Diary of a prison fish

A California executive does time in Nevada State Prison—and lives to write a book about it

Illustration By Ben Purvis

Editor’s note: After this story first ran in the Las Vegas Weekly, the Nevada Department of Prisons protested its accuracy, noting that no one hanged himself in prison during Jimmy Lerner’s incarceration. The book’s publisher responded that the book’s introduction explains that some names have been changed and some scenes are composites from Lerner’s time in county jail and in prison.

Living in a prison outside of Carson City for three years, Jimmy Lerner gradually learned to block out the whimpering cries of raped teenagers, the buckshot blasts of prison shotguns and the ever-present threat of danger emanating from fellow convicts and prison guards alike.

One thing he’ll never block out is the snapping neck of Bobby-Boy, a fish—or prison novice—who, after being raped by his cellmate for the last time, hanged himself in the county jail.

“Bobby makes it to the catwalk railing with two shuffling steps. Big Bear sees him first, shouts, ‘No, no Bobby-Boy, no!’ Bobby bends over to quickly anchor his end of the sheet-rope to the rail. His white state boxers are still bright with blood. … He flips once in midair before his neck snaps. It is a sound that I know will take up permanent residence in my repertoire of nightmares.”

The suicide’s not only horrifying, it’s one of several exclamation points in Lerner’s new book, You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish, as harsh an indictment of the Nevada prison system as you’re likely to read.

Lerner spent three years in Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City for killing a man in a Reno hotel room in 1997, according to the state Department of Corrections. His book was written on scraps of paper and in the margins of pages torn out of the Bible and mailed out every day to a friend for safekeeping until his release and their subsequent merger into literary form.

The book may have saved his mind.

“It was like my personal therapist, the only help I had,” he says.

That immediacy lent itself to an active, always-moving voice, perfect for this book, which never gives in to the urge to sermonize. It’s also probably why Lerner received a reported $100,000 advance for the book from Broadway Books, part of Random House.

So far, it’s already gotten at least one good review.

"[The book] gives a compelling face and voice to the story of life behind bars and forthrightly pulls back the curtain on a brutal system of punitive penal warehousing that America continues to expand lavishly without bothering to comprehend,” writes The Washington Post.

Not bad for Lerner, for 18 years a mid-level marketing executive for Pacific Bell with a cubicle near Scott Adams, who went on to create the “Dilbert” comic strip.

Lerner’s story, he says, has also been purchased by Phoenix Pictures, a division of Sony, and a script and director have been solidified for the movie version. He has secluded himself in a Reno hotel room where, for eight to nine hours a day, he’s working on two more books, one a work of poetry, the other a novel about his life.

“More therapy,” he says, chuckling.

Because unless you treat yourself, you’ll get no treatment in prison, a point Lerner hammers home in the book. Sure, there are literacy courses, classes provided by the community college and classes to obtain general-equivalency diplomas. But rehab? Guess again.

In one scene, Lerner’s talking to caseworker “Wally Sykes,” designated to help Lerner prepare for his parole board hearing. The two start talking about programs that Lerner might take to impress the board:

“Let’s talk programming!” [Sykes] exclaims, a tiny hand snatching at something in the air. Possibly a memory of programming.

“Mr. Sykes—”

“Call me Wally.”

“Well, Wally, it’s my understanding that there is no longer any programming available in this prison.”

Wally frowns. This is distasteful. He has heard this before.

“No programming? I think not. We have many programs, a diverse offering, solid programs. They are simply temporarily abeyed, pending funding approval.”

“Oh—thanks for clearing that up. I thought they were all canceled over five years ago.”

“Canceled? Don’t believe that. Abeyed, perhaps, even delayed, but hardly canceled.”

Despite prison officials’ claims to the contrary, Lerner contends in his book that rehab doesn’t exist, at least not in an effective construct—a quizzical reality, given that 55 percent of Nevada’s prisoners eventually return to lock-up. Also nonexistent, according to Lerner, is job training.

Though the state’s prison system has something called Prison Industries—boasting some of the highest inmate salaries in the country at upwards of $13 an hour—only 620 prisoners, a handful of the state’s 10,000 prisoners, currently work in that system. And Prison Industries, Lerner says, is not job training.

“Here’s the thing I found really stunning,” says Lerner, in an interview several weeks after his January release. “I’d always thought it might not be that bad, because people can learn a skill or a trade [in prison]. Then I got there, and there’s nobody learning skills or trades, and I’m puzzled. With all these young people in there, why wouldn’t you want to offer them a job or training?”

Howard Skolnik, assistant director of the Nevada Department of Corrections, says Lerner is wrong and that Prison Industries does offer training. “We usually can’t find the skills we need or want in the inmate population, so we do an awful lot of on-the-job training.”

Skolnik also says that inmates “have to want to break the cycle” and get involved. “Unfortunately, many do not,” he says.

Illustration By Ben Purvis

Although Lerner acknowledges that many inmates would rather “listen to music and kick rocks, anyway,” he still insists that “it’s amazing how the system is broken.”

In a press packet that came with his book, Lerner jokes that one way he’s changed since prison is that he had “trouble relaxing” in the shower.

That’s a joke. But Lerner makes it painfully clear that in prison rape is not only a daily occurrence, it’s also ignored and all but sanctioned by prison corrections officers (guards). And for protection, he says, almost every inmate owns a “shiv,” or crudely fashioned knife.

