It was three-thirty in the morning when the taller of the two guards woke him by using a metal flashlight to deliver a few sharp pokes to the thigh.

“Roll ’em up, Bird. You’re going on a little trip,” said the short one with the acne scarred face and slightly hunched back. “You’ve got fifteen minutes to get dressed and have your stuff at the door.”

The inmate, J.L. Bird, knew better than to protest. To argue would serve to do nothing less than to earn him a couple of weeks in “the hole.”

So Bird reluctantly pulled on a pair of khaki prison pants—the ones with the elastic waistband—, a clean white t-shirt, threadbare white socks, and blue slip-on deck-style shoes (prison issue). Next, he opened his locker and emptied the contents—instant coffee, toiletries, an apple, the remainder of his prison clothing, two paperback books, a bible, a pencil, a calendar marked with a large X over previous days served, pieces of mail,  and a few assorted odds and end—onto the middle of his twin-size mattress.

Bird took a last look around to be sure he hadn’t missed anything before rolling the mattress and its contents into a ball (“rolled up”), otherwise known as “inmate luggage.”

“Hey, Ralph, I heard they rolled up Little Pauly last night. Heard he punched a guard so they put him on ice for a few weeks. Hit him with an assault too. A street charge. There goes his good time.”

Bird, tasting his own nighttime grungy breath, held the knot of belongings under one arm and carried it to the front door where the night shift dorm officer stood yucking it up with the two transportation officers that had interrupted his dream time.

“Where am I going?” Bird said, addressing no one in particular.”

Ignoring his question, Scarface said, “That everything?”

Bird nodded. “That’s it.”

“Let’s go, then,” Scarface said while pushing open the heavy steel door.

“Can I at least brush my teeth before—”

“I said, let’s go.”

Bird knew better than to push his luck by asking Scarface more questions. He was not a friendly man.

When the trio reached the main office area, the taller guard told Bird to place the rolled-up mattress beside the property room door and then have a seat in one of the two plastic chairs near the control booth window. Bird heard a buzz followed by a click, the sound of an electronic lock responding to the button pushed by the officer behind the tinted glass.

The outer door swung open and two U.S. Marshals stepped into the room—the first was hefty muscular man who obviously knew his way around a gym. He wore his hair short but not so short that it hid the gray at his temples. The second Marshal was an attractive  female with hair the color of Poe’s raven and the whitest teeth Bird had ever seen. The woman wore her hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, leaving her neck exposed. A small mole on her right cheek was the only blemish on her pale skin. She doesn’t spend much time outdoors, Bird muttered to himself.

The two Marshals didn’t waste any time. They walked over to Bird and instantly set about the task of preparing him for a trip to who-knew-where. “Face the wall. Put your hands on the wall. Spread your feet. Anything in your pockets? No needles? No drugs?” He felt the mans hands dig into his armpits. Thumbs tracing his spine. Fingers inside his waistband, workng all the way around his middle. A hand went far up into his crotch, then down his left leg. Then another hand in his crotch before sliding down his right leg. “Open your mouth. Lift your tongue. Move it from side to side, slowly.”

A chain around the waist. “Hold out your hands.” First one cuff through the waist chain and then both wrists clamped tightly. The same for the ankles. Snap. Click. Metal clanging against the tile floor.

The woman said, “We have a long day ahead. Now would be a good time to use the restroom. You won’t have another opportunity to do so until tonight.”

Bird shuffled his way into the restroom while a male prison guard held the door open, watching to be sure Bird didn’t pull a Houdini and escape through the drain. When Bird finished washing his hands the guard handed him a small paper sack that contained a sandwich, two ice cold boiled eggs, a semi-soft orange, and a cardboard container of artificial juice. “Here’s your breakfast and lunch. You’ll get dinner on the other end.”

Minutes later the female Marshal unlocked a heavy padlock hanging from the sliding doors of an unmarked gray passenger van. She motioned for Bird to climb in, a somewhat difficult task to accomplish with his feet tethered to the short chain attached to the leg irons that circled his ankles. Bird took his time and made it easily. It wasn’t his first rodeo. He slid into the seat beside another inmate. The van reeked of body odor and unwashed clothing.

The female closed the door and Bird heard her snap the lock closed. She climbed onto the driver’s seat and switched on the ignition while her partner signed the last of the transfer papers.

Bird pressed his face against the thick wire grating that separated the prisoners from the front compartment. “Where’m I going?” he asked the woman.

“You’ll see when we get there,” she replied.

He’d not expected an answer to his question, but it never hurt to try.

Bird felt the van rock from side to side as the other Marshal opened the passenger door and climbed onto the seat. He tossed a clipboard brimming with papers onto the dash and snapped his seatbelt in place. “Let’s roll, ” he said. “According to the officer we’ve got about two hours to make a three-hour drive.”

“You have the directions?” female Marshal asked.

“Yes. He said to turn left on the main road and drive until we get there. Supposed to be nothing but desert between here and there. Says we won’t miss it because it’s the only thing we’ll see on the way, besides tumbleweeds, lots of sand, and maybe a roadrunner or two.”

And so it began, the first leg of a cross-country trip to court. A trip that would take Inmate Bird, #12345-456, a very long three months to go and come back. All for a ten minute appearance before a federal judge.

 

A recent news story about the abuse of inmates in some U.S. jails and prisons reminded me of a conversation I once had with a former federal prisoner, a person we refer to as Mr. X.

Mr. X is a former business professional who committed a nonviolent crime that landed him in federal prison for just over three years, as a first time offender. He’s out now and has shared a few of his prison experiences with the readers of The Graveyard Shift. I contacted Mr. X to see if he’d seen or experienced abuse of any kind at the hand of corrections officers. Here’s what he had to say.

Mr X: I have heard many horror stories of COs (corrections officers) beating and torturing inmates, but I’ve never seen it. Of course I was locked up in low security facilities my entire time in the system. Things march to a different tune at the higher levels, at least that’s what I’ve been told by the men who’d served time there.

But abuse and abusers come in many forms. What devastates one person may be like water on a duck’s back to another. I say this because I’m about to describe some things that happened to me and I’m sure they’ll seem trivial to you, but to me the events were humiliating. Yes, I considered this as abuse. Not the physical kind, but abuse nonetheless, and with no way to stop it.

My abuser was a female CO. She had coal black hair, a face full of acne scars, and a torso like a fire hydrant. Her uniform fit like a sausage casing stretched tightly over legs and arms and legs as thick as tree limbs. She wore shiny black combat boots and the sleeves of her gray uniform shirt rolled up to mid muscular forearm. A crude tattoo of a giant scorpion sat halfway between the elbow and wrist of her right arm.

Living quarters in the camp was set up dormitory style. My dorm housed just over 200 men, all in one big room with six-foot-high cinder block walls dividing our two-man cubicles. We all used a common restroom and showers. Both the shower and toilet stalls had individual doors. This was odd because most prisons and jails don’t install doors in restrooms to help prevent hidden activity. In fact, in some of the jails I’d been in while awaiting trial and during transport to federal prison, had stainless steel toilets sitting out in the open where everyone roamed around you, or hung out nearby while you did your business. Imagine eating your meals while the person “seated” next to you was using the restroom. Now that was an eye-opening adjustment to make.

I mentioned the restroom because that’s one place this particular officer made it a point to be in the there at the end of the work day when most of the guys were showering. She watched as we removed our clothing or towels. She watched when we walked to the shower stalls. Then she’d walk to each shower door and just stand there gawking. When we turned our backs to the doors she’d order us to face her. She threatened to send us to the hole for not obeying her direct orders. She’d even rest her forearms on the top of the half-shower door and settle in for a good look.

