Warm Southern Breeze

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A True Tale of a Good Man Gone Bad… Gone Good

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Jail Guard’s Tale of His Journey to Inmate

June 3, 2012, 4:26 pm, By COREY KILGANNON
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Gary Heyward, once a Rikers Island guard, in Harlem selling copies of his book recounting his experiences. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

Gary Heyward stood on 125th Street in Harlem, not far from the Apollo Theater, wearing a jumpsuit that was half blue and half orange.

Mr. Heyward, 44, had this odd-looking uniform specially made — part prison guard, part inmate — to illustrate that at Rikers Island, where he worked as a corrections officer from 1997 to 2006, he went from cop to criminal.

“One day you’re taking the count and the next day you’re in the count,” he said, referring to the jails’ regular head counts of inmates.

This abrupt transition is precisely the angle of his new book, a self-published paperback called “Corruption Officer: Perpetrator With a Badge.”

It is a raunchy tell-all and a critical portrayal of Rikers Island, where Mr. Heyward starts out as a rookie guard almost too jittery to even walk through a cellblock. He becomes a reckless veteran running smuggled cigarettes and drugs to inmates, activities that lead to his arrest and journey to the other side of the prison bars.

On the street on a recent Saturday, the books were selling briskly at $10 apiece.

Several passers-by stopped and shared a word with Mr. Heyward about their own brushes with the jail system. He stood behind a card table bearing stacks of his books. From each of his wrists hung a handcuff with a chain dangling, as if he had just broken them apart.

Alberta Hale, 58, of Harlem, bought a book and told Mr. Heyward, “I hope it’s a good book because I don’t read nothing but the Bible.” She said that she had two sons in prison and that both had had run-ins with correction officers.

Tracey Jones of the Bronx, whose husband is serving a long sentence for robbery in a prison upstate, asked, “You were at Rikers?”

“Yes,” Mr. Heyward said.

“You were corrupt?”

Mr. Heyward shrugged and said, “Need turned to greed.”

Mr. Heyward, who is divorced with two grown children and now works as a maintenance worker for the New York City Housing Authority, said he hoped that young people would read the book “so they can see that going to jail is not a rite of passage or a badge of honor.”

Todd Heisler/The New York TimesMr. Heyward said he hoped his book will serve as a cautionary tale.

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Mr. Heyward said he hoped his book will serve as a cautionary tale. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

The book is filled with ribald and disturbing accounts of inmates and guards. It is written in street slang, typical of “street lit,” a genre in which the books are often about gritty topics, geared toward urban readers and sold at sidewalk stands. Mr. Heyward said he wrote the book on legal pads while in state prison.

“I’m no English scholar, but an editor helped me put my thoughts in order,” said Mr. Heyward, who grew up in the Polo Grounds Towers in Harlem.

Mr. Heyward’s initial nervousness at Rikers, where he started at a base salary of $28,000, soon gave way to swagger. At 6 feet 3 inches tall and well over 250 pounds, he became an enforcer on his cellblock, he said — the guard to call when a scuffle broke out or a prisoner needed to be restrained.

Facing steep bills and child support payments, he said, he resorted to making extra money by selling contraband cigarettes and drugs to inmates. He was arrested in 2006 and pleaded guilty to taking a bribe and trying to sell cocaine to an inmate. He accepted a plea agreement calling for two years in state prison and one year of post-release supervision.

Sharman Stein, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Correction, said the claims in Mr. Heyward’s book of widespread misbehavior and illicit activity by guards unfairly tarnished the overall reputation of the city’s staff of officers.

The charges he faced —– including drug selling, bribe taking, smuggling and other misconduct charges —– “violate the Correction Officer’s Oath of Office and cause a serious threat to the safety of his fellow officers and to inmates,” she said.

The city’s correction officers, Ms. Stein added, “oversee the custody of this city’s jail system with hard work and honor.”

“It is their actions that deserve recognition,” she said, “not the self-serving enterprise of a disgraced former employee who seeks to make a profit off his illegal past.”

Michael T. Skelly, a spokesman for the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, also lashed out at Mr. Heyward’s book.

“The reputation and dedication of our correction officers is second to none,” Mr. Skelly said. “They do not deserve to be maligned by anyone, especially by an individual whose credibility is highly questionable, as someone who was arrested and fired for breaking the same oath of duty taken by thousands of other correction officers who put their lives on the line every day.”

But some fellow corrections officers have been supportive of Mr. Heyward.

As he was peddling his book, two former correction officers, Kaia Sweeting and Melissa Hall, came up and hugged Mr. Heyward and offered him their congratulations on the book.

“You did it,’’ Ms Hall told him.

She bought three books, one for herself and one each for her two adolescent daughters.

Asked about working on Rikers Island, she said, “It’s the same as being an inmate, except we get to go home.”


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