Dead Family in the Penitentiary
The enchanting days of traveling across the country hitting up every Dead, Phish, and festival show is almost a decade and a half behind me. Only a tour kid could see absolutely NOTHING wrong with being crammed tight into one hotel room with ten other crusty kids and two smelly dogs that were smuggled in through the stairwell. Inside the hot boxed suite is laid out multiple life sentences for every known narcotic consumable, and the only care in the world is finding a new strand of weed to puff on.
It’s a lifestyle that only the venerable souls that have ever embarked upon can truly appreciate. The irony is far from being lost on us that are locked away for decades inside a seven by twelve foot cell.
We all adapt to what we must face when we come inside these unforgiving walls. The whole “not giving a fuck about shit” recklessness in the streets will get you no where fast in here.
Besides actually having to take a shower, EVERYDAY, there’s a lot more we have to change about ourselves.
The trusting ways we had with people is the first to go. You KNOW everybody is out to get you. If you don’t, then you’re as naive as the custies buying 2.5 gram cuts on the lot. We learn to build up our barriers really quick, and put the old life behind us.
The fact that there are so few of us inside the penitentiaries makes the old life crumble into a distant corner of beautiful memories we keep to remember in our dreams. But no matter where I’ve traveled in the vast federal prison system, I’ve always run into another spirit that is Grateful Dead Family.
The Dead family is a fraternity of souls that have come, saw, and conquered the molds of what “life” is supposed to be. The freedom to experience the ultimate consciousness with fifty thousand people, or Deadheads as referred to by many, every night for years on end.
The “peace” loving hippies of yesteryear gave way to the “gangster hippie” culture that cultivated in the late 90’s after Jerry died. Although we moved a lot of drugs and thought we were “hard” because of our connections, the truth is none of us had that killer instinct.
I was never involved in any type of fights, real fights, growing up. I had my little drunken scuffles here or there, but no drag out, fighting for my life Chuck Norris type of shit.
After I robbed the bank that I am currently incarcerated for, a friend of mine said to me, “If that teller had told you no, you would’ve said ‘come on’ and burned off. You wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Yeah, but she didn’t know that!” This was the only reasonable response I could have given, because it was the truth. I wouldn’t even eat meat because “It’s not cool to eat Bambi,” as I was quick to point out.
But here in the penitentiary, all of that has to die. I have to be that ‘armed bank robber’ towards the gang bangers and hustlers that want to prey on the weak. So, after fourteen years, the life I once loved seems like it was another lifetime ago
My first Dead show was the famous ‘rain shows’ in Pittsburgh in 1995. The experience was like I just came home, like I just found my place in the world.
As the legendary Mushroom Bob told me as we walked the stomping grounds of USP Pollock, “I walked into my first show, tripping out of my mind and they were playing ‘Here Comes Sunshine,’ I said yep, here I am, I have arrived!”
His trip started in the early 70’s and lasted two decades before he was leveled with a life sentence for LSD, mushrooms, and marijuana. “They wanted me to tell, and I thought, this is my family, there’s no way I could put any of them in here with me.”
“Those of us that are older than 35 still refer to our thing as family, because it is. We’re there for each other. We love each other,” says Mark Scerbo, a thirty six year old family member who did five years for molly, weed, and DMT. Mark and I did county time together when I first got locked up. Mark continues, “Family was just everybody who identified. We were tour kids, or ‘family.”
Mark and I quickly became cellies after he hit the unit. When the doors locked, it was like we were back in the hotel rooms of our touring years. Kicking back and smoking was how we spent our time locked in the cell. Every Sunday was our holy day. It had nothing to do with Jesus, Allah, or Buddha. Sunday nights were the Grateful Dead hour with David Gans.
“It was escape,” says Mark of the weekly radio program. “It was a suspension of doing time. Experiencing good music just exists outside temporal experience. Especially the Grateful Dead. Time stops and you step outside.”
“We created our own Dead Hour every Friday in the band room,” says Sean Hemmerle, a Head who did 10 years for LSD. “Playing those songs was almost like being free for a few hours every week.”
Sean and another Head, Seth Ferranti, took me under their wings as soon as I hit the federal prison system at FCI Gilmer in West Virginia.
“I would always look out for the young hippie dudes when they came in because I knew how it was coming from a Grateful Dead type of environment to prison. I would school dudes and let them know what it took to survive and even thrive on the inside. Prison was a different beast than the Dead tour and adjustments had to be made,” says Seth Ferranti. Seth is family that did over 22 years for LSD.