It wasn’t long before she seemed to zero in on me, and that included when I was in a toilet stall. She’d order me to unlatch the door and then she’d hold it open, move as close as possible to me without actually touching me, and then stand there staring until I was done. She was not one bit shy. I am.

I vividly recall staring down at her boots. They were only two or three feet away from my feet. The toes were incredibly shiny, and slick. I remember thinking about how much time and energy she must have put into getting them that shiny. I thought she must have a military background.

I complained about her to sergeants and her other superiors but they said she was doing her job, watching inmate activity at all times. Funny thing about this was that not one male officer ever, not ever, did either of the things she did. They’d make their rounds, of course. And they’d look to see that all was well and as it should be. But they wouldn’t walk up to your stall and stand there staring at your privates. This woman was downright creepy. I once saw her enter a seldom used hallway and seconds later another female guard entered the same space. Curiosity got the the best of me so I walked over and took a peek. The pair were involved in long, deep, toe-curling kiss. Their hands were as active as hyper children on a playground.

One day, an older prisoner who everyone knew had heart trouble, collapsed on his way to the dining hall. Several inmates ran over to help (there were a couple of medical doctors incarcerated in the camp) but Officer Creepy walked up and ordered the inmates to move away. The she poked the old guy a couple of times with the toe of one of those spit-shined boots. She announced, “He’s faking so he can get out of work. He can lay there all day for all I care.” And she left him there after one last hard jab to the poor guy’s ribs.

An inmate finally ran to the medical department to see if a nurse would help. She did not. A sergeant walked up and Officer Creepy repeated the “faking it” story. He walked on. Eventually an ambulance crew showed up (well over an hour later) and took the man away. He never returned. We later heard that he was DOA when the ambulance crew arrived at the camp to pick him up.

One night I woke up with an excruciating toothache. I spoke to the CO working our building, but he said I’d have to fill out a sick slip to request an appointment to see the dentist, who only visited the camp one day per week. When my appointment finally rolled around, I was sitting in the chair with my mouth wide open, overhead light shining inside, and with the dentist preparing to dig in, when in walks Officer Creepy. She was assigned to guard the medical offices that day. So she comes chair-side and begins to talk to the dentist about how degrading it must be to work on the teeth of a piece-of-s*** prisoner.

The dentist, a retiree and an extremely nice man who treated everyone as people, not animals, told her that he loved his job and he enjoyed helping others who really aren’t in a position to help themselves. For some reason that really set her off. She told him I was faking. He contradicted her saying his exam proved otherwise. She then ordered me to open my mouth really wide. And then, and I couldn’t believe it, she jammed her bare, who-knows-where-it’s-been index finger into my mouth and started forcefully jabbing at my teeth, saying, “Does that hurt? Does it? Well, does it?”

The doctor protested meekly, but she continued her tirade. Clearly she intimidated the elderly and frail dentist, and he did nothing to stop her.

When she finished poking around she placed her hand on the side of my face and pushed my head to the side. She ordered me back to the dorm. The dentist pleaded my case to her and she finally consented to let him finish the filling.

Sometimes she’d come to our dorm and go into our “cubes” where she’d toss our belongings into a messy pile in the center of the floor. I mean she threw it all, including mattresses, sheets, pillows, food items, books, papers, pencils, cups, and shoes. Then she’d tell us we had five minutes to clean it all up. Sometimes, after we got it all squared away she’d returned and do it all over again.

One night the officer working our dorm, a really nice man who said he came to the U.S. from Africa, told me to mop and buff the hallway floors in the administrative section of the building. It’s the part of the building where the counselors and ranking CO’s office’s are located. There’s no one back there at night. I grabbed the tools and supplies and the CO let me inside. He told me to knock when I was ready to come out. Each of the office areas were securely locked and there was nowhere else to go so it was not unusual for them to lock us inside the hallway to work. I really didn’t mind the extra duty because it was quiet back there, with no shouting, smelly inmates to deal with while you’re trying to read or write letters.

As I was getting ready to begin, an office door opened around the corner. I turned just in time to see Officer Creepy and another female guard—not the same one mentioned earlier—come out. Both were adjusting their uniforms and securing buttons. Creepy kissed the other officer on the cheek and turned to head back to the dorm. That’s when she saw me and I prepared myself for a trip to “the hole.” I was certain that she would come up with something that would land me in solitary for a long, long time, just to save her own skin.

However, she surprised me by walking past without saying a word. Nothing. Not even eye contact.

The night passed and still nothing happened. Then a week passed.

I never saw her at the camp again. I don’t know if she quit, or what. All I know is that it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. No more “visits” from her.

Like I said, to some these incidents probably seem minor. As far as I’m concerned, though, Officer Creepy was a bully and a sex offender. Sadly, the system supports her type of behavior.

 

Serving time in a jail or prison can certainly be a stressful experience, even for the toughest of prisoners. After all, they must be on constant high alert for potential violence against them, such as a stabbing because they failed to show fellow chow hall diners respect by knocking on the table before standing to leave. Or, by cutting in line on “chicken day.” (See below for chicken day definition).

Actually, line-cutting on any day is an a**-kicking/shank-sticking infraction of unwritten inmate rules. Although, members of various groups allow other members of those same groups to cut line. Just no “outsiders.” New prisoners must quickly learn that going to the rear of the line is always the safest bet.

To even the odds in the event of an attack, or to gain the upper hand against other inmates, prisoners often manufacture weapons from a variety of items, such as sharpened sticks, pieces of glass, razorblades, and molded, honed hard-plastic taped to toothbrush handles. Stabbing instruments made of melted and molded chess and checker game pieces are sometimes used as deadly weapons. Dominoes can also be used as effective and deadly bludgeoning instruments.

The list of prisoner weapons is a very long list

Even newspapers can be formed into an extremely hard and effective striking instrument similar to a police baton. Spears from tightly wrapped magazines. Coffee creamer flamethrowers (creamer ignites quickly and easily). Paper-mache daggers made of toilet tissue, with their tips dipped into human feces for that extra something special. And we mustn’t forget melted chocolate bars. Yes, those tasty treats become a boiling liquid that sticks to the flesh, causing extremely nasty and severe burns.

So what can corrections officials do to prevent everyday items from being transformed into deadly weapons?

Well, Bob Barker, America’s Leading Detention Supplier has a few solutions, such as domino, chess, and checker game pieces and boards made of silicone.

Bob Barker also sells pre-pasted, flexible toothbrushes, tiny, soft toothbrushes that fit over the end of a finger, flexible pens and pencils, flexible (orange or clear) coffee mugs, cups, and 6-compartment dinner trays, bowls, shoes, sandals, and more.

And, of course, there are the molded plastic chairs, tables, bunks, and wall shelves.

Molded plastic seems to be the safe choice for prisons and jails all across the country

Isn’t it sort of ironic that cities such as Santa Barbara, Ca. made it illegal to distribute plastic drinking straw, with an initial threat of imprisonment for repeat plastic straw-distributing offenders.

According to the California city’s website, “On October 9th, 2018, Santa Barbara City Council voted 6-1 to adopt an ordinance prohibiting the distribution and sale of plastic straws and stirrers as well as limitations to the distribution of plastic cutlery which can only be provided “upon request”.

Sensibly, Santa Barbara eventually backed away from making “distribution and sale of plastic straws” a jail-able offense.

Wasn’t it odd, though, that prior to the revision of the ordinance one could’ve been incarcerated for using a plastic draw to sip a Big Gulp (which in itself was nearly illegal in NYC), where the “plastic straw offender/prisoner” would sit on plastic chairs, sleep on plastic, bunks, and store reading material on plastic shelving.


