Down the hall came Inmate No. 78764-053, a fist of a man diminished by the loss of the $2,500 suit and the $800 shoes he had just been forced to exchange for a jumpsuit, following a guard to his cell.
First night in federal prison, and he was already headed to solitary confinement, his case too notorious for him to mingle safely with the others. He remembers the cell being clammy and dark. It made him think of Rikers Island, where his father had been held after being arrested when Pedro was 11. But this was a few grades higher: the Metropolitan Detention Center, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a windowless cage looming over the East River.
From the next cell came a voice, pricking him out of his numbness:
“Hey, Espada! Hang in there. You’re the senator, right?” the voice said. “My mother voted for you.”
Senator, he was: Pedro Espada Jr., once the third-most powerful man in New York State. And “senator” he remains — even today, three years into a five-year sentence for stealing money from a nonprofit.
There are a lot of “senators” in America’s federal prisons these days. In May, three more corrupt New York State lawmakers are expected to join the jumpsuited ranks, three more cautionary tales from a State Legislature with no apparent shortage of them.
There is Sheldon Silver, a Democrat and former Assembly speaker, who was convicted of abusing his office in return for nearly $4 million in kickbacks. There is Dean G. Skelos, a Republican and former Senate majority leader, who was found guilty of selling official favors for payments and jobs for his son. Convicted last fall in overlapping trials that sent Albany into upheaval, the two men are to be sentenced within 10 days of each other in May, with Mr. Silver’s sentencing scheduled first, on Tuesday.
And then there is John L. Sampson, all but eclipsed by the convictions of Mr. Silver and Mr. Skelos, who led the Senate Democrats for three and a half years. Mr. Sampson was convicted last year of trying to thwart an investigation into allegations that he had embezzled state funds. He is to be sentenced on May 19.
Like many of those convicted before them, Mr. Silver, Mr. Skelos and Mr. Sampson have asked for minimal or no prison time. Prosecutors, sentencing guidelines and recent history suggest they should not expect any leniency.
If interviews with four former lawmakers — two currently incarcerated and two who have been released — are a guide, the three men are in for a prolonged humbling. Their former colleagues tell of spiritual awakenings, physical survival and mental toughening. But what figures largest in these personal narratives — what they say has sustained them throughout — is the belief that they were wrongly prosecuted.
Contrition? What for?
Outside, their names are synonymous with scandal. Inside, they command a measure of respect.
“I have a title for life,” said Efraín González Jr., a Democrat and former state senator from the Bronx who was convicted in 2009 and spent almost six years at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Dix, N.J., before being released in February. “I introduced myself as Efraín. But they called me senator.”
With the expected arrivals of Mr. Skelos, Mr. Silver and Mr. Sampson, there will be at least nine former members of the New York State Legislature in the federal prison system. Nine more were released over the last few years. One, facing terminal cancer, is under house arrest. Another died in prison.
“I laugh at all those who turned up their nose at me,” said Shirley L. Huntley, a former state senator from Queens who spent 10 months in federal prison in Danbury, Conn. — the institution on which the women’s prison in “Orange Is the New Black” is based — after pleading guilty in 2013 to stealing more than $87,000 in taxpayer money through a nonprofit she ran. “Now look where they’re at. They’re in worse shape.”
Puffing on an e-cigarette in her living room in Queens, the same room where she once secretly recorded seven of her colleagues for the authorities, she went down the list. Friends. Enemies. Allies. Idiots.
Then came the kiss-off, bile tempered with a laugh.
“You can tell all the other crooks I say hey!”
‘Too Consumed’ With Power
Mr. Espada prefers a new honorific: prison abolitionist.
Some facts before going further: Before all this happened, he had run for office about a dozen times, losing more often than he won. He had shaken a swarm of investigations and one indictment before succumbing to a second. He had risen from poverty to become the highest-ranking Latino in New York State government — and, briefly and under bizarre circumstances, the third-most powerful man in the state — but only after single-handedly bringing the Senate to a standstill and making Albany a national laughingstock in the process. He once tried to hide from a television reporter by putting on an orange ski cap and using a baby to shield his face.
On a recent morning at the Metropolitan Detention Center, sitting in a plastic chair in an airless, glassed-in booth in what resembled a large hospital waiting room — minus the televisions, the pastel watercolor paintings, the magazines and the windows — Mr. Espada seemed shorn of the grandiloquence that those in Albany had come to know so well over the two decades of his singularly unruly political career.
