By Seth Ferranti (www.gorillaconvict.com)
Goodfellas, the Godfather, Donnie Brasco, The Sopranos- Hollywood's obsession with mobsters dates all the way back to the turn of the century. A litany of wise guys have gained fame and notoriety and eventually been incarcerated by the feds. Beginning with Al Capone and stretching to modern times with the Dapper Don, John Gotti. Costa Nostra , our thing, has-been immortalized in movies, TV shows, newspapers, magazines, and books. Fiction has blurred with reality and the Mafioso has become a mainstay in today’s popular culture. Spawning a subculture of wanna-be's, imitators, and frauds. And a lot of these guys are in federal prison.
The state of the mob today is a joke. The code of silence has been broken and gangsters like Sammy the Bull and Henry Hill are so brazen in their snitching that they don't even feel they need to hide. There was a time in this country when the Mafia was more powerful then the government. They controlled the whole eastern seaboard and even put presidents in power. But that time is long gone. Wise guys turned stool pigeons, the drug trade emerged with new and vicious ethnic gangs, and the FBI took on the mob in a brutal decades long battle and broke the mafia's back. But even though a lot of the guys in federal prison are a joke and wanna-be's there are still some real goodfellas inside these fences. I like to tell you about the few I've met and been around.
In 1993 I was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison for selling LSD and sent to FCI Manchester, a brand new federal institution in Kentucky. Placed strategically to boost the sagging economy. Upon arriving there I was indoctrinated into prison culture and had my first experience with a bonafide Mafioso. I was a young American kid from the suburbs with and Italian last name. I was never connected with the mob in anyway, never really embraced my Italian heritage, and grew up as far from the eastern seaboard as possible. Being a California kid I had seen the movies but had never encountered the real thing.
But about a week after I hit the compound I was approached by an older Sicilian guy who reminded me of my paternal great-grandmother. I later learned he was a Gambino. Supposedly he was brought over by the feds from Sicily and charged in the infamous pizza connection case from the 80s. Word on the compound was he had a 30 year sentence. He introduced himself to me and asked me about my family's history. He told me he knew a lot of Ferrantes in Palermo and was trying to find out if I was related to any of them. Being a military brat whose father and grandfather were both career military men I was a little taken aback to say the least. I told him I grew up in the suburbs and was an American but that I would check with my dad to see if my family still had ties to Sicily. We did not. So that kind of ended my relationship with the Sicilian Gambino. And it wasn't until later with all the John Gotti publicity that I even heard of the Gambino crime family. I remembered the old man and wondered about his connection. In Manchester though it seemed he pretty much stuck to himself. There weren't many Italians there but I recall that he used to walk the track with this short pudgy guy and you could always here them speaking back and forth in Italian. Also the other prisoners seemed to give the old Mafioso a measure of respect. He was held in a sort of awe by all the crack dealers, bank robbers, and parole violators. A real life character from the movies we had all grown up watching.
It's sort of funny how this old guys in the twilight of their lives generate so much respect, gossip, and admiration among the prisoners. I mean we are talking about a tough crowd- gangbangers, stick-up kids, street hustlers, smugglers, drug kingpins, and straight thugs. But even though most of the dudes in the feds could beat down, extort, or rob these old Mafiosi they never do. In the feds there is a kind of innate respect for these guys. I guess because they have such a history of openly and brazenly defying the US government. This defiance gives them major props in here. And maybe on the street the mafiaso inspired fear but in here they are truly respected. The real ones at least. The wanna-be's are mocked are laughed at behind their back as they try to portray the movies version of a mobster.
I was transferred to FCI Beckly in 1996. It was a brand new prison that opened in West Virginia. And when I got there the talk of the compound was this mobster, Joe "The German" Watts. Who was supposedly a loyal henchman and friend of John Gotti and Gambino family soldier. Although he wasn't made because of his German blood this New Yorker supposedly had big money. And on the compound he was known to throw that money around. I didn't know him personally but he lived in Poplar B-lower the unit below mine. I remember seeing him go to the commissary and have a couple of guys with him to carry his bags. He always shopped big too. He'd be coming out with cases and boxes full of commissary stuff.
