Friday, May 26, 2006

club fed: not what it used to be

don't rat. don't cut in line. don't ask. don't touch. pay your debts. flush often. don't whine.

— david novak, downtime: a guide to federal incarceration

while basking in the communal schadenfreude that's descended on the internet in the wake of the convictions of enron's ken lay and jeffrey skilling, i've noticed a lot of commenters tempering their glee with the expectations that lay and skilling, however much they deserve it, won't exactly be breaking rocks at leavenworth, but instead sinking putts in a minimum-security "country-club" federal prison.

so what kind of a vacation experience are kenny-boy and jeff looking at? i ran a short search on federal prisons and quickly discovered an archived thread on that addresses the concerns of those looking for advice on the way in.

the thread is particularly noteworthy since it reproduces in full an august 11, 2002 new york times article about federal prisons, "white-collar criminal? pack lightly for prison", published in the wake of the indictment of sam waksal, former ceo of imclone systems, whose stock got his pal martha stewart in so much trouble:

assume you are a major corporate executive accused of a securities fraud that has caused hundreds of millions of dollars in investor losses. maybe you'll be acquitted. but what if you're convicted? how long will your sentence last? where will you serve the time? and will there be tennis?

although the article doesn't closely examine the stories of country-club living in federal prisons in the past, prisons conditions and sentencing since 1987 have become significantly harsher for everyone, and especially for white-collar criminals:

... nonviolent criminals convicted of financial felonies can face years or even decades in prison, especially since november 2001, when the u.s. sentencing commission drastically increased sentences for white-collar crime, with special emphasis on frauds involving many millions of dollars.

under old sentencing guidelines, a first-time, nonviolent offender who committed a fraud that caused 50 or more people to lose $100 million or more faced a prison sentence of five to 6½ years in a federal institution. now, under the formula used by the sentencing commission in the 2001 guidelines, the same individual faces a minimum of 19½ years and a maximum of 24½ years.

... ten years is a critical threshold; convicts sentenced to more than 10 years are placed in a prison behind fences and razor wire. less than 10, and you've got a good chance of residing at a prison camp, often fenceless, for inmates with low risk for escape or violence.

prison for convicts of all stripes has become a more sterile experience:

almost no personal property is allowed, not even contact lenses. inmates are allowed only one religious text, one pair of eyeglasses, dentures and dental bridge, one solid wedding ring with no stones, $20 in change for vending machines, and cash or money orders for an inmate account.

an inmate can put unlimited funds in the account but is allowed to spend only $175 a month. inmates can buy from a small selection of shoes, toiletries and snacks in the commissary, but most money is consumed on telephone calls, which are monitored. all prisoners are required to work in jobs that pay 11 cents an hour — tax free.

living conditions are tight. at most camps, bunk beds are crammed into small cubicles that hold two to six inmates. think of the office cubicles occupied by the minions at your company, and imagine sharing one as living quarters with another person you might or might not like for the next several years.

... those serving time for white-collar crimes number only about 1,000 of the federal system's 160,000 inmates. so you'll likely find yourself surrounded by drug dealers, robbers and check kiters.

oh dear, not exactly the polo set.

meanwhile, options for whiling away the time have become fewer and fewer, though if you're lucky, there just may be tennis after all:

the most productive way to serve your time, former inmates say, is self-improvement. several camps at former military bases do have tennis courts, now called multiuse surfaces, that accommodate volleyball and basketball. many inmates end up in better physical shape than their office careers ever allowed.

education in the federal prison system is widely considered a joke by inmates, but most camps have a library and there is plenty of time for reading and writing. inmates can receive books by mail, although storage space is limited. they can subscribe to magazines, except those deemed pornographic.

but, as related by commenters in the thread, the weightpiles made classic by many a prison drama are being allowed to die of decrepitude:

greyghost: just for the record — on the weight lifting equipment — that was not what the bop [bureau of prisons] wanted. that is what congress wanted. the bop liked the idea that inmates had the opportunity to excerise, work out, release their stress and frustrations out lifting weights. congress just thought that the bop, by allowing weight lifting, was doing nothing more than helpding [sic] to churn out bigger and stronger predators out on the street.

wileycoyote: ... as for the weights, you are correct. they don't have to remove the old ones unless they become damaged or broken and they will not be replaced. the problem lies with the fact that there really are very few of the older prisons that still do have weights and every time a new warden or new captain comes on the yard the first thing they usually say is "if there is even one fight on the weightpile, those weights are out of here." eventually there will be a fight. even if no weights are used in the fight, if it happens within shouting distance of the weightpile they are gone. i've seen this happen at least 3 times.

and of course internet access is understandably verboten:

fed-x: no computers hooked to the internet what-so-ever, unfortunately.. the bop is afraid of computers.. you will be lucky to get access to them at all.. some institutions have small computer classes but not all of them.. they are definitely on a physically isolated network with no outside connections.

ultimately it seems that the worst punishment awaiting lay and skilling is the enormity of time they now have to do absolutely nothing but contemplate their reversals of fortune. i would imagine, at least in the minds of these two high-fliers, having lived in the lap of every luxury imaginable, with every possible entertainment available to them at their beck and call, that to be reduced to staring for years at a steel toilet and grey walls, must be the cruelest punishment of all.

pkduc: from my experience in federal prison, the biggest obstacle i faced was boredom. i was at pekin (female camp) in il. there was absolutely nothing to do. there were no programs except for drug offenders and the library contained nothing but outdated law books and old paperback romance novels. the boredom was mind numbing.

shortly before the new york times piece, new york magazine covered "club fed" in a 5-page feature, "you've got jail". its focus on the personal experiences of several inmates makes it a pretty entertaining read:

when charles surrendered four years ago, he had, remarkably, even less luck than freddy. convicted of defrauding the government, he was supposed to serve his sixteen-month sentence at allenwood camp. but when he arrived, he was told, without explanation, that he'd been reassigned to allenwood's low-security facility up the road. only two weeks after his arrival, one of the guards found a hypodermic needle and steroids under the mattress of one of his two roommates. the three men were immediately strip-searched and inspected for needle marks. then they were thrown in separate holes.

the lights were off when charles arrived. men in the neighboring cells were howling and pounding their fists against the walls, which they would continue to do all night. thinking it was a light switch, charles hit a small plastic button next to a mirror.

"don't touch that!"

charles whipped around.

"that's the panic button, you son of a bitch!"

tyrone had been sitting in the hole for four months, because he refused to work. when charles first saw him, he had all the thoughts that a soft, pasty white guy would be expected to have when confronted with a hulking black cellmate: "this is a cliché." it didn't take long, though, before he discovered that clichés were useless in prison life. "tyrone," says charles, "was one of the most interesting people at allenwood."

to pass the time and calm his nerves, charles asked lots of questions. too many. three days later, when the warden came by, tyrone gave her a very different response when she asked if he was ready to work. "yeah, i'm ready," he barked. "this fuckin' white guy won't stop talking."

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