Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Bad Karma or Common Grace?

[This ended up being a good bit longer than I intended... I kind of got on a roll and couldn't stop... sorry if it rambles. If I had more time, I think I could make it a little tighter and more coherent, but this is a blog, not a NY Times editorial :)]

As I recounted in my previous post, I had asked my PO about whether and how I could assist my friend Jerry, who is due to be released from prison tomorrow (Thu, Nov 15) to a halfway house in SW Florida. On Tue, Nov 6, we dissussed the matter on the phone. He then said he was going to be in my area the next day and would like to stop by and drop off my Permission to Travel document for my upcoming Thanksgiving vacation to, where else, Pensacola FL.

For those who have not followed this blog since the beginning, I live near Charlotte, NC, my case was out of Philadelphia, but requested placement at the Pensacola Federal Prison Camp so that my parents, who live an hour from there, would be able to easily visit. My father is from Pensacola, which is where all of his surviving family members live. I have returned to Pensacola for our family reunion Thanksgiving celebration virtually every year since I was a kid. Indeed my prison stay is the only time I recall ever being in Pensacola outside of Thanksgiving -- although I am sure there must have been one or two other occassions.

It will be so tempting to take a little drive back to the prison as a free man while I am down there.... maybe drive through the front gate and wave to a few friends who are working.

NOTE TO BOP (just in case you are reading this): THAT WAS A JOKE. I AM NOT SERIOUS. GET A LIFE!

It would however be interesting to just drive to the edge of the fence (see satellite map at bottom of page) to just make sure that there really is a prison there and this hasn't all just been a bad dream. Just the thought of doing so feels surreal, like visiting the grave of someone you still can't believe is dead.

But I digress.

As I was saying, my PO was going to drop by on Wednesday morning to drop off the travel document for my trip to Pensacola as well as check off his monthly home visit. Except... he said he was going to come by late morning since I work out at 7:30a and usually don't get back till about 9a.

At 6:30a, I hear our home phone ringing. Voicemail picks up before we get to the phone and I hear my PO, Chris, as is his habit if he is showing up at an unannounced time, leaving a message that he is 1 minute away! (As it turns out, he had to rearrange his schedule and happened to be in my neighborhood early.)

I jump out of bed, throw some clothes on and, sure enough, here comes Chris pulling into my driveway as I hear my cell phone ringing.... he is leaving another message to let me know that he is now in my driveway, which I can already see.

Now, Chris is actually simply being polite; he is under no obligation to give me any advance notice that he is arriving. Indeed, under the terms of supervised release, he is allowed to arrive unannounced and perform warrantless searches of my home in the middle of the night if he wishes. However, he has no reason to suspect anything untoward going on in my life or home so, as a courtesy, he gives me 1 minute notice :)

I welcome him in -- t-shirt, shorts, bed-head: "Morning, Chris, how's it going." :) He apologizes for being early. I say it's better than 7 FBI agents showing up at 6a unannounced (which is how my whole story started). He laughs.

He gives me my Travel Documents. I give him the documentation and contact information for my Thanksgiving vacation. I am also leaving that same afternoon for a 2-day internet marketing seminar in Chicago. Business trips do not require a Permission to Travel document, but I still need to let him know whenever I am leaving the district and where I am going.

Now to the Bad Karma (you've probably noticed I have a problem getting to the point of the title of my posts).

As I drive to the Charlotte airport that same afternoon for my 4:30p flight , I hit a pothole at 60mph a couple miles from the parking lot. Right front tire blows out. (I drive a Volvo S80. It has 2600 miles on it -- prison graduation present to myself.)


I am running late, so I drive with the flat tire to the long term lot, park the car, and catch the shuttle bus to the airport. I will deal with the tire when I get back (at midnight on Friday!).

The flight is uneventful and on-time. I am staying at the Sofitel so I take a cab downtown. 45 minutes and $45 later I arrive. During my ride, I am on my cell phone with my wife, ex-wife, and daugther (not all at the same time -- I can only handle so much!) who is getting married in December, trying to help resolve some issues related to who has and has not been invited to the wedding reception. Fun, fun, fun.

The calls last another 30 minutes while I sit in the lobby of the hotel, at which point my wife and I were disconnected and I couldn't reach her back. Then my phone battery died. I guess I listened to too much music on my phone on the plane.

I walk to the front desk to check in only to be told I don't have a reservation!?!?!

"What do you mean I don't have a reservation" as I pull out my Expedia itinerary. I look at my itinerary and it says Sofitel O'Hare NOT Sofitel Downtown. The Sofitel O'Hare is 6 minutes from the airport on a free shuttle. I am now downtown. All rooms downtown are full due to convention season, so I have no choice but to take another cab ride (another 45 minutes and $40 later).

I finally arrive at my room 2 hours later and $85 poorer than I should have been. In addition, I still have unresolved wedding drama to deal with.

I finally plug in my phone to discover 4 voice mails from my wife apologizing for hanging up on me! (Huh? I thought we had just been disconnected. Who knows how long I had been talking before I even realized she wasn't on the other end?) In addition, she is wondering where I am and in each voicemail, she sounds increasingly suspicious. She had called the Sofitel Downtown, who claimed I was not there, nor were they expecting me! (This is just too funny.) In addition, she was told there were no other Sofitel's in the area!?!?

Fortunately, I was able to explain to her satisfaction my drama for the evening. (Yes, dear, I really am in Chicago for an internet marketing seminar. No, dear, there is no one else with me.) She was able to explain that there was no more wedding drama... it had all been happily resolved.

All's well that ends well. (Except for the $700 it is costing me to replace the wheel and realign the steering.)

Karma is the Hindu/Buddhist doctrine that, roughly speaking, holds that the effects of all of one's deeds actively create past, present and future experiences. Popularly understood, karma generally means that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.

While I wouldn't exactly classify these events as "suffering," they did cause me to look skyward and wonder if maybe there was a message I was missing.

The whole Rabbit Hole experience (from beginning to end) oftentimes causes one to glance upward and wonder.

This is really a slight variaton on the lament "Why do bad things happen to good people?" For defendants, the complaint is slightly more nuanced: "Why do really bad things happen to not so bad people?" :)

It's not that most defendants think they are "good" in the sense that they didn't deserve some consequence for their actions; it's just that they usually (and in the case of federal crimes, I tend to agree) think the consequence is grossly out of proportion to the conduct.

In other words, "Life is not fair."

This "karma" mindset seems to be human nature. Even in the Bible, the question arises:

As [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples
asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born
blind?” (John 9:1-2)
There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And [Jesus] answered them,
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other
Galileans, because they suffered in this way? .... Or those eighteen on
whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse
offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? ” (Luke 13:1-2,4)

Who is to blame for these tragedies?

To the charge, "Life is not fair," karma says "It is what it is." Karma does not so much make moral judgments as it simply says that ultimately, everything that happens to you is somehow organically and mysteriously connected to how you conduct your life.

Certainly there is a connection between actions and consequences. The Bible famously remarks: "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap" (Galatians 6:7) Thus, there is such a thing as biblical karma I suppose, yet the Bible is very careful not to draw bright theological lines connecting all of one's experiences to one's conduct. Much of what happens to us is clearly beyond our control. This is, of course, the story of Job.

Jesus' answers to the two passages I quoted above above are striking... he appears in fact to finesse the questions.

To the matter of the blind man, "Jesus answered, 'It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him'" (John 9:3)

To the matter of those massacred by Pilate or killed in the crash of the tower, he says, rather coldly it seems: "By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!" (Luke 13:3,5)

In other words, in the face of suffering, we should not be asking, "Why me?" but "Why not me?" Indeed, Arthur Ashe famously remarked while suffering from AIDS: "If I were to say, 'God, why me?' about the bad things, then I should have said, 'God, why me?' about the good things that happened in my life."

There is a certain presumption to the complaint, "Why me?" It presumes that you deserve better.

Let me put the question differently. If God needed an excuse to make your life utterly miserable, how long would He have to search to find such an excuse. I know in my case, it would not take long. It is not so much that any particular bad experience is connected to any particular bad thing that I might have done (although that is certainly possible), but that I am so guilty of so many things in my life, that any one of them could be a legitimate justification for suffering.

I suspect, however, God wants us to ask a different question: "Why do good things happen to bad people?"

Isn't it odd that we rarely question God when good things happen to us, when in fact that is the more difficult moral dilemma. It is the biblical doctrine of "common grace," which is the Bible's answer to karma. "Common grace" is the grace that is common to all humankind. It is “common” because its benefits are experienced by the whole human race without distinction between one person and another. It is "grace" because it is undeserved and sovereignly bestowed by God.

Ironically, Bono, of all people, describes the difference between karma and grace in this 2005 Interview with Michka Assayas (please read full interview) as well as I have ever heard it described:

At the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out
comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in
physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to
me that Karma is at the very heart of the Universe. I’m absolutely sure of it.
And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so
will you sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you
like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news
indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.


