A letter from jail

by Eric Ginsburg

Drowsy and mildly delirious from potent pain medication, I stopped at the black mailbox outside my apartment door before my first social excursion after having two wisdom teeth extracted. I thumbed through envelopes — a dental bill, a car insurance offer — and tried to avoid sloping spiderwebs. As I walked toward the driveway to wait for my girlfriend’s car — I still wasn’t driving — I gently opened a letter with “Piedmont Regional Jail Inmate Mail” stamped weakly across the back in faded black ink.

It’s the first time I’ve heard from Jorge Cornell — Jay — since visiting him with his kids and exwife a few days before his sentencing last month.

We clustered around a booth in the visitation room of the Orange County Jail, a bizarre brick structure that looks like a converted school and doesn’t even have metal detectors. Jay leaned against the wall on the other side of the visitation window, elbow propping him up as he held the phone to his ear and directed the other line between family members and me.

I talked trash about the Yankees’ season, went over our expectations for sentencing and felt slightly awkward about imposing on what we all thought could be his family’s last visit before he was forced into a cell in a prison somewhere like Oklahoma.

I shifted my weight, propping myself up on the back of my car and listening for the crunch of the gravel driveway to indicate my temporary chauffeur’s arrival as I tried to focus on his letter. I knew what it would be about — a friend received a similar message the day before — but I still felt deflated and morose when I finished the last line.

Ernesto Wilson, one of Jay’s co-defendants in the well-publicized Latin Kings trial last fall — who was somehow entangled in the so-called racketeering conspiracy despite never being a Latin King — tried to kill himself at Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville, Va. right before Jay arrived.

Enclosed was a letter from another inmate, Willie Carpenter, who witnessed it.

“Inmates were screaming and yelling for help. No one came. The CO in the booth just looked. Finally two came back and saw what was happening. They caught his feet but he hung sideways for 10 to 12 minutes before cutting him down. He laid motionless for a few minutes before one inmate yelled, ‘Do CPR.’” Carpenter wrote that after Wilson returned from South Side Regional Hospital nearby, he “tried killing himself by drowning in a toilet.”

… Wilson maintains his innocence, like Jay, and threatened to kill himself at sentencing, Jay wrote. We waited almost 10 months between the verdict the day before Thanksgiving and the sentencing last month, and by the time the day was set, it was too late for me to cancel taking a class out of town. Jay said that Judge James Beaty stated Wilson needed to be on suicide watch, but I’m told that — similar to his recommendation that Jay be imprisoned near his family in Greensboro — even he has little power to affect the behemoth that is the prison system.

Wilson didn’t just warn people in the somber federal courtroom in Winston-Salem about his intentions.

“Bro, he told the inmates that he was innocent of the [racketeering] case and that he could no longer live like a slave and that it was time to check out,” Jay wrote.

In a few weeks from now I’ll turn 26. That’s how much longer Jay will be locked up. Yes, there is an appeal and yes, there is hope. But there’s no comparable sensation to seeing someone close to you, someone you trust, sitting across a metal booth from you behind dense glass, white walls that seem to stare back at you and the uncomfortably relaxed gaze of a guard. It’s a pretty effective way to feel disempowered, useless and threatened.

There are no repercussions for these people who came into our city and ripped a man out of his home. I watched people who knew him silently distance themselves from a case that they — at least on some level — knew was a farce but either felt more hopeless than I did or calculated the risk of being associated with the subject of an FBI raid and decided it would be more personally and politically expedient to move on to the next campaign.

I watched the stream of federal agents milling about on the front lawn of the small Glenwood home. My adrenaline and anger were pumping then, but both would soon fade and be replaced by a more lasting, background fear: What if they came for me? I struggle to imagine something more terrifying than spending decades in prison for a crime I didn’t commit and to watch people I counted as friends fall away.

It feels almost laughable to say you feel powerless when you aren’t the one condemned behind brick, metal and glass, but I’m still coming up short. I’ve written about the enormity of this case that is so farcical that it’s as crazy as fiction, but I sense little ability to stir readers to action.

I could ask you to call Piedmont Regional Jail, but emotional and physical distance between a claustrophobic, florescent cell in Virginia and the urgency that is lost in my clumsy verbalization is a chasm I doubt I can compel strangers to cross. If people who knew Jay, who saw his character, refused to even passively support him, what chances do I have of convincing you that Wilson — who I’ve never met or communicated with — deserves better?

This is what prison does. It makes us feel alone.

My phone buzzed — my ride was on the way — and with five minutes to kill I meandered back up the steps to my apartment and placed the letter on a bluish-gray stair inside. The pain medication was forceful enough that it was difficult to process what I had read, and my inability to focus made it easy not to think about anything besides the liquid brunch in front of me at the restaurant.

A week later I still can’t fully grasp it, not because I’m groggy and frustrated by how challenging it is to talk about this, but because that’s what prison does. It isolates us from each other’s humanity. Even when I’m there, slumped in front of Jay, my senses of touch and smell are restrained.

But even though Jay is sentenced to hell for as many years as I’ve been alive, and even though he is being squeezed in a tightening vice, his strength is more than even our monstrous Goliath of a prison system can handle. It’s enough to propel me, and we’re hoping you, too.

I reread Carpenter’s statement and the image of a man so desperate that he is trying to drown in a toilet imprints on my mind. I reread Jay’s letter, sit up, and slowly keep typing.