OBSERVER: THE COLONEL GEORGE TROFIMOFF STORY,
Butner Federal Prison, located in North Carolina, is relatively new, relatively modern as prisons go. Guys like Bernie Madoff are there, although I was there and gone before he arrived. Part of the structure — five stories tall and surrounded by concertina wire, electrified fences and double-locked gates — house those with a serious medical problem. Medical problems are democratic; they attack violent criminals as well as white-collar crime violators. I was the latter, there because I had lymphatic leukemia. But that is not what this story is about.
Butner is organized on the basis of two-man, locked-down cells. I had been there only three weeks when my cellie, a Lakota Sioux from the reservation, was transferred out. Immediately, a new prisoner was brought to my cell. Before this new prisoner could get settled, Colonel George Trofimoff, in a high degree of agitation, entered my cell. I looked up from the small, narrow metal ledge I used as a writing desk.
I was surprised to see the Colonel in my cell. I knew who he was; I had seen him in chow hall. I had been told that he was a retired United States Army colonel. I didn’t doubt it. He carried himself with military bearing, tall, straight.
Now, his blue eyes made immediate contact and held my attention. His straightforward, demanding demeanor made me uncomfortable. Even in my short prison experience, I had learned inmates do not make eye-to-eye contact with other inmates. It’s viewed as a personal challenge, often resolved with physical violence on the “rec” yard. A guard stood behind him.
“Mr. Aaron, my name is George Trofimoff.”
“Yes, I know, I’ve heard some of the inmates call you ‘Colonel.'”
“I was a Colonel in the United States Army, but I want you to be my cellmate. That is the reason for being here in your cell. I’ve been here a few months having my prostate cancer treated. Came from the Florida pen. Had been there about a year.”
I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I was sure that prisoners didn’t run around selecting the cellie they wanted. I noticed he possessed a certain arrogance that commanded respect, a degree of friendliness behind that military countenance.
“Why do you want me to be your cellie? They’re not going to just let you pick a cellie,” I said.
“You have to agree. I’ve just been assigned a new one, a black; we’re not going to get along. These two new guys, your new cellie and mine, can bunk together.” He nodded to the man I had just met, a black prisoner who had been assigned to my cell.
At the time this newly assigned cellmate walked in, the Colonel and
the guard also walked in, close behind. I didn’t know where this was going, but I didn’t want it to get racial. Ethnicity had never made much difference to me, but I had learned since my arrival that inmates preferred segregation.
“I don’t care who my cellie is, as long as we get along and I’m left alone,” I said.
“Will you agree?” he asked.
“Sure, if you can get it done. I don’t care,” I answered.
“I’ll get it done. I’m housed in the other quad,” he said, then left.
Although the term “quad” often refers to a quadrangle, like a grassy area at a college, or something that has four corners, the guards and the prisoners called each of our respective wings of a floor a quad. I suppose this was because each wing had a rectangular shape. Each floor was configured in three separate wings of two-man cells. Each wing flowed into a central guard station, where there was a guard and a sally port, electronically-controlled by the guard. Here, inmates could access the elevator to reach the first floor, the chow hall, or the rec yard when time there was allowed. Prisoners were housed on each floor of the prison, except the fourth. No one knew for sure, but rumor had it that, if you made it to the fourth, you were terminal. That may have been true. Guys died periodically in the quads, so I wasn’t sure what the difference was. No prisoner knew what was on the fifth floor.
That afternoon, a guard came to my cell and said:
“Aaron, you’re moving. Get your mattress and personal items.”
Since I had not been at Butner long enough to acquire much by way of personal items, it took only a minute before I was following the guard to the next quad.
“It will be better here,” Trofimoff said as I walked into the cell. “We’ll get along.”
“Good,” I responded.
“Here. I noticed you like to write. I got you a desk,” he said.
By my single steel bunk upon which I tossed my one-inch, thin mattress was a hospital-like serving table. It was the kind you see in a hospital — narrow, on wheels, and vertically adjustable. It was movable and didn’t take up much room. Prison cells are small, so it was perfect for writing. You can’t imagine what a coup having a writing table was; no one there had anything like it. I was sure that it violated some regulation. In prison, everything violates some regulation, but the guard didn’t say anything.
As time went on and I got to know George very well, how he accomplished things was always a mystery to me. All I could figure out was, because he had spent his life in the military, he used what he learned in that structured environment to get things done that made life a little easier. He was good at it.
“Well, thank you. How on earth did you come up with the table, Colonel?”
“Call me George. It’s no big deal. I saw you trying to write on that little
ledge. This will work better,” he said.
“It sure will. Thank you very much.”
“You’re a lawyer, aren’t you,” George stated.
I was shocked. How could he possibly have known? At the time one enters prison, we’re told not to tell anyone that we’re a lawyer. First of all, it’s against the rules for one inmate to help another in any way; inmates can be disciplined if caught doing so. Second, new lawyer inmates are told that, if found out by others, he’ll never be left in peace. Inmates will constantly try to force him to write their appeal, called a “writ” (short for Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus). He becomes a writ writer. I had no desire to become one. So, I answered George who had made a statement rather than ask a question about my profession.
“Yes, I am, but I’m retired,” I said.
“So am I. I spent my life in the military and retired as a full colonel.”
I knew better than to ask George “how on earth did you get here?” I was just learning prison culture, what you can do, what you can’t do. But I knew this: It is taboo to ask another prisoner what he is in for.
I didn’t know it then, but, over the next year that George and I lived together in that small cell, we would get to know each other quite well. I would learn why he was there. Indeed, I would become his writ writer.