“What should I do if I am ever confronted by someone like you?” I asked Frankie “The Razor” Resto one day.
A Puerto Rican aged 40, Frankie had just been sentenced to 53 years in prison over a botched armed robbery in Meriden, Connecticut, that resulted in a murder.
The prosecution case against him stated that in the morning of 27 June 2012, Frankie entered a grocery shop armed with a gun and demanded cash. The man behind the counter was a 70-year old father of six from Jordan named Ibrahim Ghazal.
Ghazal handed over the cash and then he was shot dead.
After his March 2014 sentencing, Frankie was brought to the Connecticut Supermax prison where I was held and placed in a cell next to me. I spent the next four months with him before I was transferred to another prison.
My prison regime allowed me a one-hour “Recreation” [“Rec” for short] period every day, which consisted of 60 minutes spent pacing up and down in a dog cage set in an underground concrete pit. The cage was four paces long and two paces wide.
Sometimes I would spend Rec alone. But sometimes, if I was lucky, another prisoner would be placed in the adjacent cage and I could spend those 60 minutes speaking to him.
Frankie would always come out on Rec and whenever our Rec periods coincided we would talk. We would talk about our childhoods, neighbourhoods, different prisons we had been to and much more.
Frankie was from Brooklyn, New York. At the time of Ghazal’s murder he had just finished a long sentence in a prison in Puerto Rico. Sometimes I would ask Frankie about life in a Puerto Rican prison.
Frankie told me how there was a strong gang culture in the prison: prisoners controlled the prison. If any rapists, paedophiles or rats (informants) were discovered, they would be stabbed to death.
From time to time the prison gangleaders would decide to hold a hunger strike in opposition to one prison policy or another. All prisoners had to take part in the protest, willingly or unwillingly.
Any prisoner who broke the hunger strike and ate risked being stabbed to death at the command of the prison gangleaders.
I asked Frankie how he would survive during the 3-5 day hunger strikes.
“We would catch small birds from the open windows, then cook them in our cells.” Frankie replied, as he described to me how he would use an empty Coca Cola can, butter and a lighter to “cook” in his cell.
“It tasted like chicken and wasn’t very filling, but I was desperate.”
Frankie told me that outside hunger strikes he would catch small crabs that would enter the prison courtyard – the prison was close to the sea – then cook them in his cell and eat them as a treat.
Frankie talked to me about his wife, his children and his grandchildren. He was already a grandfather by the age of 40. He told me about the time he bought a small fish aquarium for his wife. One day he noticed that the number of fish in the tank was getting smaller and smaller.
He asked his wife and his kids, but all denied touching the fish. He wondered whether the family dog had been taking the fish out of the tank, but there were no water splashes around the open tank.
Eventually the pet store owner told him that an Oscar Fish that he had put into the tank days earlier had been eating all the other fish.
Frankie was sceptical so he decided to test this theory out. He bought a couple of large, carnivorous Piranha Fish and put them into the tank with that Oscar Fish.
The next day only the Oscar Fish remained in the tank, while bones of the two Piranhas littered its floor.
One day, without me asking, Frankie told me about the events that led up to his being in Ibrahim Ghazal’s shop that fateful day in 2012.
I was aware that you should never ask another prisoner why he is prison, let alone for details about his case.
I also knew that prisoners who ask too many questions off other prisoners are suspected of being rats.
Judging by Frankie’s words, I gathered that after handing over the money to Frankie, Ghazal had made a sudden movement.
Since Frankie was already jittery by this moment, it seemed that he interpreted Ghazal’s movement as a hostile gesture. A shot was fired and Ghazal lay dead as a result of it.
I then asked Frankie a question.
“If I was running a shop and someone like you came to rob me with a gun in your hand, what would you advise me to do?” I asked.
“Don’t be a superhero,” Frankie replied. “Just give me the money, man, that’s all I want. I don’t wanna kill you, I just want your money.”
“Don’t do anything silly. Don’t make any sudden movements. Put your hands where I can see them at all times. Give me the money and I will go.”
It was glaringly obvious to me that Frankie was in deep regret for throwing away his life over that one split second moment.
Before I left the Supermax prison in August 2014, Frankie asked if he could have my multicoloured prayer mat. “I want to put it up on my wall to put some colour in my cell,” he said.
“Perhaps he might even use it one day to pray on?” I wondered as I somehow managed to get my prayer mat to Frankie. Today Frankie is expected to remain in prison until he dies.
As for Ibrahim Ghazal, his daughter Mervat had read out a victim impact statement in court on the day that Frankie was sentenced.
“We will be in the prison of our sorrow for the remainder of our entire lives, each one of us,” she said.
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