COVID19 & the BOP
Given the statements I have seen thus far from Attorney General Barr and news reports, the AG is expanding his order to the Bureau of Prisons to expand their evaluation and release of non violent, elderly and vulnerable prisoners. I have vacillated about whether or not to write this post, but I feel it is necessary to shed light on the truth as I see it from inside a minimum security satellite prison work camp at Butner FPC where all inmates have “out” or “community” custody. But first a little context. My name is Daniel Johnson, currently known as prisoner 33778-171. I am a United States Citizen, a veteran of the US Military who served in Iraq, a former prosecutor, a former police officer, former lawyer, and a graduate of The Citadel a military college in Charleston, SC. I am a husband, a father, a son, and a friend to many (not as many now as I had during my time as the elected District Attorney in Columbia, SC, but certainly more than I had after I dropped a punt during the Marshall game in 1992, and probably more real friends now since I began taking medication and attending counseling for what I now know is PTSD). I pled guilty to wire fraud. I received a one year and one day sentence. I am due to be released at the completion of my sentence on May 23, 2020. I want to be clear, I am not writing this post as anything other than to inform people of what I see here on the ground. I do not make excuses. I have been blessed to have many more successes than I have had failures. I am down now, but I am on “the come up” as the guys around here say. I accepted service of my “Red Shirt Year.” I am very proud of the work I have done here in the accomplishment of my prison goals, and I will always have a positive winning attitude. Moreover, I have made many decisions in my life regarding other peoples lives–most worked out exceedingly well, but some sadly did not. Frankly, the ones that did not work out well, and the things I could have done differently are a huge factor in why I feel blessed to have had to walk the walk I had prescribed for so many others. The experience has widened my aperture and my world view. I have always tried to do my best, even when I did not feel at my best. With all that being said, on to what I intend to discuss.
Several weeks ago before the quarantines and flight restrictions, there were prisoners coughing in the housing unit. Staff here at Butner said it was an outbreak of the flu though no one was actually tested. There were at least two memos discussing precautions that could be taken for the flu. Medical staff came through the unit with a thermometer. Anyone with a fever was taken to “medical isolation” otherwise known as the Special Housing Unit “aka” the SHU “aka” “the hole.” As staff in surgical masks came through the unit, I saw prisoners poking their heads out of their cubes to see who in the unit would be taken next. Though no one wants to be taken to the SHU, the elderly are particularly fearful because of the cold temperatures and very harsh conditions. (Many of them get cold at night, there is one blanket limit in the SHU, and very limited toilet paper is given.) Anyway, staff checked temperatures for a few days until it became clear that doing so was interfering with the delivery of goods and services to various institutions on the complex. One may be surprised to learn that prisoners from this camp perform virtually all essential logistical functions necessary for the functioning of the other parts of the institution. The semi trucks were waiting at the food warehouse to be unloaded, food needs to be cooked and served, supplies need to be distributed, the garbage needs to be dumped, and the leaky pipes need to be fixed. Prison work camps serve as a labor pool for the entire complex which includes other areas with different levels of security.
I am writing this post for several reasons. The first is to disabuse readers of the notion that prison is anything other than new age slavery. The second is to make readers aware of actual conditions on the ground here as I see it. I will share more of my experience here later, but for now I am going to try to concentrate on staff response to the current pandemic. Given the fact that unfortunately the whole nation is on home confinement, feel free to check my sources.
First, some may believe my statement regarding new age slavery is an overstatement. I will begin by drawing your attention to the Thirteenth Amendment of the constitution adopted in 1865. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their Jurisdiction. For those that believe prison is about rehabilitation, I would draw your attention to, Section 3582 United States sentencing guidelines regarding the imposition of a sentence of imprisonment states in pertinent part … in determining the length of the term the court shall consider the factors set forth in section 3553(a) to the extent that they are applicable, recognizing that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation. Admittedly, I have had to read this statute numerous times because I actually used to believe that in addition to deterrence, one of the primary purposes of prison was correction and rehabilitation. As many of you know, I am a huge proponent of intervention programs and drug courts for non violent offenders. Which leads me to another important point. Nearly 70% of the federal prison population are non violent offenders (since you are on home confinement feel free to check my assertion). The federal system does not have diversionary programs. Diversionary programs are highly effective. Additionally, an overwhelming majority of the nations violent offenders–murderers, rapists, burglars, armed robbers, and child molesters– are housed in the nations state prison systems. Most states are beginning to recognize the need for reform. Mostly because the rising cost of incarceration is breaking the budget, and the volume of cases in state court is exponentially higher such that many state prosecutors have been or will soon be forced to be more innovative. More on all this later. This bit of background is necessary to give context to the rest of post.
There are approximately 75 people in each housing unit at Bunter FPC. The units contain open cubicles with two men to each cubicle. The cubes are approximately 8X10. There are 36 cubes in addition to an open area known as “the Beach” where several men are warehoused in back to back bunks. The quarters are not exactly comfortable, but some would say–“hey it’s prison, it is not supposed to be comfortable.” I used to be one of those people, but please allow me to tell you what I see.