They said on the block that he cooked everyday and never went to the chow hall. A lot of mobsters have a reputation for this. Living large in the feds, you know. I guess it stems from the scenes in Goodfellas where Ray Liota and them are having mini banquets. The real incarcerated mobster tried to emulate this. I had also heard that Joe Watts supposedly bought all the cells next to his on the first tier and moved all his people in around him. He had his cook, his cleaning person, and his muscle guys in all the cells surrounding him and they would all eat together Goodfellas style.
Like I said I never personally met the guy but there was a lot of gossip about him on the pound. He was looked up to by all the street hustlers as a kind of mystical figure. A real live gangster, they called him. I would see him on the compound with the less famous mobsters from Pittsburgh and all the wanna-be's who would be all up under him trying to ride his coattails. Catering to him or just trying to be associated with him I guess.
In 1999 I transferred to FCI Fort Dix in New Jersey and this prison located on the eastern seaboard had all kinds of mobsters, wise guys, wanna-be's, and east coast type dudes. It seemed to me that a lot of the white dudes at this prison tried to portray that mafia tough guy image. They all had the same Guido look, talked the same, and had the same attitude. Like forget about it, you know. It was a New York, New Jersey, Philly thing I guess. Youse guys and all that.
When I first got there I met the top Mafioso on the compound, Little Nick Corozzo who everybody called Nicky. Supposedly he was a capo under John Gotti and was even handpicked by Gotti to run the Gambino family at one time. He was a pretty straight no-nonsense type of guy. Older but still in good shape. He was doing an 8 year sentence. He had a lot of dudes up under him and FCI Fort Dix had a very distinct mob culture. There were the New York guys, the New Jersey ones, and the Philly ones. A definite pecking order.
They had a spot where they hung out and played cards at the back of building 5711. Jerry "the Jew" Cohen, another semi-famous mobster had a couple of benches and tables there on lock and you would always see them there in their small gatherings playing cards, talking about scams, bull shitting about other wise guys and eating.
Nicky (right) lived in building 5702 and had a little crew of Boston dudes running around for him. They were all in a 12-man room together and at one time had a sort of impromptu chop shop going on as they stole metal folding chairs which were in short supply, painted them, and sold them to white dudes and Italians in other units. Eventually the crew was busted and the room broken up. I got to know some of the Boston dudes who were more around my age and got invited to some of the little dinners and parties Nicky would hold. He always tried to do things big so a lot of the little dinners and get-togethers were like mini banquets. Pasta was always on the menu and there would be snacks and refreshments. I guess they hired some amigos to cater the events. I don't know. But it was my first experience at being accepted by the mafia culture and the first time in prison I had played on my Italian heritage. But for real I wasn't a wanna-be like a lot of the other dudes I was just trying to get my eat on. Living large, you know.
I remember seeing Jerry the Jew and Nicky getting catered dinner and brunches in the chow hall too. All the prisoners would be standing in line and the mobsters would just walk in and go to a predetermined table with a table cloth on it. Then when they were settled a prisoner cook who worked in the kitchen would bring them out plates of food specially prepared and made to order for them- omelets, fried rice, or whatever. I know it was a paid for service but it still gave them an appearance of living large and being special and I'm sure they knew it and reveled in this fact.
There were a lot of supposed mafiosi on the pound and I heard how they all had little beefs with each other and wouldn't talk at all and how Nicky would try to be the mediator and get everything settled so that all the mob dudes could get along but it wasn't to be. I guess the mob hierarchy on the pound recognized Little Nick as the top and most respected mobster. Everybody knew who he was and most were friendly with him. You would always see the mafiosi walking around in groups and greeting each other with the double kiss on each cheek. I never got into that but you would see it every day.
And dudes on the pound and in prison in general were always quoting lines from mob movies. It was like a regular thing. Even the real mob guys would quote lines from movies. The most frequently used one was the line from Goodfellas where Joe Pesci asks Ray Liota, "What are you laughing at me? What am I a clown? I'm here to amuse you." Prisoners were always using that line. Joe Pesci should collect royalties.