The “Straw Law”

Now, the current penalties for violation of Santa Barbara’s Straw Ban are as follows (from their website):

A. For the first violation, a written warning notice will be issued to the beverage provider or food provider in order to confirm their understanding of the ordinance and the potential penalties in the event of future violations.

B. The second and each successive violation shall be punishable by civil administrative fines pursuant to Chapter 1.25 of this Code (civil penalties referenced in Chapter 1.28 are not to exceed two hundred fifty dollars ($250) for each day or part thereof that said violation occurs). This Chapter shall not be criminally enforceable.

C. Violations of this Chapter shall be deemed to create a public nuisance. The City Attorney may seek legal, injunctive, or other equitable relief to enforce this Chapter. Each and every piece of plastic cutlery, plastic beverage straws, or plastic stirrers provided in violation of this Chapter shall constitute a separate violation of this Chapter and a continuing nuisance.”


Chicken Day

Some Friday lunchtimes in prison, especially in federal facilities, are special for inmates because they’re served real bone-in baked chicken quarters instead of the typical “mystery meat” fare.

Prisoners line up early outside the dining hall on chicken day. Rarely does anyone skip this special meal.

Thinking back to the days prior to working in law enforcement I recall the intense desire to become a police officer.

I especially wanted to work in a sheriff’s office. However, openings in the local sheriff’s office were as scarce as hen’s teeth. It was a job that deputies loved and there they remained. Sure, I’d applied and I’d spoken to the sheriff to express my eagerness to become a deputy. But his reply was the typical “I’ll keep you in mind if an opening becomes available.”

So, while impatiently waiting, I decided to apply for a job as a corrections officer within Virginia’s state prison system. And, soon after applying I received a call directing me to come in for an interview.

The day for the initial meeting finally arrived and I was escorted inside to a small conference room. To set the stage, a three person interview panel were seated behind a long table. The chair where my escort indicated that I was to sit, was positioned approximately eight feet in front of the trio of white-shirted ranking officers—one captain, a lieutenant, and a sergeant. No one had passed out smiles that morning.

The captain spoke first, introducing himself and the others. He then asked me to tell them a bit about myself and my background and why on earth did I want to work in a place that could be described as hell’s stinky armpit.

Could you, would you?

When I finished my opening spiel, the real questioning began. “Have you ever belonged to a gang?” “Do you personally know anyone who’s in prison?” “Have you ever been struck, punched, or physically injured by anyone?” What are your views on the death penalty?” Could you shoot another person, if necessary?” Could you bring yourself to shoot a coworker if they’d been taken hostage by an inmate and that shooting through the fellow officer was the only means of preventing the escape?” “Could you?” Would you? And why?”

A few weeks later I received another call instructing me to report to the prison for a physical and a drug test. Two weeks after the exam and drug testing I was officially hired and was scheduled to report for orientation and assignment of uniforms and other equipment, including the first badge I’d ever pinned to a uniform shirt.

Then I received my duty assignment, a prison in the middle of nowhere that consisted of four separate sections, with each building surrounded by a tall, razor-wire topped fence. The four individual areas were contained by a double set of larger fencing that encompassed the entire place. Towers were strategically positioned around the perimeter and an asphalt drive circled the prison, just outside the fence.

Armed officers drove around the compound on a never ending loop. I found out during my orientation that this particular prison was where the state housed many of the inmates that other prisons couldn’t handle.

The prisoners were divided into four categories—those with medical and mental problems, bad-to-the bone dangerous, younger inmates, and finally a mixture of “not super rowdy but were there anyway.” Inmates classified as either of the four groups were housed appropriately—medical and mental were assigned to C Unit, younger inmates to D Unit, the mean and nasty to B Unit, and “the rest” to A.

The Guard Shack

An officer’s station, a small building, sat in the middle of the main compound yard. Inmates were allowed inside this area only when moving from place to place and under controlled circumstances—medical department, visiting room, etc. Each individual section had it’s own recreation yard. The inmates were not permitted to mix (No As with Bs, etc.). The only exception would be during visitations and medical visits.

Nurses delivered medication to each unit. It was at this time when prisoners were permitted to address their medical needs. They would then schedule an appointment to see the prison doctor who, by the way, only visited the prison only once or twice per month unless there was an emergency.

Okay, so I’m at work on my first day and they’ve assigned me to the main compound. My job was to check the passes of inmates before manually unlocking the gates to allow them outside of their designated unit yards. Yes, each gate was locked with a large padlock and I carried a huge ring of keys, many of which I never learned their purpose.

When I arrived at the main gate that morning, an officer used a key to open the lock and let me inside. We walked to the “guard shack” where he gave me a quick briefing about the goings-on during his shift (nothing at all) and then handed me the keys. We walked back to the gate where I opened the lock to let him out. On the way we passed by large man wearing jeans, work boots, a green long-sleeved shirt, and a bright yellow hardhat. The officer spoke as did Mr. Hardhat. Then I snapped the lock closed and returned to the guard shack.

Belly of the Beast!

I was in the process of entering a bit of information in the logbook when “Hardhat” poked his head inside the door. He said good morning and offered his name and mentioned he’d be around if I needed anything. Of course, I appreciated his presence since I felt as if I’d been shoved into a caged arena as the star of a Roman execution ad bestias, “to the beasts.”

Assuming Hardhat was a prison maintenance worker I gladly took him up on his offer and he joined me out on the yard to advise me as to where and when inmate movements should take place. He also kindly provided whispered information regarding which prisoners could be trusted and which could not.

An hour or so later Hardhat suddenly made himself scarce when he spied a sergeant on his way to check on me. Everything was in order—inmate movements were flowing smoothly, logbooks were in excellent shape, keys and other equipment were present, etc. He was pleased.

As my supervisor started to walk away he stopped and turned around to say, “By the way, if you see an inmate walking around wearing a hardhat, send him to C Unit. He didn’t show up for an appointment. Not unusual for him, though, so not to worry. He often hangs out in this area. But he’s as wacky as a box of Fruit Loops. Sometimes he thinks he works here.”

Believe me, the call from the sheriff’s office didn’t come soon enough.

As most of you know by now, Felicity Huffman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. She was later sentenced to serve time in federal prison, a penalty also shared by the likes of  dangerous criminals such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Martha Stewart (I’m sure staff kept a close eye on Stewart, thinking that she had plans to bake a cake containing a tasty filling made of files or hacksaw blades).

Huffman will soon face a huge challenge, setting foot in prison where she could become an even more hardcore criminal.

First, she, through her attorneys, has requested that she serve her time at FCI Dublin, a women’s correctional facility in California. Typically, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) allows inmates to serve their sentences at a facility within 500 miles of their home. This is to help maintain close family ties during long stretches behind concrete walls and steel bars.

What many of you may not know is that judges do not have the final say in where a federal prisoner serves their time. That decision is that of the BOP. Judges may recommend, but it is the BOP who has the final authority.

For now, let’s say Huffman gets her wish and the BOP assigns her to FCI Dublin, a “low security” correctional institution. Here’s what she can expect while serving her brutal 14 day sentence.

  • Huffman is assigned an inmate an eight digit inmate register number. She must memorize this number because at any time during her time in “the system” she may be called up to recite it. This number is important because it tells staff vital information about the inmate. The first five numbers are unique to the inmate. It’s their specific ID. The last three digits signify the district wherein the offender was arrested and/or processed into the system.

If the feds use Boston, where she was sentenced, as a basis for the assigning district, the last three digits of her register number would be 038, the code for the District of Massachusetts (D/MA).

If her arrest location is used (I’m not sure of the exact location or district) one of the following would be the identifying numbers—097- Eastern District of California (E/CA), or 098 for the Southern District of California (S/CA)

Therefore, her official register number would be something like 12345-038 (Boston), or 12345-098 (Southern district of California.

