Remembrance of Involuntary Servitudes Past, By An American Veteran -of-Conscience

Prisoner Number 78612

By Robert Reiss

Below, WestView News publishes a noteworthy contribution to the literature of writings by the incarcerated. Written by Robert Reiss, the then 22yr old in 1973. This snippet of his prison experience of a half century ago, commenced right here in our West Village at the former West Street Prison, a few steps away from Westbeth  Artist Houses. Reading this we encounter revelation into the experience of “Serving Time” with a perhaps unexpected arcadian  cadence and perspective, for sure.   


Robert Reiss and his grandmother visiting him in prison 1973. Photo by unknown prisoner.

It was 50 years ago this summer that I was a federal prisoner, sentenced to 6 months for publicly refusing to register for the Vietnam era military-draft. “Conduct your unjust war with one less solider” I’d told the government. (When I became a prisoner I was 21 years old and my 22nd birthday was celebrated in Jail.)

My time in prison began right here in the Village, to be exact the West Village: at the now long gone federal detention facility on West 11th St – the building later converted to a prime real estate luxury residential building -on the roof of which guards once manned machine guns, while convicts exercised under the sun. 

From there I was, after about 2 weeks, transported to the Pennsylvania, Allenwood Federal Prison for “minimum security” prisoners nestled in an outdoors landscape, a vast valley in central PA.

Some years later President Carter on his first day in office issued his historic first executive act: the controversial pardoning of draft resisters like myself who’d served time in prison. The federal prosecutor of record, West Village resident US Attorney Whitney North Seymour Jr. later told me directly “You were right and we were wrong!” I accepted his straightforwardly proffered apology to me when we met decades later in the Jefferson Market Library at one of his talks on the poet he loved so much, Villager Edna St.Vincent Millay (whom my grandmother herself had known in the village).

Mr. Seymour also said to me that he thought I was probably the very last young man to have been sent to prison for openly declining to participate in the Vietnam war conscription. 

I’d been visited, separated by a glass barrier, by my grandmother the artist Sarah McPherson, who having resided at 269 W 4th st, and Perry, for 50 years, a villager who arrived during the bohemian heyday of Greenwich Village’s storied history. Even at her advanced age she found it possible to see me inside the nearby federal detention center, before my relocation to Pennsylvania, where she also visited me during my sentence.

As you read, take note of the fact that the picture I portray of prison life is rendered arcadian, and pastoral effects abound; for the sake of my grandmother, I avoided putting in a letter that in prison-be it at maximum, medium, or in minimum-there is always the ever present, menacing undercurrent projected by both the convicts and the prison officers alike. 

Incidentally, the reference below to “French lessons” is in regards to informal tutorials, offered by imprisoned “French Connection” characters, some of whom I encountered serving their American sentences along side me “ inside,” they who would then go in to France to serve their French prison sentences for heroin smuggling and distribution.

So, here is the carceral scene from one young persons’ experience of that 1973 Summer and Fall, of an exact half century ago:

Robert Reiss interior Washington Square Methodist Church, Greenwich Village Peace Center  “The Walls are Closing In”. Photo credit: Steve Myers

Dearest Grandmother,

You can’t possibly imagine how fully different a place this prison is from the Manhattan Federal detention center. My “dormitory”is the oldest of 3 inmate dwellings, a green and white painted slab – sided building of possibly ranch house aspect where live about 100 people-we’re “numbers” as the penal hierarchy thinks of us: I am 78612-REISS. Well, I can’t as of yet attest to my soul exalting in prison confinement, my ears do delight in the ever congressing accents and idiolect’s, for every part of our great land is met here. I have encountered a Canadian, and a Frenchman who is giving French tutorials to those who would think of Allenwood as a university of sorts. 

I remember the dissident priest Fr. Daniel Berrigan telling me that while Danbury Connecticut prison had a better “math department,” Allenwood, as a University of sorts in his mind, excelled in it’s “English department.” Here the class song I am told, and as it was sung for me is : Allenwood, oh Allenwood, I’ll forever be true to thee / oh I’ll do mine and you’ll do yours, and some day we may all be free. 

All about the valley surge a surrounding fringe of mountains, it’s vital peaks are like the tips of hands praying for an end to war and an end to prison. The woolley green front slopes of these mountains are stained prettily with the shadows of the beautiful formations of clouds and seem fixed onto the opulent expanse of the valley. This is by mid day and during the main of each summer afternoon. Earlier, around 5:30 in the AM when I awake for work an exquisite mist is seemingly exhaled all about the edge of our valley as if it were some vaporous divinity keeping the length of mountains veiled  from human view – a view which the sunshine will later restore to the sublime. 

