After The Brig, I Know “Gino”
by Chandra Bozelko | Sep 19, 2012 12:08 pm
Posted to: Prison Diaries
“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful, girls!” taunts “Gino,” a former Navy boxer, in his Brooklyn accent.
The women he teases fall short of girly: Gino is a senior food supervisor at York Correctional Institution. Since 1993, none of the tough broads here have walked away without a memory of Gino.
Despite this rather dour work environment, Gino always sports a tan that would make George Hamilton look downright albino. A self-described cross between Rodney Dangerfield and Jerry Stiller, Gino wears his hair in a duck’s ass with one peroxide-blessed curl pulled down his forehead. A fastidious dresser who has the sleeves of his uniform shirts tailored to precision, you could have plucked Gino straight out of “South Pacific.”
Even though he has been retired from the Navy for almost 20 years, Gino remains militaristic in his control of his kitchen.
“Battle stations!” he shouts from his desk to warn all of his workers that inmates are coming in for a meal. From his service days, Gino resurrected the command “You got time to lean you got time to clean!” “Nothing in, nothing out!” he drills into any inmate with thoughts of hiding a plastic bag filled with cake in her underwear to sneak it out of the dining hall.
Unsurprisingly, I never wanted to work York CI’s kitchen. I was drafted because enrollment was low.
Before that, I had always worked in my housing units because those “work from home” type situations allowed me to leave my unit as little as possible, a restriction that never bothered me. I had been at war with some of the staff and the prison; remaining in my unit guaranteed me minimal interaction with them.
I was never really the type of inmate who had “Jail Fathers.” A Jail Father is a male staff member who essentially takes one of the female inmates under his wing because he knows her history (within the prison) and serves as a mentor and advocate for the inmate in a very unofficial sense. There is nothing inappropriate about these relationships; in fact, if anything, they help inmates re-cultivate trust in authority figures. Nevertheless, for over two years, I was Jail Orphan and never minded it.
Even if I had found someone willing to be my Jail Father, I wouldn’t have wanted one. The less security I encountered, the more protection I felt.
Working in the kitchen made me an open target, defenseless in the center of the compound seven days a week for hours at a time. If I had a Jail Father I would have asked him to get me out of the work assignment. Aside from guaranteeing me more interaction with my adversaries, this job was new for me; I had never done manual labor before, probably because I thought I was above it. Fully aware of this background, some of the less friendly staff came in and laughed at me. Their silent message: Wave the white flag, girl. You won’t last.
I too doubted that I would last in the kitchen, especially working for Gino with his daily command of “Fatten ‘em up! Fatten ‘em up! I like my girls 500 pounds”—as his lunch soldiers scooped soups and salads. But I would have been damned if I would surrender.
I toiled in silence to keep myself off the kitchen supervisors’ radar, ticking off the days to my six-month anniverary, the day I could quit without receiving a disciplinary report for refusing to work.
My hard work was poor camouflage, as I was eventually assigned the job of line captain—overseeing the serving of breakfast and lunch every day.
“Where is the Sweet’N Low?” were Gino’s first words to me on my first day as captain. I had forgotten to bring it out for the diabetic inmates. They had to wait to sweeten their cereal while Gino went to get it.
“When you gonna get it together?” he scolded me when he returned.
I scolded myself, not so much because of the mistake of forgetting the pink packets but for allowing myself to interact so directly with the enemy. I wondered if it would have been better to quit and just take the discipline. Here I go again to combat, I thought.
“Someone told me that you’re scared of me,” Gino told me later that day without looking up from his desk as I passed, loaded with dirty pans. The truth was that I was scared of almost all of the staff here. But I was not frightened of Gino. Like my father, Gino practiced the subtle art of management, providing a bedrock of leadership while letting his minions grow in responsibility and authority.
I did no want to disappoint him.
“I just don’t want to make a mistake, Gino.”