No more ego, he promised — or not as much, anyway. No more referring to himself, without irony, as Hurricane Espada. He said he was devoting his life to reforming America’s prisons.
He had seen, he said, how prison devastates lives and families instead of rehabilitating inmates. He had seen prisoners released, only to return within months, unable to cope in a society that no longer wanted much to do with them.
He had been studying the mass-incarceration literature: Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow;” Harvey A. Silverglate’s “Three Felonies a Day;” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Prison,” by Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state legislator. Mr. Espada said that only violent offenders, people like murderers and rapists, should be in prison, and that others should be forced to serve their communities. Of Mr. Skelos and Mr. Silver, Mr. Espada said, “Anybody that would want to put them in jail for 10 or 15 years should spend a weekend in here and think whether that’s necessary. It wouldn’t pay back the people they harmed.”
He avoided addressing the victims of his own crimes. Mr. Espada, a Democrat, was convicted in 2012 of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the nonprofit health care clinics he ran in his Bronx district when he was a state senator. He spent the spoils on sushi, parties, spa treatments and a Bentley. Then he got caught.
‘This Is Our New Existence’
In the years since, there have been 16 months of no daylight and no fresh air, and before that nearly a year of not seeing his family. And before that, a 10-week stint in solitary confinement after he stepped over the property line at the Federal Correctional Institution in Schuylkill, Pa., one of three prisons where he has spent the past three years. All in all, a thorough humiliation.
“I know that I was too consumed with the search for personal power,” he said. “I know that I was too consumed with materialistic things.” He gestured at his khaki jumpsuit, his shiny white sneakers. “Now, I don’t miss any of that,” he said. “I’m used to living on $300 a month.”
His time at Schuylkill overlapped briefly with that of Larry B. Seabrook, a former city councilman from the Bronx who is serving five years for corruption. But neither felt much like talking shop.
“This is our new existence,” Mr. Espada said. “We’re thinking about how to fit in.”
At Fort Dix, his third stop, he said he learned how the other inmates made prison hooch out of sugar and candy distilled in the bathroom, each six-ounce bottle going for $40, and where they bought cellphones and drugs. Once back at the detention center in Brooklyn, he learned to get his protein from canned tuna, eggs and peanut butter bought at the commissary, and to relish microwave meals of commissary mackerel, chicken, pork sausage and rice. Once a professional brawler, he learned to avoid confrontation. (There have been a few close calls, even so.)
He learned to sleep through the noise of 100 other men snoring and going to the bathroom and working out and watching television, so he can wake up at 4:30 a.m. to lift weights. To survive solitary confinement by running in place until he was exhausted. To love God, about whom he had not thought all that much for many years. To keep busy with Bible study and a biweekly book club. To cherish every visit with his wife, who has visited him each weekend, even though touching is restricted and they have had to sit side by side, knees facing forward, rationing their two kisses and hugs.
He learned about small satisfactions, like when eight of the students in the G.E.D. class he teaches every afternoon recently passed their test. They call him “Professor.”
Professor Espada takes pride in teaching nearly illiterate men to read, in counseling younger inmates, and in helping others work through their cases in the library.
Senator Espada sits here unchastened, boasting of the “political revolution” he once led — same as Bernie Sanders, he said. Senator Espada is the one planning to tear down a bad system from the inside out. The one insisting he was framed.
‘I Didn’t Steal the Money’
If they have one thing in common, these Albany alumni, it is this: They refuse to be expunged from the rolls of the innocent.
“It doesn’t weigh on me that there’s this opinion of me, because it’s not true,” said William F. Boyland Jr., a Democrat who represented Brownsville in the Assembly. He is serving a 14-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pa., a five-hour drive out to the western part of the state, after being convicted of bribery in 2014.
It is a recurring theme.
“I don’t have that thing where I’m a criminal, so I’m smiling,” said Mr. González, who spent much of a four-hour interview at his Bronx apartment outlining, in baroque detail, all the ways he said he had been railroaded by prosecutors, the judge and even his own lawyer. (Before he left prison, he said, his fellow inmates told him, “You’re safer here with the homies. The billionaires will put out a contract on you. They don’t like you, ’cause you tell it like it is.”)
