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.

New arrivals are issued a prison policy booklet and go through classroom-style orientation early on in their incarceration, spokesman Edmond Ross said.

During orientation, inmates learn that they will be assigned a prison job and find out other basic information, such as when health services open for sick call, how the commissary works, how to create an approved list of visitors, what education and recreation opportunities are offered and when religious services are held, Ross said.

A commissary list from the Forrest City penitentiary reveals that the prison store stocks sundries like postage stamps, Cheetos, deodorant, toothbrushes, sweatpants and reading glasses.

New arrivals receive khaki prison uniforms, work shoes or boots, bed rolls and toiletries. Of their own belongings, they may keep a wedding ring and religious medallions, while the clothes they arrive in are typically packaged and mailed home, Ross said.  

Inmates who are physically able to work are given jobs to maintain the prison, such as in food service or on the grounds crew, he said.

Webb Hubbell, the former Associate U.S. Attorney General, chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court and Little Rock mayor, spent nearly two years at Cumberland Federal Prison Camp in Maryland in the mid-1990s.

He now offers free counsel to people under indictment. Hubbell helps provide answers to their questions about prison - typically, he said, "What is it like? How's it going to affect my family? The big question - [am I] going to be safe? What am I going to be doing? How do you keep contact with your family? Are you able to conduct business?"

Through an organization he started called the Mark of Cain Foundation, Hubbell tries to educate the public on laws that restrict felons' employment and other aspects of their re-entry into society.

Hubbell, as many Arkansans remember, pleaded guilty to two felonies related to his overbilling of clients while a partner at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, a by-product of the long-running investigation, known as Whitewater, of President Bill Clinton and his associates.

Once in prison, Hubbell started off working in the prison's power house, doing a variety of chores from plumbing to changing light bulbs.

"Depending on how long you're in, usually after awhile you get tired of the job you're doing," Hubbell said in a phone interview from his home in Charlotte, N.C. Seven months in the power house were enough for Hubbell, so he requested a change. He briefly worked washing windows, then ended up finishing out as a breakfast and lunch cook. 

"You're working hard and time passes very quickly," Hubbell said of his kitchen labors. "In prison, you try to get a job where time passes quickly."

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."

In the minimum-security camps, Webb Hubbell said, inmates sleep in bunkrooms accommodating 50 to 100 people or in smaller cubicles instead of cells, and they are allowed to spend time in common areas for exercise.

Inmates shower in stalls separated by curtains, not in open locker room-style showers, he said.

But the only private time an inmate has is when he meets with his attorney, Hubbell said.

Some prison facilities have visitors' rooms and outdoor picnic areas where inmates can spend time with approved guests, he said. Visits are not private, and visitation rooms could be full of 20 other inmates, their visiting wives and small children, as well as a guard.

Conjugal visits are not permitted, and displays of affection even between spouses are restricted to holding hands and kisses upon arrival and departure, Hubbell said.

Hubbell was permitted to have only two visitors at a time, and all his visitors had to be on an approved list of 10 people who had undergone background checks. How often family and friends can visit depends on the warden, but typically visitors were allowed to come once per weekend, he said.

His visitors were only permitted to carry in identification cards and loose change in a clear plastic bag for vending machines or the like.

"If your wife has your tax return prepared and needs your signature, she can't bring it in. You have to mail it," Hubbell said.

Inmates in minimum-security camps tend to be on their best behavior so that they don't get reassigned to a higher-security prison, Hubbell said, so he was never involved in a prison fight. When fights did break out, he and other inmates went elsewhere as quickly as they could to avoid getting in trouble by association, he said.

‘What You Make of It'
Hubbell and McDougal were the only former federal prisoners willing to answer questions for this story. Letters seeking comment from numerous other Arkansans currently imprisoned weren't answered. 

However, the late Warren Overton shared thoughts on his federal prison experience in a commentary written for Arkansas Business in 2009.

"I was head-butted and spit at, and I had to learn how to fight. I quickly realized I was on my own to deal with the consequences of my bad decisions. ... I knew at that point I had to change, and I did," Overton wrote. "I would spend the next couple of years living with some rough characters but also some people who taught me a lot.

"... I used to hear that federal prisons were like country clubs for high-level executive types who broke the law. I can assure you that that was not my experience."

Overton, a former stockbroker whose father was a federal judge, pleaded guilty to bank fraud in 2006 and subsequently served two years in federal prison, mostly at Edgefield, S.C. He died of pneumonia on Feb. 12 at age 41.

Jeff Rosenzweig, a Little Rock criminal defense attorney, said the prison camp at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida in particular had a "Camp Fed" reputation, but that nickname is a misnomer.

"Prison is hard," Rosenzweig said. He listed rules and passive-aggressive guards as among his convicted clients' troubles.

McDougal said she saw violence in prison, like a woman beating another inmate's face with a telephone, but she also experienced incredible kindness from inmates and made friends with guards. She still hears from women she befriended during her incarceration. She said she and other inmates would sit together and talk about how they got there, since they had the time to think about how they could improve their lives.

She also organized them to vote on the TV shows to watch on the prisons' shared TVs, instead of arguing, and to donate for the newcomer gifts.

"It was just like a bunch of young people who'd never had any care. They loved me, and I loved them," she said. "It broke my heart that they loved me."

Many inmates were young, in their teens or early 20s, she said. McDougal was 42 and almost a mother figure.

"It is what you make of it, just like life. You either are completely broken or you get better," McDougal said. "I think the entire experience was healing. I was so broken by the political viciousness of Whitewater, and my family was so wounded and people I loved were so hurt, that being incarcerated was a healing. It changed who I was." 

 

 

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