Letters From Prison 2006 #15- Agony and Ecstasy: Shakedown! And Then Release

Agony and Ecstasy: Shakedown! And Then Release
By Steve Clemens - Federal Prison Camp, Duluth, MN. July 7, 2006

The schedule for day 89 of my 90 day Federal Prison sentence was to go on the “merry-go-round” – the obligatory release program that has you submitting a form to the various department staff to be signed indicating you reported to them before your release the next morning. Included in the release process is turning in your prison “greens” at the laundry and requesting “street clothes” (if you haven’t requested someone on the outside to mail you your own clothes ahead of time).

Budget cuts have changed the BOP. In 1981 when I was released from FPC Texarkana, TX, I was able to pick my set of clothes for “the street” – including suits! - and decent shoes for my release. Twenty-five years later, I’m given a pair of new, very cheap-grade denim jeans at least 6-8” too long, a denim-like shirt with snaps instead of buttons with several noticeable flaws in the front, and a pair of canvas sneakers with no arch support whatsoever. All apparently made by prison labor in China, I suppose.

After procuring all the requisite signatures, I submitted the form to my Case Manager and was then “free” for the rest of the day. So I took advantage of the inmate barber shop and had “Big E” give me a haircut for the price of six first-class stamps, the currency of the inmates in the BOP. After returning to my dorm, I noticed a Corrections Officer (guard or “CO”) standing in the doorway to my room so I just continued walking down the hall as though I was originally headed for the restroom. As I passed by my room, I did what any inmate would do – I looked inside to see what was happening. The Lieutenant (Wilson) had one of my cellie’s (slang for cellmate) mattresses, stripped of its sheets and covers, on the floor. He was prying off the brass caps from the top metal posts of that bunk bed, obviously searching for contraband. After a reasonable time in the bathroom, I returned past the room again and headed out to find the cellie whose mattress was part of the search. When I couldn’t find him at his normal afternoon hangout, I decided to wait out the shakedown of my room in the Activities Center.

I had heard stories around the camp of rooms being tossed by the COs looking for contraband. Less than a month ago, a room in the 209 dorm was completely searched and the scuttlebutt on the compound was that six cell phones, two containers of vodka, and some other contraband was discovered in their lockers and room and the whole room was sent to the SHU (the “hole”) because no one had “confessed” to whom the illegal property belonged. Some inmates complained that it wasn’t fair to lock up one of the cellies who was in his 70’s and regularly attend the chapel “Bible Studies” but others said, “If he wasn’t part of it, why did he let them keep their shit in his locker?” Divide and conquer has always been the strategy of the empire/Domination System.

I had just mentioned to my cellies three days prior that I was about to finish my three months without having been “breathalyzed”, drug-tested, or had my room shaken-down. The COs are given a quota everyday for ten inmates to be given a breathalyzer and on most days several inmates are called over the loudspeaker system to “report to the Captain’s (or Lieutenant’s) Office for a “random” urine analysis drug test.

When I returned to my dorm, several of the dorm mates greeted me “What did they find in there?” “They hauled off a bag of shit from your room, man.” “Nice decorating job you have in your room!” Well, it looked like a tornado had swept through the room. One locker was pulled away from the wall and left in the middle of the room. (The other three lockers are built-in and couldn’t be moved but had obviously been opened.) All the coats and jackets were in a pile on the middle of the floor. All four beds were now stripped of their sheets, blankets, pillows and the bedding was strewn about. One mattress had been ripped open or cut apart along the long edge to “inspect” for contraband. The brass safety caps on the top of the bed were gone. (The other bunk never had those caps which caused a lot of discomfort for me in trying to get in and out of my upper bunk the first month in captivity here.)

One cellie returned soon after me and we commiserated together before starting to clean up the mess and fret over “what’s next?” We remade our beds, replaced the cover shield to the wall radiator, put books and magazines back on the shelf and checked our own lockers. Although all my personal stuff had been taken to R&D earlier in the day to be “inspected” before release, I still had my stash of (illegal) extra pillows (2), and blankets (4) which I use to help alleviate my back pain at night. Although those contraband items had obviously been moved and search, they and my two extra (again, illegal) sheets were left in the room. As the other two cellies arrived prior to the 4PM standing count, we discovered what was taken in the shakedown: a hair/beard trimmer (battery operated) sold at the commissary but without the proper ID name and # etched on it, a home-made “shower caddy”, a “porn” magazine (anything showing a nipple and/or genitalia), some “artwork” which could be designs for potential tattoos, and, the real reason for the search: the cigarettes. Stashed in the pipes of the bunk bed that had the brass caps were both “rollies” (hand rolled cigarettes) and commercial-grade cigarettes. However, what turned this into a major incident was the amount – about 10 more than the threshold amount of 20 which translates this offense into a “100 level shot” with the “advertised” consequence of automatic shipment to a higher security prison, loss of accumulated good time, and loss for one year(!) of commissary, visits, and telephone calls.

But, this being the BOP, anything can happen. Several weeks ago, one of my co-workers on the dish team was caught with 151 cigarettes (!) by “Robocop” (the CO with one of the worst reputations at FPC Duluth). He was “sentenced” to only 50 hours of “extra duty” because he was scheduled to leave for a halfway house within two weeks. His halfway house could have been revoked and he could have been shipped to another prison to finish his 6 months and two weeks but someone must have decided it was too much paperwork involved so Justin left with a smirk on his face – having completed only 3 of the mandated 50 extra hours of work.

