Pedro Collazo was formerly incarcerated at Sing Sing (a maximum security prison in New York) from 2008 through September 2015 (8 years). He was 25 when he first arrived at Sing Sing.
As he explained, the U.S. prison system and the criminal justice system look at only effects and not root causes: "We need to look at why are individuals robbing, stealing, selling drugs? What is going on in these individuals’ environments that’s causing them to do this? You gotta look at the cause. Because right now society only looks at the effects. They only look at what you did. They’re looking at that you were in prison, that you committed a crime. But they’re not looking at: Why did you do that?"
Collazo currently lives and works in New York City.
This is his story.
Q: What was your first day at Sing Sing like?
Collazo: It was a shock. First of all, it was my first time in a maximum security prison. That was the first time I had ever seen a cell block. It’s incredibly long and incredibly big. There’s about 700 individuals in there. It’s just one long corridor of cells. And so when you walk down, you’re walking past cells and there’s individuals in there. And you can’t look in there. Because if you look in there, automatically - it’s grounds for some type of trouble. What are you looking in here for? They might come out and forget about it. It could lead to bad situation.
The you have to lug your property -- about 4 or 5 bags of property -- all the way up and down the steps, up and down, down the corridor, into to your cell, which is often times dirty, disgusting, and nasty. You might see some urine and fecesstill in there.
Dirt on the floor. Stuff on the walls. It’s just a very dirty environment. Mattresses are disgusting. Ripped up, flat, no pillow. So you have to clean it out.
Once you go through that process, you get locked in. You can’t come out unless they open the gates.
And you if you do get to go out, you’re only allowed to go to a certain place and only if you can prove you’re allowed to be there.
That’s pretty much when I first got in there, what I went through.
Come nighttime, when everything is shut down, they shut the gate, so that’s it for the whole night and the staff pretty much disappears. So you don’t see anybody until the next morning. So anything can happen. I’ve seen it with individuals. They might catch seizures, they might catch a heart attack in their cell. And it takes a long time for staff to get up there and help them out. God forbid a fire happens. I’ve seen that as well. It takes 15-20 minutes for staff to get up there. And meanwhile the guy is burning up, all his stuff is burning up. Including him.
For the staff, their main interest is financial because it’s a job. They are not properly trained to deal with individuals. One thing I’ve seen is that anyone working in that type of environment has to have some background or training and study of human behavior. So you can deal with individuals going through the criminal justice system. Because they [the staff] really did not know how to deal with individuals. And even more so, since there are so many individuals in there with mental health problems, they didn’t know how to handle them either.
Like I said, come nighttime, they shut everything down. Then the music starts blaring out. Guys get on the gate, they start yelling and screaming to their friends all the way down. You smell the drugs in the air. Marijuana, crack, whatever they’re smoking.
Most of the time it’s the security that brings it in. It’s no secret.
Q: Did you leave family behind? A kid? A wife? What was that like?
Collazo: Yes, I did. I had my son who was 3 years old [at the time that I left]. And my daughter wasn’t even born yet. Her mother was still pregnant with her.
It was very difficult for them. My son was with his mother and she apparently fell on some hard times. She got involved with an individual, during the time while I was away, and he was a heroin addict. He got her strung out on drugs. So while she’s out there chasing drugs and doing things to get them, my son was being left with anyone who would watch him. So I didn’t know who was taking care of my son or what they were doing to him. I know he has issues. He was in a home for two and a half years. He tried to commit suicide twice -- once when he was 12 years old and when he was 13 years old.
He doesn’t really talk about all that went on while I was away, but I know that it affected him.
We’re still working towards a relationship. He’s still getting used to having me around. One thing I have to make him understand is that I’m his father. He gets a little playful sometimes; he gets out of control. But we’re still working on that.
With my daughter, she pretty much rejected me. She grew up with another man raising her. To her, that’s her father. And when she found out where I was and what I was there for, she told her mother, she doesn’t want to talk to me.
**His son is 15 years old now.
Q: What was the day-to-day like? Boring? Scary? Hard?
Collazo: What I did there, because they had so many educational programs, was that I took every single one that I could. So from the first week that I got there, I enrolled in a pre-college program and that was for the evenings Monday through Friday. So my evenings Monday through Friday were pretty much set. Then I got a job working in the kitchen Monday through Friday AM to PM. So my week, morning to night, was pretty much set -- I was busy Mondays through Fridays.
Saturday and Sunday -- Saturday I did homework, made phone calls home, cleaned out my cell because it used to get very dirty. When you only have three walls, a lot of stuff just gets inside, onto your floor and onto your bed, so you have to clean everything out. Sunday I pretty much rested and relaxed. And that’s pretty much it. I did that pretty much the entire time I was there.
So I essentially turned that entire time there into a school. I went to school the entire time.
**He’s a graduate of the Hudson Link program.
Q: What causes yard fights (or fights in general) and trouble between inmates?
Collazo: From what I saw - it was three main things:
1. It’s drug-related. Someone is buying drugs and couldn’t pay for them.
2. It’s gang-related. Individuals are part of a gang and there’s initiations and had to do something or they have beef with somebody else.
