Diane Gottlieb
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A Visit to Prison

    I walked briskly from my hotel to the prison at 8:15 a.m., not certain if the quickening of my breath was due to exertion or nerves. I was visiting Richie Fasco*, Departmental Identification Number (DIN) 18305P3, a 48-year-old man, currently in the fourteenth year of a fourteen-to-life sentence for burglary, his fourth felony conviction since 1995. Richie had spent twenty-five of the past twenty-seven years behind bars. 

   I am a sixty-year-old former social worker turned yoga instructor turned writer. I first introduced myself to Richie in a letter several years ago, while working on a book about Anthony House, a local transitional home for men reentering society after prison, and Deacon Patrick Logsdon, the man who’d run the house for over three decades before he was brutally murdered in 2017 by a former resident. I wanted the deacon to be remembered for the lives he impacted, not for his tragic ending. But after reaching out to several of the men whom the deacon had touched deeply, my focus turned to their stories, their choices, their lives. Richie was one of those men—the only one I connected with who had not been convicted of murder. He was also the only one who returned to prison after his release. Richie agreed to share some of his experiences with me, and we began corresponding through snail mail, email, and phone.

    About one year later, we arranged a visit. Richie suggested I check the website for the “DOC” before I made the trip, as the Department of Corrections has quite a few rules regarding few visitation. Richie explained:

    You can’t wear shorts. You should probably wear a sports bra. You will have to go through a manometer, and they won’t let you pass if your bra has underwire rings. Think TSA x 100. It will most likely make you not want to return.

    The day before I left, I packed a small overnight bag with a sports bra, a wad of thirty single-dollar bills—Richie told me there were vending machines at the visiting station—and one carton of Newport 100s with a New York State tax seal stamped and visible (without the tax stamp, the cigarettes would not be allowed). Those were a gift for Richie. He doesn’t smoke, but cigarettes are valuable currency in prison. 

    My husband Steven and I drove five hours to get from Long Island, where we lived at the time, to Auburn, New York, a town at the northern tip of Owasco Lake in the Finger Lakes Region known for its wineries. Steven insisted on making the trip with me, though his support for my correspondences with the men from Anthony House was mixed. He would never choose to drive five hours to visit a man he’d never met, let alone a man serving time in a maximum-security prison, and he didn’t fully understand why this trip was so important to me. As we drove along the rural I-81, rain pelting our Nissan, I had second thoughts of my own. Why did I feel the need to visit Richie in prison? I valued his story and all the information he gave me, but weren’t our emails enough? 

    Steven and I rode mostly in silence, the narrow path of the Delaware River to our left. I thought of narrow paths and how the choices we make can expand our lives—or close us in. Tomorrow, Steven would spend the day wandering around town, free. I’d spend my day with Richie, whose choices led him to the Auburn Correctional Facility, one of New York State’s largest maximum-security prisons. 

    Three months before, when I originally proposed the visit, Richie declined. Visits were too short, he told me. The leaving too painful. Eventually, he changed his mind. 

    It would be best to come during a weekday. Whatever you decide, make sure to write a week prior so I can clean up, shave. Sometimes I go weeks unshaven just because. I won’t lie. I’m extremely anxious. Haven’t felt this way in a long time.

    Several years had passed since anyone traveled to see Richie. Most of his family stopped all contact after his third conviction. He does, however, maintain a few connections with people outside. His half-brother Tommy in the Bronx, whom he speaks to every week. Suzanne, his 31-year-old daughter, speaks to him several times a month over the phone. He occasionally speaks to a few men he served time with. And me.

    You can’t bring any recording devices or writing utensils in either. Whatever we talk about, you’ll have to remember—sorry. It’s definitely an experience, Dee. I wish we were meeting at Peter Lugers instead but…welcome to my world.

    Richie’s world. 

    While Richie has spent most of his adult years behind bars, his childhood was filled with joy—and opportunity. In a series of letters and emails over the span of two years, Richie told me about big Italian dinners his family would host on Sundays in their home in the suburbs of Long Island. Cousins, aunts, uncles. His mom and her huge pot of gravy she’d started preparing early in the morning. The smells of garlic and oregano wafting through the house. Richie’s grandmother, a musician, teaching him to play the piano on her white baby grand.

