My early release date has finally arrived and will probably fade into the sunset without me leaving this minimum-security federal prison camp for women. My Team, consisting of my Case Manager, my Counselor, and even the Assistant Warden who doesn’t normally attend these conferences, are meeting behind closed doors at this very moment, deciding my fate. Because of all the questionable events I was involved in during the past few months, my lawyer told me not to expect any leniency.
He actually said, “I expect them to fry you, so you don’t see the light of day for some time. I don’t know how you could have been so irresponsible and foolish.” I never really cared for this lawyer.
I suppose I am just a romantic and what I considered to be true love made me “irresponsible and foolish”. But let me start at the beginning. I am #197931-102 and have been an unwilling guest of the Rochester minimum-security federal prison camp for women in Rochester, Minnesota for the past twelve months. I arrived here after spending two years at a prison in Ohio where I attended a deeply involved drug rehabilitation program. By completing this program, my sentence was reduced by twelve months.
It was due to drugs that I was in prison in the first place. I will never forget the look on my mother’s face when two federal agents busted into our home with guns drawn. They demanded to know where I was. Since I was just in the next room, anticipating their arrival, I simply walked out, hoping to ease my mom’s pain, just a little. That did not happen. Instead, they whipped out a pair of handcuffs along with a pair of shackles, making it near impossible for me to leave the house and walk out to their undercover patrol car.
They had everything on me; e-mails, text messages, and even video recorded accusations by people I had once considered to be friends. Accusations which helped to reduce their own sentences. This group and I had joined the cartel which expected us to sell and deliver drugs over state lines. Once we crossed over that damn bridge into Wisconsin it became a federal offense, and they had the resources to haul us in. I was the only one truly serious about the cartel’s expectations. I was motivated by the money, and there was a lot of it. My friends were more excited about the free drugs the cartel used to get us addicted and keep us loyal. Seeing the pain on my mother’s face when the Judge handed down my sentence put everything into perspective for me. I knew that I had to accept my punishment, pay my dues to society, and make things right again with my family, especially with my mother.
Once I completed the rehabilitation program which was tough but well worth it, I was moved to Rochester, Minnesota because it was closer to my home. And compared to the three years I spent in Columbus, Ohio, my time here has gone by pretty fast. So much excitement has kept me from thinking of home every waking hour which helped time to go by much faster. Ask any inmate, and they will tell you that when all you think about is how much you would rather be home with your family and friends, time literally crawls by; however, if your mind can be filled with something else, anything else, the hours are less likely to just drag on.
One Year Ago
When I arrived at this prison in Rochester, Minnesota, I was finally serving my last twelve months of incarceration. I was thirty-three years old and ready to complete my sentence so I could start my life over and never spend another minute of it locked away.
I had only been here a couple of days when the corona virus was labeled a pandemic, and the prison experienced some major modifications to keep the virus from inundating the inmates and prison employees. Little did we know at the time, this virus would play a major role in all the upcoming events which led, I believe, to one of the largest prison scams in the history of the American penal systems. The same scam which my lawyer believed would “fry me”.
The first change instituted due to the virus was by far the most important one as it kept all the inmates locked in their cubbies twenty-four hours a day. This is very different from how a minimum-security prison camp operated prior to the covid virus. Under normal circumstances in a minimum-security federal prison every inmate is assigned a job to aid in the full functioning of the institution. The scope of these jobs ranged from janitorial within their own housing units to the visiting areas to the library and educational buildings to the largest employer, the kitchen and dining area. While there are many positions available within the kitchen from dishwasher to head chef, my job consisted of wiping down tables. The guards were very picky in making sure that the inmates made it through the serving lines, found a beverage to drink, and were able to sit at a clean table to consume their meal in a timely fashion. I worked a five-hour shift which was mostly spent on my feet. I shouldn’t complain, however the ladies who worked the breakfast shift had to be there at 5:00 am. They not only had to work the breakfast shift but the lunch shift as well. They spent over eight hours a day on their feet. We were paid .05 cents per hour which came to a little over $5 a month.
