Rekha Basu The Knickerbocker News
Section: MAIN,  Page: 4A

Date: Thursday, May 29, 1986

Eight inmates chomped down on 6- hour-old hamburgers without ketchup as they sat on large cans of black paint in Albany's Bleecker Park.

The prisoners - all from the Hudson Correctional Facility, a medium- security prison in Hudson - are in Albany this week giving a face-lift to the park, a small, triangular, fenced-in area at Madison Avenue and Eagle Street. The cleanup is part of a city Tricentennial Beautification Project. "Ask the governor - could he send us some MacDonalds?" one inmate said to a reporter.

"Do you have any ketchup in your car?" another inquired.

Lee Lindstrom, co-chairwoman of the Tricentennial Beautification Committee, said the idea of using inmates to repaint the fence and fountain at the park, which dates to the 1880s, had come from the state Office of General Services.

After appealing to the agency for help in repairing the old fountain, she was put in touch with Correctional Services Commissioner Thomas Coughlin. Coughlin, Lindstrom said, told her about the community service projects in which inmates performed various jobs at non-profit agencies.

An inspection of the fountain by a prison sergeant determined that it couldn't be repaired, but he offered a paint job instead, Lindstrom said.

Passano Paints donated the paints and turpentine.

Each of the inmates, who move from job to job in Columbia, Greene and Albany counties, are paid anywhere from 55 cents to $1.55 a day by the prison, according to Correction Officer Alan Mack, who was supervising the Bleecker Park operation.

To participate, inmates must have no outstanding warrants and no attempted escapes on their records.

Besides the presence of a single correction officer, there was no security at the Bleecker Park work site, where the prisoners have been since Tuesday and are scheduled to remain for the rest of the week.

"I think it's beneficial to get you out in society to work on the community crews," said Eric Martin, 23, of the Bronx, who has served 19 months of a 4-to-12-year sentence for second-degree robbery. "It gets you away from the environment inside the facility."

The inmates also used the occasion to talk about their lives in and out of prison.

Carlos Diaz, 29, of Manhattan is serving 2 to 4 years for second-degree burglary. He has been at Hudson six months.

"If you have to do time, Hudson's all right because they prepare you to deal with society," said Diaz, who will be attending college in June in a program offered through the Junior College of Albany. After his release, he plans to major in small groups communication so he can lecture youths about the dangers of drugs.

Some of the inmates, such as Diaz and Bob Szczepanik, 22, of Manorville, Long Island, said being in prison and away from drugs made them feel safe.

"There's too much crack (outside)," said Diaz, referring to the newest highly potent and very dangerous form of processed cocaine.

"Jail saved my life," said Szczepanik, who is serving time for armed robbery. "I did every drug there was to do."

His right arm is covered with tattoos, which he said serve as a reminder of where he's been.

"Everytime I get in trouble I look at my arms and I see the tattoos and I say, 'I got these in jail, so I'm not gonna go back,'" he said.

Mike Wickham, 21, of Rochester, who has been in prison 16 months for armed robbery, is in a temporary- release program. He was to be furloughed next week. He will be moved to an institution in Rochester, where he'll be allowed home weekends and nights.

"I lost everything because of this," Wickham said of his arrest. "My fiancee, my car, the works."

"Tell the governor I learned my lesson," he said. " The prison system will never see me again. I'll be what you call a tax-paying citizen."

Lindstrom was still issuing appeals for someone to donate a new fountain to the park. But the inmates had a more pressing agenda: food.

"For working outside like this, we deserve a better lunch," one said. "You'd think the old governor would spring for something."