  • Huffman has been granted the option of self-surrendering to prison, meaning that her family will deliver her to the entrance of the prison where they’ll say their goodbyes with hugs and kisses all around.
  • Next, Huffman will be escorted to Receiving and Discharge (R&D). It is at R&D where she’ll be processed—fingerprinted, etc.—and she will receive initial clearance by the Medical and Unit Staff. Afterward, she’ll be sent to the Admission and Orientation (A&O) sections of the Housing Unit where she’ll remain until she is classified (determination of her custody status—low, medium, high).

Should the medical staff find that Huffman has medical needs she will be placed in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), otherwise known as solitary confinement. Inmates with medical needs may not be released into general population until cleared by a physician.

  • Assuming all goes well, a counselor and a case manager will be assigned to Huffman. They will direct and follow her progress during the entirety of her confinement.
  • New inmates such as Huffman will be expected to work within their assigned housing units when asked to do so by the Unit Officer.
  • Huffman will be required to make her bed by 6:30 a.m. The bed-making deadline on weekends and holidays is no later than 10 a.m.
  • As a new arrival, Huffman will be required to attend Unit Orientation within seven days of her arrival at the prison. This session details rules of the housing unit.
  • Within thirty days of an inmate’s arrival to the institution, it’s mandatory that they receive an in-depth institutional orientation from each of the prison’s  Department Heads and Executive Staff. This session lays out ALL prison rules.

Some of the rules Huffman is required to obey during her stay are:

  • Khaki clothing furnished by the BOP will be marked with the inmate’s name and number (F. Huffman 12345-098). She must wear the khaki clothing while at work and during weekday breakfast and lunch meals.
  • Baggy pants and excessively large shirts are not permitted.
  • Khaki shorts may be worn after 2:30 p.m. and on weekends, except to Visiting, Education, and the Chapel. Shorts must be no shorter than above the knee. No sleeveless tops are authorized as outerwear at any time.
  • Huffman may not hold hands with other inmates, and she may not, not ever, engage in sexual activities with other inmates or staff members.
  • Inmates are permitted to watch television in the common area until 8:45 p.m. during the week, or until 11:45 p.m. on the weekends. She will be  allowed to spend up to $320 per months at the commissary. If she has money “on the books” she’ll be required to purchase her own toiletries. Otherwise, those items—basic needs—are furnished by the prison.
  • She may sunbathe on the weekends but she’ll have to wear a shirt and shorts. No topless or nude sunbathing allowed. Sunbathing is permitted only on the sundecks.
  • Huffman, like other inmates in the system, may not possess cash or coins.
  • Felicity must be completely dressed in full khaki attire by 6:30 a.m.
  • She may not take away any food item from the dining room, with the exception of one piece of fruit. However, the fruit must be eaten before it spoils. It goes without saying that the fruit may not be used to make homemade alcoholic beverages.
  • Huffman may not at any time feed birds or other wildlife.
  • Sitting on stairs is prohibited.

Head counts are held at 12:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m., 4:30 a.m., 4:00 p.m., and 9:00 p.m. An extra count is held at 10:00 a.m.on weekends and holidays. These counts are considered as Official Counts.Unofficial Counts may be held at any time and for any reason.

When staff announces a count, Huffman and her fellow inmates must  be in their own rooms (unless they’re authorized to be elsewhere). Each and every day, at 4:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., inmates are required to stand for these official counts. An extra standing count takes place at 10:00 a.m. on weekends and all Federal holidays.

Okay, I could go on and on about the dos and don’ts of prison life, but there’s simply not enough time or space here to do so. Believe me, the list of rules, regulations, and procedures is long. Very long.

However, Huffman will only be in “the joint” for a couple of weeks. Not even long enough to make it to the main orientation. Not long enough to visit the commissary for the first time. In fact, I doubt she’ll be able to have her visiting list approved in time to receive a single visit from a family member.

Actually, Huffman will probably be in and out before she has a chance to get a gang or teardrop tattoo, make her first batch of pruno, or to join the prison softball team. Her sheets won’t have had time to wrinkle before she walks out of the front gate to leave prison life behind. Her sentence is so short that she couldn’t binge watch all episodes of Desperate Housewives before she’s released.

So many things to do and such a short time to do them…

 

You have been found guilty

So, you’ve been tried and convicted for a crime and now you’re ready to do your time. Well, it’s not like you had a say in the matter, but the day has arrived, nonetheless. And that day arrived a lot sooner than you’d preferred. Time simply would not slow down, no matter how hard or how often you prayed that it would.

You knew the evidence was stacked heavily against you, but you were still a bit shocked when the jury found you guilty. Your mind was still racing when sheriff’s deputies (that’s who takes you into custody after court) handcuffed you and led you to a section of the courthouse you’d never seen. Who knew there were jail cells back there?

Now you’re sitting in a not-so-clean holding cell with a dozen or so other people of various criminal backgrounds, waiting for someone to transport you to the county jail. Soon, you hear voices and the sound of chains rattling. Deputies call you out one at a time and begin shackling you—handcuffs attached to a chain around your waist, and leg irons that dig into the tender flesh at your ankles. You’re surprised at how quickly the soreness set in.

The transportation officers pack each of you into a very full van and then padlock the door from the outside. The benches in the back of the transport vehicle are crammed with men of all sizes and shapes. All skin colors and a variety of languages. Some were there because they’d been caught with illegal narcotics, while others were guilty of rape or murder, or both. The air is thick, and stale—gas fumes, stinky feet and flesh that hasn’t seen soap or water in many days. Not a good time for your claustrophobia to act up. Your gag reflexes are switched on and you fight to held back their attempts to expel stomach contents.

The fat man wedged in beside you, the guy who smells like a high school locker room times ten, had just been found guilty of using a machete to hack his mother to death. You couldn’t help but notice the foamy white stuff gathered at the corners of his mouth, and the crusty nuggets piled up over his tear ducts and lower eyelids. A blue scorpion tattoo on his neck wiggled a little with each beat of the now convicted killer’s heart. You soon find yourself passing the time by watching and counting the number of times his carotid arteries pushed against the inked arachnid, like counting ceiling tiles in a doctor’s office while waiting to say “ah” and hoping for a prescription that’ll calm your shattered nerves.

The driver made a sharp right-hand turn, slamming the wild-eyed, unshaven rapist against your shoulder and bare left arm. His slimy sweat transferred to your skin, feeling as if it  burned your exposed flesh. But the chains prevented you from wiping away the cause of the fire. You’ve never felt more filthy in your entire life.

You arrive at the jail where you and the others are herded into a large room, much like livestock you’ve seen at county fairs. Then you’re told to remove all your clothing. A long line of naked men standing before both male and female officers. The stench of body odor is overwhelming. The embarrassment is worse.

“Hold up your arms. Spread your fingers. Turn around. Bend over. Spread your buttocks. Squat. Cough. Next.”

A female deputy, a woman who’d somehow managed to squeeze a rather “wide load” set of buttocks into a pair of size-too-small khaki pants, issues you a set of jail clothing—an orange jump suit big enough for two inmates, a dingy gray t-shirt that could’ve been white once upon a time, a pair of threadbare yellowish-gray boxers, and a pair of white socks that wouldn’t stay up no matter how many times you tugged. At the moment, though, while exposed for all the world to see, you gladly put on your brand new, many-times-used outfit.

Deputies yell for your group to hurry. The few who weren’t completely dressed awkwardly attempted to finish the task as they stumbled along trying to keep up.

Everyone is marched down a concrete corridor to another large room where you’ll learn the rules and regulations of the jail. It’s orientation time, and you’d better pay attention. The rules you’re about to hear are important. They’re for your safety. By the way, if you don’t follow the rules you’ll find yourself staying behind bars a little longer than you’d expected.

