Memories Of Ex-Cons & Wallkill Prison

Today I got up early today, by my standards, and had two choices eat or write. Since I need to lose weight I thought I would write.  I wrote to a new author colleague of mine, Walt, who grew up in the tough neighborhoods of Cincinnati.  Walt is writing a novel about violent criminals and their experience growing up involved with the Mafia.  I had just recalled my minimal experience with criminals too and wanted to share it with Walt.  This is what I wrote to Walt.

I Just recalled that I had had a minimalist experience of your relationship with violent dangerous people in the late 60’s.  My dad had started a business in Brooklyn NY making the first Plastic Eyeglass lenses in America. We called it Zepher Optical. We needed employees who were trained and my dad knew where to get them and wanted to help them too.

Up near Neuburg, NY was a prison called WallKill where they had a “rehabilitation prowalkill1gram” for training inmates to be Opticians. My dad decided he would only hire Inmates from Wallkill prison if possible. I worked there, over my summer vacation,  as his technology trouble shooter. I spent my days with Bank Robbers, Murderers, and if I am not mistaken a Rapist. These were uniformly “Big” guys but oddly enough the most gentle soft spoken people I can recall ever working with. I spent a summer working with these guys all day every day and I had lunch with one or two of them each day too.

I would NEVER have suspected that any of them would have or could have been violent, callous or cruel from the time we spent together. I became best friends with one guy, also from Wallkill, who worked with me later in another office. His name was Tommy Wise. Tommy had been an Armed Robber and I got to know him far better than any of the other guys as I worked together with for 2 years. We also worked with other ex-cons who graduated from Wallkill on their way to freedom. I loved Tommy like he was my own brother but our paths drifted apart and he ended up on an Island opening his own optical office with a million dollar opportunity.

Tommy called me one day when I lived in Spring Valley, NY and asked me to move to the island and be his partner as the eye doc. He said we would be rich and retired in no time and I bet he was right. He was brilliant and had talent for nearly anything I suspected. I felt that I had to turn him down as my daughter was 6 or 7  years old and I could not picture taking her from her family and friends (which had happened to me too many times growing up). I probably made a bad financial decision.  I never saw or heard from Tommy again.

What amazed me most in retrospect, and I why I wanted to share this story with my new friend Walt, was how much some of these guys had totally managed to change and become powerful and effective citizens in our society. No one would ever suspect their degree in opticianry was earned at the College of hard knocks, Wallkill Prison. To this day, I miss Tommy Wise. I suspect his rebirth was the magic of what still existed back then in America, “Free Enterprise.” Before Tommy vanished to the Islands, I asked him one day, “Would you ever go back to bank robbing?” He looked at me and smiled and said, “No way! What I am getting paid for work today is robbery!  Why should I ever take that risk!” He was right too, he was that good and everyone knew it.

America was and still is the land of opportunity.  Nothings perfect though!


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