As Attorney General Barr talks about “expanding his order to release the elderly and those who have vulnerable health conditions”, I am witnessing the opposite of what is being forwarded in the media. As of today, they decided to vacate a housing unit to use as a quarantine space. They placed bunk beds in our housing unit thus overcrowding the already crowded housing area. When we were given outside time, we were told to be 6 feet apart and when I questioned being 6 ft apart outside but now housing extra inmates in our living quarters around extremely frail inmates, I was threatened that I would be disciplined by being put into the SHU.
I am writing this for those who don’t have a voice. My “cellie”, Sid, is a 73 year old man with cancer and several other serious health conditions. He is a veteran, and old school paratrooper. He is a first time non violent offender that received 22 years on a “white collar” crime. He is 10 years into his sentence. Mr. Rahmer lives across the aisle from us. He is 82 years old. He had a stroke while imprisoned, has difficulty speaking, is confined to a wheelchair, but his mind is sharp. He is a first time non violent offender who received 12 years. He has health issues. Dr. Bacon was sentenced to several years. He lives in the next unit over. He is over 80 years old. He is a retired Army veteran. He is also a non violent offender. Mr. Lewis is a disabled Marine Corps veteran with Spinal Bifida. His condition has gradually worsened such that he is now in a wheel chair and in pain. He was medically discharged from the army when he was diagnosed with his debilitating condition. There are many more men here that are non violent offenders that are elderly, have cancer, have had transplants, diabetes, or are immuno-depressed. I have seen more walker and wheel chairs than any place in my life other than the nursing homes I used to visit. It is not unusual to see other prisoners (known as Inmate Care Providers or ICPs) caring for and assisting those prisoners with activities of daily living. Though the vulnerable inmates rely heavily on these other inmates to survive in here, you will hear little about that in the press. It is more convenient for those in power to focus on the violent offenders as a reason for failing to act to protect the health and safety of non violent offenders. Though these men are imprisoned, they too are fathers, grandfathers, sons, and brothers. While the nation socially distances or shelters in place, prisoners are closely confined and now are being forced into tighter more confined spaces. In response to COVID-19 the bureau has restricted us to our units where the unfiltered air recirculates in the open bay of the unit. The number of people infected on the prison complex is increasing. It appears the administration is struggling to deal with this situation because they would rather wait to see how many people die than release people. On Monday 27 March, 18 elderly inmates were called to Unit Team. They were asked for their release address and contact information. Of course given the news reports, they were under the belief they were going to be processed for home confinement. They contacted their families. I watched my cellie sort and pack his gear. He struggled to keep himself composed because he has been down so long, and his wife who, prior to the lockdown, visited him weekly was more than overjoyed. Mr. Rahmer called his daughter. Unfortunately, after a week of watching these men’s anticipation, staff has now decided on another criteria. Neither of these men are on the new list. When Sid got the news he was standing in our cube in his newly pressed prison gear waiting with his boxes gathered. The list seems to ignore their age and vulnerability. In fact, it appears to leave many of the elderly or vulnerable prisoners off the list. NO ONE has left this minimum security prison camp other than those that were scheduled to leave, one that got immediate release by the court, and one that was on immunosuppressant’s who apparently escaped fearing for his life and safety. (The Bureau has yet to notify the media regarding this escape. He has been gone for several days) I can not help but wonder if the Bureau thought he was dangerous to the public, wouldn’t they have notified the public? Incidentally, he was a non violent offender with a year or so left on his sentence.
While nations local jails and state prisons are releasing non violent offenders nationwide, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is paralyzed. (Staff, who are also at risk, have come through on numerous occasions saying they are “just following orders”) One reason the BOP is so paralyzed maybe because to release the non violent prisoners would reveal to the world what I expressed earlier in this post: we are the work engine that keeps this machine running. A large majority of prisoners in the federal prisons are non violent offenders —not rapists and murderers. I suppose the BOP would rather lockdown non violent offenders in the barracks and wait for people to die. Each day I listen to staff call prisoners to perform their duties in the food service warehouse, the horticulture greenhouse, outside landscaping, the laundry (without PPE), the powerhouse, the garage, and even the inmate “town driver”. They interact with prison staff, and then they are returned to our units possibly exposing very elderly and very ill people to the novel coronavirus. Due to the essential nature of the prisoners, staff has ignored several prisoners from the camp having been in contact with several of the guards who have fallen ill at the food warehouse. The prisoners were all returned to the units. Staff is still relying on temperature checks and “hoping for the best”, in fact, when “the pharmacist” (another non violent, man in his 60’s, who ran a chain of pharmacies in rural North Carolina, and has already repaid all of his restitution on a white collar offense) inquired as to what the plan was for when someone dies, he was called a naysayer by a staff member and dismissed. No plan was explained. Again, to date no prisoners have been discharged (though temperatures have been taken “screening”, no prisoners have been actually tested here at the camp despite known exposure). It is possible that they may let us go into the courtyard for 30 minutes of fresh air but we must use social distancing and stay 6 ft apart. Is this the best our nation can do? I only ask because when I was in the military we certainly asked other nations to do much more for prisoners of war.
I am praying, and thinking about all who read this blog. I hope you are all safe, healthy, and well. It is difficult to watch members of the Bureau of Prisons handle the pandemic without being a little alarmed.
“Justice must always be tempered by mercy.”