One event finally happened on the compound supposedly involving Nicky which got him locked up in the hole and transferred. This is how it went down. It was all rumor and innuendo so who knows what really happened but this was the word on the pound at the time. There was this big Irish dude, a big union guy from Boston, who had been down a minute and was supposedly an Irish mobster. He was taking bets on the compound. And I'm not talking no small bets or a parlay ticket. This dude was supposedly taking five and ten thousand dollar single bets on NFL games.
Well apparently some guy welched on his bet when he lost and when the Irish mobster put pressure on him he ran to the cops and snitched on the Irish guy so they locked him up under investigation for running a gambling pool. Then as the word went the Irish mobster, who was friends with Little Nick, reached out to the Mafioso and put a hit on the snitch who was still on the compound. The cops found out and locked Nicky up too and eventually transferred both of them to a higher security level prison. Nicky had always faced a lot of scrutiny from the police on the compound due to who he was and they finally grabbed him and shipped him out. Who knows if the whole thing was true or not but that was the story floating around the pound when it was all going down.
Anyway I heard another interesting story while I was in Fort Dix concerning John Gotti. A dude from Harlem called Pup who was my bunkie for a couple of years in a 12-man room told me the story. He told me that when he first went down he was in MCC New York at the same time John Gotti was there. They just happened to be on the same block as Gotti was going through the motions of fighting his charges at trial. Pup told me that Gotti had the whole block on lock because he was such a big-profile mobster and all the young street hustlers looked up to him. He said Gotti would be holding court and preaching to all the young brothers on the block all day telling them to go hard and take the feds to trial. He told them loud and clear, don't ever copout. Make the feds take you to trial. That was his motto, never admit to any guilt whatsoever. Always proclaim your innocence. Well it turned out Gotti got life and a lot of the street hustlers, black youths from Harlem and Brooklyn, took his advice, went to trial with their court appointed lawyers and got hit in the heads. My bunkie told me dudes were coming back with 20 and 30 year sentences and some got life. All because John Gotti told them not to cop out. Pup didn't take Gotti 's advice, he copped out to 10 years, and told me if he had followed Gotti’s advice he might have got 30 years.
Some other Gotti stories I've heard have floated around and filtered down from his time at USP Marion. They said when they brought him into Marion two F-16's flew shotgun for the Con-Air plane that was delivering him. That is how high profile this cat was. Also they said that Gotti received so much mail that two FBI agents shacked up in the town and had their own little office just to screen his mail. Supposedly Gotti got like 50 letters a day or more from admirers, friends, family, associates, fans, writers, and media outlets. One more interesting story that made the rounds was that when Gotti was released from the 24 hour supermax control unit at USP Marion into a transitional lockdown block that was the middle step before going to the compound, he got into an argument with a black prisoner over who was next on the phone. Gotti supposedly screamed, "Do you know who the fuck I am?" The rumor has it that the black prisoner didn't care who Gotti was and took offense, breaking Gotti's jaw and beating his ass. These are all just stories that have filtered down though so who knows if there’s any truth to them.
In 2002 I was transferred to FCI Fairton, also located in New Jersey and here was the prison where I met the classiest Mobster I'd ever met. Mikey Perna was a Mafioso out of New Jersey. Part of the Lucchese crime family in New York. He was a pretty famous mobster. There was a book about him and his crew, "The Boys from New Jersey," that detailed how the feds took his whole organization to trial in the 1980s and lost. Mikey was a class guy in the Godfather mold. Honorable, respectful, and loyal. He approached me as soon as I arrived on the unit and for the next two years I ate with him almost every Sunday.
He would host mini banquets and invite all the Italians on the block to eat pasta with him. And on holidays and special occasions he would hold parties on the block. He was what the other prisoners called a big Willie prisoner. He was definitely living large and held much respect on the pound. He used to tell me if I needed anything to just let him know but I noticed how many dudes asked him for stuff on a daily basis and didn't want to be considered among them so I hardly asked him for anything.
