Dec 16, 2022 • 9M

Chapter 9, Part 5: The Prison Van

You can learn a lot about people, and maybe also yourself, by taking a group van ride to prison.

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Appears in this episode

Christie Smythe
My experiences uncovering the story of, and falling in love with, Martin Shkreli.
Episode details

White professionals living in well-to-do New York City neighborhoods will eagerly march in Black Lives Matter protests. They’ll “take to Twitter” to spout soundbytes denouncing racism, economic inequality and unfairness in the criminal legal system. But most will never interact with actual human beings who suffer the brunt of those injustices, apart from silently sharing a subway car.

In their daily lives, their world and the world of overwhelmingly Black, Brown and poor people who get crushed regularly under the boot of society rarely intersect, even when both occupy the same five boroughs. Ostensibly afraid of higher crime (NOT because they’re racist, they will tell themselves), white New Yorkers who can afford to live elsewhere don’t typically spend much time in minority-heavy areas. So they understand very little about those communities, or the people in them, in any meaningful sense beyond statistics.

The bubble that surrounded me, as a journalist married to a finance guy in very white and rich Park Slope, was pierced when I started visiting “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli at the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal administrative prison, in Brooklyn. There, I had a glimpse of what life was like for people with an incarcerated loved one. 

But the bubble utterly disintegrated after Martin’s sentencing in the spring of 2018, when he was transferred to FCI Fort Dix in New Jersey. That’s because at the time, I didn’t drive. In order to visit him, I had to take “the prison van.” 

One rarely-discussed yet pervasive problem with prisons is that visitors often have a very hard time getting to them. Many prisons are in rural areas. Meanwhile, most incarcerated people come from cities. Their friends and family may not be able to afford a car. Public transportation options to prisons are also usually spotty at best.

But for people traveling from New York City to Fort Dix, there was a way. A reliable and reasonably-priced van service, run by a Jamaican family, journeyed from the city to the prison every weekend. Beginning as early as 3am, the van scooped up passengers…

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