However, when contraband of this nature is found not in an inmates locker (like Justin) but rather in the “common area” of the room, the usual tendency is to call all four (or 6) from the offending room to the Lieutenant’s Office to see if someone will “fess up” to the “crime”. If no one cops to the offense, all four (or 6) are sent to the hole (SHU) while an “investigation” is conducted. That way “social pressure” on the “guilty” party can be applied from those in the room who are “not guilty” of this offense. Actually, there is already at least one suspect because the shakedown was almost certainly instigated by a “snitch”. Someone else was caught smoking or in possession of a cigarette and was promised leniency in exchange for snitching on the guy where he “bought” it. Not snitching comes at a great price: I personally met several guys who lost 6 months of commissary, visits, and phones for possessing only 1-3 cigarettes. It’s not a big deal for some who’ve “been down” for 10 years or more and whose family and friends no longer visit or accept phone calls. But for those who still entertain the hope that spouses, girlfriends, or others might hang on with you … And so the shakedown is initiated once the Judas-deed is completed.

It is no “accident” that our room was the target of the search. They knew where to look and what to look for. All the other items taken were peripheral to their main mission. (Ironically, I’ve seen the Lieutenant smoking on the compound at least 3-4 times in the past month or so!) So, does one of us “own up to it” or do we all face the wrath of the BOP? When one cellie steps forward and says (just in front of the other 3 of us with no “cops” around) it was his (there was little doubt since 3 of us don’t smoke cigarettes), I was struck by a different possibility: why couldn’t I “confess” since I was leaving the next day (with no “paper” or halfway commitment) and the worst they could do to me was to throw me into the hole for my last night. I floated this idea like a “governmental trial balloon” to explore the possibilities and the pros and cons (pun intended).

Is it ethical for me to take the rap? Since the possible punishment another faced was (to me) clearly unjust in that it also continues to punish one’s family, could I offer myself as the “sacrificial lamb” to avoid another miscarriage of “justice” in the midst of a system of rampant injustice? Could I lie convincingly? What if they asked me where they were hidden and how many, and what type? Would the real “culprit” get in even greater trouble of they didn’t believe my “confession”?

Two of my cellies (privately) counseled me not to do it. The guy who “does the crime” needs to “do the time” – face the consequences of his actions. He took the risk, now he has to “be a man” about it and face the music. He puts all of us at risk when he has contraband in the room. The third cellie was obviously energized by the prospect of someone else taking the rap – especially because it would be relatively painless for me to do it. If I had a 100-level shot on my BOP record, would there be ramifications if/when I might return as a federal inmate? He gave me the details of what, where, and how many and then said, “Hey buddy, it’s up to you”. I could walk up to the Lieutenant’s Office (I didn’t even know which office it is, just that it is in the building where “Control” is located) and volunteer the “confession” or wait until we were all called to report to his office sometime after the afternoon count cleared. I wanted to wait until after supper so I could consult with my friend and co-defendant, John LaForge on the advisability and ethics of the situation. We walked and talked. I considered confiding in one of the 3-4 Catholic friends I’d made in the Wednesday night group with Sister Timothy but none of them shared the same perspective that John & I shared in “choosing” to go to prison.

No loudspeaker announcement commanded my presence before the 10 PM count and the 15 minute warning prior to it requiring us to return to our (separate) dorms left John and me determined to meet again at breakfast prior to my reporting to Control at 6:30PM to begin my release. One of my cellies had to celebrate my “graduation from FPC Duluth” with some fried rice (his specialty) cooked up in the microwave after the count. It was a welcomed treat seeing that the “beef stew” at supper could have been better described as beef spew. So, we turned off the lights at 11:15 and I laid down, anticipating my last “wake up” in the BOP.

John, Muff, and I chatted very briefly at breakfast and John walked out with me to give me a final embrace (what a gift!) since he couldn’t approach me after I got out of Control since it might allow for contraband to be handed to or from me as I left. Having John to share this time with was a real blessing for me. He has a lot of previous experience “inside” and a wonderful, gentle spirit with a great sense of humor and justice. I hurried back to the dorm to grab my stuff and head to Control. As I entered the room, Jason and Pablo informed me that “I just missed them” – telling me another CO had just completed another shakedown while I was gone - only this time they didn’t rip everything apart. Finding nothing, he had just left. So the situation remains unresolved.

At Control, I waited for the officer to take me to R&D to get my street clothes, hand in my linens, my last uniform and boots, and to be fingerprinted again (but only the right thumb this time). As I was changing, the officer said, “You aren’t planning on coming back here are you?” I smiled and said, “It depends on what next needs protesting and whether it is on federal property or not.” Again, I had a few moments to “witness” about our desire to Close the SOA and educate another citizen about the realities of our misguided – no, really it is a deliberate, determined policy to dominate other peoples here and abroad – national policies.

I insisted that the BOP pay my way home and on the drive to the Greyhound station in Duluth, I asked the inmate “town trip” driver if many other guys left FPC Duluth with “no paper” (reporting to a Probation Officer for X years) and “no halfway house” and he said it was very rare. I couldn’t have “done the crime and done the time” without a supportive wife and sons, a loving community, and a whole “cloud of witnesses” who have both gone before me and presently envelope and travel with me. THANK YOU for sharing this journey with me.

“Free at last” – but with freedom comes responsibility. Please join with me to make the reality of the Reign of God more tangible and visible.



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