    There was the boat he got for his 14th birthday that he and friends would take out on the Long Island Sound. And there was baseball. Richie played ball with high-school seniors when he was just twelve years old. Big and tall for his age, Richie’s pitches clocked over 70 miles per hour on the radar gun. His pitching arm earned him a scholarship to Berkeley, where he played Pac10 baseball and earned a BA in music theory in 1994.

     So, how does a young man with so much promise—and good fortune—end up in maximum security prison? Heroin. His crimes, all burglaries. All to support his addiction.

    There were signs of trouble early on. Richie crossed a few lines. He wrote papers for high school kids at $25 a pop, took the SAT for a friend, stole fishermen’s crabs out of their traps to sell in the 7-Eleven parking lot. He did drugs in high school—speed, LSD—but his heroin use in college sent him over the cliff. 

    After that first time in college, nothing but. They call it ‘dope’ for a reason. I was in love. Made me feel ‘normal.’

    It started out like any other drug, recreational. And like everything else I do, the natural progression led to an everyday thing. I only have two speeds, like most addicts: 0 or 100.

    At 100, Richie needed access to the drug. His friends back home would FedEx heroin to him inside bags of candy. He also would take BART to San Francisco, where he would find some.  

    An addict can find snow in Hawaii, he wrote in an email. At first, he told me, he was spending $100 to $150 a week on heroin. 

    Later in life, that would get me to noon.

    It would also land him in prison.


    At 8:30 a.m., I presented myself to the two guards at the entrance, after walking the few blocks to the prison from my hotel. There was no drive down a long road or to somewhere tucked conveniently out of sight. Auburn Correctional stands in the middle of State Street, just as any library, post office, or Town Hall might. Auburn, one could argue, is a prison city. Auburn Correctional not only employs a sizeable number of the city’s residents, its mark on the city is undeniable. One need only look at the local bars. There’s the Prison City Pub and Brewery and also Swaby’s tavern, which displays an antique electric chair in one corner. (The first execution by electric chair took place at Auburn Prison in 1890, and in 1901 President William McKinley’s assassin was executed by electric chair at Auburn.) Auburn Correctional is so much a part of the town’s everyday landscape and livelihood, it’s easy to ignore that inside those walls, on an average day, about 1500 convicted felons eat, sleep, and survive.

    “We’re not letting anyone inside yet.” The guard pointed to a gray, one-story house across the street. “Go check in there and wait until your number is called.”

    I read the sign on the front of the house: Hospitality Center. Inside sat a smiley young woman at a desk who offered me neither tea nor coffee, although she was hospitable enough. The woman explained how to fill out the forms I needed—one asked typical demographic questions about me, the other, Richie’s DIN# to attach to the carton of cigarettes. She gave me a number and pointed to the tables in the big open room, where I could sit and wait to be called. 

    I was anxious. I didn’t want to sit or wait, so I checked out the play center at one end of the room. It had few toys, most of which were broken—a doll missing an arm, another without a dress. I walked over to the table and sat alongside other visitors, less smiley women—all women—some with bags of food or clothing for the men they’d be visiting inside. 
Meanwhile, Richie waited, too. A few days later Richie would send me an email describing what that wait had been like for him: 

    Clean shave, check. Fresh set of prison greens. Check. Pants put under the mattress the night before to take the wrinkles out.

    It’s seven a.m....hurry up and wait.

    I picture you drinking your morning coffee, maybe reading the paper or going over some notes.

    Are you nervous too? Or are you all business? Will you hug me or shake my hand? Do I hug back? Probably best to let you navigate the entire situation.

    When the CO announced that Richie had a visitor, some of the men in cells close by offered their support:

​    “Oh shit that’s you?”

    “You need some candy bro? Don’t go down with stank breath!”

    “Tuck your shirt in.”

    “Wear this shirt. It fits better. The other one’s too baggy.”

    “Have a good one and try to smile. Don’t look like you always do,” again from the peanut gallery.