We return to our dwelling 3 times throughout the day to be counted by the forbidding prison guards. Those who “count the cattle” attain our silence for this practice by booming abruptly into our midst with the almost operatically delivered: “count time!” These dour officials do secure in us an anxiety of quiet and suspension of movement very like a parent calling into a playground of hyper – active kids “cookie time!” The guards counting us so often get mathematically confounded that we are frequently recounted. I have heard that at one of the federal rehabilitation centers for youthful offenders there is a particular guard who has such trouble counting he has a load of pebbles in his trousers pockets and pebble by pebble he shifts each one from one pocket into another as he walks by each prisoner during his count. I am reminded by this of one of the serio-comic interludes in one of the plays written by Samuel Beckett.

Robert Reiss and Greenwich Village Peace activists 1972. Photo credit: Karl Bissinger
Portrait of the artist Sarah McPherson by Man Ray, Paris 1924

In place of the green uniforms you saw being worn in the Manhattan detention center, here, most wear grey sets of pants and shirts, basically army garb ironically for me, who did so much to have nothing to do with the army. My job of cleaning after the days 3 meals has me clad in “Kitchen Whites,” a no less monotonous outfit though for me truly less dispiriting. I just got this work detail: before I was a part of this, the dining room crew, I was for 3 weeks on the light construction detail and for 3 sorrowful weeks, I cut weeds, filled in holes in the paths, with rocks, and did other needless chores invented solely to keep us with repentant work to do. We uprooted all flowers…for a prison must have no overt loveliness. Or rather, what loveliness it can suppress it will suppress. 

While on the construction detail, we drove about the land during which adventures we could glimpse herds of deer and the prisons’ dozens of cows being driven by prisoner’s riding on horseback and we saw lots of baby rabbits, a large pond of bathing ducks and Canadian geese flying overhead, and old capacious tumble – down barns.

In one of the newer dormitories there is an open center of grass with holly trees. The men in this space sunbathe in the summertime; some have painted easel paintings; the sides of this charmed enclave have propped against them these paintings of inmates. It’s almost an open air art exhibition and it is here where some of the Inmates have left carrots and lettuce for a baby rabbit who lives in a crack under the concrete wall. 

Each day I would approach the rabbit where it laid in the sun and each day I could venture closer to the little tweed hued beauty, but it would always twist in alarm and fling it’s legs into the prison air and scud as fast as the twinkling of the eye back into it’s own solitary confinement, or , in prison parlance “the hole.”

I also discovered in this patch of paradise for animals, a large turtle, two speckled toads, and I hear there was a domesticated ground squirrel here at one time. 

Have I called it paradise? 

The prisoners plan to eventually eat the rabbit, eat the turtle, eat the toads and the squirrel. They are being fattened up. 

To know what really obtains in the prison one always needs to do a psychological double take.  (One is hyper-alert 24-7.)  

In prison, I’m not immune to feeling, as so many inmates do, and always – surprisingly- to themselves- will feel, a revivification of lived life. 

Prison, perhaps is like what the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne said of the utopian experiment of Brookfarm, in his novel The  Blithedale Romance; “ O, like a dream, yet a reality,” and this is so because coexistent with each prisoner’s confrontation with all that is abject in the subjugation of his body and soul, there often is a remarkable fellowship which elevates an appreciation of an immanent life force. Indeed, civilities and courtesies exchanged as a matter of course here are remarkable, even by the most exalted standards of normal civilization.

For you could say, the crooks are “the best” of their kind, federal not merely state guarded. 

The black bank robbers have felt compelled to cut loose from the ghetto even by the most desperate urging of their unrestful hopes. The war resisters are vigorous partisans of a robust optimism. In all I am moved to feel the abjection and elevation gather into this imposing dream-reality that I guess is the torturous essence of any coerced communal confinement.

An older war resister I have become friendly towards is a Quaker from Philly, a former elementary school teacher. Two days ago we went on the lawn behind the house we live in, and we found an abandoned army shed with sporting gear inside with a croquet set and now I’ve played my first ever game of croquet, on the prison lawn of a summers verdant afternoon. 

I await your visit this coming fall my dear grandmother, much Love,

Robert ( 78612 – REISS)

For more go to Columbia Unversity Oral History Project, Reiss Interview.

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