Louis Ferrante made his name on New York streets as head man to a crew of hijackers for the Gambino Crime Family. When nabbed, he spent over eight years in some of America's toughest penitentiaries, where he read his first book and learned the writing trade. Unlocked, his memoir, was published from Harper Collins in 2009.
In the early '90s, I was indicted by the FBI, Secret Service, and Nassau Country Prosecutor's Office, charged with heading my own crew in the Gambino Crime Family. After several years of court proceedings, I pled guilty. I'd serve my federal sentence first, followed by my state sentence.
At the beginning of my sentence my mind was mobbed up. I lived and breathed mafia life, the only life I knew. But something mysterious happened to me while serving my time. During a trip through solitary confinement, I began to think, and suddenly had regrets about the life I'd lived. With plenty of questions about the purpose of life and no one around to answer them, I turned to books. For me, it was a monumental discovery, opening up a new world to me. I'd finally found an escape from the hell of prison. I fell in love with reading, began to see things differently, and left the mob.
I was locked away with my books for over six years when at last the Federal Bureau of Prisons handed me over to the New York State penal system where I was to serve another two years. Before being sent to an upstate prison, I was locked up for several months in Long Island's Nassau County Hail. The joint was a real shit hoe. Dark, dirty, and damp. Mice and cockroaches. Rapists and molesters everywhere — creeps I didn't see much of in the feds.
Upon arrival, I was put in 72-hour lockdown, an isolation cell where every con is monitored to make sure he doesn't have any diseases than can spread around the prison. For a drug addict, it's a place to kick his habit, three days to clean the dope out of his system so he can function like the rest of us normal lunatics.
I was bored and depressed. I needed a book to lift me out of the gloom, but my books had been taken from me along with my few other belongings during the prison transfer. Time drags in jail; without something to read, every day feels like a week.
I was boxed up next to a young junkie who was kicking. He screamed and cried all night long. In the morning, he moaned that he was freezing. From where I lay in my cell, I could see his bare feet shivering. His legs were too long for his bunk; his feet hung off the edge, through the bars.
I asked him if he wanted my socks. He did, and I gave them to him. I've never forgotten how polite he was, his voice stuttering through chattering teeth as he thanked me repeatedly.
By the end of the second day, he had kicked the dope, and we were both released after the third day. Another lost soul I'd never see again. Much more than the violence, loneliness, and isolation, the countless lost souls you encounter is what truly establishes prison as a hell on earth. I often wonder how many of the lives I ran across have ended in tragedy.
After 72-hour lockdown, guards designate you to a tier block where you live along the general population. I anticipated the typical tier block bullshit. Every prison is filled with predators, cons looking to strong-arm some newjack who's visibly afraid and doesn't know the ropes. To overcome them, you have to prove yourself.
Sometimes, I had to prove myself in federal prison, but not usually. Most mobsters serve time in the feds. The mafia is a close-knit society, so I was well known in most fed joints. A mafia welcoming committee generally awaited me wherever I was sent. But there aren't mobsters in country jails, so no one knew me. Here, I was like anyone else.
It was early evening, shortly before lock-in, when I was released onto my tier block. A few gangbangers, probably Crips or Bloods, were playing cards. The chief Big Mouth said, "Yo, little man, come over here, I wanna ask you somethin."
I clenched my fists. "Who the fuck you callin' little man?"
Not the response Big Mouth had expected.
"Shit," he said, shaking his head, "thought you was a newjack."
"I'm down six years, motherfucker!" I jabbed a thumb into my chest. "You're new to me!"
I hated talking this way but knew when to turn it on. These punks were probably serving a county bullet, a ten-month sentence. To them, six years is an eternity; I had instant respect.
A short time later, I was locked in for the night. I tossed and turned, couldn't fall asleep. I was so lost without a book, my trusted means of escape. I wanted to read so desperately that I used the dim light shining in from the corridor to read the graffiti on the cinder blocks. It seemed every con who passed through my cell had scrawled an angry or bitter remark across the walls. I waited the entire night for the bars to open so I could visit the prison library in the morning.
