Stories from "The Joint"

Godfathers

Despite Clayton Fountain’s notoriety as a terrifying sociopath, he was not the inmate who had the greatest impact on our lives. I would not learn about Fountain’s ideology, the Aryan Brotherhood, until many years later. But I heard the word “Mafia” every single day.

Dad loathed the ruthless mobster criminal networks of murderers and the greed that went unchecked by corrupt law enforcement officials. At the same time, he was undeniably energized by his proximity to the players who spent part of their sentences at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, or the “Fed Med”. He had never aspired to be a prison guard, but once he became one, there was the element of thrill that came from his accidental access to notorious mobsters.

One of these was Mickey Cohen. While incarcerated at the penitentiary in Atlanta in the mid-1960s, Cohen received a vicious beating as he was leaving the exercise grounds. Head-smashing blows from a metal bar left him gravely wounded and comatose for weeks and doctors expected him to succumb to his injuries. Miraculously, he came out of the coma and survived, but he suffered permanent partial paralysis and memory loss. He was transferred to the Fed Med for further care and spent the rest of his incarceration there until his release on medical parole in 1972.

Dad told me about how he learned Mickey Cohen’s opinion of him; all incoming and outgoing mail was examined for contraband and contents of letters were read to intercept coded messages or nefarious plans. Dad was a young man and relished the authority he held, much to the chagrin of the infamous mobster. In a letter that was addressed to his brother, Cohen described Dad as “that Hippie degenerate, Fail”—a reference to the full mutton-chops sideburns that Dad sported at the time. Every time Dad told that story, laughed so hard that he choke- coughed with tears in his eyes. His impression on Mickey Cohen was a source of interminable pride.

New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello (and rumored JFK assassination conspirator) also came through Springfield. Dad described him as a “respected” mobster, with an exaggerated emphasis on the second syllable. To me, that evoked an entirely new connotation of the word. As a kid I was told to act respectfully, to be respectful. When I began to ask questions about the Mafia, I learned the wholly different term, “respect”.

Dad explained one day, “Mr. Marcello is used to having his way. He told me, “Mr. Fail, you respect me, and I’ll respect you.”

 There were random mentions of the Gambino, Bonanno, and Genovese crime circuits, although many of the most glorified figures were before Dad’s time, namely Al Capone, Bugsy Seigel, and Lucky Luciano. Some of their successors and extended connections found their way into the prison system during his 27 years with the Bureau, but there was only one who leveled a specific rage against Dad that left him terrified for his young wife and daughters.