"Hey, Timberlake, wanna commandeer their food?" Deputy Warden Ronald Jorgensen says to his driver, Officer Timberlake, nodding out the window of their speeding New York City Corrections van as it passes two men eating lunch. "Just turn the sirens on and take the food. Hands up, up against the wall!"
Jorgensen and Timberlake share a laugh as the van weaves through midday Manhattan traffic on the day after Thanksgiving. As holiday shoppers head uptown to Macy's, Timberlake pulls into the parking lot of the Manhattan House of Detention Center, more colorfully referred to as the “Tombs.”
Jorgensen grins as the driver parks the car and he says, "I like riding with you, Timberlake. You keep me laughing."
Deputy Warden Jorgensen gets out of the van, which has the New York City Department of Corrections (NYCDOC) motto, "New York's Boldest" emblazoned in blue and orange on the passenger door. Jorgensen is an intimidating figure, tall with a strong build and piercing blue eyes. His light brown hair is creeping away from his forehead, and his push-broom mustache, which screams law enforcement, sits atop lips most often shaped into a smile as broad as his shoulders.
Ronald Jorgensen loves his work, as unpleasant as it may seem at first glance. He has worked in correctional facilities for the NYCDOC for 21 years, and spent six of them working the city's most dangerous jail, the Central Punitive Segregation Unit. Located on the infamous Rikers Island, the jail was riddled with violence against both officers and inmates, and during his time there, Jorgensen was involved in brutality allegations and named in a lawsuit against the DOC. Over 10 years have passed since the lawsuit, but even in his quieter assignment at the Tombs, Jorgensen still struggles to balance a brutal, often violent job with his life at home, where instead of a warden wielding power over male inmates he is a husband and a loving father of two daughters and one spoiled Shetland Sheepdog. Despite the difficulty of leading these two disparate lives, Jorgensen is still working in jail, reporting this November afternoon as Deputy Warden of Security at the same facility where he started as an officer in 1986.
Jorgensen glides smoothly through the security checkpoint at the staff entrance to the Tombs. There is a small plaque on the wall that bears an old
Fyodor Dostoyevsky quote: "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."
Jorgensen pays no attention to the plaque, seemingly unaware of the great burden that rests on his shoulders when he enters the Tombs, leaving behind the civilized streets of Manhattan for the cinderblock jungle that lies within.
Jorgensen spent most of his career on Rikers Island, New York City's infamous correctional compound. In 1989, Jorgensen made captain and was transferred to the Central Punitive Segregation Unit at the House of Detention for Men. The unit, more commonly called the "Bing," housed the island's most violent inmates. He was told there was a quick transfer in it for him if he and his corrections officers, or C.O.s, cleaned up the "out of control" unit by any means necessary.
At that time, Rikers Island was overpopulated with inmates-according to a count of the inmate population conducted by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, in 1989, there were approximately 19,977 inmates in NYCDOC custody every day. Of those inmates, 18,135 were males. Most of them were housed at Rikers, where 10 of the city's 15 facilities are located.
One afternoon when Jorgensen was working at the Bing, an inmate threw milk at an officer, prompting the C.O.s to take the inmate to the intake pen to search him. As they were searching him, the inmate stabbed an officer in the cheek with a pen, prompting the officers to respond with force.
"They just went all over him with their batons," Jorgensen recalls in his thick Staten Island accent. "I had to drag them guys off of that inmate. I thought they were gunna kill him."
Incidents such as these prompted the Legal Aid Society to file a lawsuit known as Shepard v. Phoenix in 1993. Jorgensen was one of the captains named in the suit. According to the New York Times, by 1995 the city had enough evidence of brutality to charge 11 officers. Jorgensen was not one of them, but the lawsuit and the charges launched a serious investigation into the Bing.
Although the chief of the department had signed off on all of the use of force reports, the department decided not to support the sued captains.
"I got a card around Christmas time in 1995 telling me I was on my own. It was a really stressful time in my life," he says, shaking his head at the memory as he sits in his office at the Tombs.
