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Seth Ferranti
Seth Ferranti

The two books I needed to survive 21 years in prison

Seth Ferranti was sentenced to over two decades behind bars for running an LSD empire – here’s the literature that helped him through it

Doing time in prison is no joking matter. If you find yourself in the big house you need to learn how to conduct yourself lickety-split. There’s a set of rules and regulations that convicts abide by and when you are processed in through Receiving & Discharge they don’t give you set of cliff notes. It can quickly become a dicey situation on the inside and saying or doing the wrong things can get your dome busted.

At the age of 22 I found myself in the federal penitentiary with a 25 year sentence for selling drugs – to be honest with you I was a little shook. But despite my trepidations I kept it cool, calm and collected, put on a tough guy front and knuckled down. But I knew that getting an education on how to be a convict was paramount. Because you can’t sell no wolf tickets in the pen. It’s either come correct or get exposed quick. And once you show your hand or get a jacket as a punk, it’s open season.

When I entered prison in 1993, the War on Drugs in America was in full swing and the feds were filling the Bureau of Prisons up to maximum capacity with all types of offenders. I met crack dealers and stick-up kids from Washington DC, Baltimore and Queens. Mafiosos from New York and New Jersey’s Five Families. Bank robbers and Irish thugs from Boston. Gangbangers from California and Chicago. Country boys from Kentucky who grew acres of marijuana and brewed moonshine. Drug smugglers from Florida who flew loads of cocaine up from Colombia and gun dealers from Texas who supplied criminals of all types with whatever weapons they needed.

Talk about being out of place. The federal penitentiary was the last place I thought I would end up. Yeah I supplied LSD and marijuana to 15 colleges in five states on the East Coast in the late 80s and early 90s, but I grew up in the suburbs. I was from an affluent area in Fairfax, Virginia and prison was the furthest thing from my mind. But after I got busted and charged with a Continuing Criminal Enterprise charge, the kingpin statute, convicted and sentenced to more time than how old I was, reality set in pretty hard.

I kept to myself, watching and observing everything around me. I started reading every book about prison that I could find. Fortunately, I was a voracious reader and my mom was more than happy to hunt down books for me and mail them in. Remember this is a time before Amazon deliveries and the internet. I was a first-time, non-violent offender and I needed to learn how to act ASAP before the convicts saw through my facade. Here I was in convict central with a bunch of dudes that were sizing me up to see what I was about. It was a time for a lesson in convict etiquette. I immersed myself in prison literature. Here’s what I read.

IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST – JACK HENRY ABBOTT

Jack Henry Abbott was a career criminal that spent more time in prison than he did on the streets. Noteworthy writer Norman Mailer took a bunch of letters Jack Henry Abbott wrote him during his 25 years of incarceration in the New York prison system and published them in a book. The book came out in 1981 and quickly gave Abbott a ton of notoriety. It even got him an early parole.

But Abbott’s new found freedom didn’t last long. He stabbed a waiter to death in a New York restaurant and was returned to prison for manslaughter, serving out his final days inside. The time he did in the 60s and 70s in notorious New York prisons like Attica and Sing Sing was brutal, oppressive and violent. It almost made me feel safe in the feds. But luckily he laid out the tenets of the convict code in his writings.

Never snitch. Don’t talk to the guards. Always get your respect. Answer violence with violence. Don’t get in other people’s business. Always pay your debts. Always let fellow convicts know where the man is. Stick to your own race. Don’t gamble. Don’t do drugs. Don’t fuck with punks. Always be polite. Always look another man in the eye when talking to him. Don’t back down. Take it to the wall when necessary.

These are the things I learned from Jack Henry Abbott’s book. I was inside the belly of the beast. The netherworld of corruption and violence. In the pen they said if it wasn’t rough, it wasn’t right. I needed to carry myself like a convict to get respect. My survival depended on it. My education had begun.

SOLEDAD BROTHER – GEORGE JACKSON

George Jackson was another run of the mill criminal who got the short end of the stick. He was incarcerated in the volatile California state system in the 1960s when the prison race wars were jumping off. He was an instrumental figure in the formation of the Black Guerrilla Family, a legendary prison gang, which battled the Aryan Brotherhood and Mexican Mafia for racial supremacy in the netherworld of corruption and violence.

His book reinforced what the rules were for me and showed me how important it was to stick with your own race while inside, but at the same time I learned that it wasn’t necessary to go to the extreme like Jackson and the prison gangs of his time did, where bloodshed and violence was a routine part of life on the inside. George Jackson was eventually killed by a gun tower guard’s bullet.

I read some other books that I got a lot from like Live From Death Row by Mumia Abu Jamal (see above). He was an activist sentenced to death in 1982, who had his conviction overturned in 2011. Live From Death Row is a collection of his memoirs and an insider’s look at the prison system and what the purpose of it is. It taught me about filing grievances, lawsuits and fighting for your rights.

Hot House by Pete Earley taught me about gang culture and the prison drug world, but In the Belly of the Beast and Soledad Brother really set the tone for me. The books also inspired me to write my own book about prison. I wanted to write a book about the time I was doing in the feds in the 1990s. My book, Prison Stories wasn’t as violent or racial as those stories but still encompassed all that prison was. A place where anything can happen at any time and if you don’t know how to react it can be your ass. So yeah, if you go to prison, make sure you read.