Despite what you may have heard, long gone are the fabled days of "Club Fed" when disgraced politicians and washed up movie stars could "check in" to a federal prison camp and do their time in relative comfort. Those places did in fact exist, but were really only conceived and built to accommodate the scandal prone, and highly hypocritical, politicians who (inevitably) fell victim to the very laws they had helped create and enact. Only a handful of federal inmates were ever afforded those type of "special accommodations" and that was a long, long time ago. The federal prison camps still in existence today are far from what any normal person would ever consider "comfortable." It's amazing to hear that the myth of "Club Fed" somehow still persists.
Just to be clear, throughout my lengthy stay in the federal prison system, I have never once felt "comfortable," even under the best conditions. The federal facilities where I've been incarcerated more closely resemble something you've likely seen on TV. Certainly none of them could ever be confused with a "Club Fed."
I've spent the last 17 and half years inside medium and maximum security facilities where approximately half of the federal prison population currently resides (187,000 total). The average prison cell is approximately 7 x 10 feet, and there are two people sharing that space, which is roughly the size of an average bathroom. My cell mate and I spend AT LEAST 10 out of every 24 hours a day confined to that tiny space together. We have a sink, a toilet, and a desk that's bolted to the wall. At night I struggle to fall asleep atop a 2 inch thick, 2 foot wide, by 6 foot long pressed foam mattress over a solid steel bunk. Everything I possess (in life) is contained inside a 2 foot wide by 3 foot high steel locker that's bolted to the wall beside my bunk. Inside the locker is some food, clothing, cosmetics, saved greeting cards and pictures, a number of my own original written works and a few of my most treasured books. Sadly, my entire life can literally be stuffed inside a foot locker.
Outside my cell is what's referred to as the "common area" of the housing unit. There are 6 TV's, 6 fans (no AC), 5 computer terminals, 4 old fashioned pay phones, 2 microwaves and one ice machine to serve over 100 inmates. Each of these resources is scarce and therefore difficult to access. Relationships inevitably become strained and eventually deteriorate whenever someone is unable to maintain a consistent line of communication with their loved ones on the outside. As the months turn into years, and the years turn into decades, it only becomes increasing difficult to maintain meaningful relationships from behind these walls.
My access to both the telephone and email system is limited to the hours I spend in the "common area" of my housing unit. Most of the hours I spend on the housing unit fall between 9:15 PM and 6:30 AM, which is the period we're all locked in our cells overnight. Seven days a week the doors open at 6:30 AM and breakfast is called at 6:45. I generally wait for everyone to head out to breakfast so I can check my emails and send out some love to start off my day. Skipping breakfast means I either skip a meal or plan ahead and purchase something from the prison commissary in advance. I try to eat before I head out because most days I only have time to swing through the dining hall for a quick lunch and then don't make it back here to the housing unit until the 4 PM count. Then as soon as the count clears again I'm right back out the door to dinner and then down in Education working for the rest of the evening. By the time I get back here to the housing unit at 8:30 PM I have just enough time to log into the system once more before getting locked back into my cell until morning. Nearly every day it's the same exact routine.
This email system is not what I would call "user friendly." It's set up on a 30 minute timer and as soon as I log in to the system a clock appears in the top right hand corner of the screen. Immediately the clocks begins counting down from 30 minutes, which is the maximum time period permitted for each session. The timer continues to run regardless of whether I am reading incoming messages or composing outgoing ones, and once it expires, or if I voluntarily log off, I am then forced to wait at least 30 minutes before I can log back into the system. I have the timer on my wrist watch set to 30 minutes, so I know exactly when I can log back in. Composing a message like this one generally takes multiple sessions over the course of a few days since I have other messages that require at least a brief reply.
Before I can access the email system I must first purchase "units" (credits), using money from my commissary account. It costs 5 cents a minute ($15.00 for 300 minutes or $30.00 for 600 minutes) to access the system and for me that generally equates to $150.00 PER MONTH, which is absolutely ridiculous. I think the more accurate word would be "predatory." Despite the exorbitant fees I cannot send or receive pictures via email. Nor can I forward any messages that I receive. Nor does the system allow us to cut/copy/paste edit emails. And yet, despite it's many flaws, I'm still extremely grateful to have this system in place because honestly, many of my relationships would probably cease to exist without it.
Although the email system is my primary means of communication with everyone outside it is not the only one. We also have a prepaid (or collect for more $$$) telephone system that allows us to make 300 minutes worth of calls each month for only $67.00. For that bargain basement price (which the FCC has refused to cap and regulate) neither voice mail nor monthly "roll-over" minutes are included and drop calls are quite common. Each call is limited to 15 minutes (maximum) and both parties must endure multiple interruptions from a recorded voice stating that the caller is a federal prisoner calling from inside a "federal correctional facility." As you can imagine, 300 minutes a month is grossly inadequate conversation time for someone hoping to maintain multiple relationships while incarcerated; Especially when they're being warehoused hundreds, if not thousands of miles away from home are rarely get to see their loved ones in person.
I'm incredibly fortunate to still be able to maintain regular contact with so many of my family members, friends and supporters in spite of all the aforementioned challenges. Many times in recent years I've thought about expressing these specific challenges so that everyone might better understand the situation I'm in; A situation that is shared by literally hundreds of thousands of other federal prisoners incarcerated throughout the United States. Usually when people ask me what they can do to help improve my situation I either deflect the question or refer them to the latest petition or letter writing campaign, without ever acknowledging my basic needs.
I know that I need to do a better job accepting assistance, especially now that my dear friend lost his long, hard-fought battle with cancer. He understood the challenges I face all too well, because he used to sit right here alongside me just a few years ago. I'm grateful to him and to everyone else in my circle who helped make this possible.
These are my average monthly expenditures:
- email - $150.00
- phone - $67.00
- store - $300.00 (commissary food, cosmetics, clothes)
- TOTAL = $517.00 - $90.00
- Minus my institutional pay - $65.00 + $25.00 (extra for classes) = $90.00 a month (average pay is $5.00 a month)
- = $427.00 (and if you think this is completely outrageous, then please help me do something about it.)