The city eventually settled the suit for $1.6 million, according to the New York Times. Even after he was promoted to Assistant Deputy Warden and transferred from the Bing, Jorgensen continued to face problems because of one of his uses of force there.
"I had disarmed a guy that had a razor, and an Integrity Control officer came up on the scene and caught me kicking the inmate," he says.
Jorgensen, who broke his thumb during the incident, wrote in his report that he had kicked the inmate in an attempt to dislodge the razor from the inmate's hand.
Jorgensen was not promoted to Deputy Warden for an unusually long time. He suspects that departmental suspicion about the incident was to blame.
"I was number four in seniority in the whole department, and I hadn't been promoted in 10 years," he says.
Jorgensen blames the lead investigator of the incidents for the delay.
"He didn't want me promoted. He wanted me in jail," Jorgensen laughs.
Ten years later, when two officers involved in similar incidents were promoted, Jorgensen knew he had his chance.
"Once I saw one of them get promoted, I knew I could, too. And I did," he says proudly.
Despite the allegations of brutality, Jorgensen believes he has always treated inmates fairly.
"I would tell [the inmates] at the Bing, you gotta do what they say, and I'll make sure you're all right, and you'll get out of here in one piece."
"That's the most you can do, is treat them fairly," he says. "It's a rough world, where the rules don't always fit."
Jorgensen spent six years and three months at the Bing, longer than he had ever expected.
It was the last stop. It was their last chance. That's why the island was so quiet. We restored order, like they said. And then the brass all ran away from us."
He sighs tiredly, as if the memory has exhausted him.
"What are you gunna do? These are easier days now."
Black Friday is quiet at the Tombs. Footsteps of guards and inmates echo down the windowless hallways. Posters hang on the walls; Langston Hughes smiles down at the jumpsuit-clad men, as if to ask rhythmically, "What happens to a dream deferred?"
The Tombs seems to be a place of deferred dreams. The inmates stare down the halls vacantly, all of them dressed in identical, dreary gray uniforms. They are quiet and well behaved, at least for the time being.
The Tombs in 2006 is an entirely different world than Rikers in 1989. The facility itself is smaller, with fewer inmates and less violence. Like at Rikers and the rest of the NYCDOC facilities, most of the inmates are awaiting trial or awaiting sentencing. The average length of stay in 2006 for inmates awaiting trial was 46.7 days. Rikers houses some inmates sentenced to short prison terms of one year or less, with an average stay of 37 days in 2006. Until sentencing, however, the NYCDOC houses inmates accused of any crime, from rape to murder to subway turnstile jumping.
There has only been one incident of an inmate cutting another since Jorgensen transferred to the Tombs in August, a welcome change from the relentless violence of the Bing. In the entire city, there have been only 37 reported incidents of stabbings or slashings in 2006. The entire correctional system is smaller than it was when Jorgensen worked at the Bing-the average daily inmate population in New York City has decreased from 19,977 in 1989 to 13,497 in 2006, according to the NYCDOC website.
The inmates at the Tombs are housed in areas beyond secure, oversized bulletproof windowpanes that make an incredibly loud noise as they open and close. Jorgensen does not seem to notice the sound after two decades of hearing it.
When Jorgensen walks into the Five East housing area, a hush falls over the cellblock, which is overseen by two female officers, Torro and Benitez. The inmates in the block are overwhelmingly African American and Hispanic-and so are the guards. Jorgensen is the minority: according to Jennifer Wynn's book Inside Rikers, 75% of New York City C.O.s are black or Hispanic.
The two female officers alone supervise over 60 male inmates and according to Jorgensen, theirs is one of best blocks in the entire jail. Jorgensen believes that the women are the reason Five East is so calm and quiet.
"[Men] try to do the job with their brawn instead of their brains, and you gotta do this job with your brains," Jorgensen says.
However, there are complications when female officers are working with male inmates.
"They see a female, they go nuts. They're nuts right now, but they're being quiet because [Deputy Warden Jorgensen] is here,” Torro says.
Jorgensen agrees with the women when they say the inmates are usually polite and friendly, but cautions that the politest inmates can be the most dangerous.
