I’ve been on so many compounds and around so many inmates that the names and faces are an endless blur. Multiple decades in prison will do that to you. You meet people, you get to know them a bit, and then you transfer. Sometimes you run into them again, but most times you don’t.
One man I didn’t pay a ton of attention to in prison was Robert Durst. The scion of the New York real estate dynasty is currently being held without bail in New Orleans and has been charged in California for the murder of his friend, Susan Berman, in 2000. But I didn’t even realize I’d served in the same facility as the star of HBO’s The Jinx until a friend of mine who also spent time at FCI Fairton—a prison in New Jersey stuffed full of mobsters, gang bangers, and drug dealers—brought it to my attention last week.
“Did you hear about Bob Durst?” the friend asked. “Dude was there briefly. He used to walk around with high socks and paper pants even though he’s worth over a hundred million.”
Slowly, I began to put a face to the name. I remembered Durst as a real eccentric—almost like a mental patient. I had no direct interaction with him but heard he was rich, and that he was maybe even a cross dresser. Sounded like a weirdo to me, so I stayed away from him. Surviving prison is all about maintaining your reputation, and if you hang around with the wrong characters, it can backfire.
“He would help guys out and look out for them financially. He used to go to Jewish services.”
“He got there in 2004,” my friend, who asked to remain anonymous so as to avoid damaging his career, recalls. (Durst served five and a half months for carrying guns across state lines while a fugitive in the 2001 murder of 71-year-old Morris Black, a charge of which he was eventually acquitted, the Associated Press reported when he was released in 2005.)
“He used to walk around, talk to himself. But he would help guys out and look out for them financially. He used to go to Jewish services,” my friend says.
Of the various ethnic crews at Fairton, the Russians were probably the most accepting of Jews and apparently took Durst into their circle. A couple of the Philly guys from Kensington took an interest in him too.
“Snake and Joker* used to look out for him,” my friend says. “There was an incident where a Spanish guy wanted to stab him, and the Kensington dudes held him down. They would make sure nobody tried to strong-arm him.”
Often in prison, a guy with money will approach the local toughs on his block and offer them some financial incentive to look after him. Someone like Durst could easily have afforded to put a couple of hundred dollars in other prisoners’ commissary accounts. Peanuts to him, but in a world where most inmates only make $15 a month and get very little money from outside sources, that kind of money is enough to live like a king.
The Philly guys were basically from a white ghetto, and known as the Kensington gang bangers or KGB. They had no problem getting busy or doing a little soft extortion of their own, so it’s entirely feasible that Durst was paying protection money, especially since they were “holding him down”—which in prison parlance means making sure nobody fucks with him or takes his shit. In prison, violence or protection from violence is a currency that can be traded on the open market.
“I can’t speak for other dudes who wanted to use him for his money,” my friend says. “He was a nice guy who for whatever reason wanted to help people, maybe to make up for something, I don’t know. He was soft-spoken, not much like a mental patient, but was deaf, old, and fragile. He knew, as he still does, that his money would go a long way in keeping him safe. If he didn’t have money, he would have been very scared.”
Still, for all his fragility, old Bob wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion, my friend recalls: “I remember he said to my homeboy, regarding the grape juice we would get from the chapel, ‘You Russians run things like a dictatorship.'”
Everything is a hustle in prison, and through the Kosher religious meal program, the Russians used to get grape juice from the chapel and sell it on the compound. The stuff was in very high demand because prisoners could use it to make grape wine.
“Guys were basically soft-extorting him in that he would help them with money in return for friendship.”
“Dudes were talking about shaking him down, but to my knowledge nobody did,” my friend recalls. “But guys were basically soft-extorting him in that he would help them with money in return for friendship. Most guys didn’t know who he was. I did because I am from New York and in the real estate business.”
Sometimes I saw Durst in the chow hall with the Kensington Gang Bangers. To me, he always looked visibly shaken up—in a zone, mumbling to himself all the time. I would see him going to the prison commissary and carrying a small bag, unlike most prisoners who buy their whole limit in one shot and take big hauls back to their units. But I didn’t really know Durst like my Russian friend did.
“He was a nice guy, always tried to help people out,” my friend says. “He helped me out on my real estate ventures when we got home. I actually had a few journalists reach out to me asking questions about him—about his real estate dealings mainly, about his wife, who’s a big real estate broker and owner in New York City. I met him a bunch of times since he got out. I went with him on his trespassing trial.” (Durst was arrested in 2013 for violating a restraining order his brother Douglas placed against him.)
“Obviously, had I known for sure that he killed these people I would not have fucked with him,” my friend says. “The one thing I want to stress is that they never proved he did any of these things.” Even though The Jinx has damned Robert Durst in the public eye and painted a bleak picture of him and his activities, in prison, things are a bit more black-and-white. Paperwork is the ultimate arbiter—if something isn’t proven in court, then it didn’t happen.
Even though I remember him talking and mumbling to himself, my friend assures me that Durst was actually “very coherent, with a great memory.” He didn’t recall Durst having any lovers and said he was kind of a loner. Prison must have been a very foreign world to him, but Durst didn’t boast about who he was, the money he had access to, or what he did or didn’t get away with—as many prisoners do.
“He didn’t talk about his money much,” my friend says. “A few comments here and there. He never liked talking about the Durst organization or his family.”
I ask if he ever talked about the women he allegedly murdered.
“Never. Not in prison or outside, nor did I ask,” my friend replies. Apparently Durst kept it pretty close to the vest, even if he enjoyed a special kind of celebrity at FCI Fairton.
“People who were getting out at some point wanted to make friends with him in hopes that they could do business with him down the road,” my friend says. “I saw him a few times since we’ve been home. We talked real estate. A couple of guys from Fairton came down to come to court with him on the bullshit trespassing case his brother put on him. I like to say at that point we treated him like a human being—like a guy who never hurt women for any reason. Obviously, in light of recent events, things would be different.”
With the prison politics at play in the California state system, Durst would not have nearly as easy a time there as he did in the feds. Even prison has a moral code, and murdering women is considered a big no-no.
*Names have been changed.