    Richie hadn’t always been enthusiastic about helping me with my project. Even though I’d mentioned the names of several former Anthony House residents who were on board, Richie had been suspicious of my motives: Why was I interested in his experiences at Anthony House? Why was I interested in him at all? Both good questions. My answers were truthful—and clichéd: “Your story is important. Your voice and voices like yours are ignored too often. They need to be heard.” That proved enough to quell Richie’s wariness. He kept writing, and over time, we grew to care about each other’s lives and well being. But as I packed for the trip, as I sat in the car on the long drive, as I looked out the hallway window of our hotel and saw the thick, tall walls, and the watchtowers of the prison, I asked myself, why, just as Richie had. What was in this for me?

    At first, it was the research, learning about the men who’d once lived at the home. As an old-school social worker, I believed strongly in the importance of making space for all voices, especially those marginalized or discounted. My older son, a professor who studies the causes and consequences of mass incarceration, had heightened my awareness of criminal injustice issues. I became very interested in whom we punish and how, to what lengths we go to make those punishments real and harsh, from the cages we use for confinement to the exorbitant commissary prices and phone fees (a fifteen minute in-state phone call from a New York State jail or prison can run up to $7.50, while a package of 10 emails will cost $1.50), to the faraway locations of prisons and prohibitive visitation costs that keep the incarcerated isolated from those who love them. (Over 63 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons are over 100 miles from their families.) 

    But there was more. In all the men I’d interviewed, maybe especially in Richie, I sensed need. Need had always called to me. Drawn to a profession that serves people in crisis, where needs were many and, most often, intense, I’d helped people navigate a very flawed system and guided them through some of the toughest moments, sat with them as they expressed their most difficult feelings. I no longer work in the field, but I had never seen myself in the savior role. “Saving” was not my job, nor any psychotherapist’s place. 

    While I knew I was not Richie’s social worker, nor his therapist, I sensed myself heading toward a slippery slope. Maintaining strong boundaries had always been a challenge for me, and needy people are often adept at crossing boundaries and finding people who let them. Steven, my husband, would remind me of this. He expressed concern when I’d meet some of the other former Anthony House residents at a Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee or at a diner in the rough parts of town. He also insisted I get a P.O. box to use as my return address on prison mail, so none of the men would know where we lived. 


    Eventually a voice from a loudspeaker called out visitor numbers, and I walked across the street. I didn’t quite know what to do, unaware of the proper protocol. The other women could tell this was my first time, so they graciously took me under their wing.

    “Do you have any quarters for the locker?” they asked. “You’ll need a locker for your things.” No phones were allowed, no paper, pencils or pens, no pocketbooks, just me and my wad of dollar bills tucked into my pocket. I dug into my change purse for the quarter and placed my personal belongings inside locker 37. Next, I handed the hospitality forms to the ruddy-faced guard behind the divider at the waiting area. He looked up at me and said, “You’ll have to take off that sweater and put it in your locker.” 

    I was wearing a sweater over a sleeveless dress. 

    “Ma’am. I can’t let you in unless your shoulders are covered.”

    I had learned of the prohibition against sleeveless tops, but it was August and hot, and I had to walk a few blocks from my hotel to the prison. I had planned to cover my shoulders with a light sweater during my visit. With all the visitation rules, I must have missed the one about wearing sweaters. I felt panicky. After having sat in a car for five hours, paid for a hotel, would I have to turn around and drive back home before meeting with Richie? He was waiting, and I was at a loss. My disconcertion must have shown.

    “There’s a store two blocks away where you can get a t-shirt,” the officer offered.

    “Aren’t they closed? It’s only 8:30 in the morning.”

    “They open when we start letting visitors in. For people like you.” I guess there are many ways the prison supports the local economy. 

    I opened my locker and took out my purse. I walked to the store, bought a black tee, slipped it over my dress, and then returned to the ruddy-faced guard with my papers. 

    “Where’s your license plate number? It’s not on the form.” 

    “I walked here from my hotel.”

    “You didn’t walk all the way here from New Hyde Park, did you?” I couldn’t tell if the officer was trying to make a friendly joke or being snide, as his smile could have passed for a smirk. He had watched me fumble at the lockers with what seemed a bit of joy at my expense. 

    He stamped my forms and waved me on. “Next time you visit, you’ll be an expert.” 

    I gave the next guard the carton of cigarettes labeled with Richie’s DIN# and placed my hand down on the counter to be stamped with invisible ink. I held my breath as I passed through the metal detectors, then collected my shoes. I was officially inside. Each step felt like walking more deeply into foreign territory. I presented my stamped hand to yet another guard, who sat behind thick glass in a narrow passageway. He pressed a button to open the solid glass and metal doors to the visiting station. I heard a loud clang as the doors closed behind me.