Bono has given up on the self-righteous silliness that he is a good person and is therefore prepared to receive grace. It is no coincidence that the first step in the Beattitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) is "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Karma is not such an attractive idea once a person recognizes his spiritual poverty!

Jack Miller frequently remarked, "Cheer up: you’re worse than you think you are." That sounds incongruous until you hear the second part. "But God’s grace is greater than you could ever imagine!”

One of the reasons I can write this blog is because the idea that I am a federal felon does not threaten my identity. It's not that I am not embarrassed to some degree but that, if I were to list the 100 things I am most ashamed of in my life, I don't think being a federal felon would make the list. There are so many other things about myself that I am mortified by (almost all of which are probably not illegal) that I don't have time to be mortified over this.

The advantage of coming to grips with one's "badness" is that you don't have to spend so much energy defending your reputation! One of the downsides of self-righteousness is the tremendous amount of energy one has to expend to convince everyone else that you are as good as you (foolishly) believe you are.

Some of you out there are facing prison time; some of you have a friend or family member in prison. Some of your are innocent; some are guilty. Some are receiving a fair punishment; some are receiving a harsh punishment.

None of you are receiving grace from your government....there is a reason it is called the Department of Justice, not the Department of Mercy :)

Yet, I am convinced that the key to dealing with all of this mess that is your life right now is, as trite as sounds, to rise above the current circumstances, which includes the bitterness you likely feel towards a system that is literally taking your life, or so it seems.

Jesus said, "In this world you have tribulation. Take courage, I have overcome the world." In today's pop culture, he might have said, "Shit happens. Don't worry. Be happy."

OK, he probably wouldn't have said exactly that, but I thought it was kind of cute.

I don't share all of the emails I receive, but what has consistently surprised me is how desperate people are for a blog like this. While I don't get a lot of traffic, the handful of people who do check me out are so comforted and encouraged by what they read. The Rabbit Hole experience can be very isolating. The fact there there is someone... anyone... out there who understands what they are going through and can help them go through it is like oxygen to a drowning man.

That is the power of grace, not karma.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Felonious Associations

Jerry was a friend of mine in prison... I was perhaps his only friend it seemed at times.

He was 61 years old, sentenced to 33 months for tax evasion and bankruptcy fraud. His wife was sentenced to 27 months for the same. Their 12 year old daughter was forced to live in San Antonio with her elderly grandparents.

Jerry's parents died when he was young; he has two purple hearts from Vietnam, worked his way through college and basically built a life for himself from scratch. He was truly a self-made "old school" man. He was basically retired, enjoying life in southwest Florida while his wife continued to run the document imaging business that he built, when the FBI came knocking.

Based on a tip from a disgruntled employee, the feds accused him and his wife of diverting income from the business into his personal account to avoid paying taxes (about $100K over several years). The publicity of the investigation chased away vendors (who would no longer extend credit for inventory), customers and employees and the business was forced into bankruptcy. During the bankruptcy process, Jerry retrieved $50K worth of imaging equipment from the store warehouse that he claims belonged to him, not the business. In addition, $11,000 was given to her father, apparently from the business. The bankruptcy trustee had not been notified and a bankruptcy fraud charge was added to the indictment.

I have read the case in some detail as well as talked to Jerry and am pretty well convinced that he and his wife were innocent and the whole case was a very confusing misunderstanding. The fact is that their accounting was a complete mess (one document claims it took over 600 hours for the govt expert to sort things out) but the bottom line was that all checks written directly to Jerry from the business (which is not illegal) were accounted for in the business' income statements. (Ironically, even the government's witness admitted that on the stand.)

Jerry is a proud man who can by quite surly at times when his integrity is challenged. He apparently refused to take a misdemeanor plea deal (basically told the prosecutor to "go to hell" -- not a smart move) which would have required him to spend a year in prison (but they would not have prosecuted his wife) and instead went to trial, where both he and his wife were convicted and sentenced, leaving their child without parents. All of his assets had been seized and they used a public defender. He literally has not one penny to his name. The seized assets were used to pay the $61K withheld from the bankruptcy trustee and the $100K they claimed he owed in taxes.

Jerry will tell you he is the most innocent man in federal prison and he is quite bitter about the whole experience. His entire life has literally been turned upside down. He may very well be innocent, but he made so many classic strategic errors in his case, that the system just slammed him. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from his case, which I may write about later.

Jerry leaves prison this Thursday (Nov 15) to spend two months in a halfway house near his former home in Florida. His wife was released in June and now lives with her parents and daughter in Texas (at least, that is where she was as of last June). It is unlikely that they will get back together.

Jerry and I had discussed some ideas for how he could get his life back when he got out. After all, he was literally starting from scratch, without even the cash to put a deposit on an apartment or buy a car. We swapped business ideas and ways I might be able to assist him, including providing him with some transportation and perhaps some cash to at least get him on his feet.

Unfortunately, and this is the point of this post (although it has taken me a while to get here!), standard condition of supervision #9 states that "defendant shall not associate with any persons engaged in criminal activity and shall not associate with any person convicted of a felony, unless granted permission to do so by the probation officer."


What a stupid rule. Now, I understand why, in some cases, it might be a good rule. But, as is so common in the criminal justice system, the rules are so broad and sweeping that they end up doing more harm than good. I almost wonder at times if the government is intentionally setting up former inmates for failure by creating all these petty hoops to jump through.

The idea that Jerry and I cannot talk or even do business together is just ludicrous. I am in a unique position to help Jerry get back on his feet and I am forbidden to do so under threat of more imprisonment. What do they think we are going to do? Conspire to commit another crime?

This condition does have an exception: "unless granted permission by the probation officer." This exception originally made sense of the rule to me because I assumed, as with travel outside the district, that the goal is transparency and that permission is routinely granted as long as you make your PO aware of it. In other words, my PO routinely grants permission for me to travel outside the district... I just let him know where and when and he gives me a permission to travel document. I have no problem with that.

Why not the same with felonious associations? Why can't I simply tell my PO that Jerry and I would like to talk and maybe do business together so that he is aware of it and then he grants permission? Why is this so complicated? I would think that the courts would actually be in favor of anything that would help a former inmate get back on his feet. Unfortunately, my PO says that exceptions are only granted for special cases, such as family members or fellow employees/employers who are felons. Sigh. My PO is a good and reasonable guy and I suspect if it was totally up to him, he wouldn't care in my case, but since Probation Office policy will not approve it, he is compelled to enforce it.

It reminds me of the story of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath (see Mark 3:1-6; Matthew 12:9-14; Luke 6:6-11). The Pharisees had their stupid little rules that had lost all sight of the underlying purpose of Ten Commandments. Jesus violated their rule in order to do good and they conspired to kill him for threatening the underlying system they had so carefully constructed.

In any case, I decided to discuss this matter with my PO last week. I told him (actually I sent him a fax) that I had a friend that was soon to be released to a halfway house and that I would at least like to pay his remaining special assessments so that when he was released he wouldn't have that hanging over his head. I asked if that was ok and what was the best way to do it.

He indicated that they didn't have a problem with that. I told him I was going to call the prison and talk to his case manager about the best way to do it. (I figured I would just send money to his commissary account via Western Union -- the fastest way to get money into an inmate's account -- and his case manager could take it out to pay the fine.) My PO said that would be fine... if the prison had any questions, just have them call him. Cool.

I have to tell you it was really weird calling the prison, having been an inmate there. Officer Sjuve (shoo-vay) answered the phone. Sjuve is probably the nicest CO in the camp. He normally is the CO on duty during visitation checking visitors in. He is very popular and well-liked because he treats all visitors with respect and courtesy, which the inmates appreciate.

He transferred me to Jerry's case manager who told me that it was too late to transfer money into Jerry's account in order to pay the fine; there just wasn't enough time given his imminent release. In any case, he said he can't just take it out of Jerry's account without Jerry's permission.

I told him he could tell Jerry that that was why I sent him the money.

He asked why I couldn't just tell him.

I said that I can't exactly call him up. (Inmates cannot receive incoming calls... they can only place calls.)

He said Jerry could call me, however. At this point I had only identified myself as a "friend" of Jerry's. I didn't feel like explaining that I was a former inmate there and that there is no way I would be added to Jerry's approved call list so I just said maybe it would be best to just send the money to the District Court and he agreed.

Thus, the final and best solution was to simply send a cashier's check to the District Clerk of Court, noting Jerry's name and docket number in the "memo" field. When Jerry gets to the halfway house, his case manager will be able to inform him that he has no remaining financial obligations.

I hope.

Since Jerry and I are forbidden from "associating" (which includes communicating), who knows?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Long Overdue Update

It has been quite a while since I have updated my blog. That was never my intent but there are several reasons:

1. My life just isn't as "interesting" as it was in prison. While in prison, I was writing about novel experiences from the point of view of an embedded reporter trying to explain to "outsiders" what it is like. My current life, while I like it, just isn't as interesting.

