man only wounded the in­
tended victim but killed another
man, James Puerale, who hap­
pened to be present.

The prosecutor sought the
death penalty, but the jury sen­
tenced Hassine and his partner to
life in prison. In Pennsylvania, that
means life without parole unless
the governor commutes the sen­

While Hassine may never es­
cape the system, he has moved
around inside it.

From Graterford, he landed in
Western State Penitentiary in Pitts­
burgh. There, an inmate smashed
his skull with a barbell, causing
nerve damage that makes his left
eye appear smaller than his right.

Hassine, who has a degree
from New York School of Law, was
a plaintiff in two lawsuits against
Graterford and Western State, al­
leging conditions so bad they con­

stituted cruel and unusual punish­
ment. The inmates ultimately lost
the Graterford case, although
prison officials agreed to make
some physical improvements. A
federal judge found conditions in
the Pittsburgh prison unconstitu­
tional and ordered many changes.

Compared with Graterford
and Western State, Hassine says,
Rockview is calmer and more
structured. He credits the prepon­
derance of "short-timers"—in­
mates who are about to go home—
and the warden's emphasis on edu­

There, about five years ago,
Hassine began writing as "a cathar­
sis." In 1993, Thomas J. Bernard, a
criminologist at nearby Pennsylva­
nia State University, came to speak
to a group of inmates, and Hassine
got his card and mailed him some
essays. He asked Bernard to share
them with his students so they
would get a more realistic view of
prison life.

In Hassine's material, Ber­
nard saw a book. "Unlike a lot of
prison writing, Victor's wasn't
self-serving," Bernard said. "With
all the resources we are commit­
ting to prisons, I thought it would
be useful to have a book that just
describes what contemporary
prisons are like."

Bernard showed Hassine's
writings to the editor of Roxbury
Publishing Co. in Los Angeles. He,
too, saw a book.

Last year, Mumia Abu-Jamal,
convicted of killing a Philadel­
phia police officer, was disci­
plined for writing his book, L^e
From Death Row. State prison offi­
cials said he violated the rule bar-

Appendix B 181

ring inmates from "engaging in a
business or profession." A depart­
ment spokesman said Hassine, im-
like Abu-Jamal, isn't receiving pay­
ment. His royalties are going to the
organization. Families of Murder

Hassine continues to write.
"Outsiders debate whether

prisons should punish or rehabili­
tate," he said, "but the truth inside

is: There is no goal__ It's strictly sur­
vival and crisis-control."

From The Philadelphia Inquirer, August
12,1996. Copyright © 1996 by The Phila­
delphia Inquirer. The Philadelphia Inquirer
has not endorsed any point of view, any
person, any enterprise, any services or
products, any approach in dealing with
tasks or situations, any officials or em­
ployees. Reprinted by permission.

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