Smokey was a "houseman," a prisoner inside the county jail who ruled his cellblock. If a new prisoner wanted to use the telephone, he had to ask for Smokey's permission. If a new prisoner wanted to use the bathroom or watch TV or go to sleep, Smokey had to give his approval. And nobody ever asked why.
Inside the jail the guards may make the rules, but it's guys like Smokey who lay down the law. George Hackett quickly learned the realities of being a prisoner after entering the main county jail on December 27, 1998. Arrested on a drug charge, Hackett landed in Smokey's cellblock.
Smokey immediately took an interest in Hackett. He wanted to know what he was charged with, how much his bond was, where his family lived. When Hackett asked to use the telephone, Smokey walked with him to one of the pay phones and actually dialed it for him. Then Smokey sat next to him and listened as Hackett spoke to his father and sister in New York.
At one point Smokey even got on the phone with Hackett's sister, Hackett claims, and gave her the phone number of a bondsman. Hackett's father remembers it differently. He claims his son gave him the phone number.
In either event, Hackett's father, a retired New York City police officer, did call the number and was connected to Jim Viola, who pitched his services as a bondsman. The father says he told Viola he wasn't interested. Instead he hired a Miami attorney, Amanda Maxwell, who arranged for another bondsman to release Hackett from jail. "At no time did I authorize [Viola] to take my son out of jail," the father says.
The next day a corrections officer walked into Hackett's cellblock and told him his bond ($17,500) had been posted. He hurried down to the jail lobby, expecting to see the attorney his father had hired. "During one of my calls, my father had told me that the attorney would be there when I bonded out and that she would give me a pack of cigarettes and some money to get a hotel room," he recalls. "But when I got out, the attorney wasn't there."
Instead Hackett was greeted by Viola employee Albert Scaletti, who, along with two other men, loaded him into a large white pickup truck and took him to Viola's nearby office. "I didn't know who they were," Hackett says. "I was just relieved to be out of jail."
The people who'd picked him up had him sign a few papers and then let him use a phone in the office. "I called my father and told him what happened, and he told me I was in the wrong place," Hackett recalls. "I didn't know where I was, so I picked up a business card off of the desk and gave the information to my father."
Hackett's father then talked to Viola. "It quickly went from being a very cordial conversation to being a very nasty conversation," Hackett's father recalls. "He told me they had my son and they wanted to negotiate a deal. I told them to take my son back to the jail so the bondsman I had hired could post his bond and get him out. But he refused."
Hackett says after that first heated call between Viola and his father, Viola had him handcuffed to a chair in the office. "When my attorney called the office, she and Viola got into a full-blown argument on the phone," Hackett recounts. "He started screaming at her, 'You don't know who you are dealing with!' He was saying he was going to have her disbarred. He was yelling at her at the top of his lungs. Then the bondsman who was supposed to bail me out called and they got into an argument and again he was screaming. All this time I kept telling Viola I didn't belong there and to please bring me back to the jail."
Hackett says Viola kept trying to have him sign a contract authorizing Viola as his bondsman. But Hackett refused. During the next two hours, Hackett's father, attorney, and the bondsman the attorney hired, continued calling Viola's office and demanding that Hackett be returned to jail.
"It was so ridiculous," says Maxwell, Hackett's attorney. "And it was very frustrating to me."
During one call, Hackett says, he became angry because Viola was calling his father "an asshole" and "a cocksucker" for wanting to have his son returned to jail. He says he grabbed the phone from Viola and told his father not to speak with Viola again.
When that call ended, Hackett claims, Viola cuffed his hands behind his back, then threw him against a wall. "Viola said my family was 3000 miles away and there was nothing they can do," he recounts. "I asked him what that meant, and he said people can get killed talking the way I talk."
In the meantime Hackett's father was growing increasingly concerned for his son's safety and decided to call the Miami Police Department. "My son is being held against his will," Hackett told police operators, according to a copy of the tape-recorded call. "They are going to assault him. You have to get over there fast. They could be beating the living shit out of him because we are not cooperating."
A few minutes after the father made the call to police, Hackett says he was hustled out of Viola's office. He suspects Viola either heard the dispatch call go out on a police scanner or the police called the office to check on his well-being. Hackett says as he was being driven away, two Miami police cars pulled up to Viola's office. He was then taken back to jail, where he was released by the bondsman his father had originally hired.
Viola denies holding Hackett against his will. He says he was hired by the father to bond his son out of jail, and the moment Hackett's family asked that he be returned to the jail, Viola complied. He maintained that Hackett was in his office no more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Jail records, however, show that Scaletti removed Hackett from the jail at 4:20 p.m. and that he was returned at 7:45 p.m. -- a total of three hours and twenty-five minutes
"I'd like to see this guy's license revoked," Hackett says angrily. "If he is going to do this to me, he's going to do this to other people as well."
The State Attorney's Office is reviewing the matter.
By Jim DeFede