Now, please sit quietly and watch your orientation video, courtesy of the Chatham County Georgia Sheriff’s Department.

Welcome to jail.

 

Last weekend, August 1-4, 2019, coroner Graham Hetrick, the star and host of the TV series, THE CORONER: I SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, served as special guest speaker at MurderCon in Raleigh, N.C.

During his talks, Hetrick detailed low-hanging suicides committed by a victim who ties a rope, cloth, twisted garbage bag, shoestring, belt, or other material, to a doorknob, bed post, etc., and then places the other end—a loop—around the neck. The victim then, with practically unbelievable willpower, simply leans forward to tighten the “noose” around the neck thereby shutting off the oxygen supply to the brain. The end result is, of course, death. All without the body dropping from a platform, chair, ceiling beam, etc.

In this type of suicide by hanging, the person committing the act must overcome the body’s forceful urges to live. They must resist ripping the ligature from their body in order to take another breath—to ignore the begging and pleading of the lungs, demanding that the brain immediately intervene.

These people often have a very strong desire to die, and they do. Maybe not on the first attempt, but kill themselves they do, eventually. Somehow, someway. Others, however, use a suicide attempt to escape intense emotional pain, not necessarily to die.

Was it possible that Hetrick had some sort of premonition? After all, he’s quite the insightful man.

Whatever brought the coroner to discuss this sort of suicide tactic remains to be seen but, ironically, it was a mere few days later when 66-year-old Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide in the protective housing unit, 9 South, at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a federal prison in Lower Manhattan, And he did so in the precise manner detailed by Hetrick.

Back in the day, during my time as a state corrections officer, when working in the segregation units we were required to make rounds every 30 minutes, 15 if the prisoner was on suicide watch. We took that a step further by stationing an officer outside the suicide watch cells.

During the course of those 30 minute rounds in segregation it was mandatory to sign and timestamp a logbook positioned at each block of cells. The log station was in a location where each cell was clearly visible to the officer. The logbook was attached to a podium and could only be removed by a watch commander.

We were required to make verbal contact with each inmate. In return, they were to respond to the officers questions. We were required to see and make note of signs of life, meaning the inmate must move, sit, stand (speak) or, if asleep, we were to observe the chest rise and fall normally. If not, we were to wake the inmate. They were not permitted to sleep with blankets covering their heads.

Things Could Go South in a Hurry!

One night, while making my rounds in the segregation unit, I found a young inmate hanging by the neck from a bedsheet attached to a steel bedrail that was no more than three or four feet from the concrete floor. He’d simply tied the sheet around the steel rail and leaned forward until his airway became constricted.

I saw him the moment I rounded the corner. His facial skin was beginning to turn a slight grayish hue. His eyes were open and and slightly bulging and his tongue protruded from between his lips just a bit, much like a thirsty dog’s tongue. It had only been 15 minutes or so when I last passed by his cell. We’d even exchanged a few words of small talk on my last round. He’d seemed fine.

I used my radio to call for help and for control to unlock the cell door. I managed to raise the man’s body to the bed and then released the sheet from his neck. Medical staff arrived and took control. The inmate survived the suicide attempt. All of this took place within minutes. Mere minutes.

Suicide attempts in jails and prisons across the U.S. are not uncommon and those who try often succeed.

In one U.S. jail alone, the county lockup in Traverse County, Mi., there were 51 attempted suicides and two suicides during the years between 2011 and 2018. Marilyn Lucille Palmer and Alan Bradley Halloway hanged themselves in the shower sections of their cells. They accomplished the task by attaching nooses to small openings in the steel walls. These two deaths occurred nearly ten years apart, to the day.

Bedsheets are a common instrument used in inmate hangings. So much so that jail officials in Cleveland, Ohio have eliminated bedsheets from all cells housing inmates at risk of suicide. In lieu of sheets they’re issued an extra blanket. The decision to replace sheets with the thicker and tougher-to-tear blankets came after five prisoners committed suicide, including Nicholas Colbert, who hanged himself in the military veteran’s pod section of the jail.

In North Carolina, a record 12 inmates died by suicide, in 2018, while in state custody. This is compared to six inmate suicides in 2017 and seven in 2016. To help tackle the problem of inmate suicides, the state is recruiting prisoners who will watch over other inmates who are considered suicide risks. Each the selected prisoners will receive specialized training and take notes every 15 minutes during their assigned shifts. If trouble should arise they’ll hen call for staff members. The same policy is already in place at the federal level (see below).

Epstein’s Death Was More Than Likely Just As It Seems, a Suicide

As much as folks from all spectrums of the conspiracy theory trail would like to believe, prison suicides occur far more often than the public generally hears about. They’re not reported by the media because they don’t involve high-profile prisoners, like Jeffrey Epstein. Nor do those suicide cases come at a time when the death conveniently saves the day for a lot of high-profile politicians, businesspeople, etc. (Please, I’m begging you to not turn this into a political discussion or debate. I’m merely reporting fact, not opinion).

Unfortunately for Epstein and his family, and for the victims who wanted to face him in a court of law and to see him rot in a prison cell for life, it seems that the corrections facility staff dropped the ball due to staffing shortages, rules that weren’t followed, unreliable and unprofessional officers, and a perfect storm of other issues that could’ve gone unnoticed during a typical day in prison, if the deceased had not been connected to high-profile folks.

The Metropolitan Correctional Center’s website issues an Admission and Orientation manual for pre-trial inmates. Jeffrey Epstein was one of those pre-trial prisoners. The first paragraph of page five of the manual is dedicated to inmate suicide prevention. It reads:

“It is not uncommon for people to experience depression and hopelessness while in jail or prison, particularly if they are newly incarcerated, are serving a long sentence, are experiencing family problems or problems getting along with other inmates, or receive bad news. Sometimes, inmates consider committing suicide due to all of the pressure they are under. Staff are trained to monitor inmates for signs of suicide, and are trained to refer all concerns to the Psychology Department. However, staff do not always see what inmates see. Ifyou are personally experiencing any ofthe problems noted above, or you or another inmate are showing signs of depression (sadness, tearfulness, lack ofenjoyment in usual activities), withdrawal (staying away from others, reducing phone calls and/or visits), or hopelessness (giving away possessions, stating that “there is nothing to live for”), PLEASE alert a staff member right away. Your input can save a life.”

Finally, in case you’d like to learn more about the BOP’s policies on suicide watches …

From the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP)

OPI: CPD/PSBNUMBER: P5324.08DATE: 4/5/2007

SUBJECT: Suicide Prevention Program

RULES EFFECTIVE: 3/15/2007

SUICIDE WATCH

  1. Housing. Each institution must have one or more rooms designated specifically for housing an inmate on suicide watch. The designated room must allow staff to maintain adequate control of the inmate without compromising the ability to observe and protect the inmate.
  • The primary concern in designating a room for suicide watch must be the ability to observe, protect, and maintain adequate control of the inmate.
  • The room must permit easy access, privacy, and unobstructed vision of the inmate at all times.
  • The suicide prevention room may not have fixtures or architectural features that would easily allow self-injury.
  • Inmates on watch will be placed in the institution’s designated
  • suicide prevention room, a non-administrative
  • detention/segregation cell ordinarily located in the health
  • services area.  Despite the cell’s location, the inmate will not
  • be admitted as an in-patient unless there are medical indications
  • that would necessitate immediate hospitalization.
  • Placement of a suicide watch room in a different area may be
  • warranted given the unique features of some institutions.

However, designating a room for suicide watch outside of the Health Services area requires written approval of the Regional Director.  Such rooms must meet all of the requirements identified above.

