Recently the Federal Bureau of Prisons traded thirty minimum-security, non-violent inmates to the Florida Department of Corrections in exchange for thirty maximum-security state inmates. I am one of the thirty Federal prisoners, a marijuana offender, used as barter.
I was moved in secret, in ignorance, in chains, from F.C.I. Texarkana, through Oklahoma Transfer Center, to F.D.C. Miami, where on November 5, 1998, the Florida authorities took possession of my body. I had never been convicted of a crime by this state. Nevertheless, they gave me a number and processed me at a facility called North Florida Reception Center, a boot camp for mostly violent offenders in Lake Butler, Florida. It was an experience that shouldn't have been allowed to happen.
When I arrived, I still hadn't been told anything that wasn't a lie designed to placate me and my family, so the shock of everything, of all the violence, muted me, scaring me into compliance. There were fifteen of us in that first batch, and no one had heard anything except false stories released by the administrators to expedite things or for the "greater good."
We were mostly small time drug guys or money violators who's crimes orbited one or another illegal drug. We had all done several years of our sentences, which were long. In the Feds, long sentences are the norm. I, myself, am doing a 9-year bit. None of us had been troublemakers, though. Evidently, we had been chosen for our non-litigious, submissive natures. Cow-like, we hunched our shoulders and squinted into the choreographed anger of the guards in the reception bay.
Lake Butler Reception was a cold, brick and concrete room lighted with neon and marked by rows of wooden benches. We were stripped, weighed, measured, our hair removed and our property scrutinized then confiscated or boxed up to be shipped home. We sat at attention for hours while a succession of bully boys shouted at us. At midnight we were trundled off to lock-down cells, then the next morning at 4:00 we did the whole thing once again, this time in company with forty or fifty other mostly violent state offenders just arrived from the county jails. Some of us had to scrub the floors with toothbrushes, others had to stand at attention with noses pressed to the wall or risk a beating.
"Come on Fed boy, let's see what you got! Ain't no marshals gonna protect you now, is there?" etc.
They dared us to speak or stare at them or suck our teeth or show any kind of defiance. It scared me big time.
That night I was deposited in F-Dorm (I think), with five others of my group. I was exhausted, afraid, my back hurt so much I couldn't climb into the bunk, and I still knew nothing.
F-Dorm was less a prison wing, more a bizarre hospital set from some foreign movie in which various war-wounded men limped and wheeled and washed body parts and made sick, suppurating noises and spent a good deal of time grossly, pinkly naked. There were a lot of A.I.D.S. patients, too, slowly dying and unhappy about it, occasionally extremely sick about it.
F-Dorm was a well of lost souls, where all manner of personal frailties and tragedies displayed themselves like balloons at a circus. We had a dwarf, a pair of grossly fat men in wheelchairs awaiting heart operations, several cirrhotic alcoholics with their frail limbs supporting distended, poisoned guts that made them look comically like wading birds, and there was a guy with a drain in his navel, which twice a day filled its attendant bag with a yellowish opaque fluid that smelled of rot, like bad teeth.
I was there about ten days before they moved me, so, trying to be helpful, I used to push a murderer's wheelchair to the chow hall and get his lunch tray for him. He and I would eat quickly in silence, shoveling down as much of the food as we could before one or another of the guards threw us out. The man had been down 16 years of a 120 year sentence, and was so ravaged by diabetes, his legs no longer supported him. I remember he took his showers in the early evening with the other crippled men, all sitting in sling chairs under the communal spray.
I, myself, was reluctant at first to expose myself to the guards and surround myself with so many sick men. I'd wait until the freak show ended and wheeled or hobbled or slithered away to bed or their card games. Then I'd go quickly, undress, bathe in the fluorescent glare in front of the picture window where the guards stood watching TV, dry myself, dress and run away.
Just being there was a miscarriage, I thought. Like an insult. I'm a marijuana offender, right? I suppose some people might wonder why I expected any consideration. Others might say I was intolerant. But they don't know; they've never had to dance in the menagerie. I'm supposedly a well-behaved, compliant man, now being punished for my good behavior these past 4 1/2 years. I was a pot guy, a Fed, not a wielder of weapons or a rapist. Why, for political reasons unrelated to me, should I have to rot in this stupefying hole? I don't deserve this, I thought, and the other federal inmates with me agreed.
That week a counselor told me I was no longer a candidate for any federal programs. Neither would I be allowed state credits or good-time incentives. I was officially in limbo. Meanwhile, some of the guards accused me of being a 'plant.'
I can understand it now, really. They were afraid of being ambushed. They thought the feds were bushwhacking them and they knew their own bosses would stay silent. It's odd how large, complicated institutions work to dehumanize like that, but the most certainly do. If I and some of my confederates were really F.B.I. agents, no one in the D.O.C. hierarchy would talk about it. It's watch your own ass time, so benign directives passed down from on high become sinister lies meant to ensnare a poor working man or woman for being a mostly winked at bully or for breaking civil rights laws or for committing more straightforward crimes like assault.
All of this drama served to anger the guards more, though, which made things hard for me. I was asked point blank by more than one guy: "Who are you really? Are you F.B.I.?" And the ominous stare-downs seemed dangerous, if slightly comical. I and some of the other guys actually began to entertain the notion that maybe we WERE a kind of double-agent plant system, disposable chaff in a federal game of some sort.
Considering all these stories, anything was possible. Every afternoon at count time, I'd sit on my bunk and endure the stare-down from a pair of hulking goons or uneducated women in uniform, and every afternoon I was afraid they'd decide to chain me up and do me for sport.
I hated and hated and hated during my time at Lake Butler (about 3 weeks in all). I kept thinking, "These men are family men. These guards and officials and even the politicians who've looked this disgrace in the eye, they're family men who are so dumb they don't see the recidivist irony. They don't understand their poor rehabilitation record in Florida, but they are surrounded by the reason. I wanted to shout it in their faces. "Hey stupid, in a family, the violence visited upon the kids is ALWAYS returned in some other way, at some other time, father to son to son to son....."
A prisoner who is violated, lied to, cheated, beaten, sooner or later will strike back, usually on the weakest of his everyday encounters. Horrible, horror-filled institutions like Lake Butler are factories of hate and violence, especially when forced upon the non-violent inmates. Those guards were creating thousands of guys who might decide to solve their problems (or continue to solve their problems) like they were taught.
I'm at Florida State Prison Work Camp now, in Starke, Florida, awaiting the results of my lawsuit. All my federal rights are gone. I've written 30 unanswered letters to the B.O.P., the Marshals, the Florida D.O.C. etc. I was removed from my status in waiting for the D.A.P. (Federal Drug & Alcohol Program, residential treatment), a program that offered a year off and six months halfway house.
My family knows now why I think prison administrators are the worst of the worst. It's because they use people like cattle. It's because they're liars. It's because I'm a victim of a personal agenda. It's because I was trying to do right, and they ignored it for "other reasons." If people think I deserve to be brutalized, my questions ignored, my time increased, well fine. But allow the judge to pronounce the sentence, not some baboon. There are 30 of us in Florida State Prisons now, spread out across the state. But some of us are trying to fight it. And I've heard rumors. Some of us are winning.
They call this place a camp. Fancy that. A camp with double razor fences, patrolling perimeter trucks, and 14 counts a day. Just fancy that.
Gary Brooks Waid