"The polite ones will rock you to sleep, and the next thing you know, they'll be walking out the door," he says.
Jorgensen signs his name in the tour book and leaves the quiet cell block for his much noisier office to finish his paperwork.
There is a whiteboard on the wall in Jorgensen's stark and undecorated office that indicates there have been 13 reported uses of force in the last week. Officers document each incident carefully and completely; the specter of the Department's highly publicized past misconduct still looms heavy in the jail, once named for the disgraced NYCDOC Commissioner Bernard Kerik.
"They took his name down in the middle of night," Jorgensen says, referring to a sign that formerly hung outside the jail. "We had no idea what a crook he really was."
While Jorgensen disdains the man's corruption, he credits him with drastically reducing inmate-on-inmate violence. Jorgensen believes Kerik's personality caught up to him.
"It was just a big ego," he says.
Jorgensen, who has never touched the family computer in his home, has trouble printing the memo. He asks for help from one of his officers, who quickly fixes the problem.
When Jorgensen offers a sincere, bashful "Thank you," it is evident that he does not suffer from the hubris that proved to be Bernard Kerik's tragic flaw.
As Jorgensen walks into his modest Staten Island home, his tough exterior melts as soon as he sees the family dog, a Shetland Sheepdog named Montana. Jorgensen's voice, which was harsh and peppered with obscenities at the Tombs, is soft and childishly excited as he says, "Jump up on the beddie for lovies!"
The chubby dog happily jumps onto Jorgensen's bed, and the Deputy Warden jumps up beside Montana and snuggles him close.
The dog waves his tail lazily as Jorgensen pets him, prompting Jorgensen to say, "You are such a mush. You're just a mush, and so is your papa."
The sight would probably shock the inmates, who know Jorgensen as a fair but tough man, but his family is used to it. They often tease him about the incredible juxtaposition between his job and his personality at home: he is a warden who likes to snuggle his dog and watch the sunset from his houseboat on the Jersey shore; he giggles when he watches The Munsters and cries when he watches Lassie.
Living separate lives at work and at home is not easy, and sometimes one bleeds into another.
"The job has changed him," says Judi, his wife of 20 years. "It's made him harder, and it's not really his fault. He spends every day with the dregs of society."
Jorgensen admits that the job has not always been easy on his family.
"It's not something you can really talk about to somebody at home. That does havoc on your marriage. You go out, you do a three to eleven [shift], you come home and your wife's asleep. If my marriage wasn't so strong…" Jorgensen trails off.
After spending the day locked in a drab jail with men whom the rest of society has declared unfit to live among innocents, Jorgensen must shift from forcefully and indifferently keeping order to being a caring and empathetic husband and father. The switch is not always smooth.
That evening, Jorgensen sits on the couch and takes a call from work. He yells gruffly into the phone, but as his voice gets louder, he pets the dog more softly. While an officer in the Tombs gets an earful about unfinished paperwork, Montana crooks his head to the side as Jorgensen hits the sweet spot behind his ears.
Jorgensen's wife shushes him as his voice rises, but Montana remains happily unfazed, unaware of the two different men his papa can be.
After a long day of work, Jorgensen heads over to Forlini's, an Italian restaurant across the street from the Manhattan House.
Jorgensen hung out at the bar here when he first started at the Tombs, but things have changed in the Department of Corrections since then. Mayor Dinkins is gone. Bernard Kerik is gone. Mayor Giuliani is gone. The Bing, as he knew it, is gone. Jorgensen, however, is still there, in charge of the security of the facility where he started as an officer. It seems that this is where he belongs.
"I could have retired last year, at November 15th," Jorgensen says.
After 21 years on the job, he can walk away any time he wants.
"It's a pretty good feeling," he says. "I really like the job. I don't think I'm gunna go anytime soon, but you know, you don't know."
He is quiet for a moment, takes a sip of coffee, and looks out the window and across the street at the two tall towers of the Manhattan House.
"You have to be doin' something, right?" he asks, and it seems that he is directing the question inward, at himself.
As he looks at the Tombs with a wistful smile, it's clear that Deputy Warden Ronald Jorgensen already knows his own answer.