Administrative detention and disciplinary segregation cells will not be designated or approved as suicide watch cells. Under emergency conditions a suicidal inmate may be placed temporarily on suicide watch in a cell other than the institution’s designated watch room. The inmate must be moved to a designated suicide watch room as soon as one becomes available.

  1. Conditions of Confinement. While on suicide watch, the inmate’s conditions of confinement will be the least restrictive available to ensure control and safety. The inmate on watch will ordinarily be seen by the Program Coordinator on at least a daily basis. Unit staff will have frequent contact with the inmate while he/she is on watch. Ordinarily, the Program Coordinator or designee will interview or monitor each inmate on suicide watch at least daily and record clinical notes following each visit.

The Program Coordinator or designee will specify the type of personal property, bedding, clothing, magazines, that may be allowed.

  • If approved by the Warden, restraints may be applied if necessary to obtain greater control, but their use must be clearly documented and supported.
  • Any deviations from prescribed suicide watch conditions may be made only with the Program Coordinator’s concurrence.
  • The Program Coordinator will develop local procedures to ensure timely notification to the inmate’s Unit Manager when a suicide watch is initiated and terminated. Correctional Services staff, in consultation with the Program Coordinator or designee, will be responsible for the inmate’s daily custodial care, cell, and routine activities.
  • Unit Management staff in consultation with the Program Coordinator will continue to be responsive to routine needs while the inmate is on suicide watch.
  1. Observation. For all suicide watches:
    • Any visual observation techniques used to monitor the suicide companion program will focus on the inmate companion and/or the inmate on suicide watch only.
    • The observer and the suicidal inmate will not be in the same room/cell and will have a locked door between them.
    • The person performing the suicide watch must have a means to summon help immediately (e.g., phone, radio) if the inmate displays any suicidal or unusual behavior.
    • The Program Coordinator will establish procedures for documenting observations of the inmate’s behavior in a Suicide Watch log book, which will be maintained as a secure document. Staff and inmate observers will document in separate log books. Post Orders will provide direction to staff on requirements for documentation.
  • Staff Observers. The suicide watch may be conducted using staff observers. Staff assigned to a suicide watch must have received training (Introduction to Correctional Techniques or in AT) and must review and sign the Post Orders before starting the watch. The Program Coordinator will review the Post Orders annually to ensure their accuracy.
  • Inmate Observers. Only the Warden may authorize the use of inmate observers (inmate companion program). The authorization for the use of inmate companions is to be made by the Warden on a case-by-case basis. If the Warden authorizes a companion program, the Program Coordinator will be responsible for the selection, training, assignment, and removal of individual companions. Inmates selected as companions are considered to be on an institution work assignment when they are on their scheduled shift and shall receive performance pay for time spent monitoring a potentially suicidal inmate.
  1. Watch Termination and Post-Watch Report. Based upon clinical findings, the Program Coordinator or designee will:

1) Remove the inmate from suicide watch when the inmate is no longer at imminent risk for suicide, or

2) Arrange for the inmate’s transfer to a medical referral center or contract health care facility.

Once an inmate has been placed on watch, the watch may not be terminated, under any circumstance, without the Program Coordinator or designee performing a face-to-face evaluation. Only the Program Coordinator will have the authority to remove an inmate from suicide watch. Generally, the post-watch report should be completed in PDS prior to terminating the watch, or as soon as possible following watch termination, to ensure appropriate continuity of care. Copies of the report will be forwarded to the central file, medical record, psychology file, and the Warden. There should be a clear description of the resolution of the crisis and guidelines for follow-up care.

At a minimum, the post-watch report will include:

  • risk factors assessed,
  • changes in risk factors since the onset of watch,
  • reasons for removal from watch, and
  • follow-up recommendations.
  1. INMATE OBSERVERS – INMATE COMPANION PROGRAM.
  2. Selection of Inmate Observers. Because of the very sensitive nature of such assignments, the selection of inmate observers requires considerable care. To provide round-the-clock observation of potentially suicidal inmates, a sufficient number of observers should be trained, and alternate candidates should be available.

Observers will be selected based upon their ability to perform the specific task but also for their reputation within the institution. In the Program Coordinator’s judgement, they must be mature, reliable individuals who have credibility with both staff and inmates. They must be able, in the Program Coordinator’s judgement, to protect the suicidal inmate’s privacy from other inmates, while being accepted in the role by staff. Finally, in the Program Coordinator’s judgement, they must be able to perform their duties with minimal need for direct supervision.

In addition, any inmate who is selected as a companion must not:

  • Be in pre-trial status or a contractual boarder;
  • Have been found to have committed a 100-level prohibited act within the last three years; or
  • Be in FRP, GED, or Drug Ed Refuse status.
  1. Inmate Observer Shifts. Observers ordinarily will work a four-hour shift. Except under unusual circumstances, observers will not work longer than one five-hour shift in any 24-hour period. Inmate observers will receive performance pay for time on watch.
  2. Training Inmate Observers. Each observer will receive at least four hours of initial training before being assigned to a suicide watch observer shift. Each observer will also receive at least four hours of training semiannually. Each training session will review policy requirements and instruct the inmates on their duties and responsibilities during a suicide watch, including:
  • the location of suicide watch areas;
  • summoning staff during all shifts;
  • recognizing behavioral signs of stress or agitation; and
  • recording observations in the suicide watch log.
  1. Meetings with Program Coordinator. Observers will meet at least quarterly with the Program Coordinator or designee to review procedures, discuss issues, and supplement training. After inmates have served as observers, the Program Coordinator or designee will debrief them, individually or in groups, to discuss their experiences and make program changes, if necessary.
  2. Records. The Program Coordinator will maintain a file containing:
  • An agreement of understanding and expectations signed by each inmate observer;
  • Documentation of attendance and topics discussed at training meetings;
  • Lists of inmates available to serve as observers, which will be available to Correctional Services personnel during non-regular working hours; and
  • Verification of pay for those who have performed watches.
  1. Supervision of Inmate Observer During a Suicide Watch. Although observers will be selected on the basis of their emotional stability, maturity, and responsibility, they still require some level of staff supervision while performing a suicide watch.
  • This supervision will be provided by staff who are in the immediate area of the suicide watch room or who have continuous video observation of the inmate observer.
  • In all cases, when an inmate observer alerts staff to an emergency situation, staff must immediately respond to the suicide watch room and take necessary action to prevent the inmate on watch from incurring debilitating injury or death. In no case will an inmate observer be assigned to a watch without adequate provisions for staff supervision or without the ability to obtain immediate staff assistance.
  •           THE DECISION TO USE INMATE OBSERVERS MUST BE PREDICATED
  •           ON THE FACT THAT IT TAKES ONLY THREE TO FOUR MINUTES
  •           FOR MANY SUICIDE DEATHS TO OCCUR.

Supervision must consist of at least 60-minute checks conducted in-person. Staff will initial the chronological log upon conducting checks.


Again, please, I’m begging you to not turn this into a political discussion or debate. I’m merely reporting fact, not opinion. Thank you.

Bench with handcuff bars

Mr. X is a former business professional who committed a crime that landed him in federal prison. He’s out now and has agreed to share his story with the readers of The Graveyard Shift.

GYS: You mentioned a couple trips you took while incarcerated. I think the readers would be quite interested in those details. Tell us about the first one, please.

Mr. X: I’m sure you’re referring to my transfer from one prison to another, right?

GYS: Yes. I know you went on other excursions during your time in, but this is one that’s the most interesting, and it’s one our readers won’t expect.

