Pubdate: Wed,  2 Jul 2003
Source: Honolulu Weekly (HI)
Contact:  2003 Honolulu Weekly Inc
Author: J. Incandenza
Bookmark: (Incarceration)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Note: J. Incandenza is the pen name of an inmate currently serving 14 years
in U.S. federal prison for drug-trafficking.


An Inmate Dispels Misconceptions About America's Brutal Incarceration System

There are more than two million people behind bars in the United States. One
of every four black men between the ages of 20 and 30 is incarcerated.
Millions are on probation or parole. In fact, one of every 32 Americans is
currently caught up in the criminal justice system. In the District of
Columbia, one in every three adult men is under some kind of penal

[Editor's note: As of June 16, 2003, the state of Hawai'i has 3,063 inmates
here and on the Mainland. Of Hawai'i's prisoners, 21 percent are locked up
for serious drug offenses and 29 percent are in jail for misdemeanor or
felony drug-related crimes.] 

Despite our vast numbers, we are, except for an occasional cartoon in The
New Yorker, largely ignored and completely voiceless. We exist for the
popular culture mostly as the punch line of a joke.

I am one of the incarcerated millions, a prisoner in what has become this
country's endless War on Drugs.

Despite having spent many years in prison, I am not really representative of
the average convict: I am white, middle-aged, educated and a federal
prisoner. Many or most convicts are black or brown, have never finished high
school and are states' inmates. But, I have at one time or another, been
held in nine federal facilities ranging from Pennsylvania's Lewisburg
Penitentiary to the camp where I am now and every sort of place in between.

I also have personal knowledge of a handful of county jails thanks entirely
to the Feds' miserly attitude toward bail. (County jails are the worst; no
other lockup even compares to their capacities to inflict misery. Guys
celebrate the day they get transferred to a pen.) And from what I've seen in
all of these stops, prison is prison and convicts are convicts.

I'd like to say I'm innocent, a victim of circumstance, unjustly held by a
vengeful and misguided system. I'd like to, but I can't, because I'm guilty
as charged. Everybody used to think it was cool when I got all those A's in
Chemistry, but instead, I'll just say that not many people in jail claim to
be innocent anymore. The standard line is more like, "Sure, I did it, but
this sentence isn't fair."

Maybe you didn't know that. Maybe you think you know what it's like in here,
but you're just plain wrong. Allow me to help separate you from some widely
held misconceptions. 

Misconception 1: Courts Are Manned By Soft-As-A-Grape Judges Who Dole Out
Slaps On The Wrist

Some shrewd PR guy in some prosecutor's office somewhere must have come up
with this one. It really doesn't work that way. Fifteen of my last 30 years
have been spent in prison, the last 10 in a row. This is the result of two
arrests, one in the late '70s and another on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, 1993. I
am the norm, not the exception. Don't believe all that stuff about second
chances. Today it's one strike and you're out.

This is especially true of drug guys. All the places I've been are full of
kids doing decades or more for a few hundred dollars' worth of dope. The kid
who bunks next to me - he's not a kid anymore, is halfway through a 15-year
sentence he caught from a D.C. judge for $600 worth. The judge even
apologized when he handed out the sentence. It was the federal sentencing
guidelines. He said there was nothing he could do.

Misconception 2: Prison Is Some Sort Of Sodomite Bacchanalia

This one is getting old. Mention prison and the next thing you are likely to
hear is some wisecrack about anal penetration. Both Letterman and Leno seem
to be contractually obligated to mention it at least once a month.

I've come to accept that, like fart jokes and bathroom humor in general,
there must be something funny about anal penetration. I also understand that
we have brought a large part of this upon ourselves. But enough already.

Sexual orientation is not a matter of convenience, and sodomy inside is not
more likely than you would find in a big city nightclub. As far as rape is
concerned, in 15 years behind bars, I've yet to see one.

As in any sizable population, there is a sufficiently large gay segment.
There are plenty of volunteers and prison administrators usually accommodate
their needs.

