Luis Charleman, known among friends and family for his brilliant green eyes, grew up in Puerto Rico, stealing cars and selling them to the chop shop for fast cash, eventually dropping out of school at fourteen. He was in prison for two years before he turned eighteen. “Green Eyes” moved to Brooklyn in the late 1980s and began selling drugs to support his mother and brother, also living in New York City. He spent about twenty years in the city — selling drugs, working as a mechanic, battling his own drug addiction and moving in and out of jail and prison.
In 2008, Green Eyes and his wife, India Bolden, moved to Syracuse, where they opened a small car repair shop on the Southside. Green Eyes relapsed shortly after he was cut off from his methadone treatment program. Soon the auto shop shut down. His wife was able to get a job at SUNY Upstate Medical Hospital. Green Eyes’ most recent brush with the law came in September 2014 as part of a massive bust of a drug ring that stretched from New York City to Puerto Rico.
Green Eyes went into a weeklong coma after being arrested, track marks lining his arm from intense heroin use. Deemed a kingpin, the judge set his bail at $250,000 and offered him a sentence of 25-to-life, to which he responded, “Who’d I kill?” A private lawyer helped him get a plea of seven years, as well as lowering his bail to $10,000.
At Cayuga Correctional Facility, the 47-year-old is known as “Viejo,” the old man. By the time he gets out he will have gone to prison five times, totaling between thirteen and nineteen years of his life. This essay follows Green Eyes and his family at home and on the streets of the Near Westside and Southside neighborhoods of Syracuse, during his last months out, as he as he prepares to leave his family for yet more time behind bars.
After being arrested for felony possession of heroin in September 2014, Luis Charleman, aka “Green Eyes,” spent six months out on bail before beginning a seven-year prison sentence. “I was really stressed and had a lot of anxiety,” said Green Eyes. “Everything started with my addiction problem, which made me go back to the street life. I started hanging out all the time and drinking a lot on top of getting high.” While out on bail, Green Eyes did not remain loyal to his wife, India. He says the pressure of his upcoming seven-year sentence drove him to the bars and clubs each weekend, staying up all night until the early morning, instead of spending time at home with his family. “I started messing around and talking to other women behind my wife’s back and got caught in the club kissing another woman…. At that moment I felt like I lost my whole family. It felt like the world ended. I was thinking about not turning myself in for sentencing and just go on the run until they catch me or I die…” “He never acted like that before. He was acting crazy,” said his wife, India Bolden. After battling addiction throughout her life, Bolden got clean in 2005 and off methadone in 2008. She works at Upstate Hospital and is a part-time student at Onondaga Community College, pursuing her associate’s degree in human services. She paused her studies after Green Eyes returned on bail. “When I saw him kissing another woman my heart fell to the floor. I felt like my whole world had just been crushed. I lashed out with violence,” she continued. “I was in a blind rage. I never wanted to be with him again at that moment. After I calmed down I realized that he was acting out of frustration so I decided to stay with him and work things out.” Bolden works as an assistant in the hospital’s Anatomical Pathology Gross Room. She got a loan from their lawyer to cover her husband’s bail and the $3,000 retainer fee. She now sends the lawyer $50 every two weeks. If Bolden falls behind on payments the lawyer could get a judgment against her and garnish her wages for the money. Green Eyes’ stepdaughter, India “Cita” Maisonet, a sociology major interested in the effects of the prison industrial complex on minority families, graduated from LeMoyne College in spring 2015. She’s now a graduate student working on a master’s in sociology at St. John’s University. Green Eyes’ arrest affected his entire family. “Relationships were strained,” says India Maisonet. “It definitely put a huge weight on me and my sister’s relationship with my mother. She was miserable about it and that affected us rather than affecting him. She felt alone before he even left for prison.” Green Eyes argues with his stepdaughter as he looks for the bar where his wife is partying downtown. Earlier that week, Bolden had thrown him out of the house for the second time, after learning about his affairs with other women. Ellissia Maisonet now refers to herself as Green Eyes’ “ex-stepdaughter,” ever since he cheated on her mom. In 2013, Ellissia and her friends were arrested when the police stopped their car and found a handgun left by one of the passengers who fled on foot. Three days later, Ellissia’s mother bailed her out of jail. Unable to hire a lawyer, Ellissia’s girlfriend, Kache