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).

Thursday, April 26, 2007

5 Days

I've been here 5 days now and have finally settled in. The only thing I'm missing is tennis shoes and sweat pants/shorts/shirts which you can only buy at the commissary on Monday nights 7-8p CST. This just happens to coincide with the final episode of Prison Break for season 2. I chose Prison Break. Therefore, no shoes or sweats.

I'm a little wiser already after 5 days then I was after the first two days. While I still think I can learn a lot from these guys, I'm having to be more selective with whom I interact. Some of these guys are not just "in" prison, they are "of" prison; they have become institutionalized. I try to understand them, but there's nothing about them that invites communication. They've given up, checked out; their souls seem to have died.

On the other hand, I met a guy today who is 19 years into a 27 year sentence. He is 51 and with "good time" will be out in 2 years. I don't know what he did but I'm sure it was drug-related and for the sentence to be that high, he must have received additional enhancements for volume or firearms or conspiracy, or something like that. He cannot have had a record of violence or he would not be allowed to finish his time in this camp. I just don't get these kind of sentences.

He is intelligent and humble. We connected. I asked him who he blamed, and he said, "I blame me." Of course, in a sense, he is correct and that is also the politically correct answer but it's hard to understand how it justifies the punishment he received.

I asked him how he deals with the bitterness and he said he prays. He converted to Islam in prison. He also shared personal details about the effect on his relationship to his family that I will not repeat here, but it was excruciating to hear.

To add insult to injury he was originally sentenced 1 year after the US Sentencing Guidelines (USSG) went into effect. Had he been sentenced a year earlier, he believes he would have received probation. Try doing 27 years with that on your mind.

White Collar Room

It's 6:15a Monday morning. I'm in the library. I missed breakfast. I haven't eaten since 3:30p yesterday. Breakfast on weekdays is served from 5:00 - 6:00a. I woke at 5:30a, showered and dressed only to hear the intercom announce: "The dining hall is now closed." Nice.

So now I'm in the library, specifically the law library, which is a room off the main library [see maps at bottom of page]. I usually write in this room because it has good tables, comfortable chairs, newspapers, and ... white collar criminals, like me, as I discovered this weekend. It does not mean they are better, just more like me. No one wears white collars or blue collars here in prison, at FPC Pensacola we all wear green.

Advertising fraud. Tax fraud. Bank fraud. Mail fraud. Wire fraud. (I seem to be the only "hacker" around.)

According to the inmates I have spoken with, 80 - 90 % of the population here are drug offenders; the remainder are in for white collar offenses. Additionally, 60% are black, 20% Hispanic and 20% white (a subject I will write on later).

Virtually all the drug offenders will acknowledge they were guilty and they knew they were breaking the law (although they were generally unaware of how stiff the US Sentencing Guidelines are when it comes to drug offenses, especially when conspiracy and guns are involved).

The white collar guys are all "innocent." Not technically innocent, because there was probably some law they didn't know about that they violated, but they claim that government lost "perspective" in their case, the system abused them, and they were unaware of the possible drastic consequences of their actions.

Most white collar crimes are business crimes so most white collar criminals view every problem as a "business", not a legal or ethical, issue. Business problems are resolved through negotiation, compromise, and eventually, if necessary, money. It probably goes without saying that our legal system doesn't work that way.

It is very difficult - I can certainly understand - for most white collar defendants to wrap their minds around the idea that they did something that could warrant prison time. The denial and resistance continues even in prison. That is why they are here in the law library -- trying to figure out some way to reverse what has happened to them.

Good luck.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

How I Blog from Prison

Some of you may wonder how I am able to blog from prison. No, I do not have access to the internet!

The prison supplies inmates with tablets of lined paper and envelopes. I write my blog entries on the front and back to save on stamps. I have worn quite a callous on the side of my finger. In a little over 2 weeks I have probably written 80 pages [not all have been posted at this time, be patient, they are coming!] .

It is more difficult than typing, because editing is time consuming. I generally write in "stream-of-consciousness" mode, putting on paper what I am thinking. I have to scratch through errors and write corrections in the margin or squeeze between the lines. As opposed to my usual writing mode on a computer, where I can easily review and rearrange whole sections, editing large sections on paper just takes time -- but I do have lots of that.

I generally write several entries from beginning to end until my hand can't go any farther (or until I run out of time and have to retire for the evening). I try to write entries within a day or two of the event or idea to keep it fresh and accurate. I then re-read them the next day, making minor edits.

Like most writers, I am rarely satisfied with these slightly edited first drafts, but I don't have time to "tighten" them up so I let them go as is. In most cases, they are way too wordy. Given more time, I could improve them, like reducing an algebraic equation to its most efficient form. Perhaps when I get out, I will review them and make needed improvements.

The other feature of blogging that makes it different from traditional journaling is the ability to include internal and external links to phrases and references in a post. I will go back and add these when I get out.