2. Now that I am "out," my style of writing and point of view are different. While "in," I intentionally wrote in a "stream-of-consciousness" style to record my experiences and feelings in real-time. While there was some reflection, most of what I wrote was more raw, which I believe gave my blog more intensity and people seem to like, especially those who are facing similar circumstances (or are related to those facing similar circumstances). I was also able to give nuances that are missing in other prison blogs (such as, as one reader told me, the price of cup o'noodles and the brand of work boot). Now, that I am out, my style becomes more that of a commentator simply giving my opinion on legal issues, which requires a lot more organized thought and preparation. While I have a perspective that might make my opinions more interesting or authentic, it still requires more time to write these kinds of articles. Which brings me to the third reason.

3. I had more "free" time in prison to write which is quite ironic since I was not "free," but of course the reason is because I had far less options on how to spend my time. Now, something more important always seems to come up. Or, if it is not more important, it is more pressing. The old "tyrrany of the urgent."

Well, now I am going to make myself take the time... at least today!

Status of Home Confinement and Electronic Monitoring

As I stated in my post New Bling, my ankle bracelet (see pictures on previous post) was installed on July 12, about 2 weeks after I was released. I was allowed out of the house from 9a-6p weekdays, 10a-2p Saturday, 9a-1p Sunday. While confined to my house, I could not even go out to get the mail or newspaper, nor use the pool in the back yard. The best part though is that my wife had to take the trash out on Thursday morning because they pick it up at 7:30a, before I am allowed out of the house!! :)

What was my typical schedule?

Well, since I am self-employed, I have some flexibility. I moved my workouts to 10:30a, instead of the previous 7:30a appointments that I used to have. I played golf on Friday, instead of my normal Saturday. I took extra long lunches at my favorite restaurant since I knew I could not eat out at night. And, otherwise, I moved a lot of my work to the evenings.

I did cut it close a couple of times getting in by the deadline with a minute or two to spare. If I am out of the house outside of the allowable time frame, the receiver is supposed to send a message to my probation officers pager, but I am not otherwise notified. It is not like an invisible fence collar for a dog.... I don't get shocked or beeped. :)

I bought the entire 6 seasons of The Sopranos. My wife and I made it through season 4 in the evenings so we still have 2 more seaons to go. We usually would go out to dinner and a movie on Friday nights so that had to change.

On weekends, I watched a lot of sports, especially once football season started. ("Dear, I really want to work in the yard but my probation officer won't let me. Sorry.")

On the whole, however, home confinement is just a series of minor inconveniences that I just had to re-organize my life around. I think my wife was more bored than I was because she wanted to go out in the evenings and we couldn't.

On Thursday, October 11, I disconnected the receiver (my PO said he would turn off the monitoring at 6a) and brought everything into the probation office. We had a little "circumcision" ceremony and my ankle bracelet was cut off (they replace the rubber band and clips and re-use the transmitter). I did my second drug test (I have to do 3 while on probation).


On Oct 11, my electronic monitoring ended and on Oct 12 my wife and I went to Florida for 10 days. (We didn't wait long to get out of town did we?)

All travel outside the western district of NC requires approval from my PO, so I had discussed this in advance with him. If the trip is for pleasure instead of business, he gives me a "Permission to Travel" document (click on link to view document). If I were to have an encounter with a police officer while travelling and am questioned about why I am out of my district, I can produce the document. Even if I do not have the document, he can call my PO to confirm his awareness of my trip so it wouldn't be a disaster even if I didn't have it; it is more for my convenience than anything. My wife and I like to travel a lot so I don't know if there will be a limit to how many trips he will approve or not.

Of course, as fate would have it, on my second night on Sanibel Island, we were driving home from a restaurant on the deserted two-lane main road. The speed limit was 35 and I was pulled over by an unmarked police car... a local Sanibel traffic cop. He informed me that I was driving about 50. I gave him my license and rental car agreement. Fortunately, my wife didn't pull out my Permission to Travel letter which was sitting on top of the rental car agreement in the glove compartment!!! I figured this would be a good opportunity to see what information he is able to pull up on his little police car computer. Why volunteer I am a convicted felon on probation? In any case, he came back and gave me a verbal warning. I think it had as much to do with the fact that I was from out-of-state as anything. Nonetheless, it was nice to actually catch a break with the law.

My wife was a total basket-case at this point. I don't think she stopped hyperventilating until we got back to the room. All she could imagine during the stop was me being carted off to the local jail for the night. Not a nice way to start our long-awaited Florida vacation! Ironically, I was pretty calm. I thought I might get a ticket but that would be it. I doubted he would pull my name up on his computer and, even if he did, I would show him my document. I suppose knowing that I was a conviced felon might motivate him to have a little less mercy on me, but after you've been to federal prison, a speeding ticket just doesn't get my heart beating real fast.

The next day, I faxed a letter to my PO indicating that I had been given a verbal warning for speeding the night before. A standard condition of supervision is that all encounters with law enforcement must be reported to your PO within 48 hours. I never heard back from him so I guess he didn't have any questions.

When we returned from the trip, I left a message on my PO's voicemail letting him know we had returned as scheduled. Again, a standard condition of supervised release is to notify your PO within 24 hours of your return to your district.

International Travel

As I stated earlier, my wife and I like to travel a lot, including internationally. Strangely, my PO says that all international travel must be approved by the judge. I was able to find a reference on the internet that New Jersey Probation Office likewise requires judge's approvel for international travel and that the request must be submitted 4 weeks in advance so I guess this really is standard Probation Office policy, not that I doubted my PO.... I would never do that Chris!!

I asked my lawyer about this because the Judgment and Commitment document simply says that I need permission from my PO to leave my district; it makes no distinction between domestic and international travel. Currently, the Probation Office has my passport. If international travel is approved (either by PO or the judge), they would give me my passport for the trip, and then I would return it when I get back. The problem with getting the judge's permission is I hate to bother the judge with trivial matters like this when I may need his "help" on more important issues (like getting my probation terminated early!!).

One thing I have learned through this experience is to fight the battles at hand, not the ones in your mind. I have a tendency to want to get answers to all my hypotheticals scenarios... scenarious that may never occur. I now try to only address issues that are on my plate... present realities, not future possibilities.

I will deal with the matter of international travel when I am sure we are going overseas.

Behind the Scenes Correspondence

While I have not been updating my blog lately, that doesn't mean I haven't been getting emails from other defendants awaiting sentencing or prison.

Technically, I am not to associate with other felons, according to the standard conditions of supervised release, a condition I find totally absurd by the way, for reasons I will address at some time in the future. However, my PO has approved "associations" with individuals who respond to my blog. Officially, these individuals are not convicted felons until the judge signs the Judgment and Commitment document after sentencing so I don't think there is even a technical issue until that point but my PO approved it nonetheless.

There are probably 6 or 7 people who have written me for more information. All are white collar... mortgage fraud, embezzlement, political corruption, etc. One is actually due to be sentenced today so I am wondering how that's going... and remembering how I felt in the days leading up to sentencing. Another recently reported to Pensacola FPC, so I was able to give him some tips and give him the names of some people there who will make sure he gets situated ok.

Funny story. When I was at the Probation Office getting my ankle bracelet cut off, my PO said he got a call about me the previous week from Charleston. (Yikes.... what have I done now??)Turns out that a probation officer in Charleston was informed of my blog by one of his "clients" and he was just calling my PO to make sure he was aware of it, which of course he was. He had also called Pensacola FPC to make sure they were aware of it, which of course they also were (you can read all about THAT here.)

I don't know how much the government wastes time reading this blog, but, to date, no one has told me I can't do this; indeed everyone has told me I am providing useful information, albeit with a little bit of humor that occasionally tweaks "the system." God help them if Maureen Dowd ever goes to prison and writes about it! She'll skewer everyone. I know I push the envelope a little with some of the detailed information I provide but I assume someone will let me know if I cross the line. Hopefully it won't be in the form of US Marshalls knocking on my door!

How Have I Changed

I have actually asked this question of a few friends. I don't feel like I am much different than before... maybe a little calmer... if that is possible. However, they claim to notice a difference. Maybe a little more "humble." Sensitive. Empathetic. Quieter. Those are the terms I hear.

I certainly feel less "afraid" of the judicial system. Prison doesn't scare me anymore, not that I really want to go back, but it has reaffirmed that life is lived, not in a place, but in the mind. Attitude is everything.

I am less optimistic (or is is less naive) about politics and government. I hate to use the word "cynical" because that is such a copout... a defense mechanism against caring in order to avoid the disappointment that is the risk of caring. I want to care. I don't want to just be cynical. Nonetheless, there are aspects to the judicial system that are maddening... aspects that the general public just doesn't understand. I understand the disposition to trust your government, but if they only knew....

