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George Prendes, outside the apartment he lived in before he went to prison, on 107th Street and Central Park West.
George Prendes, outside the apartment he lived in before he went to prison, on 107th Street and Central Park West.

Fifteen years behind bars under Rockefeller drug laws

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Imagine for a moment the dumbest thing you've ever done in your life. The worst mistake, the biggest lapse in judgment. Now imagine that that one blunder cost you fifteen years of your life.

This week, we're launching our Prison Time Media Project, exploring the legacy of the Rockefeller drug laws.

The controversial sentencing rules created by Governor Nelson Rockefeller 40 years ago sent tens of thousands of men and women to prison, with many serving 15 to 25 years behind bars.

George Prendes was one of those people.

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Reported by

Natasha Haverty
Reporter and Producer

Click any thumbnail to view photos in slideshow.

Click here to learn more about our Prison Time Media Project.

It's a Sunday night, and George Prendes is just getting home from work. He looks tired, like permanently tired. His wife Yvonne brings in a bowl of chicken and rice and fried plantains, and sets it on the table.

George is a big guy, heavy set and bald. He hangs up his suit coat and squeezes behind the dining room table. He works long hours as a telemarketer and selling low-end real estate, and is clearly exhausted: "It's just the drudgery…I mean at my age, I shouldn't be struggling like this." 

George and Yvonne are first generation immigrants to the United States — he was born in Cuba, she's Puerto Rican. Like a lot of people in their neighborhood in the Bronx, they're struggling to make rent, to keep their oldest boy in college.

Yvonne says the thing holding her husband back isn't the sour economy.

It's the fifteen years George spent in some of New York's toughest maximum security prisons.

"His experience damaged a part of him, has hurt him. You know, wanting to recuperate the time lost. And you just can't do that…you can't get those fifteen years back." 

At 59, George is part of a generation of men in America, most of them black and Hispanic, shaped by one very big change in the way we think about crime and punishment. 

I remember hearing about the Rockefeller Drug laws when I was younger, but that didn't apply to me.
In 1973, New York's state legislature passed a new set of laws, known as the Rockefeller drug laws, that were imitated across the country. Those laws established tough minimum prison sentences for low-level drug offenders, even for guys like George, with no history of violence and no prior criminal record.

George says back then, he had no idea the laws were changing. He was a young guy living on New York's Upper West Side. What he cared about most were women and dancing. 

"When I would get on the dance floor everybody would get off. Just to watch."

It was 1977. Disco was king. Every night George was making his entrance at clubs like Forbidden Fruit and Footsteps.

"Back then we were wearing seven and eight inch heels, and platforms. I had a huge afro.  I mean a huge afro. Shirts that opened down to my belly button. Pink and blue and green and red and it was just beautiful!"

George Prendes with his family at his college graduation. He and his parents left Cuba when George was three. He says his father, Orlando Prendes (at his left) was one of the original Mambo Kings.
George Prendes with his family at his college graduation. He and his parents left Cuba when George was three. He says his father, Orlando Prendes (at his left) was one of the original Mambo Kings.
George was driving a gypsy cab to get by, earning just enough money to buy nice suits and pay his rent. He'd set a little aside each to help his mom with groceries and to keep his sister in parochial school. But his life was the scene. 

“The party was all around me, all the time. And everyone was doing cocaine...I met a lot of affluent people, I met doctors, lawyers, and everybody was doing it and to me that was a sign of affluence. So I did a little coke here and there.”

The drug epidemic that the politicians were talking about – to George that was just life. It was people having fun.

One weekend that summer George drove up to Rochester, NY, with a girlfriend, for a dance contest. The party went on for three days.

"In her house there were two spiral staircases. And we started dancing at the height of the party, and I took her up and down the spiral staircases; everybody went crazy."

You get the sense that George Prendes would like to freeze his life at the top of that staircase. But this is when things started to go wrong.

When he got back to the city, a guy George knew from the clubs heard about his trip to Rochester, and he started pressuring George to help him put together a drug deal.

"I said 'Bro, that's too heavy for me. I don't want to get involved in that.' And he kept coming everyday, 'Come on man, we can make some good money with this, this is big money." 

George was broke. He was about to be evicted from his apartment and didn't want to go back to living with his mom. The dealer said he could clear $5,000 in cash. So George said yes.