Phillips, waited thirty days in the Syracuse Justice Center before a public defender got the charges dropped. Having made bail, Green Eyes relaxes at home with family, demonstrating his skills as a fortuneteller to India, his ex-stepdaughter Ellissia and her girlfriend Kache. They take turns asking him ten questions about the future. With each query, Green Eyes slaps a card down on the table answering yes, no or maybe. A mechanic by trade, Green Eyes and a friend change the tires on his wife’s car, attempting to get everything fixed before he goes away. Bolden bought a new car for the winter because the old one would struggle to make the trip on the winding snowy roads to Cayuga prison. Having been cut from Medicaid after his arrest, Green Eyes employs an alternative to relieve his high blood pressure, which causes him extreme headaches. He draws two syringes’ worth of blood from his arm, bringing down the pressure in his head and relieving the pain. Green Eyes works on his friend’s car the day before sentencing. Later that night, with his Medicaid reinstated, Green Eyes goes to the ER complaining of chest pains as a last ditch effort to postpone court. Having difficulty breathing, Green Eyes checks himself in at Upstate Hospital. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and a heart that is leaking potassium into his lungs are complicated by a history of heroin use — on average he used to shoot up a gram of heroin per day. Concerned about his declining health, Green Eyes expects to die in prison. Gathered at Bolden’s mother’s apartment, the family celebrates what may be their last Christmas together. Drinking wine and exchanging gifts, they eat ham, mac and cheese, Spanish rice, and their favorite New York City pastries while Green Eyes sleeps off a hangover in one of the bedrooms. Green Eyes comforts his dying grandmother in hospice care, having been granted a month-long sentencing delay to pay his respects and say goodbye. He travels to Brooklyn three times — twice to visit her at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center and once more for her funeral. Green Eyes drinks all day and night to suppress his anxiety and pain at the sight of his family’s suffe ring while his grandmother awaits death. His niece, Nikita, tries to get him to stop drinking after staying up all night at the hospital. India Maisonet celebrates at her graduation party after receiving her B.A. Inspired by her life experiences, she focused her senior project on how the prison industrial complex affects the makeup of minority families and contributes to a breakdown of trust between minority women and men. “Prison has always been a topic of conversation, unfortunately,” she says. “A lot of people in my family have been to prison or are in and out of jail frequently and in my communities, prison was just such a normal thing to talk about or experience. When I got old enough to realize that there was nothing normal about it, I was interested in finding out what normalized it in minority communities and why my white peers weren’t experiencing this in the same way.” Arrested with Green Eyes, “Bebo” will spend one to three years in prison. Here, Green Eyes nods off after relapsing while his friends move Bebo and his family from their recently condemned apartment. Green Eyes, India Bolden, and India “Cita” Maisonet relax after a late night at Calcano’s Tavern. Later that afternoon, Maisonet will perform in her final step show at LeMoyne College. India Bolden drives to visit Green Eyes at Cayuga Correctional Facility every weekend. Cayuga is a little over an hour away from Syracuse. Green Eyes is allowed one visit per week, which lasts from the morning until mid-afternoon. During their visits, families bring wads of dollar bills for vending machine food. Bolden spends at least $25 per week. Other costs include $60 for commissary and $75 for cigarettes every two weeks, and a total of $1,000 on clothing and accessories (sneakers, hats, pants, underwear, socks, boots, t-shirts, two sweat suits, a hoodie jacket, and a Walkman and headphones). “I go to the supermarket and I spend at least 80 to 100 dollars a month on food for him,” said Bolden. Green Eyes was in the Syracuse Justice Center for a week before being transported to Elmira and then Cayuga Correctional Facilities. Having made it into the honor block, he hopes to get into New York State’s Shock Incarceration Program after serving three years in Cayuga. Completion of the six-month boot camp for prisoners would lead to his early release. Green Eyes’ health will be a major factor in determining whether he is even eligible for the program.
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The photo essays featured on Narratively this week were originally developed as part of Family. Life. a collaborative student project initiated by Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. The project explores the feelings, relationships, obstacles, and identities of families through visual stories produced by photography schools around the world.