Mr. X: Well, the first trip occurred after I’d been in about a year. My counselor called me to his office and said they’d sort of figured my custody status wrong. Originally, they’d housed me in a minimum security prison—one with double fences and razor wire—but I was actually eligible to serve my time in a camp. He then asked if I’d like to transfer. My response was an immediate yes, if he could find one near my family. Who wouldn’t want to go to a camp, right? I mean, to go from hell on earth to a place with no fences, no razor wire, better food, better jobs, less guards, and better visiting opportunities. That was an easy decision.

The arrangements were made in a matter of days. I was going to a camp near my wife who had been transferred for work since I was incarcerated. The camp was run by a private security company—a private prison.

I was, however, concerned and apprehensive about the transfer. Those trips can be awful. They chain you up and place you in the back of a hot van, or bus, and haul you to a jet that’s parked in some hidden spot. Then you fly you to Oklahoma where you may sit for several months before you finally take off for the new place. You may also get shuttled around from county jail to county jail. During that time, you don’t get visits, commissary, work, mail, etc., because no one knows where you are from one day to the next.

Well, that’s what I was expecting, but one of the guys I hung around with a bit—he fancies himself as sort of a jailhouse lawyer—said he’d read that you could apply for a furlough transfer. He went on to explain that it was possible, with the warden’s permission, to actually walk out the gate, hop on public transportation, and make the trip, unescorted.

I figured I had nothing to lose so the next night I approached the warden outside the dining hall and asked him about it. Well, without blinking an eye he said, “Fill out the application and have your family get your plane ticket.” I was stunned, but that’s what I did.

The day of my trip arrived and I still couldn’t believe they were going to let me walk out the gate. At 9 a.m. sharp I was summoned to the office. It was like a dream. I walked from the office to the front gate where a guard asked me a few questions and then opened the gates. The feeling was bizarre.

I walked outside to hugs from family members. They drove me to the airport where I enjoyed a nice meal and a flight across country. The couple seated beside me were pleasant, and I enjoyed a nice conversation with them—about nothing really, but it was wonderful to talk about things other than appeals and how to sneak an extra dessert from the dining hall. I often wonder how they’d have reacted if they’d known I was a federal prisoner.

We landed at a large airport where I was met by my wife—she was my ride to the camp. We planned the trip so that we’d have a little time together. So we stopped by the house for some much needed “quality” time before making the three hour trip to the prison camp. I’ll skip those details.

Later, I arrived at the camp with my bags in hand, kissed my wife goodbye, and went inside the office (no fences, no guards outside, and no gates!). A guard at the desk checked me in like i was at a motel. She then told me which building I’d be assigned to and pointed in that direction. I made my way across a well-manicured lawn and stepped into a nicely air-conditioned building. No yelling, no loud TVs, and absolutely no guards. Not one. It was like I’d been re-born. I was a new man with a glimmer of hope for my future.

GYS: Your next trip was a bit different, yes?

Mr. X: It sure was. After I’d been in a while I heard about inmates being granted furloughs—weekend trips to their homes to spend time with their family. The purpose of the furlough is supposed to help prisoners gradually become accustomed to outside life with their families. Well, I applied for one and it was approved. I went home for three days during the Christmas holidays and it was wonderful.

My wife picked me up in the prison parking lot and we spent three glorious days together, at home, before I had to return to the camp. I was walking on air when I got back.

I’d also gone on short day trips, like to trim roses in the town parks, or to the warden’s Ruritan Club to spruce up the grounds. And they were nice, to break up your time and to see some real people, but they were nothing like my time with my family, at home.

 

Serving Time

Close your eyes for a moment and then allow your imaginations to take you inside the filthiest public restrooms you’ve ever visited. I’ll give you a minute to set the stage.

Are you there?

Okay. Now take a deep breath and let your senses take over, first conjuring up a stench that lingers in places only roaches and vermin dare trod. Combine those odors with the scents of dirty sweat socks and t-shirts, soiled underwear, cooked popcorn, urine, hot tuna, raw onions, and steaming chicken-flavored Top Ramen noodles.

Then add the scent of unwashed human bodies, the flesh of humans who’re allowed to shower only once or twice each week. And some who simply refuse to bathe even when allowed to do so.

Picture living or working where every breath is similar to what I’ve described above. Never a single lungful of fresh air.

Could you drink water from a sink that was used to wash the feet of a man who just finished working on a roadside work crew for eight hours in ninety-degree heat and 100% southern humidity—a sink positioned two feet above a toilet that’s used several times a day by two or three three people, but is sometimes flushed only twice in an eight hour span due to water restrictions imposed upon prisoners who clog their drains in order to flood a cellblock?

How about sleeping in an enclosed six-by-nine concrete box with two other large men who haven’t showered in several days during the hottest time of the year? There’s no ventilation—no windows to open. And the only way in or out is a heavy steel door that’s locked nearly 24/7.

What about sleeping on a hard floor with nothing between you and the grimy concrete surface but an itchy, wool blanket, with roaches, rats, and mice darting from gaps between rusted plumbing and cracked cinderblocks. Dried blood and vomit are the only splashes of color on drab walls.

HGTV it ain’t.

What I’ve just described is a mild description of the experience of serving time in some jails and prisons.

Keep in mind, though, that no two lockup facilities are identical. Conditions in many are far better than what’s seen in others. Some, in fact, are super clean, actually. Many, however, are just like I’ve described in the paragraphs above. Some are worse. Much worse.

But even the cleanest jails and prisons each have that certain, unmistakable “odor” that clings to the linings of your nostrils and then worms its way into deep lung space. That “funk” often comes to rest inside your mind where it’s never forgotten no matter how hard a person tries.

Serving time is no picnic. Even doing time in the nicer, cleaner prisons, especially federal facilities, is no walk in park. And, no matter how often you hear it, there are no “country club” prisons. Although, in the the less restrictive prisons, the federal camps, prisoners have more freedom and privileges. But it’s still prison.

The photos below were taken in one of the cleanest jails I’ve seen. It’s also a very well-run operation. The staff is well-trained, and for the most part, the prisoners seemed to be in good spirits considering their circumstances.

A brief tour of a county jail:

Deputy sheriffs  monitor and control inmate activities and movement from inside a master control room. All doors are operated electronically by the officer seated at the control desk.

Inmate Movement Control

Female dormitory

Some prison dormitories house over one-hundred prisoners in a single room. Many times, a single officer is assigned to supervise the activities of one or more dorm rooms.

Correctional officers day

Jail Library

Books are often donated by local community groups, families of inmates, and even the prisoners themselves.

Jail Library

Cell block

In the photograph below, a deputy sheriff makes his rounds inside a cell block. He’s inside a dayroom that’s occupied by several inmates from morning until lockdown at night. The area outside the windows to the left is beyond the locked cell area. The doors to his right are inmate cell doors. Each morning those doors are opened allowing all inmates into the day room where they play cards, watch TV, eat their meals, and socialize. They return to their cells at night.

At no time is a prisoner allowed back into his cell unless medical staff finds that he/she is ill. Bunks must be made neatly each morning. An illness is the only time when a prisoner is allowed on their bunk during the daytime hours.

Looking out

The image below is of the inside of a steel cell door. The tiny rectangle (appr. 6″ x 12″) is a secure plexiglass window at eye level. Its purpose is to allow officers a view into the cell. It’s an inmate’s only view from inside his cell unless he’s fortunate enough to be housed inside a cell with a window. Otherwise, their only scenery is whatever goes on in the hallway outside their cell.

Many dreams and fantasies of life on the outside begin at this very spot. The door across the hall below is that of another inmate’s cell. The checkered grate at the top of the picture is the only source of ventilation in the cell. It’s also a means for the jail staff to communicate with the prisoner. Jail doors are heavily insulated to retard fires and noise.

 Overcrowding is a huge problem in jails and prisons. This jail was forced to hang metal beds from the hallway walls when their cells reached capacity – three men in each two-man cell.

