One day I was returning from the morning yard recreation. As I neared the entrance gate, I heard a “Thwap!” and saw a body fall to the concrete few feet ahead of me. Instead of anyone rushing to his aid, the crowd parted. As I approached, I saw a muscular bald fellow (let’s call him Moe) kick and stomp the man on the ground until the man’s head snapped up and down as if it would come off with the next blow. Eerily, the crowd was so silent that the blows rang in my ears in 3-D. Finally, one man stepped up and pushed Moe away, stating, “That’s enough!”

Everyone moved forward so as not to be near the body because when the officers discovered it, there would be an investigation starting with locking up whoever was closest to the body and inspecting the ID cards of all prisoners in the area to ascertain who was rightfully there and who was “out of place,” or there without permission.

Jermaine Archer

After recognizing the man on the ground as Ant, someone I knew from around the prison, I speed-walked to the front of the line, mainly because I didn’t want to get Ant’s blood on me, but also because I didn’t even belong in the yard. I had been working in the law library that morning and had slipped out to the yard for a bit of fresh air. As the officer cracked the gate, I slipped by and told him that another officer had just ordered me to report to the library. By the time I reached the library and peeped out the window that overlooked the yard, I saw a squad of officers responding to the scene. They pat-frisked four prisoners, then ordered those prisoners to carry Ant on a stretcher to the infirmary. They also confiscated the ID cards of all prisoners in the area to make a list of everyone that was there so they could conduct a full investigation later.

Fortunately, I did not get involved in that investigation. Looking back, I’m not proud that my first concern was to ensure my safety rather than to see to the injured man’s health and safety. At the time, I thought the only way I could’ve helped would have been to fight off Moe and jeopardize everything I had going for me at that time (college, family reunion visits, theater program) by minding someone else’s business. That was a hard decision, one I was not prepared to make at that time, so I rationalized my inaction by telling myself, I’m doing life and life in Sing Sing means not getting involved in other people’s business.

Another time I was in the visiting room when an inmate attacked another inmate’s female visitor and knocked her out. I saw the chair fly and her shoes shoot up in the air. None of the prisoners or other visitors, myself included, intervened. I cannot speak for others, but I believe most of the people there wanted to help the young woman, but they did not wish to do so by getting involved in a physical confrontation in a maximum security prison.

It’s not easy to behave as an angel while residing in hell. Conducting ourselves as civilized humans in an uncivilized environment doesn’t generally lead to idyllic results. For example, intervening in other prisoners’ business, even with the aim of saving a life, can lead to injury, possibly death. Getting blood on one’s clothes can lead to a 72-hour investigatory lockup, at best, or a disciplinary infraction and/or criminal charge. Even if none of this transpires, one can end up being labeled a snitch, which is not a good thing inside prison walls.

Is something fundamentally wrong when people are first concerned with getting involved or being blamed instead of aiding someone in distress? Sadly, this is not limited to Sing Sing. There are “Sing Sings” all over the world, even out there, where someone needs help but doesn’t receive it because those in position to help do not want to get involved. The media alleged, way back in 1964 in Kew Gardens, N.Y., that more than thirty witnesses observed a man brutally murder Kitty Genovese and did nothing to aid her, scare off her attacker, or call the police because back then New York was known as a violent city and New Yorkers did not get involved in other people’s affairs.

Unfortunately, this type of behavior is not limited to any single era. On March 11, 2015, in a Brooklyn, N.Y, McDonald’s, dozens of teens and several adults watched as four teen girls savagely punched and kicked a pint-sized 15-year old girl for several minutes. As opposed to the time of Kitty Genovese, we now live in the era of social media, so onlookers used their cell phones, not to call the police, but to record the attack and post it online. In case you’re wondering, none of them lifted a finger to help or intervene. Did they, too, not want to get involved? If so, where does that leave us as a society?

A better question: Whether in Sing Sing, Kew Gardens, Brooklyn, or Any town, U.S.A., how do we retain our humanity while experiencing an inhumane existence?

Any suggestions?

Jermaine Archer was finally released from Sing Sing in December 2020 and is home with his wife and family for his very first Christmas in 23 years!