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.

BOP staff members assign more desirable jobs, such as teaching GED certificate or English-as-a-second-language classes, based on inmate qualifications and seniority.

"Usually, the people who got to teach had been in for a long time," Hubbell said.

Ross said most prisoners get paid 15 to 25 cents per hour. They can send the money they earn home to their families, spend the money in the prison commissary or make victim restitution payments. Family and friends can also send money to fill the commissary fund. In Forrest City, prisoners are limited to spending $320 per month. Workday lengths vary.

"There's not much to buy. Once you have your sweats and your little portable radio and your underwear, the only thing you buy is soft drinks, chips and shaving cream. You prefer to have your own soap, your own shaving cream, your own toothbrush," Hubbell said. "One of the first things you buy is your own toothbrush."

Prison-provided toothbrushes and underwear may have previously been used by other prisoners, so inmates prefer buying new from the commissary, he said.

When Hubbell was in prison, his non-work clothing options were the cotton sweatpants and shirts sold at the commissary. The Forrest City prison's commissary list suggests that prison fashions haven't changed.

‘Welcome Wagon'
Susan McDougal, remembered as "The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk," was convicted of, and later pardoned for, four felony counts related to a fraudulent loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration. She served less than four months of a two-year sentence for the convictions. She also served the balance of 22 months in a variety of jails and in federal prison at Fort Worth for civil contempt of court for refusing to testify against Bill and Hillary Clinton before the federal grand jury investigating Whitewater. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that McDougal had not been convicted of a federal crime.)

She currently works as staff chaplain at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.

McDougal said it could take a week or longer before a new or transferred inmate got commissary privileges, so when she was not in solitary confinement, she organized a makeshift Welcome Wagon. She and other prisoners bought extra toothbrushes, combs and candy to give in a gift bag to frightened new inmates who arrived with nothing.

"We have no makeup on. Our hair's crazy. We look like desperados, and they're scared to death. And you give them a candy bar and everything's OK, you know what I mean?" McDougal said. "You can't be scared of people that give you candy bars."

The federal justice system has "truth in sentencing" - inmates serve very nearly all the time to which they are sentenced, and there is no parole system. As a result, federal prisons are better equipped for long-term stays than county jails or even some state prisons, allowing more living space and longer phone calls out. But they can be more frightening because they are full of people from all over the country, McDougal said. 

Based on her visits, defense attorney Cassinelli said, the difference between a county jail and a federal prison is that the former is meant to be "kind of an in-and-out thing." The latter, she said, "is cleaner. It's more equipped to have that many people. There's better food. It's more organized."



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