Finally, I package all my entries and send them to my wife, who posts them for me. She has been supportive of this project and has full authority to edit or not post an entry she deems inappropriate. I can send 6 pages in each envelope for the price of one stamp. I usually send 3 or 4 letters at a time 2 or 3 times a week. That is a lot of typing for her, especially since she has to type from my handwriting!

The end result is a 7-10 day delay from when an idea strikes me to when I can write about it, mail it, and have my wife post it.

There is no shortage of ideas, although this may slow down as I settle in and start working a full five days a week, but that will mean I can write more about funny/interesting/unique incidents rather than merely describing some of the more routine aspects of life here.

I really have two audiences: friends and family who want to keep up with how I am doing and strangers who are facing prison time and looking for very specific details about prison life in general and prison camps in particular. The second audience is the reason I will post some lengthy, but perhaps dry, entries about very specific details of an aspect of prison life, such as the dormitories, commissary, food, visitation, etc.

In any case, this project is unique I believe. I don't know of another inmate who has attempted to chronicle on-line the real-time personal details of his experience in prison.

I hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Prison Break Revisited

In an earlier post , I wondered whether I would be able to watch Prison Break (as well as 24 and American Idol) in prison. Well, I have the answer.

Not only can you watch Prison Break and 24 in prison, they are the only two shows that are shown in the theatre. Yes, you read that right; we have a movie theatre here.

My dorm floor has 2 TV rooms with a total of 7 TVs. There are also several other TV rooms on the campus. I wouldn't be surprised if there are a total of 50 TVs here.

Anyone can watch TV, but you have to buy a radio headset from the commissary to listen to them. It is the only way many people can watch multiple TVs in the same room.

Apparently, Prison Break and 24 are so popular that they are both broadcast in the theatre which of course means you don't need a headset there.

Normally movies are shown on Friday and Saturday night. I missed Happy Feet Friday night. Yea, that's right. I'm sorry, but I find the idea of federal inmates watching those dancing penguins to be irresistibly hilarious.

Last night (Sat 3/31), I decided to attend Pursuit of Happyness. Half the camp must have been there -- over 300 people.

As hilarious as it may be picturing imates watching Happy Feet, Pursuit of Happyness is an entirely different movie.

At home, I doubt anyone in the theatre could personally identify with Mr. Gardner's struggles (played by Will Smith); it would be just an inspiring movie. In prison though, I bet half the inmates knew exactly what he was going through.

In the first half of the movie, The Rubik's Cube appeared to symbolize the frustration and apparent impossibility of the challenges he faced. They guy next to me said, "Why doesn't he just peel off the stickers and reapply them?" I said, "That kind of thinking is what gets you in prison."

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

3 Months

Almost no one asks me what I did to get here. Either they don't care or they just assume it had something to do with drugs (which is the case with almost every person I have met). I have only met two other "white-collar" inmates, although they swear there are more here. The intake officer told me I'm his first "hacker" though; the other white collar guys are wire, bank and mail fraud cases.

However, while no one asks me why I'm here, they do ask how long I'm here for. When I say 3 months, I feel like I have to apologize. Apparently, no one has ever heard of a 3 month sentence.
You have to understand the amount of time most of these guys are doing. Many of them are here as their last stop before being released to a halfway house. Once your sentence gets below 10 years, you then become eligible for a prison camp.

Sometimes an inmate thinks that I am just serving the last 3 months of a longer sentence here after spending the first part of my sentence somewhere else. He just can't believe I am only here for 3 months.

I wondered if it would create problems from inmates who might decide if I'm only here 3 months, they will make it feel like 3 years.

Fortunately that has not been the case. Each inmate "does his own time." Each has his own life to live and everyone seems to know that envy or jealousy over another inmate's sentence or release date doesn't change his own situation; it merely detracts from his ability to deal with his own time.

Everyone has said the time will be over before I know it. "3 months is nothing" is the common refrain.

I hope they are right.

PS Necessary disclaimer: my comments are merely intended to reflect the reactions of BOP staff and prison inmates to the length of my sentence, given how they view the purposes of incarceration.

I do not present their views to argue that I should not have received a prison sentence. One could just as easily argue that I should have gotten a longer sentence, so that it would not be a "waste", as one could argue that I might as well have just received home confinement.

Anyway, my sentence is old news to me; I have no interest in rehashing it. It is what it is and I just want to get it behind me. Nonetheless, the response has been interesting.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Apology to BOP

In an earlier post, I stated that the mission of the BOP is merely to warehouse inmates; that it had no rehabilitative function . I got that information from the first chapter of Downtime: A Guide to Federal Incarceration.

I don't know where he got his information but it is wrong. The mission of the BOP is clearly stated as:

It is the mission of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to protect society by
confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and
community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and
appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement
opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.

At least at FPC Pensacola, that does not appear to be just rhetoric. There are significant programs to assist inmates returning to society, including a drug rehabilitation program. I hope to talk about these over the next couple of months.