That’s what I did, for the most part. But, our way of life, our culture isn’t something that just leaves you. There were times when I’d walk the yard and mutter “cigarettes…weed” to the cons I passed, just like I was back on the lot. Which, probably was a considerable factor in getting me shipped off to the penitentiary and to Mushroom Bob.
Bob was one of the first to greet me when I made it into the unit of “the slaughterhouse of the south” USP Pollock in Louisiana. Offering me a cup of coffee, we instantly bonded as only those that have been there can do.
Even though we both did our own thing, me being a young knuckle-headed prison hustler junkie, and Bob an educated older straight laced convict, we’d still find each other out on the track at night and reminisce about ‘the old days.’
Hearing him tell me stories about dosing thousands on mushroom tea at the Philly spectrum, or about kicking it backstage with the band, I would instantly get back to remembering what life was really all about. For Deadhead family, it’s the connection to a community of like minded souls that transcends the limitations of everyday existence.
“Family always finds each other because they seem to be the only kind people around,” expresses Tim Tyler, a lifer that’s been down since 92′ for LSD. “The family recognizes each other for the kindness that they put out there. Once you arrive somewhere new, and there are Deadheads, or even one head, they will hear about you right away and befriend you.”
Tim and I used to go down to the chapel every week in USP Canaan for the Wiccan service. Inside the room we would burn massive amounts of sage and incense and put on the live Dead CD “Dozin at the Knick.” The Dozin CD was pilfered from recreation by yours truly to turn Monday nights into the best night of the week.
“I was so grateful to sit with someone like me and share that magic. It was like coming up from going under water and taking a deep breath. Those notes that Jerry plays are healers,” Tim says.
“It’s not how long you’ve known family, you recognize them instantly,” says Ryan Braiske, a thirty five year old Head from Chicago doing ten years for molly.
I ran into Ryan as soon as I landed in USP Big Sandy. Finding him wasn’t hard. We both are white with dreadlocks and go by the name ‘Hippie.’
Ryan reflects, “As soon as I heard there was another head here, I couldn’t believe it. There was actually some family on the yard with me! I was happy, but also a. It fucked up by it. There shouldn’t be any of us ‘family’ in here. The penitentiary is so far from where we’re supposed to be.”
Everyday I’d walk the yard with Ryan and talk about the same Phish tours we were on, and places we’ve both been. Being around a Head that’s the same age and toured the same shows was like running into my twin, and made life in a violent penitentiary almost seem bearable.
“Being with family brings us back to who were are,” Ryan says fondly. “Who else is going to teach me ‘Franklins Tower’ in the band room?”
Ryan moved down to a medium security prison after a few months, and I’m back to being the only Head in Big Sandy, where I will more than likely finish the remainder of my bid.
Even though we’ve been locked away for decades, connections to a community we love continues to grow through the help of an amazing woman named Ashley “Osh” Barnes. Every month, Heads throughout the United States Prison Systems, receive a newsletter from ‘The Church of Love’s Own Dream.’
“I started doing the newsletter back in 2001. I had several friends in prison and got tired of just writing the same old shit over and over. I began photo copying my letters and it’s evolved from there.”
These pages of gold run the gamut from crazy pictures of the band, to art and poetry sent in from inmates, to Buddhist quotes and quantum physics.
Every month the pages will cause me to laugh and cry, overcome by love that comes from a woman I have never met, but that I call family.
“We are all tied together in some way.” Osh says. “Either by love, or by blood, or both. In a broader sense it’s a bunch of fuckers on one planet together, because we’re all connected.”
The ‘Spiritual Nourishment for the Incarcerated’ newsletter goes out to over 176 inmates and is then passed around inside the prisons to other kind, like minded souls. Osh even makes and sends out tie dyed shirts to the kids of those incarcerated for Christmas with almost all the cost coming out of her pocket, and a little help from other family that are now on the ‘outside.’
Out of the hundreds of people I’ve met and called my friends throughout the years, almost all of them have come and gone while I’ve been locked down and shipped throughout the system. The family that have shared this crazy adventure with me have stayed a part of my life through thick and thin. They’re the ones I can count on to bring me back to reality after years of getting beat down by an unforgivingly brutal system, and the ones that will accept me when I step out of this nightmare and back into civilization. All of us connected through our everlasting love of the music from a band that started half a century ago, a love that will not fade away.
Check out John’s other pieces on Gorilla Convict