“I did not steal money from Soundview or from anybody,” said Mr. Espada, referring to the health care network he ran. He had not received a fair trial, he said; he would have continued to contest the charges had he not run out of resources and the will to subject his family to what he described as further pain.
“Maybe I didn’t spend the money right, but I didn’t steal the money,” said Ms. Huntley, who suggested that she had been the victim of a conspiracy orchestrated by old enemies in Albany. Besides, she added, as if this would mitigate things, the actions in question had occurred before she entered the Senate.
In a more reflective moment, Ms. Huntley said she could not bring herself to move on.
“Some people say, let it go,” she said. “I don’t know how to let stuff go. I don’t want to die being known as, what’s the word all the newspapers used? ‘Disgraced senator.’”
She said she wanted to be treated “just as a person. Just use my name. I’m not saying you’ve got to make me sound like I’m great. You all call me disgraced, but in my mind, I’m not disgraced.”
In this season of high-profile corruption cases, few phrases have dominated discourse in the State Capitol like ethics reform. Yet Mr. Boyland, Mr. Espada, Mr. González and Ms. Huntley had little to say on the subject. If anything, they suggested, they and their colleagues had been punished simply for doing things the Albany way.
“I wouldn’t say they were crooks. Everybody does all that,” Mr. González said of Mr. Skelos and Mr. Silver. “It’s, ‘I help you, you help me.’ So what is that? Politics.”
Mr. Boyland was asked if he would endorse any of the reforms his former colleagues have discussed this session, including closing a campaign-finance loophole and banning outside income for legislators.
“I can’t endorse anything now,” he said.
On ‘This Side of the Table’
A day begins at Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto. A former monastery on a hilltop, it would resemble a high school campus were it not for the rings of concertina wire that surround it.
Mr. Boyland is awake at 6:30 to meditate before going to work on the facilities team. (Mr. González, too, was initially assigned a job assisting a plumber, but, by his own account, was deemed more of a burden than a help.) Mr. Boyland runs around the track. He lifts weights. Without the constant nag of his cellphone, without the late, indulgent Albany dinners, he is, he said, the healthiest and most focused he has ever been.
To other inmates, he introduces himself as Will. But he lives with men from New York, even some familiar with his old district. There is a Boyland Street in Brownsville, named for his uncle, who once held the same Assembly seat.
“You the same guy?” the inmates ask.
Amid the chaos of this year’s presidential campaign, Mr. Boyland said, he is in demand as a political analyst. “All. The. Time,” he said, flashing a smile.
Some of the queries have a more local bent: “What’s going on with Cuomo and de Blasio?” he has been asked, referring to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, combatants in a never-ending intrastate quarrel. “They’re both Democrats, so what’s the beef about?”
He passes the rest of the day with religious services, Bible study, work on his legal appeal and reading. He is taking classes in Spanish (because of the Spanish-speaking constituents in his old district), small-business skills (just in case) and crocheting (hats, mostly).
He has almost finished James Redfield’s “The Celestine Prophecy,” which he described as a science-fiction novel about the spiritual journey of a wrongly imprisoned man. He said he could relate.
From afar, he tries to raise his 13-year-old son, who is back in Brooklyn. He was the hardest thing to leave behind.
Albany, he does not miss. It was serving his constituents, he said, that he loved.
“I wasn’t used to being on this side of the table,” he said, indicating the round visitors’ room table where he sat across from a reporter. “I was the one visiting to bring help. I’m usually on that side of the table.”
They watch the evening news and read the New York City papers, eavesdropping on a world that has tried to delete them from its memory.
Even so, what lies beyond the prison walls has begun to seem abstract — fuzzy around the edges.
When Mr. Espada was in solitary confinement at Schuylkill, he was allowed one hour a day to go outside, shackled and cuffed. He always went, no matter the weather.
“An opportunity to experience daylight, sunlight, rain hitting your head — it’s as basic as that,” he said, his voice softening. “I said to myself, I would never complain about the elements again, because I loved it when the rain hit my head, when it was cold.”
Then the man who was once the third-most powerful in New York State gathered himself, pivoting back to the pitch. He was the better for surviving this, he said. Not that it was about him; it was about those far less fortunate than him, who would carry this scarlet letter the rest of their lives. He had promised them he would fight for them, for reform, and he would.
He would never give up. There was a reason they still called him the Senator.