I used to see him on the yard walking with the other wise guys. They would all be up under him seeking his favor and wisdom I guess. Dudes from other units would always be visiting him and paying their respects. He was a very popular guy and influential too. He was in his 60's but in tremendous shape and was really the first real mobster I actually had a friendship with. I would go to him for advice and enjoyed hearing him talk. He was really straight out of the movies and I was always thinking does art imitate life or vice versa.
I remember one time he showed me some information regarding the fine he was assessed to pay the government by the court as part of his sentence. It was a phenomenal amount to say the least but Mikey (right) was questioning the interest on the fine. He showed me how he had paid a certain amount every month for a number of years and then asked me to check the interest. It turned out the government was charging him more for interest then he had paid toward the fine over a number of years and thus the fine was growing larger by the month. "Can you believe that," he told me. "These cocksuckers. They can't charge me like this. That is what I do, charge interest like this, who the fuck do they think they are?" I always thought it was funny that he couldn't believe the government was using his own tactics against him.
Also one time Mikey had a beef with this other old-timer over something and old Mikey was going hard. He had a lock in a sock all up in his cell and told a couple of dudes on the block to look out for this guy in case he decided to creep up on Mikey on the low. Eventually it was squashed but it showed Mikey's true colors. He wasn't afraid to mix it up even at 60 something.
Every new dude that came on the block would try to get up under Mikey but he wasn't no sucker. If he decided a dude was a mooch he would call them out to their face and set them straight quick. And he was an old line convict too that had spent his first years at USP Lewisburg. He had two of his cohorts with him at FCI Fairton too. Mikey Ryan, his right hand man, and Fat Jack, who was Jerry the Jews co-defendant.
I never met Fat Jack but I heard a lot of stories about him from Mike and other dudes on the block plus I read about him in the book, "The Boys from New Jersey." Supposedly Fat Jack was a mob superstar who had appeared on an HBO mafia special and was talking movie and book contracts. Mikey wasn't into that but he allowed Fat Jack his latitude. I always regretted not meeting Fat Jack as everyone told me he was a great guy and hysterical as hell. They said he was a great talker and could talk his way into or out of anything.
Supposedly Mikey had heard that when John Gotti was on his deathbed at the Federal medical center at Springfield, Missouri the only mobster that could gain access to see Gotti was Fat Jack. The word was he sweet talked the warden into letting him visit Gotti as he lay dying one last time. Fat Jack had a lot of medical problems also and that why he was at FMC Springfield, and not at FCI Fairton when I arrived.
I have just been transferred again and can truly say that Mikey Perna is one of the people who I will miss the most at FCI Fairton. He was a gentleman and a class act who taught me a lot about people and myself. He is one of the last of a dying breed. A true mobster who represents the values that Cosa Nostra held dear once upon a time. In this new era of the mob it seems they are too worried about publicity and getting that book deal or movie deal. They should just be actors instead of criminals. As Mikey told me once, "This thing, that we had, it was beautiful, but now, it's no more."
All about the food
There's a scene in "Goodfellas" where Ray Liota who plays Henry Hill and some other Mafioso are in the joint. They're in a backroom or a mop closet at the prison but due to their Cosa Nostra status they are living large, drinking wine, and eating Italian delicacies. Having a blast like they're at a social club or something. Joking and laughing like they're not even doing time. Living it up in the feds.
Well, some people might think that is just some Hollywood fantasy. I mean, it's a movie, right? But I am here to tell you that scene is not some made up act for a movie. That type of get together or party happens all the time in the feds. It ain't no country club and maybe prisoners aren't eating as well as they were in the movie but they're still eating good or as well as they can. Whatever they can buy from the commissary or get out of the kitchen. Prisoners in the Bureau of Prisons are trying to live as nice as they can even on the inside and a lot of the mob guys are living pretty well. Throwing parties for all different occasions. Like when a prisoner is getting released and going home or on holidays like Christmas or on someone’s birthday or for the time honored American tradition, the Super Bowl party. Those are the most popular and it's not just the mafia guys throwing them. The Spanish, Black, and Muslim communities get in on the act also. But in prison nobody can throw a party like the wiseguys and most dudes on the block are trying to get down.
