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 mafiaso 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 mafiaso. 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 mafiaso 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 mafiaso 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 mafiaso pn 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 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 mafiaso 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 mafiaso 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. Every body knew who he was and most were friendly with him. You would always see the mafiasos 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 everyday.
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 mafiaso 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 mafiaso out of New Jersey. Part of the Luchassie 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 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 Costra Nostra held dear once upon a time. In this new era of the mob it seems they are to 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.”