Shortly after chow, the hack on duty gave me a library permit. I walked in, looked around, and was pleasantly surprised. Most prison libraries keep a stock of worn, musty, out-of-print books, usually the discarded leftovers from public libraries or someone's attic. This library had a whole section of classic literature in fair condition. Most of the titles I had already read, but just seeing them on the shelves gave me the same warm feeling as walking into a room and spotting a group of old friends. Dickens, Defoe, and the Bronte sisters. Stendhal, Dumas, and Cervantes. I felt at home, even in this hell.
The first classic I noticed that I hadn't yet read was Les Miserables. I knew what to expect from the author, Victor Hugo, since I'd read his Notre-Dame de Paris. I slid the paperback from the shelf — thick like a solid brick, an unabridged edition, nearly fifteen hundred pages. I liked the cover art, and the spine was wide enough for a small sketch of a street urchin holding a broom. I signed the book out and rushed back to my cell.
When I first discovered books, I was a slow reader and had to keep a dictionary close at hand. By now, I was able to devour a three-hundred page book in one day, seldom breaking to look up a word. Les Mis should've taken me about five days to finish.
Once I started, though, I began to slow my pace. I read pages and paragraphs over, sometimes chapters; Hugo's brilliance was something to be absorbed deliberately. I'd read plenty of histories about Napoleonic times, yet Hugo's ability to place me on the battlefield of Waterloo surpassed every historian's attempt to do the same. Hugo pointed out the many coincidences stacked up against Napoleon at Waterloo, and left the reader to contemplate the idea of natural justice, an idea I'd been toying with since discovering books and waking up to the many coincidences that led me to prison. I took note of how Hugo began and ended a chapter, how he created a conflict, and how magnificently he resolved it. I'd flip back and forth, finding where a thought began, tracing its development, and studying its conclusion. While still in federal prison, I began teaching myself how to write, mostly by examining the styles of great authors who've stood the test of time. Les Mis placed Hugo at the top of that list. Everything he knew about writing was stuffed into its pages.
Everything he knew about life, too. Though two hundred years separated Victor Hugo from me, not much had changed with regard to human nature. His characters were remarkably real. I could relate to all of them, particularly, of course, protagonist Jean Valjean, the convict trying to make good on a lost life.
Like Valjean, I escaped from prison. I was no longer in a cell. I was in nineteenth-century Paris. I walked its streets, visited its abbeys, and waded knee-deep through its sewer system. In Nassau County jail, we were locked up eighteen hours a day, and allowed to roam the tier block for the other six hours, with one hour of that time slotted for outdoor recreation. Cooped up for so long, cons normally race from their cells when the bars slide open. But I never left my cell, passing up that small dose of fake freedom for the real freedom Les Mis offered. Each night, I fell asleep with it on my chest. At dawn, I awoke to the little street urchin holding the broom; she swept away my depression. I didn't hear slamming bars, didn't feel cockroaches, or see any mice. I only heard, saw, and felt Hugo's characters and their emotions.
I didn't want the book to end. I stretched it out for as long as I could, about a month. Before placing it in the library's return bin, I flipped through the pages once more, stopping here and there to read a line, which brought to mind a section of the book that stayed with me. I wished Hugo had written a sequel, but some things are so perfect, they're better left alone.
About two years later, I was released from prison. I had served a total of eight and a half years. I had entered prison an aspiring gangster with ambition to rise in the Gambino Family. I returned home a book lover and writer.
Not long after my release, I was dating my future fiancee, a librarian and fellow bibliophile. We were browsing the shelves of a used bookstore, our favorite hobby, when I cam across that familiar spine with the little street urchin. I grabbed the book, and hurried to the register. At home, I placed it on my shelf, like a trophy.