Just as I clicked off this shot, a group of deputies ran past to quell a disturbance in area I’d just left. The problem—an inmate was having an anxiety attack from being in such tight quarters. He’d become quite violent and was tossing things around.  His troubles reminded me of how much I appreciate the little things—trees, flowers, family, home-cooked meals, wine, and flushing my own darn toilet whenever I want.

I looked into the eyes of a serial killer

Visiting Room

Prisoners are brought to these small rooms where they “visit” with family members seated on the opposite side of the window. The family’s room is a mirror image of the inmate’s visiting room.

visiting room

 

 

After “John’s” conviction he was sent to a federal prison in North Carolina. The place was large and daunting, especially for people like John, a first-time offender. Large concrete buildings were surrounded by a double row of what must have been twenty-foot tall fences. Between the two chain link barriers were mounds of looping razor wire. Around the fence was an asphalt path where a truck constantly drove around the perimeter. The only time it stopped moving was at shift change time when a new officer assumed the driving duty.

Strands of “helicopter wire” hung in criscross patterns above the compound. This was to prevent a chopper from landing during an escape attempt. John later learned that had indeed happened in the past.

Inmate “John Johnson” was assigned to one of four large dormitory-style housing units designated as buildings A, B, C, and D. Each building was equipped to hold 800 inmates—400 upstairs and 400 downstairs. Inside were small two-man open cubicles. Each one contained two metal lockers and a steel-frame bunk bed, one metal shelf for writing, and two plastic chairs. The cubicles ran along the outer walls with a back-to-back row down the center of the unit.

However, due to overcrowding, each tiny cubicle housed three inmates. One man slept on a mattress on the floor, leaving a space of approximately two-feet by eight-feet for standing, dressing, and whatever else needed doing.

The three inmates assigned to share John’s cubicle were an odd mix, with John in for a white collar crime, a short, beefy Italian man named Victor who’d been caught running kilos of cocaine up and down an East Coast drug corridor, and a large African American man named Mike who was serving a life sentence as a kingpin for a major drug operation.

Victor was, honestly, as dumb as a rock, so it was plain to see that he’d been used as a drug mule to carry package A from point B to C. Nothing more. Mike on the other hand, was well-educated and spoke as if he could’ve been a college professor at an Ivy league school. John was intimidated to say the least.

Victor hung out with the other Italians, a group of men who obviously stuck together and were led by a mob boss who’d been caught and sentenced to serve his time in the North Carolina prison. He called the shots within the Italian prison group, and it was no secret at all that he still called the shots on the streets.

John was in disbelief when he learned the identity of the short, balding mafia man—Venero Frank “Benny Eggs” Mangano, of the Genovese Crime Family.

John asked a fellow inmate about the liver-spotted aging man and was  quickly told to steer a wide path around him. Nobody, but nobody was allowed to approach him without first asking for permission from one of his bodyguards.

So John conducted a bit of research in the prison library, discovering that Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano served in the U.S, military and had entered World War II. At the time, he was five-foot-four and weighed a mere 145 pounds. He was a high school dropout working as a waiter at the time of his enlistment. While in the military he served as a tail-gunner in bomber aircraft and had even conducted two bombing runs on D-Day. He was a decorated hero who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters, and three Battle Stars.

Then he became a mafia underboss.

“Benny Eggs” was known for his stringent loyalty to the Mafia’s code of non-cooperation with authorities. Once, he’d been called as a witness in federal court. He refused to testify. Trying a second time and using immunity from prosecution as a carrot on a stick, the Justice Department lost again. Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano refused to testify and the court found him in contempt and imprisoned for nearly two years.

Joseph Coffey of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force, still on the heels of Benny Eggs, later testified that Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano was an important figure in the Genovese Crime Family. Something had to be done about him.

Meanwhile, John DiGilio, another higher-up member of the Genovese Crime Family, was convicted of bribing an FBI clerk-typist to obtain copies of FBI files related to his unlawful activities. DiGilio controlled a branch of the Genovese Crime Family in the Bayonne area.

During this period, the FBI began receiving more reliable information on Genovese Family leaders and their activities. One of their sources was civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton is said to have forwarded information to the FBI regarding Genovese mobsters, information obtained from crime family associate Joseph Buonanno.

Sharpton’s information was key to the FBI initiating surveillance ops at two social clubs. They’d also bugged automobiles and wiretapped more than a dozen telephones. The FBI then, based on Sharption’s tips and the new information gained from them, switched their view of Genovese syndicate’s leadership, moving over to target Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano and a couple of other known names.

Later, John DiGilio was convicted of conspiracy to commit loan sharking. DiGiglio’s sentencing was set for a later date. In the meantime, a separate federal court trial began for DiGilio and a few of his extortion conspiracy codefendants. During the trial, prosecutors offered tape recordings of Digilio making humiliating suggestions about Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano.

In an odd twist, DiGiglio was acquitted but his co-conspirators were found guilty of the charges. DiGilio hastily left the courtroom immediately after the proceeding.

Still, Digilio had to return to court at a later date to be sentenced for a different loan-sharking case. He was a no show for the hearing. A few days later a fisherman discovered a body bag floating in a river. Diglio’s body was inside. He’d been shot five times in the head.

In 1989, Al Sharpton’s name once again appeared when a grand jury indicted five people for attempting to launder money through a group called the National Youth Movement The National Youth Movement’s founder was, you guessed it, the Rev. Al Sharpton. So once again, Sharpton cooperated in the investigations of the Genovese crime organization.

This time the ties to a huge organized crime organization caught up many top leaders and, wanting desperately to get the “top” boss, prosecutors decided to put Genovese Crime Family underboss Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano on the witness stand. They wanted him to testify against his boss.

At age 76, Mangano was defiant and refused to testify in spite of being offered total immunity for his part in the crimes.

So that’s how Benny “The Eggs” came to be at the same prison where mild-mannered John was also to spend a few a few years of his life.

Benny Eggs was in command of the Italians in the prison, for sure, and his followers did everything for him, including providing security, cooking and washing and sewing and shining his prison shoes, giving him money, running a store racket on the inside, and they delivered messages to the outside world for him. He wanted for nothing while inside the prison.

John often sat on a wooden picnic table in the center of the rec yard, watching Benny Eggs walk laps around the professional-grade track, surrounded by “his men.” His top lieutenants at his side while the enforcers and other heavy-hitters walked along the outside and to the rear. Others walked well to the sides, to head off any attacks. These walks also served as a means to conduct “business” meetings since the track was the only place where conversations couldn’t be overheard. Corrections officers watched the group’s activity closely, and always glanced to the skies, frequently. Helicopter watch, John supposed.

John was eventually released after serving just over two years. On his way to the gate and to freedom, he was approached by two of Mangano’s “men” who demanded that he hand over his wristwatch and portable radio. If he refused, the men stated that they knew where he lived and where his wife worked.

John handed the men his watch and radio and continued to the main office, anxious to leave behind the bizarre world of the Mafia, drug dealers, embezzlers, murderers, and more.

The stories he could tell …


Obviously, John is not this man’s true name. However, the story he told me is the truth as he recalls it.

John served 22 months in federal prison, where he witnessed everything from  beatings, crooked officers, expert tattooing, an an inmate chiropractor who held “office hours” each afternoon out on the rec yard. A six pack of bottled water earned a neck and back adjustment.

And, there was a federal judge serving time there who helped inmates prepare legal documents. A full appeal cost inmates an even thousand dollars, with the funds sent to his commissary account by people on the outside.

Everything had its price there, including a piece of cake stolen from the dining hall that cost one U.S. postage stamp, the equivalent of fifty cents. Yes, stamps are the currency of the prison world.