The next thing George knew, he was flying to Rochester with three other guys. One of them had a pound of cocaine taped under his clothes.

"I don't know, it just felt weird. It was almost like an out of body experience, I was in a weird place, doing something crazy."

The deal went down at a Holiday Inn. George says the buyer started acting strange, throwing wads of money at him, and then he pulled out a gun. 

"And he says, 'POLICE! don't move!'" It was a sting. The Rochester police had set up the whole deal.

"They bust down the door and there's like twenty cops in the other room. They came in I remember the guy walked right up to me I was stunned. And the guy punched me right in the face." 

The way George tells it, he couldn't make sense of what was happening. He came from a rough neighborhood, but he had never been arrested, never seen the inside of a jail cell.

George with his younger sister, Mercedes. She was sixteen when George went to prison. She says George was her "protector," and the "coolest" guy she knew.
George with his younger sister, Mercedes. She was sixteen when George went to prison. She says George was her "protector," and the "coolest" guy she knew.
The worst of it, George says, was how ashamed he was felt. He couldn't tell his mother. So he came up with a story about getting a part in a play, in some theater upstate.

"I would only get a few minutes to talk, so I would just call and say 'Oh, I'm okay, everything is fine, I'm up here you know I'm acting', and they would cut me off. You know the guards would cut you off. They only gave you a few minutes. So I told her 'Mom, it's curtain time! I gotta go back, my next performance.' And I kept telling her that for six months.

At first, George had no idea how much trouble he was in. A few years earlier, a drug possession charge like the one he was facing would have drawn probation or maybe a short prison sentence. 

"I was twenty three years old. I was very naïve to the law I had never dealt with law. So I had no concept of what the consequences were. I remember hearing about the Rockefeller Drug laws when I was younger, but that didn't apply to me."

Robert King did understand the consequences. He would later go on to be Chancellor of New York State's University System and a prominent Republican politician, but in 1979, he was a young assistant district attorney in Rochester, assigned to prosecute George Prendes.

"The rules in regard to narcotics cases were very rigid, because there was so little discretion." King says people were scared by the drugs showing up on their streets. And he says, a pound of cocaine seemed like a lot in those days.

"I felt very comfortable, first with the conviction, the evidence in the case clearly supported his conviction. The sentencing rules were what they were, so it was kind of out of my hands, really."

George was sentenced to a minimum of fifteen years in prison, with no chance for parole.

The judge, Andrew Celli, was troubled by the case. Celli wrote later that George had a clean record before the bust. He called the punishment "too harsh." But none of that mattered. The Rockefeller laws had stripped judges of that kind of discretion.

The day the sentence was handed down, two marshals drove George from the courthouse to Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, NY.

"And I remember I had this mental thing happen, where I almost split into two people. And I saw myself, I stood in front of myself like I was my best friend. And I was giving myself advice. And I remember saying, 'I promise you, I promise you, we're going to get through this. We're going to survive this experience. This is not the end of us.'"

George learned he'd be doing time with some of the most dangerous criminals in America. He says on his first night in Attica, the guy wheeling a supply cart down his cell block was the serial killer who had terrified New York City just a couple years earlier.

"I was shocked when I turned around. My mind was completely blown. The guy that was handing out the supplies was David Berkowitz, son of Sam, handing me supplies. He's giving ME supplies!"

George says he watched the other inmates, picking up the tricks and customs that would keep him alive.

"There was an etiquette that people followed. If you sat at a table and you were going to turn around and talk to the guy behind you? You had to say to the guy in front of you excuse my back. You never reached over another man's tray while he was eating, 'cause they would kill you for that."

George Prendes (holding the flag) with his younger sister Mercedes and younger brother Roberto, at a Cuban American parade.
George Prendes (holding the flag) with his younger sister Mercedes and younger brother Roberto, at a Cuban American parade.
While George was learning how to stay alive, he also realized that he'd have to figure out how to stay sane, and how to cope with the empty years that lay ahead.

"Fifteen years is a funny thing. You do five you gotta do ten. You do ten you still got another five. So you break it up as best you can. And then when you do seven and a half, you're at the halfway point."

George got one shot at clemency. He had a stellar record as an inmate – no serious violations, no evidence that he would commit new crimes if released. So after seven years, Governor Mario Cuomo agreed to review George's case. George was convinced that he was going home.