Furthermore, my fears about dehumanizing treatment appear to be unfounded - so far. While I have heard contrary stories from other inmates, every officer I have had contact with was pleasant and professional, even funny.

In short, initial impressions indicate that the FPC is not the dehumanizing monster I feared. Time may change that opinion, but for now I have no complaints.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


I think I already know what Martha Stewart meant when, upon leaving prison, she remarked that her experience was "life affirming and life altering."

I am already in awe of the guys. While I am not as much in awe after 2 days as I was after one day (a pattern which may continue), nonetheless, they are all helpful, generous, and nice. I have been to men's church retreats with rougher characters :).

Most of them have unbelievable attitudes. I almost feel like apologizing to these guys when I tell them I'm only doing 3 months. At first they think I mean I am only doing 3 months here. When I tell them that is my whole sentence, they say they have never heard of such a thing.

One guy in my room is 12 years into a 20 year sentence. How do you tell someone like that you only have 3 months?

I have a feeling I may learn a lot about life and guts and perseverance from these guys in the next 3 months.

For example, another guy in my room said that you find out in prison what's real and what's not and most of the stuff he thought was real he discovered was just an illusion. You've got to learn to "do your time." If you let "time do you," you'll go crazy. While I'm sure that's a cliche in prison, it was new to me. I don't remember hearing that in college.

I wonder how many people in the "real" world are letting "time do them."

This is going to be a very interesting 3 months.

[UPDATE: Needless to say, if you have read the rest of my blog, my "awe" did diminish over time. Some of these guys have earned my respect by the way they approach their time. But, in most cases, just below the surface, there are a multitude of personal issues simmering. Everyone has to figure out how to do their own time. Some adapt better than others.]


There is an ancient proverb: "Better to remain silent and thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."

I propose a modern revision: "Better to remain silent and thought a fool by a few then to start a blog and show your ass to the world!"

I knew when I started this blog, I was taking a big step outside my comfort zone and risked feeling, if not looking, foolish for some of the things I might end up saying, especially because I wanted this to reflect what I was feeling and thinking in the moment, not after weeks or months of reflection.

Well, it certainly didn't take long for me to start feeling foolish. Certainly my post about "My Biggest Fear" seems absurdly overdramatic now. Some of my other posts strike me as too glib and even petty, knowing what I know after just 2 days.

I knew my posts would sober up once I got here, and I probably should cut myself a little slack given my heightened emotions. I really wanted to capture my final week of preparation. Nonetheless, I still feel a little silly.

Remember the movie "The Game," in which Michael Douglas' character was the victim of a massive practical joke by his brother?

His world appeared to be completely unraveling: Near the end, as the tension was building he fell through a skylight into the atrium of a tall hotel or office building. Sure that he was plummeting to his death, he lands on a large inflatable cushion unharmed. His friends were laughing while he was completely disoriented.

That is how I felt when I first arrived. I assumed I was falling through the "rabbit hole" into this new bizarre world of strange characters and unreality. Instead, I may have found a place that is more real then where I came from.

This is a theme I have a feeling I will be returning to.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


It was such a relief to realize I was not entering Shawshank. Actually, I knew I was not entering Shawshank, but I at least thought I was entering prison, at least what most of us imagine as prison.

Every inmate I have spoken with says this is the best place in the SE Region, if not the entire Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

This is going to be a lot different than I feared.

With one exception, every inmate I have met has been somewhere else before here. In some cases, this is because drug offenders are not allowed to self-report; they are remanded to jail immediately. Typically, that would be a county jail until BOP determines their assignments.

In other cases, inmates are transferred here from other facilities after their security level has been lowered. Only inmates with less than 10 years remaining qualify for a prison camp. (There are several guys in my room doing 15+ year sentences.)

In my case, my point is that these guys know what they are talking about when they say this is the easiest time they have done.

Arrival and First Impressions

Fortunately, the trip to FPC Pensacola was uneventful. The plane arrived 30 minutes late but still made it by 11a. I grabbed a cheeseburger and fries in the airport for my last 'free' meal for a while.

The cabbie knew exactly where to go, having delivered 5 or 6 other inmates over the last year who were either returning from furlough or transferring from another prison. Twenty minutes and $30 later I arrived.

The time to enter the rabbit hole had arrived.

After checking my driver's license, the guard directed me to the control center.

Just inside the entrance of the main building hangs a sign: "Through these portals walk some of the finest correctional officers in the world." The clock read 11:58a.

A man sat behind the reception window. I introduced myself and he instructed me to take a seat and announced over the loudspeaker: "New commit self-reporting at the control center."

I knew my life was about to change but I was having a hard time getting worked up over it. The place was totally non-threatening. I felt like a freshman registering for college or perhaps entering a military prep school.

As I write this it is Sunday afternoon, April 1. I have actually written over 20 pages of notes on a variety of subjects and am going back over them to write the final drafts before mailing them to my wife.

I have had 48 hours to assimilate what is going on around me (and to me). It would take forever to recap it in one long narrative. Instead, I will simply recount different experiences as separate posts.