Memoir: Part 3
My introduction to the Federal Prison System (be aware that at this point in my story there has been no trial, no plea bargaining, I am awaiting trial, and in our system that means that am presumed innocent).
Six days after my arrest I entered the American Gulag. My stay there would last over a year.
Held under criminal complaint, not yet indicted. Bond denied with the only reason given being "... we have questions your honor" is answered by a shrug from the magistrate judge as he easily acquiesces (he's a former prosecutor), and just that quickly I was set up to spend an indefinite period in any jail at any level of security with any treatment the government wants. 'Evidence' presented is the prosecutor saying "we believe..." The denial of bond violates the principle of 'no punishment without a crime,' the most basic of all the principles of the rule of law, as you will be punished before even before being charged, let alone found guilty of a crime.
My Public Defender (P.D.) informed me that there was a reporter in the court and by not clearing the courtroom, the government is publicly stating their charges against me, though some of their filings will remain sealed and that I should expect news coverage. My year of tuition in a world populated by experts on what the government does and doesn't do in our courts taught me what really happened.
The gov't, I learned, always releases their opinions and hypotheses to the press regardless of whether they have evidence or not in order to poison the jury pool for the defendant. Defense counsel is then forced to decide whether to release its own statement and tip its hand towards what its defense will be, or stay moot and let the bad press roll on. The presumption of innocence is basic to our law but not in the minds of the average citizen outside the proceedings. The average citizen, unless previously having dealt with the system, simply equates an arrest with a conviction.
I learned that I was at the mercy of the government in every way. When I could see a judge would be decided by the prosecutor, when I would be indicted and charged, likewise. Prosecutors asserted and my counsel agreed that if I paid any bill owed at the time of arrest I would be charged with money laundering. That if I told anyone from jail to pay a bill, access an account, or make any move for me I would incur new charges. Hope of helping anyone outside my cell was utterly futile; duty to family and creditors be damned. My future was to simply sit in a series of small rooms indefinitely and read the slanderous clippings brought to me by counsel. I was told to expect abandonment and betrayal, and that to do otherwise was to be overly optimistic. The Feds would now pursue everyone that was in my life in a concerted effort to subvert my support network and scare away any help I could possibly count on from any quarter.
For a good impression of this process, and more, check out the new film 'Concussion' with Will Smith - who plays Dr. Omalu. When he gets the NFL on the ropes, the big wigs call in the Feds who send the FBI to charge his boss with an 84-count indictment. When Dr. Omalu says this is more capricious than even anything they would do in Nigeria, the FBI agent says "Dr. Omalu, we didn't come for you, but we can have you if we want."
So, I, a former patriot, had to unlearn my social studies indoctrination and come to grips with a very ugly reality. The Feds do not need evidence, and unless you are extremely wealthy you can't outspend them. For those of you clinging to those rosy pictures of America the Beautiful, be advised, American justice is every bit as ruthless as Germany's old Gestapo or the more modern Stasi. This, apparently, is the way of the world.
After my being beaten in the Raleigh, North Carolina jail I was patched up at a medical facility and, while being moved back to jail, I had to put up with a US Marshal's mirthful carrying on about my physical condition from being jumped, a real charmer, him.
I managed to get word about the beating to my family through the P.D. They bravely attended the bond hearing and my mother even took the stand beautifully, but it was never in the cards. The government was determined to bury me. My public defender stayed mum throughout the hearing and the judge's gavel fell.
At this point I asked my family to get me a lawyer not employed by the government as it seemed to me during the bond hearing that my counsel deficiencies were so obvious they could be mistaken for collusion with the prosecutor. Mom began a search.
Two nights later I met my first potential lawyer. She was a lovely lady, a former prosecutor. Prosecutors frequently move to the defense table to offer their lobbying connections during plea bargaining. Going to trial is virtually out of the question for the reasons noted above (unlimited resources, a docile judiciary accustomed to give prosecutors what they want). Virtually nobody but corporations and the super-rich ever wins against the Feds, so the preferred defense is to minimize how badly you lose. While sitting with my new bargainer she was getting text messages from professional and personal connections of mine offering to help in any way they can. The story had hit the press and I naively envisioned a rallying.