    The visiting room resembled an elementary school cafeteria: linoleum floors with small tables and thick plastic chairs. A guard inside told me to sit at the fourth table in the row closest to the left wall. I counted three times, not wanting to sit in at the wrong table, but I made another mistake, I chose a chair facing the front, so I’d be able to see Richie when he walked in.

    “You’re not allowed to sit there,” a woman at the next table told me. I had no idea what she meant. 

    “You have to face the back.” She pointed to the chair across the table, the one facing the back of the room. “Like me.” The woman explained that the men, not the visitors, had to sit facing the guards. “The COs want to see their expressions at all times.” 

    While I changed seats, Richie was on his way.

    I was starting to sweat. This is really happening.

    I wanted to make a good impression. I didn't want to be aggressive in my demeanor, the way I need to survive in here. And for whatever reason I was extra concerned with my appearance. I wanted to smell good too (lol) not like cold steel and despair. I wanted to smell, look and BE—not just act—normal. Does that make sense?

    It made perfect sense to me.

    The officer told Richie which table I was seated at. He saw me.

    I was overwhelmed with anxiety. When you opened your arms for a hug, I was relieved. You hugged like my mother and smelled of fresh laundry and freedom.

    I remember thinking ‘oh she’s so tiny’ and wondering how little you could produce that soooooo Brooklyn accent.     

    “Tiny” came as a surprise. At sixty, my years have brought with them a few extra pounds, but I guess it’s all relative. At 6’4”, 264 pounds, Richie fit the classic tall, strong, and handsome category. Shaved head, bright eyes and smile, muscular build. Though he spent 25 of his 48 years in prison—more than half his life—he looked like he could still be playing college ball. 

    Richie said hi to another man who sat with a visitor and then told me the man had killed an undercover officer when he was 17. No chance of parole for him. To the left were a mother and daughter-in-law I’d met in the Hospitality House. They were playing gin rummy with their loved one. And behind us was a family—a mom, a teenaged son, and a younger daughter, who sat on her father’s lap. 

    I remembered how at ease you were. I’m so used to people playing defense with me. Dominating the convo…We were like old new friends. We spoke about the book you’re writing, about the other guys, but mostly about family. Yours as well as mine. Your kids, your husband, the drive up from Long Island. I spoke of my family briefly until I felt the tears welling up, then quickly changed the subject. I felt too tired to cry.

    Richie spoke about the food. There was never enough. I’d heard this from others who’d been incarcerated. They were often hungry in prison. Strategically placed beside visiting rooms in prisons were the vending machines Richie had told me about, which could only be patronized by visitors. The incarcerated had to remain in their seats. I asked Richie what he wanted: “Anything but pork.” I bought him two chicken sandwiches, a salad with chicken, and two iced teas—to me he seemed like a growing boy. 

We would laugh about the food later. I hadn’t realized the sandwiches I purchased were frozen, and, for some reason even Richie can’t figure out, he didn’t want to ask me to return to the vending section, where I could have easily stuck them in the microwave. Instead, he ate them ice cold. It’s a miracle he didn’t break a tooth.


    In his emails, Richie often asked me if I could send him money for food. Prison commissary prices are exorbitant. Richie had no resources, no prison job. Yet, sending money would complicate our relationship, would make the power dynamic central. It would entail crossing a boundary. I crossed it. How could I deny a person who was hungry? 

    Richie had said I “hugged like his mother.” I often felt maternal towards him. But I didn’t want to treat Richie like a child, hold purse strings, give him “an allowance.” These were boundaries better not crossed. Richie was a grown man who didn’t need to be mothered. I was a grown woman who had her own adult children. Still. 


    While we talked, Richie facing the guards, he kept fidgeting in his chair, his eyes darting from left to right. Reaching back to my days as a social worker, I thought of PTSD. I asked him about it.

    I don’t like not being able to see what’s going on behind me. Situational awareness. Up until a few years ago I didn't know what to call it, I just knew that my ability to process information, predicting people’s movements and actions through body language, was a “thing.”

    Richie elaborated. 

