Many people want to know where Harvey Weinstein is headed, especially now that it’s been revealed that he’s been infected with COVID-19. He recently was transferred from New York City’s main jail complex on Rikers Island to the Downstate Correctional Facility in the Hudson Valley. And at least one newspaper incorrectly concluded that he was to be a prisoner at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Duchess County—the last of the prisons I visited during my own 10 years upstate. That’s because Downstate’s street address puts it in the area of Fishkill, NY. But in fact, the area is home to several prisons. With 23 years to serve, Weinstein is going to a maximum-security prison, and not a medium-security unit such as Fishkill Correctional.
Downstate Correctional Facility is something like the sorting hat in Hogwarts. Few do their full time there. Instead, they are evaluated over a period of several weeks and then sent on to an appropriate jail. In my experience, no one except for the internal worker cadre stays more than two months or so. But now that Weinstein’s tested positive for coronavirus, his departure will be delayed. His quarantine likely is being served in the segregation unit—the same place where people go when they stab another gang member.
Weinstein will not end up in the relatively upscale confines of the medical clinic (which mostly just means urine-free sheets) because he is an infection risk. The box is where there is no human contact possible; the meals come through a slot, and sunshine enters from the cage attached to your suite. The door to the cage opens automatically for an hour a day. The steel shower dribbles water three times a week. A nurse passes through every day and looks at you through the scratched plastic window. Weinstein is not going to receive any special care as a sick man in the segregated wing. And his introduction to hard time upstate will be hard.
Being sick in prison is a nightmare. Sick call is before 6am, to better discourage malingerers. Seeing a doctor takes weeks and lasts minutes. When I had to get some serious care, it was a battle to finally get any kind of medical attention. When I succeeded, I thought it was a big coup, but the doctor almost scared me to death as soon as he opened his mouth.
“Hello Mr. Genis. I see you’re HIV positive…” he said. My heart sank to my feet and I was instantly nauseous.
“But how? When did this happen? My god, no…”
He took another look at the papers.
“Oh I see, negative for HIV. What are you complaining about? Negative. Now I don’t have much time…”
So that’s how it goes. Not even an apology for the error. And I heard things. Prisoners who died waiting for a specialist who came once a year. The policy preventing prisoners from getting organ transplants, even though a man I knew inside was able to give his kidney to his mother. He turned out to be a sexual predator, just like Weinstein, and that complicates matters, too.
Weinstein is an old, rich white man with a “bad case.” He’ll be a target of vigilantes who attack sex offenders and every extortion artist who reads a newspaper. The authorities are well aware of this. And though they may not like it, it’s their duty to keep him safe.
If it weren’t for the extenuating circumstances—the illnesses, the recent diagnosis, the sexual assault—he could have followed my path to nearby Green Haven Correctional Facility, also in Duchess County. That is the only prison in the system with a hot kosher kitchen. When I was sent to Downstate from Rikers in 2004, my likely fate was to spend six weeks there before being sent up to Clinton or Attica to start working down my max time to get down to a medium (and therefore down south, closer to New York City). Instead I was recruited by Jewish Services.
While I was still in the sorting hat, Rabbi Leser took a look at me and pulled me over for a talk about the shabbat and other matters.
“You need kosher food?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” I said, afraid to stand out and be marked as a Jew in a world that included a few Nation of Islam members and Aryan types. He looked at me with pity, realizing I was still an idiot.
“You want to spend time with Jewish prisoners? Talk to other people who went to a nice school like you did?”
I’d graduated NYU three years before, but now was set to serve 10 years for robbery after succumbing to heroin addiction. This time, I got the hint, and said that I actually do need kosher food. Very much so. Eleven days later, I was at Green Haven, just a hundred miles from my wife and parents, with a congregation that included stereotype-approved crooked lawyers, quack doctors, Hasidic diamond thieves, an Israeli ecstasy ring, and a Sephardic sadist.
The Mashgiach was Ronny the Rapo, and he kept the kitchen right. We had a blow torch to remove the chametz before Passover. For four years. I celebrated every holiday in Orthodox fashion, ate gefilte fish, and drank grape-juice hooch. This could have been Weinstein’s fate. And it might be one day. But there are those extenuating circumstances.
Where will he go? Clinton Correctional Facility, upstate, is my guess. As the State of New York describes it, the Assessment and Program Preparation Unit (APPU) there provides “supportive counseling” to inmates unable to function in the general inmate population. There are eight listed conditions that make an inmate eligible for the program, including the commission of high-profile crimes.
Tupac did time for rape at Clinton. Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s killer, has been there. Notorious sex killers and other prisoners believed to be unable to survive in general population are sent there. The one man I knew who got out of Clinton said it took him years and an attorney. Richard DiGuglielmo was an Italian transit cop who shot a guy he saw beating his father with a baseball bat. The case was racially charged (the victim was black), and cops have it tough in jail to begin with. Richie told me he used to send Tupac special bowls of spaghetti, as he claimed his beliefs prevented him from eating pork. Meeting such men may seem interesting, but Clinton’s APPU is essentially a segregated prison within a prison system. And Richie fought for years to get out. Weinstein may well end up there after his quarantine, during which time he’ll learn that the doctors upstate aren’t as interested in a patient’s problems when the state is paying their salaries instead of you.
I found Rabbi Leser years later and thanked him for the mitzvah he did. But Weinstein probably attracts too much attention to get the treatment I did. He’s too much the macher for a rabbi to give him the wink.
Up at Clinton, he can still get the cold Kosher alternative diet, though. There’s no chicken legs or beef hot dogs (tasted just like Nathan’s, I swear) like I had in Green Haven for almost half my bid. The C.A.D. meal, as we called it, is really just the same rough cold cut in plastic every night, cups of tuna fish in “white sauce,” and eggs that come in a bucket of formaldehyde.
Well, that’s what it seemed like. But whatever it is, it’s certified as being definitely kosher and certifiably disgusting.
Daniel Genis is a Russian-American journalist and writer.
Featured image: Jewish prisoners at Green Haven Correctional Facility, circa 1985, surrounding Rabbi Herman Eisner, a concentration camp survivor.