In an earlier post, I listed a variety of topics I wanted to comment on... issues that I knew nothing about until I experienced them myself... issues that I have to believe the general public would be shocked to learn are really part of the American judicial system and are fundamentally unfair.

I still want to do that but it requires so much effort to compile. Also, the issues are complicated, which requires more nuanced explanation. Our system didn't get here by accident but there are also unintended consequences... laws and regulations that were supposed to make things more fair but in fact had the opposite effect.

Hopefully, I will find the energy and motivation to do so.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Michael Vick Tested Positive For Drug Use On Purpose?

In this article and in a question posted by a reader in response to an earlier post, it has been suggested that Vick may have intentionally tested positive for pot in order to gain access to the BOP DAP program (drug and alcohol program). I originally thought the reader's question was absurd but then I read an article (linked above) suggesting the same thing and I still think it is absurd.

The premise of this theory is that there is only one statutory basis for reducing one's federal sentence other than the 15% good-time credit all inmates are entitled to... getting into the drug and alcohol program. Since Vick has no documented drug history, why not create one? The positive test cannot technically be the basis for an enhancement for the charges he pled guilty to so where's the risk.

I think there are several.

First, according to Vick's plea agreement, he is facing 12-18 months, assuming the judge does not depart from the guidelines. The drug program takes 9 months to complete plus a mandatory 6 months in a halfway house for a total of 15 months.... once you get in, which takes a month or two minimum. If Vick gets the 12 month sentence, with good time, he would only do 9.5 months plus 1 month in a halfway house for a total of 10.5 months. He has nothing to gain by getting into the drug program. Vick's best strategy is to do everything he can to persuade the judge to sentence him to the lower end of the range so he can be done in 10.5 months.

Second, the judge did not have to let him out on bail pending sentencing after he entered his guilty plea, although that is common in non-drug and non-violent (human violence) offences. By violating the conditions of his release he basically spit in the face of the guy who is going to determine how much time you spend in prison. Of course, having now pissed of the judge, he may get a long enough sentence that getting in the drug program actually may be of some benefit! This is taking 5 steps backwards in order to take 1 step forward. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.

Third, Vick's re-entry into the NFL is of major importance. By testing positive for drugs, he makes it more likely that Commissioner Goodell will suspend him after he gets out of prison, further delaying his opportunity to make millions of dollars.

I simply cannot imagine a situation in which any competent lawyer would intentionally advise his client to commit a crime (smoking pot is a crime) in order to, by some perverse logic, potentially shorten his sentence by providing a factual basis for getting into the drug program.

Finally, with respect to the presentence report, it is true that the contents of this report, which is an exhaustive intrusion into every aspect of a defendant's life, goes a long way towards determining one's eligibility for the drug program. But all Vick has to do is say that he has used drugs in the past (they will ask him this) and that it impaired his judgement when he commited these crimes. He doesn't have to test positive again while on pretrial release to make the point!

If I had suggested such a strategy to my lawyer, she would have slapped me upside the head (figuratively, not literally). Now I was certainly prone to suggesting "out of the box" ideas and strategies, of which this would definitely qualify, and she was equally adept at shooting them all down.

There was only one rational posture for Vick once he entered his guilty plea and that was remorse. Whether one is sincerely remorseful or not, you should at least do a credible job of faking it!

Testing positive for pot is nothing but sheer arrogance, not some clever sentencing strategy. Judge Hudson is known as a tough sentencer. I don't think he will be impressed.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Jim Black Release Date Announced (Revised)

Jim Black's release date has been calculated by BOP - Feb 24, 2012. [Note: as reader notes below, the date was originally Feb 28, 2012 and revised downward the next day. I am sure Black's lawyers will doublecheck everything to make sure it's right and let them know... unless BOP wrongly calculated in Black's favor of course, in which case they will keep their mouths shut :) ]. Using this time and date calculator, he will serve about 1671 days or about 55 months (4 years, 6 months and 26 days) of his original 63 month (1916 days, calculated as 365 x 5 + 91) sentence. Note that this is not 85% but 87.2%. (1671/1916=87.2%), which is why I explained earlier that federal inmates do not really get 15% off their sentence for good time but closer to 12.8%. In effect, BOP is cheating him out of about 1.5 months based on their calculations. He is getting 245 days good time when it should be more like 287 days (1916 x 15%) so he is losing 42 days based on BOP strange calculation method.

Of this 55 months, he will be allowed to serve the final 10%, or 5.5 months, in a halfway house, presumably in Charlotte. That means he will actually spend about 49.5 months (4 years and 1.5 months) in "real" prison before release to the halfway house. In reality, most inmates do not spend all of their time in the halfway house, but are released after a much shorter period, depending on how overcrowded it is. He may spend 6-8 weeks in the halfway house I would guess.

It turns out I won my own contest to guess the release date. I guessed March 9, 2012 so I was off by 13 days.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Clothing / Laundry

[This was written while in prison.]

When you are admitted to FPC Pensacola, you are assigned the following clothing:

5 green shirts (long-sleeve if you want)
5 green pants
1 green jacket
4 white t-shirts
4 white boxers/briefs
4 pair of white socks

You also get 2 twin sheets, 2 blankets, a pillow and pillow case, 2 laundry mesh bags, and one pair of black Rhino steel-top work boots.

Additionally, you can buy sweats (shirt, shorts, pants) and additional boxers, t-shirts, and socks at the commissary on monday nights.

Only prison camps have green uniforms All other federal prisoners where khaki uniforms. Or so I am told... I have nothing to document that.

The green shirts and pants have your name tag ironed on. The name tag includes your name, id number, and laundry bin number. You laundry bin number is also attached to your laundry mesh bags.

(click to enlarge)

There are two ways to clean your clothes -- use the prison laundry or use the dormitory laundry.

Each dormitory floor has a laundry room for use by inmates. My room is next to the laundry room, which has 3 commercial washers and 3 commercial dryers. Oftentimes, I get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom (which requires me to walk past the laundry room) and I will see someone doing their laundry (or someone else's -- it is common to pay poor inmates to do your laundry). You can buy laundry soap in the commissary.

This will come as no surprise... I do not do my own laundry. I use the prison laundry.

The prison laundry is located on the backside of the old airplane hangar behind the dorm. I can see it out my window across the staff parking lot. [See second picture at the bottom of the page.]

This is how the procedure works.

Put all your whites and sweats in your mesh laundry bag and use the pull string to tighten the opening (you should also tie a knot to prevent the pullstring from loosening otherwise the contents will empty into the wash).

Walk to the laundry and drop your bag through the chute in the door along with your separate greens. This should be done before 7a. Since your greens have an id number on them, as does your mesh bag, the laundry staff can keep your stuff together.

The mesh bags are loaded into 160lb commercial washers. Of coarse, the greens are washed in separate loads. After washing, they are dried in big tumble dryers. After drying, the green shirts and pants are folded by the inmates who have laundry duty that day. I did this 2 or 3 times during my stay.

The mesh bads and folded greens are then stacked in cubbyhole bins according to each inmate's laundry number (I'm 702 as you can see on my id tag above).

Laundry can be picked up after 2p. In other words, you drop your laundry up before work in the morning and you pick it up when you return in the afternoon. Pretty simple. I usually do it on Monday.

As for linens, you take your 2 sheets, 2 blankets, and pillowcase and exchange them for clean ones; you don't keep washing the same ones over and over.

Inmates run the laundry although they are supervised by a staff person.

I am going to try to keep one set of greens and my work boots when I leave as "souvenirs" but I don't know yet if it is allowed. I thought it would make an original (and authentic!) Halloween costume.

In the meantime, I will get a picture taken of me in greens so you can see that the uniforms are not bad. Except for the name tag, no one would know that you are an inmate. It's not like walking around in an orange jumpsuit.

[UPDATE: I was not allowed to take any clothing with me :( I did get a picture taken which is displayed above. ]

Commissary Changes

[This was written in late May while in prison. While the topic is not so timely anymore, it does illustrate some of the small practical issues that the prison staff have to respond to.]

Effective May 21, 2007, the commissary schedule changes. The waiting times have become prohibitively long while waiting for your "order" to be processed. (See previous post for details on how the commissary works.)

The new schedule has added one hour from 11a-12p Monday-Thursday. This corresponds to the lunch hour for inmates who work on the camp or at Saufley Field (the base the prison is located on), such as myself. Approximately 70% of the camp works offsite so this does not affect them directly, however, if the other 30% utilize this new one hour window, it should relieve the congestion during the 4p-7p shopping time the 70% must use after they return from their work detail.

Thus, while the change does create a decision (do I shop or eat lunch??), I think this is a good change. In addition to relieving the congestion for the later time slots, it gives you an opportunity to "quick shop" for items you may have run out of without having to wait for your designated shopping day to arrive (Tue, Wed, or Thu).

Also, if you reach your $290 spending limit before the end of your "reset" day (the 10th of the month for me), it allows you to buy stuff immediately on the first weekday after your account resets, which is nice also.