In one prison where I was a resident, the psychology department made women's
underwear available to those who were so inclined. I'm talking about federal
prisons, men's federal prisons. I have no idea what happens in women's
prisons, though I like to imagine it sometimes. Which brings us to what sex
in prison is really all about. To quote Woody Allen, "Sex is like bridge: If
you don't have a good partner, you need a good hand." 

The medical department even recommends a good hand as a prophylactic against
prostate problems. Most prisons today are built with individual shower
stalls as opposed to the type of shower rooms you may remember from gym
class. (Lewisburg still has shower rooms, but it is considered bad form
there to shower nude. The custom is to shower wearing boxer shorts.) These
shower stalls are virtual masturbatoria, and you would be well advised to
scrub one out before using it, especially if you find a page from the
Victoria's Secret catalog stuck to the wall inside. There is even, among
certain strangely twisted (and usually younger) convicts, a market for
prosthetic devices known as fifis. I will say no more.

Please, lighten up on the sodomy jokes. 

Misconception 3: Federal Prisons Are Country Clubs

This one really ticks me off. There is no such thing as a country-club
prison. I can only assume that whoever coined this phrase has either never
been to a country club, or has never been to a prison. I have spent time in
both. There is no similarity. 

Can you imagine a country club where 130 snoring, stinking, farting guys
sleep stacked on bunk beds arranged not even two feet apart in a tiny little
dormitory, and then stand in line in the morning to use one of six toilets,
which are only rarely in working order at the same time.

American prisons are, for the most part, overcrowded, dirty and dangerous
places. Having always been a federal prisoner, I cannot speak with authority
about conditions in state prisons, though people tell me that they are, in
the main, abysmal. 

I've spent more than a little time in county lockups. I would have spent
none if that stuff the Eighth Amendment says about bond was more than just
words on paper.

Speaking of the Third World, I once asked an erudite Nigerian convict, who
supported himself in prison by writing habeas corpus appeals and habeas
corpus petitions - he averaged two to three a month at about $1,000 a pop,
what prison conditions are like in his native land. 

"Absolutely horrific," he assured me. He didn't believe that the average
American could survive even a short stay. But, for the kind of money a
convict spends to get by in an American prison, someone could probably bribe
his way out of a Nigerian prison, or at the very least hire someone to do
his time for him. 

You tell me where you'd rather be.

Misconception 4: All Prisoners Are Stupid

This is the converse of a belief widely held in prison: That everyone out
there is gutless. This is not to suggest that prison is some kind of
graduate seminar, except maybe of crime. Nor am I referring to "street
smarts," which I have found to be nothing more than a high level of paranoia
combined with incredible baseness and selfishness and a willingness to do
things that most people would consider beneath them. 

All of this aside, it has been my experience that IQ distribution mirrors
the usual bell curve, even if we get more than our fair share of guys who
have been failed by the big-city school system.

My guess is that the idea that everyone in prison is stupid is based on the
line of thinking that goes: They got caught. Ergo they must be stupid
because there are some things that one just cannot do. 

I suggest, however, that the way the world is really set up is with few
exceptions, you can literally do any damn thing you want to do, anything
that you can think of. 

Of course, you may have to deal with the consequences. I say "may" because
TV cop shows aside, people do get away with things once in a while.
Machiavelli observed it is not the severity of the punishment that deters
one from pursuing a particular course of action, but the certainty of being
caught. Machiavelli was no dolt. 

Misconception 5: All Prison Guards Are Misanthropic Sadists Like The Ones
Portrayed In The Movies

This is true. Not all of the guards. Maybe there are 2 or 3 percent who

The question I have never been able to answer to my satisfaction is whether
working in prison turns people into officious petty dictators, or people
with those traits are the ones attracted to prison work in the first place. 

Many of the guards we see here are former (or failed) military who arrive
with bad haircuts and affected, tortured syntax and a love of acronyms while
they double-dip their government pensions and strut around like Patton
clones, shouting orders in what is known as "command voice." 