When I was at FCI Fort Dix, a low security prison in central New Jersey a couple of years ago I saw and attended a lot of prison mob parties. Let me first state that I am in no way connected or affiliated or otherwise a member of any organized crime family. Yes, I have an Italian last name but my father and grandfather were career military men and I grew up in the suburbs of California. Not exactly a mafia hotbed but anyway during my 11 calendars in the feds I have met and associated with many east coast mafia types. Some of them were the real genuine thing while many other were fake, wanna-be, hang-on-the-coattai1s type. It seems that all these east coast dudes in federal prisons of the Caucasian persuasion want to be connected or down with the mob. I don't know why, but hey, forget about it. I guess they've seen to many movies.
In Fort Dix though they had lots of mafia dudes, real and imagined. There were the New York guys, the Philly guys, and the Jersey guys. Most of them stayed with own cliques or crews but when some Big Willie Joe Mafia guy threw a social they all came out of the woodwork and made an appearance. In building 5702 on the eastside of the compound much parties were thrown. This was due to the presence of "Little Nick" Corozzo. A reputed Gambino capo and personal friend of John Gotti who was supposedly in line to take over the Gambino family. He was doing a short bid and considered himself lucky. And at Fort Dix he was the center of mafia attention on the compound.
For the parties he threw, for whatever reason, usually when one of his guys was going home, he would get his crew of Boston roughnecks to hold down a multi-purpose room on the second floor. Effectively the room was off limits unless you were invited to the party. These events would usually be held in the afternoons on the weekend or after the count on weekdays and would usually last several hours as the waves of Mafioso, connected guys, wanna-be's, hangers on, and respected prisoners showed up, paid their respects, ate or drank a little then left to make room for the next wave. Because for real, it wasn't no banquet hall "Little Nick" was renting. It was a tiny little multi-purpose room adjacent to the row of dorm rooms where prisoners slept. Usually it was used as a card room or game room to play dominoes and the like but when "Little Nick" wanted, it was turned into a sort of mafia social club.
There would be a couple of tables pushed together with a white sheet laid overtop like a tablecloth. A bunch or catered like appetizers and snacks would be spread out over the table on cardboard trays. Crackers with tuna salad, deviled eggs, pepperoni slices with olives and cheese, little burritos, chocolate chip cookies, various types of chips- basically anything that could be bought from the commissary or stolen from the kitchen. Usually a Mexican or Colombian prisoner would be hired to prepare all the snacks and appetizers and have them ready at the appointed time and place. It wasn't fancy by real world standards but in the joint it was nice. Sort of like a catered banquet almost.
Also there would be a trashcan filled with ice and sodas- Pepsi, Coke, Mountain Dew, Minute Maid Orange, Sprite, etc. and the Mexican or Colombian who was overseeing the festivities a "Little Nick's" behalf would be running back and forth to the microwave and hot water dispenser preparing cappuccinos, coffee, or tea for prisoners as they arrive. Paper plates, napkins, and paper cups would complete the set up so prisoners could pass by the buffet table, fill up their plate, grab a soda or coffee, then sit against the wall in a folding metal chair congratulating the guy who was going home, joking, laughing, making future plans, and reminiscing.
These events were usually pretty crowded and people would be spilling out into the hallway making room for the new guys showing up. The whole mafia cheek kissing, handshakes, and slaps on the back would go around as every new prisoner showed up making their way to greet the host, "Little Nick" and whoever the honored guest and party was being thrown f or.
A lot of other prisoners who weren't Italian or weren't invited would walk by the multipurpose room looking on with envy. If "Little Nick" saw them he would tell one of his crew to give them a soda or something and send them on their way. Generosity was one thing but having undesirables hanging out at a mob party. No way. "Little Nick" would rather swim with the fishes.
Most times a prisoner who had a good rapport with the cop working the unit would go to him in advance and explain what was going on so the cop wouldn't get all excited and alarmed and hit the deuces when he saw a big group of guidos loitering around his building. Most cops didn't have a problem with it and sometimes when the Lieutenant made his rounds he would even drop by the mixer and pay his respects. But I've seen Lieutenants bust up the little parties too to everyone's dismay. And if anyone complained they'd go straight to the hole. Imagine that- going to 24 hour lockdown because you were having a birthday party. Forget about it.
