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, July 19, 2007


[This was written sometime in May while I was in prison.]

In 2004, the Bureau of Prisons banned smoking by inmates in all federal prisons (the prison staff can still smoke in outside designated areas). I believe the stated reason was to cut down on health care expenses. At FPC Pensacola, under the new warden, smoking is automatic grounds for a transfer to a "low" security prison (i.e. behind a fence). You will literally be shipped within hours. Smoking is not actually a major infraction in the list of BOP rules and is not normally considered a "shipping offense." However, each warden has almost unlimited discretion in these matters and this warden has determined this to be a zero tolerance activity.

Despite the threat of transfer, smoking is still prevalent. I witnessed it several times a week and smelled the odor of second-hand smoke virtually every night. I have been told that 200 inmates smoke daily here (out of almost 700). I found that hard to believe but other inmates told me that number doesn't surprise them. I think most of it occurs outside the camp during the work details when inmates are not closely supervised.

I am quite sure that the COs know far better than I the actual incidence of smoking. I am not giving away inmate secrets that will get anyone in trouble; the common smoking locations are well known -- the stairwell outside in front of the B and C dorms and the bus staging area. (I'm sure there are others but those are the two primary ones I know of.) There was even a January memo posted near the commissary warning inmates that if there is further evidence of smoking in the bus staging area (where there are two TVs that inmates watch each night), it will be made off-limits in the evening. Nonetheless, every night a handful of guys can be found smoking there and the evidence is apparent the next morning when we line up for work.

Also, each night after the 10pm count and the COs return to the control center, inmates will stand out in the stairwell to smoke. Because my room is centrally located off of the main foyer, perhaps 20 feet from the door to the stairwell (see map segment of my dorm below), the odor is clearly apparent.

(click to enlarge)

The brazenness of the smoking is rather startling given the consequences, which only shows how strong the addiction is. However, unless a CO actually catches an inmate with a cigarette in his possession, he can't bust him.

I have a funny story. Well, at least the memory is still funny.

One of my roommates, who does not smoke, was standing on the intermediate landing between the dorm B (Floor 2) and C (Floor 3, mine) stairwell at about 10:30pm, hanging out with a friend and perhaps 30 other people, most of whom were smoking. (By the way, you are free to roam anywhere inside the dorm late at night, you just can't leave the dorm.) I was reading in bed and could smell the second hand smoke as usual. Indeed, the smoke was so bad, it could apparently be smelled in the control center on the first floor! Suddenly, I heard a stampede of people running into the Dorm C foyer and down each hall with a voice yelling from behind.

My roommate and a friend of his busted through our door into the room with a CO right on their heels. The CO was "Peanut" (affectionately labelled for the shape of his head), who is second only to Arnold in his zeal for enforcing the rules, no matter how minor. (While Arnold is more like the stern Javert in Les Miserables, I always imagined "Peanut" as a black Barney Fife.) He hauled both of them down to the control center and did everything he could to get them to admit they had been smoking. Unfortunately for him, he probably caught the only two guys who had not been smoking... they just happend to be hanging out with guys who were and were the last ones in line when the stampede started after everyone heard him charging out the doors of the control center and up the stairs. (Again, imagine Barney Fife and you get the picture.)

Fortunately for my roommate, he was a pretty smart guy... a (former) lawyer good with words. He basically had an answer for every accusation thrown at him. He was prepared to take any breath test to prove he had not been smoking (which was true). Since the CO had no direct evidence, he had to let them go, but I'm sure he was frustrated because it was so obvious that a lot of people had been smoking but, despite chasing an entire crowd of inmates up the stairwell, he couldn't bust anyone.

I don't smoke and never have. I don't like second hand smoke. However, I would personally rather the inmates get their nicotine fix every day than have to worry about running into a guy going through withdrawl and have him take it out on me!

One guy I worked with was so desperate for cigarettes each day that he would pick through the butts in the sand filled urns located in the smoking shelters located around Saufley Field (for the Naval contractors who work there) hoping to find one that was only half smoked. I still don't know how he lit them.

Now that is desperation.


Anonymous said...

Bill: Can you talk about food? The short lines, meals, process, cafe, all you can eat? what about vegiterans? non meat eaters? Can you survive? How is the food and drinks, menu? etc....Is the food nutritional? Time limits? Hunger?

Bill Bailey said...

I wrote about the food a while back. My wife posted my comments here. I will review what I wrote then and update if necessary.