I'd be willing to wager that given the choice between tossing a few back at
the corner pub with a group of convicts or a group of prison guards, most of
you who looked into it would opt for the convicts.

Misconception 6: Everything Someone Needs To Survive In Prison Is Supplied
By The Prison

If bare survival is the goal, that might possibly be true. But over the
course of a 10-year sentence - about average for a small to mid-level dope
dealer, anyone who hoped to treat himself to a few luxury items like dental
floss, or coffee, or a phone call home, or postage stamps, or even aspirin
or cold pills, which are mainly available through the prison commissary,
that person would have a problem.

It's a problem that will soon be getting worse, because the Bureau of
Prisons has recently announced its intention to begin charging convicts a
nominal fee for sick-call visits. If a $4 fee for someone who makes $5 a
month can truly be called nominal. (We all have jobs in prison, but it's
like the old Soviet system under Communism: We pretend to work, and they
pretend to pay us.)

For the fortunate in the prison population for whom crime did pay, the $200
to $400 a month required in order to comfortably do his time does not
represent a serious burden. However, for the person who is more accustomed
to scores than to paychecks, who typically is not the sort of person who had
put a little something away for a rainy day, comfort is something one
strives for.

Misconception 7: Prison Has A Rehabilitative Effect

By removing us from the pressures and temptations of the money economy,
prison supposedly affords convicts the opportunity and inclination to
reflect on our evil ways and do penance. Hence the name "penitentiary." 

Given that most convicts hit the door under pressure to earn, about 80
percent of the prison population is on a 24/7 hustle. Some hustles are even
tacitly encouraged. 

Sanitation, for instance, is a high-priority item with all prison
administrators. New arrivals are commonly told that their areas have to be
cleaned every day, regardless of how that is accomplished. In a
higher-security joint, enterprising types take this as authorization to
seize all the mops, buckets and other cleaning supplies and establish a
monopoly on cleaning that hardly anyone is inclined to break. After all, the
crowd who needs to hustle and the crowd who needs, for reasons largely
associated with perceived status, to have their cells professionally
cleaned, are symbiotic, and two bucks a week is a cheap way to feel like a
Mafia don.

Laundry service is similarly tolerated by staff, who have come to accept
that maximum usage of the limited laundry facilities in woefully overcrowded
prisons is best achieved by people who are motivated by profit.

Along these lines, a convict who is willing and able to pay can hire another
convict to perform his assigned job. The cost of this is, naturally, many
times what the prison pays. No one would really work for that.

All of this contributes to what is known as "the orderly running of the
institution," and there isn't anyone on either side of the bars who would
argue that turning a blind eye to certain indiscretions is anything but
sound management policy. 

Most hustles, however, are not so benignly regarded. Stealing, for instance,
is frowned upon by everyone, though the sanctions imposed by the convict
population are so much worse than anything the administration is allowed to
employ that this is not as much of a problem as you might expect. 

Such is not the case with gambling, which is ubiquitous. Many a bookmaker
has arrived in prison already feeling unfairly persecuted while the society
he has just been exiled from is rife with church's bingo games, volunteer
fire departments' Monte Carlo night and the NCAA Tournament pool that was
hanging on the wall of the police station where he was taken after he was
arrested. He finds himself in prison, immediately solicited to place bets or
buy squares in pools for football games, basketball games, NASCAR races and
the Daily Number. 

The first advice a newly arrived convict usually receives is to mind his own
business, always pay his bills on time, and never get involved with
gambling, dope or punks. The first piece of advice he usually ignores is the
part about gambling. In the higher-security institutions, more convicts PC
(check into protective custody) over gambling debts than for any other

There is plenty of dope in prison, which begs the question: If they can't
keep drugs out of a penitentiary with 30-foot walls, eight gun towers and a
full-time security staff of 500, how do they expect to keep them from
crossing the Mexican border?