The mob guys are funny too. They may have all these regional and inter-family beefs and talk mad shit behind each other's backs but when there's some pasta or free food to be had they put on their best face and all come together like the best of friends. Nothing like a bowl of prison microwave prepared spaghetti to mend differences. And I've seen mob dudes get all offended to if they're not invited to a certain party or don't get their bowl of pasta. They might be ready to whack somebody. Good thing they don't have any guns in federal prison. Because for real, a lot of these mob guys aren't trying to fight. They're straight killers and the old saying goes boys fight, men kill. So ain't no mob guy fist fighting, he's whacking someone, if only he had a gun. Imagine being whacked because you didn't offer the Gambino capo a bowl of pasta.
I spent some time at FCI Fairton also which is a medium to high security joint in southern New Jersey about 45 minutes away from Atlantic City. At Fairton I just happened to be in the unit, B-Left, with Michael Perna, the consigliere from the New Jersey branch or the Lucchese crime family. Now Michael Perna was a class guy. He held pasta dinners every Sunday for all the Italians on the block. He was literally feeding 15 or 16 guys every weekend. He was generous to say the least. And he went all out for holidays and special occasions. His Christmas parties were legendary.
The prisoners who cooked for him, usually some Italian guy from Boston or Philly spent all day cooking the sauce or gravy as Mikey called, it. Heavy on the garlic and pepperoni, but very smooth and zesty, the red sauce always turned out nice. Three or four card tables were put together in the common area to form a banquet table and white sheets were laid overtop like tablecloths as all the seats were arranged. Made guys at one end with Mikey and the other Italians and hangers on at the opposite end away from the really good conversations.
Appetizers consisting of salami and pepperoni slices, mozzarella and Velveeta cheese, olives, and Townhouse Crackers were prepared and ready to serve on a cardboard tray. A mop bucket filled with ice and sodas sat at the foot of the table. As all 15 or 20 guys sat down at the table after the 4:00 pm stand up count. Paper plates were handed out as the appetizers were passed around with Mikey always offering more and making sure everybody was served. Then the main course of ziti with red sauce was served with a dash of parmesan on top in plastic microwave bowls. As everyone ate with their plastic utensils and drank sodas dudes talked and joked wishing each other Merry Christmas. Then for desert chocolate donuts were set out along with Italian sweetbread and chocolate-mint cookies. For real, the spread wasn't bed. Mikey always threw a nice dinner party. But it was more an in house thing because previously Mikey had problems with the SIS Lieutenant who is in charge of investigating occurrences at the prison. Sort of like the FBI on the inside.
Well, one of Mikey's guys had went home some time before and Mikey had thrown him a party with guys from all the other units stopping by B-Left and joining in the festivities. The unit cop had OK'd it so Mikey thought he was in the clear. But some inmate police or jailhouse snitch had dropped a note to SIS informing on the party and about a week after Mikey's guy was released Mikey was called down to see the SIS Lieutenant.
The SIS Lieutenant told Mikey that he knew about the party and that he had it all on tape and was going through the tape to identify all the all the prisoners who had visited B-left on the day of the party. The SIS cop seemed to think something nefarious was going on. Mikey tried to explain that it wasn't a big deal, just a going away party for one of his guys but the SIS Lieutenant seemed to take the matter very seriously and told Mikey that if he didn't cease and desist with his party throwing activities that he would be thrown in the hole. He also told Mikey that he would be informing the probation officer of the prisoner who went home that Mikey had thrown him a going away party before he left the institution Like this was some kind of violation of his probation.
But Mikey just kindly told the SIS Lieutenant that he wouldn't throw anymore parties and blew the guy off. Fucking jerk off, he probably thought. But that’s how it is in here. Imagine the audacity of the SIS Lieutenant to actually think that he could get the released prisoners probation revoked because Mikey threw him a going away party. Forget about it. And by the way Mikey doesn't throw mob parties anymore he holds dinners.
These stories were written by Seth Ferranti who is also the author of:
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