As welcome as these changes are, I am not sure they were done for our benefit. I don't want to give into the cynicism that pervades prison life (a cynicism that assumes that no decision is made by the BOP with the inmate's welfare in mind), but there was an accompanying memo that reinforces the specific boundaries of the commissary waiting area.

The commissary is operated out of an old naval airplane hangar located on the corner of the prison camp adjacent to other Saufley Field buildings where civilians work. [See second map at bottom of the page -- click link to enlarge. The commissary is in the upper left hand corner --northwest -- of the camp.] Inmates are supposed to remain outside of the commissary door under a small (12'x24') sheltered patio on a small area near the dumpsters (!) next to the patio.

Given the increased population of the camp and the limited time to shop, it is is impossible to keep the inmates congregated in such a small waiting area. As a result, they often overflow into the side street (Sprague Ave), occasionally obstructing cars who are leaving work at the end of the day (remember, shopping is after the 4p count -- usually around 4:30p -- till 7p). I suspect this makes some of the drivers, especially the women, uneasy and the camp received complaints.

Furthermore, having such a large number of inmates (100-125) congregated on the edge of the camp boundaries, separated only from the large base by a line on the ground, creates an opening for the import of contraband.

Whether the schedule changes are designed to make life easier on the inmates or address security concerns, I don't know. Nonetheless, the changes are welcome.

[UPDATE: As it turns out, the added lunch hour shopping time was not quite as beneficial as I had hoped. I had assumed that we could shop on any, or all, of the days that the commissary was open at lunch. Indeed it seemed that way for a while as "Tank" and I would stop by after eating lunch and buy a pint of Blue Bell ice cream for $1.50 and sit in the shade before returning for work. Ok, maybe it is not quite as poignant as that scene in Shawshank Redemption where "Red" and the other inmates drank beer on the rooftop they were tarring, courtesy of Andy Dufresne's tax knowledge but its the best I could do!

Unfortunately, however, it turns out the prison was still "officially" enforcing the rule that you can only shop once per week and you were still restricted to your designated shopping day. In other words, if my shopping day was Tuesday, then I can shop at lunch on Tue or later that afternoon but not both shifts or on another day. In practice, it actually depends on which of the 3 COs are running the commissary that week. Running the commissary is a miserable and tedious job -- no one like it. Some are stickler for the rules; others just want to get the orders placed as quickly as possible and don't want to waste time trying to figure out whether you already shopped that day or whether this is your shopping day or not (your shopping day is determined by the last two digits of your inmate id number so it is easy to tell but not so easy to remember if you already ordered at lunch and are back again).

The bigger risk (as I recounted in my 11th Week Summary) is that you could submit your order at lunch and it might not get filled before you have to return to lunch, in which case you have wasted your order for the week. If you aren't there when your order is filled, you are done for the week. Not cool. Trust me, they don't care; it's not their problem. Those were the exact words -- "not my problem" -- I heard when I attempted to shop again that afternoon after I had to leave my order at lunch to return to work. This was to be my last shopping day in prison because the following week the commissary was closed for inventory and the week after I was leaving. This was the only time I ever submitted a "cop-out" to complain about a policy. ]

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Reader Comments

These are comments I have received to my gmail account ( from readers who chose not to post comments online. I have of course slightly edited where necessary to not compromise their privacy.

Comments received while in prison:

I've been enjoying Bill's blog throughout the last few days. As a convicted white-collar felon on my way to Jesup FCI (most likely the camp, from what the forum bloggers are saying), Bill's thoughtful commentary has already helped me tremendously as to what to expect when I arrive. -- Gregory

I'm sure I will have more to say very soon but I just found out 2 days ago that instead of the 12 months probation my attorney said i would get for taking the plea of information withholding (missprisonment of a felony) I will be doing 18months at FPC Pensacola. I report June 4, 2007. Reading your Blog has eased my mind a little and I appreciate that. I still don't know how to handle being away from my 5 year old son and 1 year old daugther, I cry like a little girl everytime I think about it. LOL! Just telling the truth, I'm amazed how supportive and strong my wife is.....I look at her now in a whole new way. I'm sure in time I will learn to cope with missing the children but honestly I just don't see how, other than God, because they spent most of their time with me since I worked for myself. But anyway, I just wanted You to know I appreciate you sharing your experience and I will be Praying for you and your family -- Jonathan [Actually, Jonathan ended up assigned to Edgefield, SC so I didn't get to meet him. I didn't know until prison that there was such a crime as Missprisonment of a Felony, which is a failure to report a felony that you have direct knowledge of... a very odd crime indeed.]

Hey I just wanted to send a note to thank you guys for blogging, I have just stumbled onto this blog in march and have been checking it religiously since then. -- Benjamin

Thank you very much for your compelling blog... I can't thank you for your compelling story and all the information has been so helpful... I have read your blog a hundred times. I printed the entire website and Jerry has it in prison. He reads it daily. I can't thank you enough for all your words of advice and wisdom. It has helped me tons to get prepared for what happened last week. -- Eileen

Comments received since my release:

Thank you so much for creating your blog site and sharing your experiences in the Federal Prison System. Reading your posts has provided a lot of practical insight on what I can expect.
It has also help reduce my fears of being in a prison facility. I will continue checking your blog site every day - please keep the posts coming. -- Jeff

I have been scouring for information on what to expect and trying to prepare myself and my family for what is to come. I have been reading allot on, which is where I found your blog. I wanted to thank you for stepping out of your comfort zone and dealing with this the way you have. I plan on showing my wife your blog so she set her expectations as well. -- Joe

First, let me say welcome home! You survived our backwards system! I am happy for you and your wife. I found your website through Prison Talk Online (PTO). I have been a regular visitor there for a few years.I am about to begin serving a 27 month sentence for Conspiracy to commit wire fraud and failure to file a tax return. Those are my supposed sins, but I will tell you that I am 100% innocent and have never broken a law in my life! -- Tracy

I really appreciate you writing about your experience with the federal government criminal justice system. I am having my own experience unfold presently. -- Michael

Just wanted you to know that I stumbled upon your blog last night (via a link from and couldn't stop reading until I'd read every word. As someone with a relative currently at Pensacola FPC, I'm tremendously grateful for your descriptions, as well as insight and explanations. Thanks for what you're doing -- please keep it up! -- Lisa

I just want to say I really enjoy reading your blog, especially the recent updates since your release. You have a wonderful way with words that can paint a picture for someone who is not in that situation. In one of your posts you talk about 'crossing the threshhold' - how life is different for you now. I can tell you that as I go through this process I can relate. Life really does change. I would say for me it crystallized when all this came to a head. Right now, in pre-sentencing, time does two things. It speeds by and I wonder where the days go, and September 4th (my sentencing date) is getting here quicker than i can believe. In the opposite vein, time seems to slowly creep by slower than I have ever experienced before. -- Jim

First off thanks for your info you don't know just how much you have helped me!!!!!! Is there any way I could talk to you, I hate email. I just have some concerns i would like to know about. My # is 000-000-0000 or i will call you on my dime just e mail me your number. Please please let me talk with you. It would help me and my wife so much!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! -- Phil

Thanks so much for your informative blog. I have been searching the net for a few years, and I must say, your blog is the most informative about life inside. It really is helpful to know what I'm about to face. It takes a lot of the stress and fear away. Please keep this up, as you will help many others in the future. -- Vincent

I read with interest (and laughter), your site today which I ran across as I was looking for information on the Federal "Good Time Credit" bill. For now, your explanation of the calculation provides one of the most clear I've seen. While I still didn't find the information my son called me to look for, the brief reading I did brought a smile to my face. I was having another one of those days where I slip in to depression. I just wanted to let you know that. -- Vivian

New Rabbit Hole Inductees

[This was written near the end of May while in prison.]

On May 17, a new inmate arrived. Not just any inmate, but a very special inmate -- the first inmate who has reported to FPC Pensacola after first reading this blog on the outside!

My wife notified me that he was arriving and gave me his name (which I won't repeat). It turns out he was assigned to my dorm 2 rooms away. I have stopped by a couple of times but he hasn't been there.

Eventually, I'm sure I will meet him. I'm curious to get his feedback on my blog.

Stay tuned. I am told there are 2 or 3 more on the way.

[UPDATE: I did finally meet John in the cafeteria. He said he had looked for me. He also said his roommates had a lot of questions about me because, apparently, they knew I was writing this blog, which I guess made them nervous. John reassured them that they had nothing to be nervous about. He said that this blog had been a huge source of comfort for his family, that it was the only thing they could find that talked about life in FPC Pensacola. He was responsible for posting my blog address on, which garnered me some extra traffic. John is a former CEO who is serving 1 year and a day. He has the right mindset and will do fine.

In mid-June, another inmate introduced himself as having read my blog and wanted to thank me. He made the same comment as John; that is, the blog was a source of comfort for his family.