But the answer, which came on Christmas day, was no.

"Oh my god I thought somebody had stabbed me in my heart. I'll never forget that and I went back to my cell, and I just went into a fetal position and I cried."

Those last seven years behind bars, George kept it together. He made some friends and took college classes. He taught himself to cook, using a hospital urinal as a makeshift frying pan.

He'd trade inmates a pack of cigarettes for a bottle of soy sauce, and create meals he says his friends thought were "unbelievable".

"I would tell them where do you guys want to go tonight? You know it was a form of entertainment. I would concoct, you know, you guys want to go to Chinatown, you want Chinese food?"

George was released in 1993.

On a gray, drizzly night, he drives the streets of his old neighborhood on the Upper West Side. All the old dance clubs are gone. George says nothing looks the same.

He has all kinds of stories about what it was like getting out. He says the music had changed. Everything was expensive. He had to remember how to cross the street.

One memory he cherishes actually happened a couple of months before he was released. He was on a prison work detail at Brighton Beach.

One of the guards cut him some slack, and let him go swimming in the ocean.

"I just ran into the water and dived in and when I came up I swam a little bit and when I came up he said, you look twenty years younger."

But life doesn't work like that. You can't wash off a decade and a half of hard time.

George stops in to see his sister Mercedes. She's fifty now, but was just a teenager when George went away.

George hugs her and puts his wool cap on her head. Crying, Mercedes says a sentence like the one George received "takes away not only from a person but from a family."

Mercedes says the Rockefeller laws wrecked her family. In those fifteen years, their mother put all her energy into writing petitions and organizing fundraisers and making long bus trips to visit George.

"It just really was like a bomb! It had profound effect. That you don't come back from. And it broke George…I am really angry sometimes, because I feel that George is still incarcerated."

George and his sister don't like to talk about his time in prison, or all the ways she thinks it still holds him back. But in a way, this conversation is happening all over the country.

A few years ago, New York and other states started reforming sentencing laws, eliminating some types and of mandatory minimums, giving judges more discretion.

Even some former prosecutors like Robert King say they have second thoughts now about the Rockefeller laws – and about their impact on people like George.

"I had a discussion with my kids the other day. I have a son who's thirty. He's a journalist and we were talking about this case, and he was enraged by the sentence. He said 'that's ridiculous.' And I think by today's standards…most people would look at this, and I think I would look at it, and say that sentence was disproportionate. And so by these standards I would say the fifteen years he spent in prison is probably disproportionate to what he did."

Under the Rockefeller laws, New York state's inmate population grew from 13,000 to more than 72,000. Many, like George, were low-level drug offenders, most were black or Hispanic.

King says he's still conflicted about the justice of the sentencing rules. But he thinks one thing is clear – the policy was too expensive and putting all those people behind bars just didn't work.

"Obviously the strategies we've been using in this country to discourage drug use and drug sale have not been terribly successful. Maybe it's a behavior that it doesn't matter how many laws you have, people are going to do what people do. But I think the intentions were good; whether or not they've achieved the results I'd say that they have not."

Questions like these – about justice, about his own choices and mistakes, weigh on George Prendes. His last stop tonight is his old apartment. He hasn't been back here since he went to prison.

"This was my little bachelor apartment where I lived – my very first apartment. It looks very different. I don't remember it looking like this."

He takes cover from the rain on the stoop. "As time goes and I'm getting older, there are things that I you know when I think back in hindsight, I tend to be a little upset about. The fact that I lost some very good years, and there's a lot of things that I could have done and didn't do. I mean I was 23 years old when I got arrested. I got out of prison when I was 37. That's a big chunk of my life."

George says people still pass him over for good jobs. He says it's just not fair that one mistake, one stupid move, still haunts him after so many decades.

"You try to be the best you can be; you try not to be bitter. You have to take life according to the way it comes. I get mad sometimes because I think I'm smarter than the situation I'm in and I think I should be in a better place. But life is not always like that and everything isn't always the way you want it to be."

In recent years, New York's inmate population has declined sharply – thanks in part to the Rockefeller reforms. Far more people like George are being sent for drug counseling, or job training, not for long prison sentences.

So far, state officials say that change in policy hasn't meant a resurgence in crime or drug use.

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, and the NY Council for the Humanities. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Community Trust. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org. 

 

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