Where did the lion in Walrus go?

Early on in my bid — prison talk for prison sentence — I wandered into the recreation room. The rec room is a building that contains exercise bikes, treadmills, a classroom for hobby crafts, and two worn, old pool tables. As I strolled through the door, I heard a gregarious “New York” accented voice explaining the finer points of the game of pool. He talked about the “objective bawl, the cue bawl” and something about “a schtannnnnce.” He stood 6’2” 380lbs. He was a big dude, with short pants on that went all the way down to an area just above his loose and slightly bunched white crew socks. As the unmistakable New Yorker Roared, someone told me they called him Walrus. In looking at him waddle around the table, it was immediately apparent how he’d earned his nickname. He saw me staring and asked me if I wanted to sign up for his billiards class.

Walrus explained he would be starting a new class on the following Saturday morning. Initially, I rebuffed his offer because I didn’t want anything to interfere with my prison goals. Additionally, many of you know how competitive I am. Furthermore, I had vowed not to get engaged in any prison sports — for a variety of reasons prison sports can be hazardous to one’s health. Surprisingly, the primary reason is that medical care in prison is “minimally adequate” — that is to say, if medical staff does not believe a prisoner is going to die from their injury based on a “nurses” 10 second visual inspection (without laying a finger on the prisoner other than to take the prisoners temperature), she might allow you to see a doctor in 6 months to a year — LITERALLY. Pain level or inability to perform activities of daily living does not appear to be a motivating factor in their decision making process. In fact, prison is the only place I have experienced where one can go to the prison hospital, known as the FMC or Federal Medical Center, but never actually see a doctor. Anyway, the second reason is that one has to keep in mind with whom one is dealing. Prisoners are generally under a great deal of stress, some are dealing with untreated or undiagnosed mental health conditions, and therefore unmedicated, and some are going through personal family events, and some are just crazy as hell. Many guys live in constant fear they will be forgotten or abandoned by their families or that they have become too much of a burden. Nonetheless, Walrus persisted.

“Many guys live in constant fear they will be forgotten or abandoned…or that they have become too much of a burden.”

He had a gigantic smile on his face while promising the class would be fun, and “very informative.” It was quite apparent he loved pool. I learned Walrus had been a professional pool player on the outside, and he use to own several pool halls. After seeing him around the compound several other times after that day, and having cordial conversations about his family, his love of pool, and his desire to teach the fundamentals of the game, I felt compelled to sign up for his unique class. His aura and enthusiasm for learning was contagious. It turned out to be a really good class. It was held early on Saturday mornings, and I found it to be a good way to start the day. The class was eight weeks long, and it has drastically improved my understanding of the game.

A few weeks after the class, I showed up in the pool room to meet Walrus for an early lesson, but Walrus was a no show. It was strange because he was somewhere around the pool table every single day at the same times. I checked back every day for the next three consecutive days and Walrus had disappeared. He was nowhere to be found on the compound. At 6’2” 380lbs he is generally hard to miss. After asking around, I was told Walrus had been taken to the SHU (AKA the hole). SHU stands for solitary housing unit and it is a form of discipline. It turned out that an elderly man that I will call “Casino Man” had accused Walrus of sexually harassing him. Walrus remained in the hole for a month or so. Perhaps it was unbeknownst to the Correctional Officers or anyone lacking knowledge of degenerative cognitive conditions but “Casino Man” appeared to be suffering from dementia. He was in his eighties and utilized a walker to get around. I had spoken to Casino Man several times, and often times he didn’t seem to even know he was in prison or why he was there. In fact, his ICP — Inmate Care Provider — who is a prison friend of mine told me that Casino Man frequently gets lost or just wanders about. One day, on a trip to the FMC, I ended up looking out for Casino Man because he thought he was going to a breakfast. He needed a lot of help getting in the van, and I had to also guide him to his medical appointment. Correctional Officers have very little patience for elderly inmates. On more than one occasion, I have witnessed Correctional Officers yelling at wheelchair confined and/or confused old guys. They appear to get the most frustrated with people suffering with the affects of aging. There is little dignity in growing old in prison. (Imagine having to request diapers in prison. Now imagine another inmate having to help his elderly cellie pull his pants up…) I remember trying to load Casino Man’s walker on to the already packed van, and hearing one of the other prisoners exclaim, “He don’t supposed to be here” —meaning the prison environment is very, very inhospitable to the elderly, and it is frequently left up to other inmates to care for them, though other inmates are ill equipped to do so.

“There is little dignity in growing old in prison.”

Casino Man was a particularly difficult case, but not really unusual. He falls down in his cube, has “accidents” where he urinates or defecates on himself, but he also had a habit of making outrageous allegations or saying things that didn’t actually happen. His mental state was rapidly declining, and this time Walrus was the unlucky recipient of Casino Man’s dementia. Several weeks before Casino Man had reported a hand to hand drug deal, and weeks before that, he thought “the black guys” were out to get him. His ICP, who was with him most of the time, reported no such activities. Nevertheless, when Casino Man made the allegation against Walrus, Walrus was immediately taken to the SHU. I am not sure how that all shook out or what transpired resulting in Walrus being put in the hole, but when Walrus returned from the SHU, he was a completely different person.

I had expected to see him back in the rec room, but he didn’t come around for several weeks. I saw him a few times around the compound and he looked… broken. His gregarious personality was muted, no longer did he wave or roar his New York style greeting across the yard. Because I was really worried about him, I tracked him down to find out if he was ok. It’s prison so I didn’t want to get in the guy’s business so I asked him casually if he wanted to play a game of pool, but he declined. I reapproached him later, and he opened up about the things he had to endure while in the SHU. Apparently, his health and his spirit had significantly declined while in isolation. In speaking with Walrus and others about their experience in the SHU specifically how the SHU is used, and how prisoners are treated there reminded me of S.E.R.E* training I received while in the military. Unfortunately for the prisoners who have had to endure the SHU, they have not received any training prior to the experience, nor did they receive any mental health counseling prior to being released back into the general population.

From my perspective, the old Walrus was a lot better than the one they created while he was enduring the SHU.

Prisoner 33778-171

*S.E.R.E. = Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Training was devised to train soldiers to survive and resist in the event of capture (resistance training is largely based on the experiences of past U.S. prisoners of war).

Covid19 and the BOP

COVID19 & the BOP

Butner Federal Prison Camp is located in Butner, North Carolina.

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.”