November 14, 2012 —
When Matthew Smith talks about that incident back in November 1975, he seems intelligent, energetic, frustrated and perhaps a bit wistful about the way things might have been. Back then, he was a cop with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) stationed in the Alphabet City section of Manhattan, making at least a couple of drug busts a week and racking up the overtime.
According to a new book, “Counting the Days, 366 Days in Prison,” written by Smith’s wife Leslie Rutkin, one bust involved 10 cops, 110 decks of heroin and about $30,900 in cash. Back at the station, the heroin and about $900 was entered into evidence. Some of the other cops divided up the $30,000, and as one of ten officers involved in the bust, Smith was handed $3,000 in cash.
She quoted Smith as saying, “If I had vouchered the money I felt I would have been shot. There was no question in the other officers’ minds that the money belonged to them. They weren’t doing anything different than anyone else on the job.”
After the bust, Smith was contacted by the anti-crime unit, seeking to recruit him. Regarding this time Rutkin writes, “Everyone knew the cops in anti-crime were killing dealers, stealing large amounts of money, taking kickbacks from dealers they let slide.”
Months later, Smith and four other officers who participated in the bust were indicted.
Smith was offered the opportunity to avoid prison time by turning state’s evidence against the anti-crime unit, but he refused. The couple learned about his indictment when they were on their honeymoon. On September 6, 1977 Smith was handcuffed and taken off to jail to serve a term of one to three years.
Then began a year-long period of detailed and poignant correspondence between the newly married couple that now, more than 35 years later, forms the backbone of the memoir and reveals how the relationship survived that year.
The letters show the process of being integrated into the prison system and the sometimes unexpected situations prisoners sometimes face. For instance, shortly after Matthew is taken away, Rutkin writes, “I can do what I want, go where I please. I ache when I think of your immobility and the impossibility of having your own clothes or seeing the things you want to see day by day.”
Early on Smith writes to Rutkin, “The absence of any worthwhile conversation is probably the most distressing aspect of my present company. I do not avoid other inmates completely, but these people are from the street—hardened criminals with no intention of breaking off with the past. They probably become more knowledgeable in the art of criminal behavior and are more of a threat after being released than after entering.”
Because he is a former cop, Matthew creates a history to tell other inmates. He writes, “The black inmate next to me has started asking questions relative to my placement in protective custody (PC) because all the other inmates have discipline problems in PC and he thought I fell into that category. I said I was a white-collar criminal, who, with six other people, embezzled $60,000. I had a very influential attorney and at his direction I was placed in PC. This statement satisfied his curiosity.”
Overall, the letters reflect a roller coaster of emotion, hope, insecurity and fear. When Smith finally returned home, the two stopped writing everyday, and the marriage nearly fell apart.
But ultimately, they worked things out, and the couple now lives in Barryville.