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"Green Haven was the worst. The guards knew how to give beatings there. I kept filing those writs of appeal, and they didn't like that. The hacks would say, 'You know how much money you're costing the state, boy?' and I'd get another beating. There was a warden there who used to say, 'Halpern, you think you're a tough guy, but you know, I'll kill you here.' One time they damn near did. I woke up in the hospital getting intravenous. I was afraid to eat the food, afraid to drink the water, because of the drugs they'd put in it. Once they had you under drugs, they could make anything they wanted of you. They had you coming and going.
One day I was peeling potatoes, the hacks came by. 'Halpern, who gave you that knife?' one of them said. 'Better come with me.' They told me I was going to see the bug doctor, the psychiatrist, but I knew where I was going, down the hall for another beating. I carried a razor. I pulled it out and slashed myself 10 times on the left arm before they could get it away from me. 'O.K.,' I said. 'Take me now.' At that point I wasn't even thinking about ever getting out of prison. I knew I had 20 to life, so they might as well kill me."
Halpern finally got to court on a writ, the Bronx County Court House. Three Black Muslims were in the same reception room, waiting for hearings on their appeals. There was an argument. Halpern took them on with a chair. One of them slipped a knife into his side. He wound up in the hospital instead of in the courtroom.
He remembers Willie Sutton at Green Haven. "We worked in the laundry together," Halpern says. "He'd never talk about the stuff he pulled, but he was a very good jail-house lawyer. He was always looking to help other guys. They used to bring people up to see him. He was their showpiece. And there he was, pressing the warden's clothes."
After 17 years in prison Halpern was freed on parole. He remembers one old guard handing him his things and telling him. "You know something. Halpern? This place just ain't gonna be the same."
Move ahead to April 19, 1977 and Halpern is fighting Dave Conteh/Sands at the Westchester County Center. In January Halpern got a New Jersey license to fight professionally and knocked out Terry Kidd in one round in South Orange, on the Mike Rossman-Christy Elliott card. "Fat guy, around 230," Halpern says. "Couldn't move." This is Halpern's second fight since he's been out. He's had quite a bit of trouble getting a New York State license—44 years old, an ex-con and so on.
"When I first got out, in January '76," Halpern says, "I went down to Bobby Gleason's gym to work out with this big heavyweight. Al Braverman and Bill Prezant told me that Don King wanted me to go up to Providence to fight some guy on the Scott LeDoux-Dino Dennis card. I went up there but for some reason my fight never came off. So I sat and watched the fights. I saw this great white hope knocked stiff in one round. He was undefeated. Then later I read he was still undefeated. Still undefeated, after that guy knocked him out, and you should have seen what that other guy looked like. Anyway, they told me they had a six-rounder in Boston for me, and I trained like crazy and I never heard from them again."
There are about 1,500 fans at the Conteh fight, 500 of them from Halpern's old neighborhood. As he laces up his shoes, a guy puts his arm around him. "You in shape, Bobby?" Halpern looks up at him. "In shape?" he says. "Hey, I've been training 17 years."
Conteh/Sands takes the first two rounds, inflicting heavy damage with straight rights, opening two cuts. In the third, Halpern turns animal and holds his opponent against the ropes and punishes him with both hands. He takes the next three rounds going away, and the crowd is standing and screaming.
A friend is sitting next to two guys from the neighborhood. "You think there'll be a riot?" one guy says.