“It’s very disturbing, but life is very cheap and rape is incredibly common,” Lerner says. “So, it’s easy to get inured to it, jaded. I was shocked at how widespread it was.”

Lerner’s book is likely to have broad appeal because of his background. He’s not like “Kansas,” his brooding, universally respected cellmate with the swastika neck tattoo, or “The Hunger,” a 400-pound, monosyllabic behemoth, or some of the other inmates with lifelong criminal records. Lerner’s like one of us—an average Joe with do-the-right-thing sensibilities.

Which makes the images of prison rape all the more horrifying.

I ask him: “Aren’t inmates incensed at what’s going on around them? Why don’t they approach the guards about it, talk to the warden, try to get it to stop?”

“Come on,” Lerner replies, now talking a bit “out of the side of his neck,” prison slang for being a smart-ass. “What are you going to do? Think of how absurd this sounds: ‘Sir, I’d like to point out that some of your criminals are sexually assaulting others.’ And then they laugh their asses off. Because to them that’s part of the punishment. ‘You guys screwed up, you’re convicts, stuff’s going to happen to you. We don’t want to hear about it because you got nothing coming.’ “

Lerner never feared rape. Partly because of his age—he’s 47—he was mistakenly categorized as an “original gangster,” a term of respect that led to his nickname, “O.G.” Lerner was also told that his “saggy ass” and “general unattractiveness” made him a less savory target to the lovelorn. Nevertheless, he worked out rigorously—hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups daily—to steel his physique to battle readiness.

Skolnik doesn’t deny rape exists. But he says it’s far less prevalent here than in other states.

“I’ll be very honest: I’ve heard less about that happening,” he says. “We’ve seen fewer claims or allegations than I have ever seen anywhere else in my career. I’m not saying it does not happen—you put a population of violent people together, they’re of the same sex, and you’re going to get some violence. But I really think it’s less common.”

He also disagrees with Lerner’s assessment that most inmates possess shivs. If that were the case, Skolnik says, “you’d be reading about funerals every day.”

Or maybe not. Although there are nearly as many guns in America as there are people—estimates put the number at 230 million—health-related illnesses claim more lives than guns do.

Lerner took up residence in the Nevada prison system on June 4, 1999. He was released after his third trip to the parole board, on Jan. 2, 2002.

Lerner’s crime was the killing of 46-year-old Mark A. Slavin, of Danville, Calif., for which he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. He uses the last quarter of his book to describe in detail how he met and got to know, through Alcoholics Anonymous, “Dwayne Hasselman,” a pseudonym for Slavin. He also describes the crime, as it took place in a room at the Sundowner Hotel and Casino in Reno. Expectedly, he makes it appear as self-defense against the drugged and violent Slavin. But Lerner had no witnesses to back up his story and thus was convicted and given two consecutive sentences of two to six years.

Lerner’s marriage ended before he landed in prison. Longing to see his daughters, one of whom is now a college freshman, his hope for freedom lay with the parole board. And, though Lerner was denied a parole the first time up, this is one area of Nevada’s system that he actually credits with being fair. He says the same of the prison’s disciplinary board, which judges allegations against inmates.

“I think they’re professional people, overburdened, and it’s a tough job,” he says of the board. “But I always thought they were fair and courteous, and they always invite you to say your piece.”

Skolnik adds that the fairness of the disciplinary board members is key to maintaining order in the system while alleviating some legal burdens.

“If we handle grievances and discipline in a balanced and fair manner, that eliminates lawsuits, which are expensive and time-consuming,” he says. “As an inmate, you know you’re going to get a fair shot, which diminishes the likelihood of something boiling over.”

Lerner writes with wit, often applying management training principles learned over years in the business world to his interactions with other inmates. He mimicked their words and motions to survive. But, outside of a precious few people, he has no interest in seeing any of his prison mates in the free world.

“Put it this way: There are some people in prison I would attend creative writing and poetry writing classes with, and I cared about them and would like to know what happens to them,” he says, “but there is no one I want to maintain contact with.”

Not everything about prison was bad. Well, OK, it was bad, but Lerner did pull some positives out of the experience. He has his book. He’s completely kicked anti-depressants and other chemical dependencies. And he says he has a new appreciation for life.

“This is going to sound corny, but I am so grateful now for the simplest things, like a toilet seat, like going to the supermarket, taking a walk along the Truckee River,” he says. “I just feel so incredibly grateful for just getting up and not being in an 8-by-6 cell.”

And he’s done with corporate America: “I don’t really see this big clamor of corporate folks saying, ‘Boy, we have to get Jim Lerner back in the fold.’ I think that stage of my life is passed.”

If his book relates a message, Lerner hopes it’s that people have an incredible capacity to survive.

“The truth is, all of us in our lives are going to encounter some huge soul-challenging experiences, whether that’s death in the family, or an illness or some horrible violence. It’s going to challenge us and call upon us to rise to the very best—or something else,” he says.

“I’m just an average guy who crunched numbers for a large corporation for many years. And if a shmuck like me can survive prison relatively intact, anyone can.”

Asked if he’d like his book to be seen as an indictment of the Nevada prison system, he quickly reverts back to some of the training drilled into him over 18 years of business dealings.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an indictment at all,” Lerner says laconically. “Rather, it highlights some opportunities to make this system one that fewer people keep returning to.”

Long pause.

“How’s that for good corporate spin?”

Joe Schoenmann is the managing editor of the Las Vegas Weekly, where this story first ran. Illustrator Ben Purvis is a graphic artist at the Las Vegas Weekly.