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A still from the surveillance footage of Leonard H. Benzin robbing a bank in Brighton, NY on Sept. 16, 2004.
Life Inside

Dying in Attica

An aging bank robber faces the end.

The typical bank robbery nowadays is pulled off with a note, and that’s how it went down in the Bank of America in Brighton, New York, in September of 2004. “C’mon lady, hurry up! You read the note,” the robber demanded. “Give me the small bills.” The teller complied. Then it was over.

The robber wore a baseball cap and sunglasses. He also brought a heavy heroin addiction. Leonard H. Benzin robbed this bank and two others in New York the same way before heading west. In Salt Lake City, he hit another bank and was then captured at the bus station with a bag of money. He served five years in a private prison in Utah and was then extradited to New York in 2010 to begin a ten-year sentence. But Lenny will probably die in Attica.

He’s a sixty-something white man now, gray on the sides and bald on top, overweight, with thick, Buddy Holly eyeglasses that are surprisingly fashionable again. Lenny’s are state-issued, but they give him a bad look for Attica. Guards and prisoners often wonder if he’s a pedophile. He’s not.

Lenny and I saw each other at volunteer programs, the only forums for rehabilitation in Attica. We go to seek some semblance of sanity, of humanity. Cephas, a support group that began after the notorious 1971 uprising, is hosted by volunteers and meets twice a week. A few years ago, Lenny shared with the group that he’d been diagnosed with colon cancer. “Yeah, I was out at the hospital – they gave me radiation for a few weeks, then operated,” he said. “I have to wear this colostomy bag for now, and if the cancer doesn’t come back they said they’ll seal me up in a few months.” He looked pale but he seemed hopeful.

As months passed, Lenny seemed to lose his upbeat swagger. He walked the corridors with his head hung, stopped shaving and his scruff grew into a gray beard. He stopped saying hello, stopped sharing in Cephas groups, and seemed to stop hoping. One time while waiting to be called out of the bullpen for a Cephas meeting, other prisoners in the waiting area began to whine about a sewage-like odor that permeated the room. “Ay, yo, who da’ fuck smelling like shit?” one said. Lenny sat shamefaced as other dopey prisoners joined in on the rant and held their shirts over their noses like mean kids on the playground. One prisoner looked at Lenny and said, “Motherfuckas’ need to wash they ass!”

Prison is crude that way. We prisoners just react – to a smell, an observation, a thought – and then blurt out whatever comes to mind. We’re abrasive, socially awkward, devoid of empathy – and we don’t know any better. I only empathize with Lenny because I have Crohn’s disease and, worst case scenario, I may wind up with a colostomy bag or even developing colon cancer myself. So I’d pick his brain about cancer symptoms and pretend to be interested in him, though concerned only about my own ass.

Some weeks ago, Lenny moved from E block – Attica’s sweetest block, which houses prisoners assigned to cushy work details – to my company in C Block – Attica’s most notorious block, a bellicose environment where the toughest guards operate under a mantra: Lenny told me he thinks one of the guards in E-block got tired of smelling the odor from his colostomy bag and had him transferred. Plenty of dangerous prisoners, many of whom recently finished stints in solitary, are housed in C-block. My particular company houses the block porters, like me, who do cleaning and other chores, and the sick and elderly, like Lenny. But why house the feeble with the fearless? Stuck with the gangbangers and all of C-block’s misery, Lenny settled in.

Recently, we were in the shower together and I saw his colostomy bag. “I thought they were gonna seal you up?” I asked.

“No. I’m terminal, John. The cancer came back.”

“Oh, man.”

“Ah, waddaya’ gonna’ do, John? It’s my time,” he said. “They gave me a year, two tops.” Death had sunk its teeth into Lenny like a poisonous snake, and the venom was now spreading through his body.

While writing this piece, I exchanged kites (written notes) with Lenny, transported by one of the porters, Puerto Rican Rico. The guards like Rico because he regularly beats up rapists and child molesters for them. He’s a thug with a raspy voice. “Yo, John, sup’ wit’ that old-ass white dude? He look mad funny-style.” I told Rico that he was good, which meant that Lenny wasn’t a child molester, and that he was my friend.

Because Lenny and I attend another fellowship together, I know he knows about good sobriety and the honest self-reflection that comes with it. So I asked him about making amends. “What about scaring those bank tellers?” I wrote. I immediately regretted asking him that, because it’s a bit much for a convicted murderer, like Yours Truly, to solicit contrition from a man who robbed banks with notes. Lenny kited back: “John, I know about empathy and amends, but at this point I just don’t care anymore. I’m very negative now. I just want to die.”

Lenny entered the system young. He told me he was fifteen when he stabbed his alcoholic father with a kitchen knife because he hit his alcoholic mother. He was sent to juvenile hall, then wound up in foster care, and then he became an emancipated minor. After that, his dysfunctional life played out. He became an alcoholic and addict. A lousy husband. A deadbeat dad. A liar. A thief. A jailbird.

If he stayed sober out there, he probably would have had a shot at a second act in life. Sadly, though, Lenny’s life has resembled one long, self-destructive, drama-filled first act. Now he’s dying slowly – in a humiliating way, in a disgusting place. In Attica.

“It’s a shit bag. I have colon cancer,” Lenny said.

Last week, Lenny and I marched through a gauntlet of guards and headed to our evening group. He was randomly pulled off the line to be frisked before entering the chapel. Because of his pierced eardrum, he didn’t hear the fresh-faced guard ask him if he had anything on him. When the guard felt the colostomy bag he squeezed it, which caused fluids to seep out. He then shoved Lenny’s face against the wall. “What the fuck is that?”

“It’s a shit bag. I have colon cancer,” Lenny said.

Disgusted, the guard said, “Get in the chapel. C’mon man, hurry up!”

We prisoners are a hard-headed bunch: For every two of us who get out, one comes back. But for older guys like Lenny, the statistics show, only 4 percent reoffend. Lenny applied for medical parole before I wrote this, but he probably won’t get it because the rules are incredibly strict and he’s ambulatory and coherent.

I’m not working an angle to help ol’ Lenny the bankrobber get out. I simply see the suffering that most of you don’t. I see an unfulfilled life that’s coming to an end, one that could use a bit of mercy at this point. So I have empathy. It’s something new for me.

John J. Lennon is serving 28 years to life for second-degree murder at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York.

This article has 5 letters to the editor. Read the letters.