It is odd, because that was not a conscious intent of mine. It didn't occur to me that simply describing my life in prison would bring comfort to future inmate families but I guess I can see why. Our biggest fears are of the unknown. I know I couldn't find any information on the internet about this place so simply making the reality known, even if it is unpleasant, is better than not knowing.

I will post some of the other comments I have received to my gmail account in the next post.

Me and Ike

[Sorry for the long delay in posting new articles about my prison experiences. I still have 10 or so more to go. This was written in late April, 3 weeks after I entered prison so read it in that context. I have delayed repeatedly posting it because it is more personal than other posts but it illustrates the types of personality issues that arise in prison and how I tried, or didn't try (!), to deal with them. As always, comments in brackets are current edits, everything else is as I wrote it at the time.]

This morning, Wed April 18, Ike and I almost had a fight. It wouldn't have been much of a fight. Ike is a 5'10" 235lb 38 yr old black guy with about 12 years in prison and a life on the streets. Me? I'm about... well, it doesn't matter what I am, I would have been killed. [This occurred several weeks before I actually was assaulted.]

Ike is one of my new roommates that arrived on the transfer bus last Wednesday. There are 10 guys in my room now (5 black, 2 hispanic, and 5 white). In an ironic twist, I actually have "seniority" in the room based on most time at this prison. [They opened a new room after my first week and moved me and 2 other guys into the room, filling the room with transfers over the next couple weeks.] That doesn't mean much, except I like to occasionally joke about it, given that all the black guys have been in other prisons for quite a while. For the most part, they laugh along and make jokes at my expense about my prison naivete.

Ike is loud, opinionated, funny and profane. He finds me something of a curiosity and is constantly mocking me about almost everything. I usually enjoy the repartee as do the other black guys in the room although at times it wears on me.

I have always tried to view prison as an opportunity to meet and try to understand people I usually don't get to spend much time with. Black drug dealers from the "street" fall into that category so Ike and I have had some pretty "real" conversations and I thought some degree of mutual respect had been established. Unfortunately it was a fragile respect.

Each room is responsible for maintaining its cleanliness. [Each room on each unit is inspected weekly and the highest rated unit gets preference for chow and commissary lines.] This includes daily sweeping, mopping, and dusting the lockers and window sills. There is a variety of ways to manage this but most rooms simply rotate the job to a different person each week. I volunteered the first week, knowing by the time it came back around to me, I would already be out.

For reasons I don't entirely understand, Ike insists on helping me to the point of taking over the whole job and then accusing me of not knowing what I am doing (which is partly true) and generally just being lazy (which is not true). This morning, I had to be a the bus staging area for work at 6:30a. Ike, still concerned that I might not do my job, asked me when I was going to do it. I said I would get up at 5:30a and do it right before I leave for work.

I awoke at 5:30a only to see Ike already sweeping with the mop bucket ready nearby. All the shoes under the beds (which is where we keep them) had been placed on a spare bed. I was confused and annoyed at his insistent efforts to belittle and embarrass me in front of the other guys in the room.

Exasperated, I finally said, "Ike, the only other person in my life who insists on doing my work for me is my momma!"


What I thought was merely a cute joke to make my point was instead perceived (apparently) as a full frontal nuclear attack on this man's masculinity. Ike had been dissing me for days and with one little remark, I had ignited a firestorm. It was clear that it took every ounce of self-control for him to keep from decking me. After telling me to quit talking "slick" and "disrespecting" him, he left to cool off, but it was clear this man was steamed and I wanted nothing to do with him anymore.

I finished cleaning the room and left for me new work detail. I saw my friend Sherman on the way out and he already knew about it [seems like Sherman always knew what was going on... he would always tell me he worried about me based on the "word on the street"]. He and Ike go way back and Ike was shocked to find out the previous day that Sherman and I were friends, though a very unlikely pair. (The other new guys in the room were surprised at how many people I already knew. They joke that I will know everyone before I leave in 3 months. My friends back home are nodding knowingly! They would not be surprised.)

Sherman confirmed that my "joke" had enraged Ike (he claims that I had essentially called him a "bitch" which I guess is a fighting word in prison) and he reaffirmed his earlier advice (that he now believes I will continue to ignore) to leave guys like Ike alone and don't get caught up in the little details of "this place." If I was anywhere other than a prison camp, I would already have problems. He also confirmed what I alread suspected - that I was transferred out of the other room because the other guys didn't like me. It's not that I'm not "nice." It's that my conversational inquisitiveness doesn't translate well to prison, at least with a lot of guys who have learned on the street to be suspicious of inquisitive strangers. I also don't act like I'm in prison which I am sure is a point of irritation for some.

Unfortunately, out of fear for my safety and sanity I really have to reevaluate my natural manner of socializing while in prison. When I returned to my room later that day for the 4p count, Ike and I ignored each other. He was his typical boisterous self whereas I kept silent in my bunk, biting my tongue when tempted to interject something into the group conversation. I left poor Ken, who is a Russian Jew, to fend for himself as they "discussed" such topics as "Which was worse, slavery or the holocaust?" (Uh, see ya. I don't want any piece of that discussion!)

This development is actually quite sad for me. I knew I was going to be around many types of people I do not naturally nor normally associate with. I have always found other people's stories interesting, especially if they are from a different culture. I am the furthest thing from a xenophobe. I am usually pretty effective at establishing some level of rapport with almost anyone. Unfortunately in this case, it seemed to have blown up in my face.

PS May 9 update. Ike and another inmate moved out of my room today and two new transfers moved in. Ike and I have barely talked in the last 3 weeks. I have done a lot better at keeping to myself. (Sherman says he hasn't heard my name come up lately, which I guess is a good thing!)

He didn't move because of me but, according to his comments last night, because his "bunkie" insists on keeping the light in the room on until 11:30p when "lights out" is soon after the 10p count. I'm already asleep by then and the lights don't bother me anyway so I wasn't aware of this but it further illustrates the kind of issues that can arise in a room with 12 guys.

I have also since learned details that may have explained partially some of our earlier misunderstanding. It is not uncommon for some inmates to "work" for money (see post on Mackerel) because they have no one on the outside to put money in their commissary account and we only get about $17/mo for our prison work.

Thus some inmates will provide services for other inmates in exchange for a few cans of mackerel, which they can barter for other needed items. [In other prisons, since cigarettes are now banned from federal prisons, stamps usually function as the new currency. At FPC Pensacola, it was cans of mackerel. Go figure.] These services can include housekeeping duties such as sweeping, mopping, dusting, bed making, and laundry. Technically, these arrangements are against BOP rules (primarily, I assume, to protect vulnerable inmates from being coerced into providing payments to other inmates). It is however extremely common and, in any case, Ike has been doing the cleaning ever since my "shift" ended so maybe that is what is going on.

In other words, Ike may very well have been insisting on doing the cleaning and on showing me and everyone else that he can do a better job than me so we would all agree to just pay him to do it instead of simply rotating the job among each inmate. Ike is a proud man and it may have been difficult for him to say that so he did it the only way he knew and I just didn't get the hint and ended up insulting him. He wasn't showing me up so much as he was trying to "get the job".... a good example of two guys from two different backgrounds, insecure about two different things (he is poor and I'm new to prison), completely misunderstood each other.

[UPDATE: Over the remaining 7 weeks of my stay, Ike and I continued to ignore each other which was a little easier since we were not roommates but he continued for several weeks to continue cleaning the room which required me to actively ignore him when he was cleaning around my bed. When we were otherwise near each other, we simply averted our eyes, which actually is the normal way to mind your own business in prison... just focus on the ground 10 feet in front of you and don't pay attention to anything else... not even a nod or a smile unless it is a friend.... actually, I think it works this way in New York City also :)

During my last couple weeks, however, we ran into each other in the library a couple times and the ice began to melt a little. We would have simple conversations but neither of us treaded on any ground that could turn sensitive.

Finally, with only a few days remaining, the subject of our "incident" came up. He actually broached it by acknowledging that we had had a little falling out but that was in the past. I acknowledged that I have noticed a tendency to irritate a few people while in prison. He asked why I thought that was. I didn't know. He said it was because I was sarcastic, which I thought was odd. Given the "aggressive" language that I had to put up with everyday, anything I say had to be relatively benign. My guess is that while my language is not "rough," I am still more verbally sophisticated than most of the guys in prison so I can "defend" myself with fewer, incisive words. Of course, in a different prison, I would just get beat up so my words would not have done me a whole lot of good!

Another guy, actually a friend, told me soon before I left that I was a "smart ass who didn't care what anyone else thought," an observation I thought totally untrue yet, strangely, I think he meant it as a compliment. I was determined, in my brief stay, to be true to myself, to not allow myself to be overwhelmed by the culture of prison. With a 3 month sentence, I had that luxury. I was definitely a misfit in so many ways that were repeatedly pointed out to me by guys who didn't appreciate my "misfitting." Yet, I stood my ground I think for the most part and sometimes that involved some verbal sparring that some could construe as being a "smart ass." Usually, some friend would later tell me that I really shouldn't be getting in these kinds of "conversations."