Two nights later I met my first potential lawyer. She was a lovely lady, a former prosecutor. Prosecutors frequently move to the defense table to offer their lobbying connections during plea bargaining. Going to trial is virtually out of the question for the reasons noted above (unlimited resources, a docile judiciary accustomed to give prosecutors what they want). Virtually nobody but corporations and the super-rich ever wins against the Feds, so the preferred defense is to minimize how badly you lose. While sitting with my new bargainer she was getting text messages from professional and personal connections of mine offering to help in any way they can. The story had hit the press and I naïvely envisioned a rallying.
My mother and a friend came to my jail during the normal visiting time the following day, day 8 since arrest, and were put on a grainy video monitor rather than being allowed a normal face to face visit. The only explanation for this is that the jail didn't want people on the outside to see my injuries up close. Of course the video conference was recorded for the gov't. For this reason, every attorney warns clients not to discuss their case with visitors as it could provide prosecutors with a chance to take something out of context and use it against you to, for example, run up more charges, so I consistently refused to talk to anyone about my defense and that annoyed the people who hadn't turned away from me and wanted answers. Instead all I could do was to treat them to a few tears over my poor wife's condition and tell them to love & take care of each other the best they can in my absence. To those who stuck by me in spite of my lack of defense, I say thank you, and to the others I say not much.
On the 9th day, early in the morning, a flashlight blasted in my face just as I get a boot to the gut wake up call. It was time to move. I was chained up and placed in a series of cells as I was processed out of the jail. It was obvious to anyone who's ever done a jail move that I am going somewhere, but it takes those around me to tell me as it's my first move. We are given exactly no information about where we are going. Staff says that for 'security sake' I can't know.
This brought to mind a Soviet Gulag prisoner who once wrote that in 22 years he ever only knew the name of one of the places he was sent and it never bothered him as what did it matter? Good point. Of course I think I matter, that I am someone and that there are those out there who will want to know.
Such things bring small comfort and do no good at all.
Five hours chained with a coffle of other inmates in a van. Guys pissed themselves left and right, and soon the smelled like a cat box in 100*F (and it actually is that hot or more outside), stops at lots of small facilities to pick up more inmates, no water, no a/c. We ended the trip at a privately owned jail in rural central Virginia. The intake process took 12 hours with standing room only in our various holding cells. We were told if we complain then we wouldn't be fed and, I ask you, who among us would give up their bologna on white for the day? Welcome to America's private prison system.
My intake picture is evidence of the violence visited on me in Raleigh so I am told they would retake it later when I've healed. Put in a 100-man cell to live, I am the only white guy. Over 30 bloods from Richmond area, 20 something MS-13 from DC area. Where we are is a 900 man, private, for profit jail that has contracts with local communities and the Feds to hold VA state inmates for up to 2 years of their sentences and Fed inmates indefinitely.
Our pod had one working toilet and one working shower for 100 men, both open. For not the first time I thank my lucky stars I was silly enough to think myself tough once upon a time and join Uncle Sam's Misguided Children, for I'd dealt with loss of modesty before, nor are continuous violence and screaming new to me and so it goes.
This place prided itself on returning money to its investors, so it fed 900 men for less than $2,000 a week (and bragged about it). You can imagine the quality and frequency of meals. However, they have an extensive commissary list with extortionate pricing on every item. To this day it is the best commissary list I have ever seen. Inmates are expected to feed themselves via the commissary which could draw on an inmate's account. Those fortunate enough to have family and friends contributing money to your commissary account could eat supplemental rations, buy vitamin supplements and over-the-counter medicines, writing paper, envelopes, and stamps. Phone calls from the prison cost $15 for ten minutes. The prison is a 7 hour round trip drive for anyone to come and visit me through the plexi-glass for 20 minutes a week if they can do so at the time the jail says. The same mileage applied my attorney to come and work on my case though he wasn't limited to 20 minutes. There was no law library, no periodicals, no news. There was one TV in the unit which of course no one can hear over the screaming but which stays on, and on full volume, tuned to the most puerile entertainment on the menu - we jokingly call it the 'pacifier'.
A lesson quickly learned (by observation, not experience) is that if you 'buck' or revolt against the guards (often called c.o.'s, or correction officers) they will charge you with any number of crimes such as expelling a bodily fluid or malicious conduct of a prisoner, both felonies. They can keep you in jail forever, constantly answering new charges.
I also learned quickly enough that there are two types of c.o.'s ; those that know you're being punished by being there and those that think they need to punish you because you're both there. Every place is different, but of course you can figure out which ones you'd rather be around.
Steven N. Greenoe