In most prisons, one can obtain the full array of intoxicants available on
the street corner. In maximum-security joints, tastes run toward heroin,
exorbitantly priced reefer (about $40/gram), and jailhouse wine made from
either orange or tomato juice or, for the connoisseur, a very fine grape
juice vintage aged 21 days in a plastic trash bag that most convicts say
tastes almost as good as anything that can be had in a bottle with a
twist-off cap. 

At a medium security facility, you'll find less heroin and wine but more
reefer. A minimum-security facility is about the same. Coke and
hallucinogens are rare everywhere - there's no sense getting too wound up
with nowhere to go. 

At a camp where it is easiest to get things from the street there is,
paradoxically, practically nothing to be had except for some occasional
vodka, the drink of choice because of its mild smell. Convicts get
transferred to camps, after all, for good behavior. 

Besides the dope biz, other hustles you find everywhere include extortion,
prostitution, selling chow-hall food (your own and others'), making and
selling greeting cards and other hobby-craft items (including fifis),
selling loosies (single cigarettes), operating a 2-for-1 store with
commissary items (take 1 now, pay for 2 later), doing legal work, really
anything you can think of.

In here it is still all about the money, and we don't have much time for
rehabilitating or reflecting.

Misconception 8: Politicians Are Sending A Message To Potential Criminals
With Harsh Sentencing Laws

There is a consistent refrain among the John Ashcrofts and Donald Rumsfelds
of the world that that person, or group of people, needs to be sent a
message, usually in the form of some draconian punishment. Every week on the
evening news you are likely to see some politician advocating the bastinado
or drawing and quartering to send a message to jaywalkers or mopes.

Hello out there. 

No one in here is listening. Do you really think that with the time and
effort one must devote to a career in crime, not to mention staying out half
the night carousing and sleeping 'til mid-afternoon, that any of us actually
has time to watch the news or read the paper, let alone the Congressional
Record or the Federal Register? 

These messages are spam, or junk mail, and ignored. Few of us will ever
learn the penalty for anything until we get caught, at which point the
message is useless unless, of course, the message really is a wink and a nod
in the direction of you, the voter, to let you know that the government is
going to continue to do its best to punish the people who do things that you
don't want them to do; so please continue to vote for me and, by all means,
don't think that this pat on the back is only a diversion to disguise a grab
for your wallet. But that is too cynical for even a criminal like me to

Implicit in these messages is a misunderstanding of exactly what goes on in
here. A criminal-defense lawyer who has defended hundreds of clients once
told me that no one who goes to prison is ever the same again. I didn't
believe him. Convicts never believe anything anybody tells them. We are
archetypal show-me guys. 

But it turns out that he was right, and I'm not talking about an increased
tendency to dress in dark colors, wear sunglasses at inappropriate times, or
believe that Vegas and Sinatra and Wayne Newton are really, really cool.
Prison leaves an indelible mark on the soul. The results, however, are not
what I believe the people who advocate it most are hoping for.

So if we're not rehabilitating, whatever that means, what are we doing?
Everybody's main activity, even more than hustling, is scheming.

It makes perfect sense if you think about it. Take a large group of people
largely motivated by money and remove them from the economy during their
prime earning years. The longer you do this, the more it increases their
anxiety. Then, stigmatize them with a label that makes the possibility of a
secure future via traditional means unlikely. Finally, when you set them
free, place them under the thumb of a supervisory system designed to hassle
them. What do you expect to happen? It is so obvious to me that I can't see
how anyone could believe that we are doing anything else in here but
hatching schemes.

The message we get by the time we're paying attention is: You're really
screwed, so you'd better figure out what you're going to do about it.

Soon a lot more people will be getting that message. The feds are so happy
about how the drug thing is working out that they are in the process of
upping the ante for everyone. Just this year they doubled, and in some cases
quadrupled, the sentencing guidelines for a bunch of white-collar offenses.
I'll leave a light on for you.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Doc-Hawk