On the day I left, Ike made a point to wish me good luck and I am pleased to say I think he was sincere. I will never forget his stories. I so wish I could have had a microphone to record his monologues about life on the street... girls, clubs, drugs, the "PO-lease"... some of the funniest stuff I have ever heard. He always "kept it real." ]

Wife who killed preacher could go free today

In March 2006, Mary Winkler shot her preacher husband in the back with a shotgun. She was tried and convicted of voluntary manslaughter.

In June, while I was in prison, she was sentenced to 3 years in prison. I was amazed. I recall telling my parents when they visited that it was a good thing she killed her husband; had she sold him crack instead, she would be facing serious federal time.

Here I was surrounded by men whose only crime was selling drugs (or, in many cases, simply involved in some way in the "conspiracy" to sell drugs -- one guy was doing 12 years because, as a favor to his cousins for no compensation, he translated from Spanish to English to facilitate a drug deal!) who were doing far more time for a non-violent offense while Ms. Winkler gets 3 years for shooting her husband in the back.

But wait, it gets better. The judge only required her to serve 210 days of the sentence in prison, with the remainder to be served on probation. Since she had already spent 5 months in jail awaiting trial, she is now being released after serving the final 60 days. In other words, I am doing 6 months (180 days) -- half in prison, half home confinement -- for making a copy of a physician list; she gets 30 days more for shooting her husband in the back. I understand there were difficult circumstances involved but the fact remains she killed another human being voluntarily and she will only spend 7 months in jail.

Part of the difference is state vs federal sentencing (hers was a state case) but surely that cannot possibly fully explain the twisted sentencing priorities in our system(s) of justice.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

CEO Survival Guide (Hint: Don't Get Sick)

Just ran across an article in Conde Nast Portfolio - C.E.O. Survival Guide: Pre-Prison Prep -

I pretty much agree with all 10 points.

In particular, one I haven't talked about is #4: Don't Get Sick. They are being kind when they say: "Prison medical staffs may not be up to the standard you have come to expect."

Medical care is actually rather scary, especially if you have a chronic condition you are used to treating on the outside. For example, if you are diabetic you can no longer give yourself insulin shots. I knew a couple guys that would go in first thing in the morning and once in the afternoon to get their shots. They were constantly battling the doctor as to the appropriate dosage. I saw one guy go into diabetic shock in the dining hall. I don't mean to be rude but he looked like a cockroach on its back in the throes of death. It was quite scary. Fortunately, the staff attended to him pretty quickly and he recovered ok, but everyone pretty much lost their appetite for what remained of their lunch.

One of my roommates had so many chronic medical problems (he really had no business in a workcamp), he was sent 3 times (!) during my brief stay to the local emergency room due to seizure-like symptoms. He was always returned within a few days because the prison doctor, not the hospital doctor, has final say about his fitness to return and it is expensive for BOP to pay for his medical care in the hospital. The third time they dropped him down half a flight of stairs (we were on the 3rd floor) and, when he returned, he could barely get out of bed due to soreness in neck and back. Were it not so serious, it would have been comical.

I had a routine initial dental appointment and physical exam. That was fortunately the extent of my personal experience with medical care in prison. The dentist and physician's assistant that I saw were fine although I was not being treated for any specific medical condition. I am not qualified to evaluate the competence of any of the medical staff but I do know that the medical director and chief physician had very low reputations among the inmates. (Having a low reputation among inmates is not necessarily a bad thing, but....)

Finally, if I haven't depressed you enough, one inmate died last fall. He was in his 50s, playing soccer, and had a heart attack. One of the other inmates was a physician himself and was present to treat him. However, the CO prevented him from doing so. As a matter of rule, the CO was apparently right..... BOP regulations prohibit inmates from providing medical care to other inmates. However, the medical office was probably half a mile away and the inmate died on the soccer field. I was not there (it was before my time) but the story was well known in the camp.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Guess Jim Black's Release Date - Win $20

To illustrate how complicated sentence computation can be, I am having a contest to calculate Jim Black's release date.

Winner gets $20.

Once BOP completes the official computation it will be published on their website here. It could take them a few weeks. Contest closes once the date is published.

Jim Black was sentenced to 63 months. He surrendered last Monday, July 30. He should also get one day credit for his arraignment although he entered a guilty plea before being indicted so maybe he was never arraigned. His BOP sentence includes halfway house so you don't have to worry about that.

Using this document or any other you can find, calculate his release date and post it as a comment. Hmmm.... but if everyone posts a comment as "anonymous," how will I know who the winner is?

My guess: March 9, 2012 [I recalculated. Originally, I said April 12, 2012.]

You can use this date calculator to assist you.

PS He could end up knocking another year off his sentence if he gets in the DAP program but that is not a consideration at this point.

[UPDATE: I was minding my own business yesterday (Sat, 8/12), reading the Charlotte Observer at my favorite lunch place (I am allowed out between 10a-2p on Saturdays). Lo and behold I run across a story about my blog... actually, this particular article! If you have never had your name in the paper, it is always a startling experience, especially when you had no idea it was coming.

See (scroll down)

The background is that I had emailed David Ingram, the reporter who has been covering the Jim Black affair, to see if he had any inside information on how Jim Black was able to get to Lewisburg so quickly (see previous post). In the email, I referred to my blog. Apparently it read part of it and decided to announce my little contest here.

Of course, I could have done without his little comment at the end that he would enter, but he doesn't "gamble." The last thing I need is for my PO to violate me because I broke some gambling law! :) This is not gambling, David, it's just a contest. ]

Good Time Credit is NOT 15%

It is commonly thought that federal inmates can earn 15% off of their sentence for each year served. This is the so-called "good-time credit."

The Sentencing Commission in 1987 created baseline sentences by surveying what actual sentences were for a broad array of crimes. It then divided by 0.85 to make the sentence about 15% longer so that the good-time credit would bring the sentence back down to the standard amount. In other words, the base guideline sentences actually contain a built-in 15% "bad-time" penalty which "good-time" simply erases.

However, instead of simply multiplying the guideline sentence by 85% to get back to the base level sentence, the BOP came up with a different, more-convoluted interpretation of the statute. Courts appear to have acknowledged some ambiguity in the language of the statute and that BOP's interpretation is one viable interpretation. Since it is up to BOP to calculate setences, their interpretation is deferred to as long as it is deemed "reasonable."

The result of the BOP's interpretation is that an inmate only gets 12.8% good-time credit rather than 15% -- 47 days per year instead of 54 days.

Why is this?

The short explanation -- read the NACDL link below for full explanation -- is that BOP only gives you credit based on "term of incarceration" not "term of sentence." According to BOP, good-time credit must be 15% of actual prison time, not sentenced time. What this means is that if BOP were to give an inmate 15% of 365 days (that is, 54 days -- actually 54.75 but I guess they round down), then the inmate would only serve 311 days. Since 311 is the actual "term of imprisonment" then BOP claims that the inmate is actually getting a 17.3% credit (54/311). In other words, BOP calculates the good-time percentage using adjusted time as the denominator, not the sentenced time. Therefore, they determined that 47, not 54, days credit would actually result in 15% because term of imprisonment would then be 318 days (365-47) and 47/318 = 14.78%, which I guess is as close as they could get to 15% (although if they gave 48 days credit, 48/317=15.14%, which is actually closer to 15% -- whatever). The bottom line is that BOP claims they are giving 15% credit but to most people it appears as 12.8% because 47/365=12.8%.

Only sentences greater than 1 year are eligible for good-time (and halfway house for that matter). That is why you see so many sentences at one year and a day. If the judge gave a sentence of exactly one year (365 days), the inmate would not qualify for the 47 days (or the halfway house). However, with a sentence of one year and a day (366 days), the inmates will actually serve 319 days... about 10½ months. The final 32 days (10% of 319) would be spent in a halfway house.

Thus, a one year sentence turns into 287 days in prison (9½ months) and 32 days in a halfway house.

As I understand it, the good-time credit is given at the end of each year served. Where I am not clear is what this means if, say, your sentence is 23 months. At the end of the first year, you get 47 days credit. But you never complete the second year since it is only partial. Does this mean that you only get the 47 days for the first year but no credit for the significant part of the second year. Most people would simply multiply 15% by 23 months (let's call it 690 days) and come up with 103 days believing that is their good time credit. But it is possible that you may only get 47 for completing the first year and none for the rest. [UPDATE: I found the answer. The statute specifically says "credit for the last year or portion of a year of the term of imprisonment shall be prorated and credited within the last six weeks of the sentence." I guess you do get credit for the last partial year, which of course makes sense.]