“So don’t. But if you do, so what? I’ll give you another chance.” The Kitchen General shot the words at me in drumbeat fashion, eyes still locked down towards his desk.
In a place where offering an inmate a stick of gum is cause for termination, Gino’s verbal ammunition was humane and a consolation for my battle scars. After Gino’s reassurance, I found myself empathizing with many of the officers here. Prison is a world where kindness is more than weakness; it is misconduct. These officers disable their paternal or maternal instincts just to keep their jobs. It’s not abuse; it’s an issue of neutrality—nothing in, nothing out.
After that day, I never forgot the Sweet’N Low again. And I began to see Gino less as they tyrannical Navy boxer with gloves inked on his arms and more as a true softy who, literally, wears his heart on (or below) his tailored sleeves, this tanned arms bearing the names of his wife and two children. Gino arranged for inmates to replace worn uniforms. He reached out to the disciplinary coordinators on behalf of inmates who got themselves into trouble, called the medical unit to cut the line for inmates who had waited weeks for treatment. Gino always wants to take care of his workers. This was a type of shelter I was unaccustomed to.
Halfway into my six-month culinary tour of duty, my 275-pound cellmate, in prison for the second time for stabbing someone almost fatally, hit me. It didn’t hurt of leave a mark. I waffled on whether I should report the incident.
Working for Gino edged me toward a ceasefire with my foes with badges, but I did not trust them completely. I felt unsafe approaching enemy lines.
The option of not reporting the incident, though, was worse. I knew that my cellmate would torture me with bouts of hysteria and crappy punches all night. So I reported her to the staff.
Instead of my leading my cellmate off to punishment, a lieutenant took both of us to the brig, what we call the Restricted Housing Unit or “Seg” (“solitary” in the movies), supposedly “pending investigation” of the assault.
A prisoner of war again, I would have kicked myself if I hadn’t been shackled at the ankles. Why did I do that? I thought. Retreat is the only option with these people.
I could be kept up to 30 days while administrators decided if my cellmate had actually hit me or not I would have expected my initial reaction to be something like No, don’t take to the jail inside the jail! or Why am I in trouble? I didn’t do anything wrong! instead, my first thought was Shit. They’re going to take me out of the food service pool before my six months are up, and they’ll force me to start another six months when I get out!
My heart pounded for two days in seg. Then a voice came through the security intercom: “Bozelko, pack up your stuff [a two-inch toothbrush and a pair of socks]. ... You’re moving.” Without explanation, my captivity was ended.
The next morning, I marched to work at four in the morning.
“You’re out!” exclaimed an inmate buffing the kitchen floors. I was not alone in expecting to spend several weeks in seg.
“You all right?” Gino asked me, still sitting behind his desk.
“Gino, she got clocked, and they took her to seg, but she didn’t do nothing!” shouted the floor buffer.
“I know. I know,” Gino assured her. “Don’t worry about her. She’ll be OK. She knows me.”
She knows me. Those three words told me how I got out of seg so quickly; I had been adopted, jail-style.
My fear of the staff evaporated; I knew Gino wanted to protect me. For the first time since entering this prison, I knew that I had backing, not by the armed forces, but by a force with arms dotted with the names of his wife and children.
That Father’s Day, when others sent cards and had brunch with their fathers, stepfathers, in-laws and Sugar Daddies, I gave my Jail Father several hours of back-breaking labor, hoisting 25-pound crates of milk and pans of mashed potatoes. After several months of working in the kitchen, I had no intention of quitting. Don’t hate me because I’m grateful, Gino.
Chandra Bozelko is an inmate at York Correctional Institution in Niantic. Readers can write to her at:
York Correctional Institution
201 West Main Street
Niantic, CT 06357
Previous prison diary entries:
• The Sandusky-Komisarjevsky Connection: Today’s Victim Is Tomorrow’s Killer
• Inmate’s Court Journey: Dump-Dumped & Probed
• Love As Contraband