Club Fed: Ex-Inmates, Lawyers Describe Reality of Life Behind Bars

by Kate Knable  on Monday, Oct. 24, 2011 12:00 am  

Ex-inmates and lawyers describe the reality of serving time in federal prisons.

The Oct. 14 hearing at which Alexander "Lex" Martinez of Benton was sentenced to 12 months and one day in federal prison was open to the public, as was the trial at which he was convicted of bank fraud in the collapse of Affiliated Foods Southwest of Little Rock.

But the life he can expect when he reports to the federal Bureau of Prisons on Dec. 5 remains mysterious to free-worlders. And unraveling that mystery can be difficult.

Although the Federal Bureau of Prisons' official policy says "news media may visit institutions for the purpose of preparing reports about the institution, programs and activities," T.C. Outlaw, the ironically named warden of the Federal Correctional Complex in Forrest City, twice turned down Arkansas Business' request for a tour inside the only federal prison in Arkansas.

Former inmates and some lawyers, however, say that the institutions derisively described as "Club Fed" are nothing like country clubs, although they are much more pleasant than county jails or state prisons.

Most of the federal felons that Arkansas Business reports on have been convicted of white-collar crimes, which the FBI loosely defines as "lying, cheating and stealing." They are often first-time offenders who serve their time in low-security camps, while the prisons with higher security (and higher costs) are reserved for people convicted of violent crimes.

Little Rock criminal defense attorney Erin Cassinelli said the Bureau of Prisons decides where a felon will serve out his or her sentence based on the severity and nature of the offenses committed; the need for a minimum-, low-, moderate- or high-security facility, determined by the felon's criminal record and escape risk; behavior prior to arriving at a federal facility; educational level; and the need for medical services or treatment for substance abuse or deviant sexual behaviors.

The BOP attempts to keep convicts close to their families, but that isn't always possible, due to gender or the programs individual prisoners need while in the prison system, Cassinelli said. For example, many federal facilities don't offer residential drug treatment. Also, there are fewer prisons that house women than men so women are often incarcerated further from home.

For instance, Dana Washburn, the Rogers woman who admitted defrauding IberiaBank out of $3.6 million, is serving 41 months at the Carswell Federal Medical Center at Fort Worth, Texas, because her incarceration is complicated by severe urinary incontinence.

And Kevin Wheeler, who did time in Arkansas state prison for embezzling from CDI Contractors of Little Rock back in 1996, was sent to federal prison in Montgomery, Ala., specifically for psychotherapy when in 2004 he was again convicted of embezzling from a Memphis contractor. 

Prisoners can request assignment to a specific prison, and judges can make a recommendation, but the BOP is free to assign prisoners as it sees fit, Cassinelli said.

Martinez has requested assignment to the Federal Correctional Institution at Texarkana, Texas, and he could end up there. Gene Cauley, the former Little Rock attorney who pleaded guilty to stealing millions from clients, also asked to go to Texarkana but was first assigned to a prison camp in Colorado before being transferred to a facility in Louisiana.

New Kid on the Cell Block
A spokesman with the BOP's central office in Washington, D.C., offered some insight into what becomes of freshly sentenced felons once they arrive at  federal prison camps.



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