Furthermore, if your sentence is, like Jim Black's, 63 months, then with his good time credit for the early years of the sentence, he will end up serving less than 60 months (credit = 47 days x 4 anniversaries = 188 days) and will not get credit for the 5th year of his sentence (let alone the extra 3 months after 5 years) because he never actually got to the end of the 5th year. [UPDATE: As I indicated above, Jim Black should get credit for the portion of the 5th year that he will actually serve.]

What is the difference? Well, by my calculations:

Original sentence: 1916 days (5 years x 365 days plus 91 days for the 3 months)
15% Good Time Calculation: 287 days
Actual Good Time Calculation for First 4 years: 4 years x 47 days/year = 188 days
Actual Good Time Calculation for Partial 5th year: 268 days/365 days x 47 days/year = 34 days
Actual Total Good Time : 212 days
Difference: 75 days (2½ months)

As I stated at the beginning this is unfortunately more complicated than it should be.

For more details, I refer you to the following links:$File/pg12.pdf

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Wow, Do I Feel Silly

Believe it or not... and I still can't believe it... Jim Black is in Lewisburg. He left Friday (yesterday) morning and according to the BOP website, he is now in Lewisburg. 450 miles in one day. In a prison van. How did they do it?

Maybe BOP was reading my website and just wanted to prove me wrong so they drove him straight there (it's STILL a long way to go in a prison van) before transporting anyone else anywhere.

I still think everything I said was true because I know of other case stories but I was hoping that I could use Jim Black as an object lesson (not that I really wished the experience on him). I guess BOP wouldn't let me do that.


Coincidentally, my PO stopped by this morning (on a Saturday) and I was telling him about Jim Black getting to Lewisburg so fast. He said it is possible that he flew. I had forgotten about that possibility because normally the Justice Prisoner & Alien Transportation System (JPATS) -- also known as Con-Air -- flies through their central hub in Oklahoma City. Just like Fed-Ex flies all packages into Memphis and then redistributes them back out, so BOP send all prisoners to Oklahoma City where they have a special airport that is the holdover facility. In other words, the airport is itself a prison but exists solely to handle inmates temporarily who are in transit from one facility to another. I have heard that it is actually not that bad of a place. The flights on the other hand I have heard are not so pleasant.

For a first-hand account of the Con-Air experience click here.

You can also read Michael Santos' description on his website (scroll down to Prison Transit section).

Trivia: Immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all civilian air service, Con-Air was the only non-military air service allowed to continue flying in U.S. airspace.

I don't think Jim Black flew Con-Air but since, technically, he never was in custody of BOP (just the US Marshals), he possibly could have flown commercial at his own expense with an accompanying marshal -- I vaguely recall an inmate tell me that a private flight is an option he tried to utilize once when he needed to travel from Pensacola to New York City for a resentencing hearing. It costs some ridiculous amount like $10K, which he was prepared to pay, but he was turned down. Instead, his roundtrip diesel therapy experience lasted 3 months, including scenic stops in Atlanta and Oklahoma City.

As for Jim Black, this solution actually would make a lot of sense for all involved and explain how he could have gotten to Lewisburg so fast and still been processed that afternoon and have it already listed on the BOP website. Even under the best case scenario, I don't think all this could have been accomplished by van.

I'm surprised I didn't think of this earlier. They reported that he entered a van but the van could have taken him to the airport. Hopefully I can verify some of this in the next couple days.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Jim Black on Way to PA to Serve Prison Sentence

For those who follow this matter, a "Rabbit Hole" reader forwarded me this story:

It appears that Jim Black is on his way to Lewisburg, PA prison camp as of this morning. He surrendered to the US Marshals on Monday, had his state sentencing hearing on Tuesday and spent Tue, Wed, and Thu night in the Wake County jail (total of 4 nights). Let the clock begin. I am really curious how long it takes the prison van to make it to Lewsburg. Maybe I am proven wrong, but I think it will take a couple weeks. The BOP website still says he is "In Transit."

Remember, the federal judge could have delayed his surrender date by a few days and let him report, at his own expense, directly to Lewisburg after his sentencing hearing. Instead, he intentially forced him to report exactly one day before his state sentencing hearing in Raleigh, knowing that he would have to ride the prison bus (at taxpayer expense) from Raleigh to Lewsiburg -- 462 miles away.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Jim Black and Diesel Therapy

As I discussed earlier, Jim Black had requested a delay in his sentencing to give BOP time to designate a facility. He had requested Butner, north of Raleigh, and about 3 hours from his home town of Matthews, near Charlotte. As it turns out, BOP was able to designate a facility in time (last Thursday to be precise) -- he was assigned to a camp in Lewisburg, PA, 500 miles away. While they stated that it is common to move "celebrity" inmates further away so they will be treated more anonymously (this is supposedly for their own good), I suspect that the limited amount of time the judge gave them factored into their decision. They simply may not have been able to find space at Butner given the time constraints.

However, a bigger problem was that Black was scheduled to be in a state sentencing hearing today, the day after he was scheduled to report to federal prison! He asked for a 1 week delay, but the judge never replied.

So.... yesterday (Monday), he turned himself into the US Marshal Service in Raleigh and served one night in the county jail before attending his state sentencing hearing today. At least they let him put on a suit, rather than show up in his orange jumpsuit. At that hearing, he was fined $1,000,000 due by December. If he doesn't pay by then, he could face more prison time in NC -- 19-23 months, although it would likely run concurrently with his federal time, which makes it rather moot. Interestingly the state judge said he "agreed with the federal judge's sentence on related charges, though he felt it was severe." He implied he felt this was really a state not federal matter since the citizens of NC were the real victims. I couldn't agree more.

Now what. Well, he is probably spending tonight back in the county jail and sometime in the next couple weeks (!), he will get in a prison van and start the long ride to Lewisburg, PA, which is totally absurd for a 72 year old man. There is absolutely no reason for the federal judge to have not given him a one week delay to self-surrender in Pennsylvania other than the pure sadistic pleasure of torturing the guy. Absolutely none!

You think I exaggerate when I call it "torture?" There is a reason they call prison transportation "diesel therapy:"
Imagine being handcuffed with a chain around your waist securing the handcuffs to your stomach area. You can't move your arms up and down or side to side. Your feet are shackled, limiting you to baby steps. Now get on a bus. And then be stuck on the bus with similarly shackled convicts forever. (It starts at three or four in the morning, and 12-­16 hour days are the norm.) You can try and guess where you're going, but you never will.

Given how far he has to go and the fact that he will probably be the only inmate in the van that is going there, I doubt they will be in a hurry to get him there. It could literally take weeks, with stops at various county jails and federal holdover facilities along the way. If he is really unlucky, it will include a few nights in the Atlanta Penitentiary holdover where he might find himself sleeping on the floor under a toilet in a room with 4 other men, but designed for 2.

If you don't believe me, read the following account on Michael Santos' website (he was sentenced to 45 years for distributing cocaine... a first offense at age 22 -- nice, huh -- he would have gotten a lighter sentence had he murdered his customers rather than sold them coke), which includes references to both Lewisburg and Atlanta in the same transfer.

Prison transportation is not segregated by security level so all inmates are treated as maximum security (thus, the handcuffs and chains). Jim Black could find himself seated next to a mass murderer.

Have we lost our minds? Is this really what we do to public officials who take $29K in illegal contributions? Why don't we just pull out some of these old punishments. I'm not making excuses for what he did... it was clearly wrong... but, my God, a little perspective is in order.

On a slightly different note, the Charlotte Observer today published a list of items Jim Black can bring to "camp" according to camp director Scott Finley. By the way, what the heck is a camp director? I knew of the warden and captain and lieutenant and COs, but "director?" In any case the items are:

Eyeglasses (no gemstones in them)
Plain wedding band
Watch (value at less than $100; can't be capable of photos or Internet).
Softbound religious book (such as the Bible or Quran).
Small address/phone book.
Up to $150 to put into an account.
Receipt showing paid court-ordered fine.
Tennis shoes (white, black or combination; valued at less than $100).
Medicine has to be approved by medical staff.

This was basically the same as FPC Pensacola, except for the watch and tennis shoes. I was not allowed to bring those; I had to buy them in the commissary at a cost of $28 and $54, respectively, and which counted toward my $290 monthly limit. Also, there was no stated limit on the amount of cash I could bring. I brought $1060 to deposit, which they readily accepted.

[UPDATE: According to this Charlotte Observer Editorial, the state judge may have been more supportive of his federal sentence than I first realized, calling it "severe, but appropriate." He felt that the federal government had taken away Black's power and freedom, so it was his job to take away his money. Whatever. Seems like everyone is trying to outdo the other in showing how much they can torture the guy. While there is no doubt he did some really stupid things that certainly created a conflict of interest, there is not one scintilla of evidence that I have seen that anything of substance was done to harm the people of North Carolina. No one has identified a single piece of legislation that was altered or a single person that was harmed. He should have been impeached and perhaps fined but to send the guy to prison for 5+ years, and possibly another 23 months if he doesn't come up with $1 million dollars by December 10 is just luncacy.]