    To survive any significant amount of time in prison, embracing paranoia is critical. Two things are respected: drugs and violence. Unfortunately, I have indulged in both. Diplomacy is extremely overrated. Any type of drama needs to be addressed immediately. I’ve been stabbed, cut, jumped, and have done my share of the same. I never know when or where something is going to happen. I always have to be aware.

    Of course, I knew this. But hearing Richie speak of it and witnessing his anxious movements—his need to constantly glance behind him—touched me. Deeply. It must have shown, as Richie explained in a later email:

    I saw confusion, sadness and maybe a hint of fear when I told you this. Fear for me. I wanted to tell you I’m O.K. but I didn’t want to lie.

    Things happen at the speed of light in here, and I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Today, I was grateful and blessed. For friendship, for your presence, for the frozen food from the vending machine.

    We talked about drugs, how he planned to stay sober on his next shot outside. Richie made no excuses. He took responsibility for his drug abuse and for the crimes he committed because of it. Yet he also firmly believed that had he been offered a treatment program instead of prison for his first offense, he would not be in prison today. 

    On previous releases, Richie used heroin again on his very first day out. He’s convinced this won’t be the case when his current bid is up. Richie told me it was “different this time.” He said that drugs cost him everything that ever mattered to him. He was confident that he would not—ever—go back to prison. He would not—ever—use drugs again.

    I firmly believe he believed this. I wanted to believe it too but knew the pull of addiction would be great as he faced challenges on the outside. Richie said one thing on which we both could agree: If I use again, I’ll die here.

    Richie’s first appearance before the parole board will not come until the winter of 2024. If he isn’t granted parole then, the next round will come in 2026. He will have already celebrated his 50th birthday. 

    Richie and I spoke for four hours that day, moving from family to college baseball, drugs to prison life, food to friendship. And then it was time for me to go. Another five-hour ride back home for me. For Richie, it was back to his cell. He wrote to me later about what that was like for him:

    I remember telling you I was glad I allowed you to visit, while trying to explain how draining it is when it’s time to leave. It’s like transcending to a life you once knew but forgot all about. Then it’s over and you have to reharden yourself to go back to the jungle. Like your humanity gets left on the visiting room floor. 

    Watching people leave is the hardest part of visits for Richie. People promise to come again, but those return visits often don’t happen. 

    I said goodbye at the Auburn Correctional Facility on an August afternoon with a promise to return the next summer. And then the pandemic hit. Prisons became notorious hot spots. Many facilities put a hold on visitations. I’m in a high-risk category, so when next summer came, I stayed home—even after visitations had resumed.

    Richie and I still email every week. I tell myself that’s better than most of the other people who are or who have been in his life. Yet I am also another broken promise. His initial reluctance to have me visit has played out the way he expected—in disappointment. 

    Will the parole board approve Richie’s release? Will he reenter society without relapsing into addiction? I hope the answer to both will be “yes,” but the odds are not in his favor.

    If Richie is, in fact, released from prison next year, where will I set my boundaries? Will I give him money for toiletries, for food? Send him money to buy clothes for job interviews?

    I’ve been contacting agencies that provide reentry services, should Richie make parole. I’ve written emails and made calls but have received little response. When I do hear back, it’s often with little or no good news. There are few resources available. It makes me think a lot about boundaries and responsibilities—and the lines that exist between them. Must we sometimes cross over one to meet the other? What do we, as a society, owe people coming out of prison? Housing? A bit of money to get started? A job? I believe the answer to these questions is ”yes.” Is there a social contract that Richie, who will have “paid his dues,” is still part of? I’d like to think so. 

* All names and DINs have been changed.
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Diane Gottlieb, MSW, MEd, MFA, is the editor of Awakenings: Stories of Body & Consciousness (ELJ Editions) and the Prose/CNF editor of Emerge Literary Journal. Her writing appears in WitnessColorado ReviewRiver TeethFlorida ReviewSmokeLong QuarterlyBest MicrofictionHuffPostThe RumpusHippocampus and many other lovely places. She is the winner of Tiferet Journal’s 2021 Writing Contest in nonfiction, longlisted at 2023’s Wigleaf Top 50, and a finalist for The Florida Review’s 2023 Editor’s Prize for Creative Nonfiction. Find her at https://dianegottlieb.com and @DianeGotAuthor.