As soon as Covid was declared a pandemic, we were told that the Warden would be coming to our housing unit that evening for a “town hall meeting.” She would be briefing us all on some important changes coming to our prison. We were hoping that these changes consisted of us being released to home confinement, and a lot of the women actually began packing their meager belongings. Unfortunately, early release was never discussed; however, the changes that were discussed were monumental.
This was my first “town hall meeting”. Actually, it was the first time I laid eyes on the Warden. I was just fascinated by these women. They appeared to be so powerful. I knew they had the power to send an inmate home with an immediate release, and that was enough for me. Everyone in our unit seemed nervous, waiting for the meeting to begin. Finally, three cars pulled up in front of our building. As the Warden exited her vehicle and walked or maybe it was more like she marched into our unit, surrounded by her entourage. They all stood at attention in the front of our unit and the 100 plus of us scrambled to find a place facing her in a semi-circle.
“I realize that for many of you, this is your first ‘town hall meeting’, so I will quickly go over the rules. I am here to explain some of the changes that have been put in place due to the pandemic and are effective immediately. When I am through, I will give you the opportunity to ask questions. We will start at this end (pointing to the inmates at her right). Raise your hand if you have a question, and I will point to you, and you may ask your question at that time and that time only. If no one raises their hands, the meeting will be over. There are eight units I need to speak with tonight.”
I got the idea. There would be no dilly dallying. She would get to the point and move on to the next unit.
The Warden went on to explain that every inmate would be confined to their rooms, with all meals delivered to them by the prison employees. No more wiping down tables. Only a few select inmates would be allowed to go to the kitchen every day to help prepare and pack up 800 breakfasts, lunches. and dinners to be delivered to us. She went on to explain the shower schedules and when we would be allowed to use the phones. I looked around at my fellow inmates as the Warden spoke, and we all had the same look on our faces, shock and disbelief. I’ll never forget what happened next. The Warden finished with her explanation of the changes and pointed her finger at the girls to her right. “Any questions?” she asked as her finger moved right to left in one sweep before any of us could raise our hands. She then began to march out of there. A few girls tried to say, “wait, wait. I have a question.” She just glanced back at us, saying “I explained the rules regarding questions at the beginning of our meeting.”
And so it began, the switch from a prison “camp” to what seemed like death row. My bunkie (I hate that word, but it is what everyone calls their roommates) was a really neat young girl from Louisville, Kentucky. She was twenty-eight years old, and we called her Wiser as that is her last name, and everyone is addressed by their last names. Her name was very fitting, and she actually looked the part with long dark hair and black square framed glasses which did not hide her bright blue eyes. We had a lot in common, which was important since we spent almost all day together, every day. She liked to read as much as I do, and when she was interested in a good book she just zoned out and there was no communicating with her. That was fine with me. I needed some alone time every now and then. Most people wouldn’t think of prison as a social place, but it is filled with extroverts and more drama than a soap opera.
We also shared a competitive spirit which equated to a love of games and spent hours playing gin and double solitaire. We would have Sorry tournaments (the board game) and invite the girls who lived in the cube across from us. Abigay, which was the Spanish name for Abigail, did not speak much English, but she was cute as a button. We all called her Abbi because her last name was too hard to pronounce. Abigay means joy, and she was a joy to all who knew her. She was particularly kind to the older residents of our prison. She would spend hours giving them pedicures or cooking one of her native dishes and sharing it with all of them. Wiser spoke some Spanish so she would communicate with Abbi better than the rest of us. Abbi’s “bunkie” was Grayson and she was here on a violent gun charge, and although we don’t know the extent of it, the rumor was she participated in killing several people. I knew that she had over ten years left to serve, and she wasn’t a happy person. Two years have seemed torturous to me, so I can’t imagine what ten more years here would possibly feel like. Grayson always seemed to be scowling and sullen, but I guess the fact that she gained close to 100 pounds since being incarcerated hasn’t helped.
Our Sorry tournaments can get pretty intense with Grayson dumping the board all over our cube one time because she felt she had been “sorried” one too many times. It is like we always took it personally when we were losing the game, all of us did, but only Grayson would get nasty over it.
