Yona Zeldis McDonough

A Brush-Up Against the Prison Industrial Complex

The call was more of a puzzle than an alarm: an automated operator from the Legacy service announcing a collect call from—and here the voice switched to that of my then-21-year old son—and I could press one to accept or two to deny.

I received two more collect calls, both courtesy of the Legacy. I anxiously pressed one, but the line went dead. When I called Legacy, a customer service rep said, “Ma’am, that call is coming from a jail; you have to have set up a credit card account with us in order to accept.” My first thought was, Jewish boys don’t get put in jail. Then the panic exploded.

“Just sit tight,” a friend who had once been highly placed in the Manhattan DA’s office told me. “I’m on it.” Within the hour I learned he was at central booking and she gave me several phone numbers to try. Not one of them picked up.

When we arrived, we passed through the metal detector and found that the information window was closed for lunch. Once it opened, the man ahead of me was told that the person he was inquiring about had been moved to Riker’s. We learned by checking a list on the wall that our son might not be out till the next day.

On the trip home, my friend called. She gave me the number of a lawyer who said he might be able to get our son out that night. His services would cost $1500, money we did not readily have. I told him to please, please do whatever it took to free our boy.

He went down to Schermerhorn, where he had once worked, and called in a favor. He got our son and drove him back home.

I fed my son and listened to his tale—getting into the cab, realizing his wallet was missing, the altercation with the cabbie, the trip to the station house. I flashed back to the man in line earlier that day, the resigned way he’d shuffled off when he heard the word Riker’s. It was the kind of resignation my son would probably never know—he was one of the lucky ones.