3. There’s disagreements over having respect. Individuals are grown, they’re adults and they’re going through their stresses. And one of the worst things to do is come out disrespecting. To say something disrespectful. To try to steal something or try to get over. That’s usually a cause. And from there it escalates. It starts off small, and from there, it escalates. Like a snowball effect. And before you know it, one or two people are getting involved. Someone is getting cut, stabbed, or maybe a group goes at it. It all depends on the situation. But that’s what I’ve seen -- drugs, gangs, and a matter of where some type of slight was felt and things went very, very bad very quick.
Q: What were the major problems in the prison system and what could be done better?
Collazo: The two main things are:
1. Proper staff training, and
2. Programs that are actually geared toward rehabilitation and life skills. You gotta give the guys something to do that they can use when they leave. Because a lot of the programs I seen over there -- they give them basic things like the parent thing or they’ll have other little programs, but when you come out into the workforce, you can’t use most of that. Or they’ll give them jobs in computer repair, but all the computers and tools they’re using are so outdated that when they get out of there, it’s not even applicable anymore.
So really meaningful skills programs to train these guys, so when they come out, they are employable.
A lot of guys I talked to -- that’s how they ended up there in the first place. It’s part of a larger social issue. There’s discrimination that puts people into a certain class. And it puts them through a system. When you don’t have education and there’s a lack of economic opportunity -- and you give them nothing to do… If you don’t give them any tools, life skills, employability, when they come out -- they are back in square one. They are worse off than when they got arrested. And they are being discriminated against.
When I turned in my resume -- [and at first], companies and companies were calling me back. They’re hunting me, like come in, come in, come in. But when I go in, once they find out about my background -- it can’t go any further than that.
Another thing -- the prison staff aren’t trained right. The staff are from areas that don’t have any type of individuals who they are guarding over -- because they’re not from the neighborhoods. So you have two different cultural differences -- with the upstate, rural kind of country life. And it’s a different cultural mindset, different racial mindset. So you’re coming in with one mindset, but you’re dealing with a class of people that’s of another mindset and you get those clashes. Racism is very present in those upstate prisons. Those guards are racist. To the bone.
And when they address issues with the prisoners, they’re quick to get physical. And they don’t even do it in a way where you’re restrained. I’ve been guys get beaten to the point they have to use a colonoscopy bag and they can’t use the bathroom no more. I’ve seen them beat guys into comas. They’ve committed murders. And they just go unpunished because under the law, they are justified in using force in those situations. And the way they write up the reports, they always make themselves look like they were being attacked or they feared for their life, which is often not the case.
I think they need to be trained a lot better. A two year college degree, something. Psychology, human behavior. So that they know how to deal with these individuals. You have to be trained properly. If you’re not, it doesn’t help with the rehabilitation process and it can become de-habilitating.
Q: What did you most look forward to every day?
Collazo: Certain programs that I was engaged in that I really enjoyed. Those programs I really looked forward to. One of them was the Carnegie Hall Musical Connections Program. And I was a part of that and I’m still working with them out here.
Every other Saturday, they have a workshop. I was just so psyched. Every other Saturday, we would play music, jamming, meeting artists and musicians from the outside, getting ready to put on shows, the shows we put on -- I looked forward to that. I’m also a musician, so I learned how to play. And I learned how to write [music]. So that’s another way I spent my time. And that pretty much kept me going.
I didn’t look forward to mail or visits because I didn’t get much of it. If you keep looking for something that’s not really there, you’re going to set yourself up for disappointment. So I brushed that out. So if I got mail, I got mail, if I got a visitor, a visitor -- whatever. I was more focused on the things I could do to better myself, help myself, and prepare myself for this transition.
One was the college program -- the Hudson Link College Program. I loved it. I loved going to school at night. I loved the classes. I loved the students in it -- very bright and talented individuals. Positive brothers.
I loved working with the Carnegie Musical Connections Program. They’re great.
Positive programs had a real affect on me.
To working with and working for [these programs] -- I loved it because I knew how much it worked for me. I saw other brothers that went through [these same programs] and how successful they have been since then.
Q: What else should people know about the prison system?
Collazo: Stop looking at what individuals have done to land them there and start looking at what caused people to get there.
Other societies don’t have mass incarceration.
We need to look at why are individuals robbing, stealing, selling drugs. What is going on in these individuals’ environments that’s causing them to do this? You gotta look at the cause. Because right now society only looks at the effects. They only look at what you did. They’re looking at that you were in prison, you committed a crime. But they’re not looking at: Why did you do that? Why were you selling drugs? Why are you stealing?
Let’s look at what’s going on that’s forcing you to you to do those things? We pride ourselves on being a country that’s about freedom and justice for all, but those are concepts that aren’t always applied in every instance; it seems selective. A lot of people aren’t part of that because they don’t have access to it and when you’re marginalized and put on the sidelines of mainstream society, you’re denied a lot of opportunities. So, the first law of human behavior is going to kick in, and that’s survival. So, if you put an individual in a situation where they have no means of self-sustenance, they are going to do what they have to do.
Right now, we only look at what you did. But we need to look at the causes, not just the effects.