My bunkie, Wiser, had only nine months left to serve, and she would be released to a halfway house near her home in Kentucky. When I first arrived here, I remember her saying, “This is the last time I will have to spend the last week in April is this hellhole. Next April I will be home watching the forsythia and redbud trees bloom.” And, of course, she would get extremely excited about the Kentucky Derby which took place the first weekend in May. She has invited all of us to spend next years’ Kentucky Derby with her. We should all be able to attend except for Grayson who will still be in this hellhole, but Abbi and I should be able to travel. Wiser says the whole week prior to the Derby is one big party. Sounds like something I would really enjoy.
There wasn’t much to do in this federal prison before Covid, but once we were confined to our bunks. we were going crazy with boredom. I do recall that before Covid, the inmates would walk a half a mile to the dining area where the food was prepared by inmates, served by inmates and of course, the tables were wiped down by inmates. The guards would just stand around and occasionally ordered one of us to tuck in our shirts properly. They also checked some of our pockets as we were leaving to make sure we hadn’t snuck “contraband” out of the dining area to consume or trade for something else back in our housing area.
Breakfast was served at 6:00 am. Before the virus those who wanted breakfast would wake around 5:00 am, get dressed for the day which included khaki pants, a khaki blouse which needed to be tucked into the pants and secured by a khaki woven belt. I was so uncomfortable in my uniform at the beginning. Some of the girls looked very cute in theirs, but I felt mine did not fit the way it was meant to. And then to top it off we were required to wear steel toed boots, at 6:00 in the morning! I know that many people feel like I had no right to complain. I did the crime, now I must do the time. But it is important to realize that these boots weighed five pounds each!
Our mornings were now spent in our cubes which were an 8’ X 10’ area containing a bunk bed, two lockers and a small desk built into the wall with an attached swivel chair. Wiser and I were lucky because we had a window in our cube which looked out across the pathway to the other living units. There were eight units, each housing up to 120 inmates. We would see everything that went on around here from our window. When a fight broke out, we would see the guards hustle the offending inmates away, usually in handcuffs. Or if someone became deathly ill, we could watch the ambulance come and take them away, usually handcuffed to the stretcher. There wasn’t much that escaped us!
An official head count was performed by the guards anywhere between 11:00 am and 11:30 am, depending upon how many guards were on duty. They took these counts very seriously. We were supposed to all be in our cubes, not making a sound, fifteen minutes prior to the count. Then when the guards entered our unit, they would yell “COUNT” and we all needed to scramble up and stand in our doorways. The guards would walk up and down the halls with a stern look on their face making sure each of us was accounted for and no one was hiding in the back of our cubes. They then conferred and verified that they both came to the same total and if so, they called their count into the R & D (Receiving and Departure) Office. If their counts did not match, an officer would call out “RECOUNT” and repeat the process. And of course, their count must match that of the R & D. We were not allowed to leave our entryway until we heard the words “GOOD COUNT” shouted out by whichever guard was the loudest. Since everyone needed to be deathly quiet during count times, many of us believed that some of the guards would just drag the count time out, which required us to stand by our entryways, not making a peep. Some of the guards got real pleasure out of seeing us uncomfortable.
They took counts three times during the day and an additional three times throughout the night, shining high powered flashlights into our sleeping faces. Then there were the unofficial counts that they performed, whenever, and the Census Counts which required you to show your I.D card to the guards as they walked by. I guess they needed to know it was really you and not some imposter. Like who would ever want to change places with me?
When I first entered prison, I was considered “very green” as I had never spent any time incarcerated. I didn’t know what a count was or the importance of one. As the guards walked by my cube (I didn’t have a bunkie at the time) I was sitting at the desk, never being told that I should be standing at attention. The officer just barked, “get up” which I did, of course. Unfortunately, due to the amount of stress I was dealing with and my ignorance of the significance of the daily “COUNTS” I was fast asleep for the following two episodes. A guard entered my cube after I slept through the final one of the day and informed me that she was going to have to give me a shot if I slept through one more daily count. My first thought was,” Oh my God, they would shoot me for sleeping through a count. I need to get in touch with my attorney, hopefully he might actually do something for me!” It did not take long for me to realize that a shot was a written disciplinary notice. I never missed a count again in my prison career.