Stripped of the designer suits that were his trademark—he once spent well over a million dollars on clothes over a four-year stretch, according to prosecutors—Manafort no doubt struggled to process just how far he had fallen. After years globetrotting on behalf of dubiously democratic politicians in far-flung locales like Ukraine (where he was said to swim nude alongside his client), he returned to Washington, the city where he first established himself as a force in politics. But after a brief stretch helping Trump lock down the GOP nomination in the summer of 2016, Manafort's shady business dealings came under public—and, as it would turn out, legal—scrutiny. Last October, he became the first major player in the now-president's orbit to face indictment in Robert Mueller's sprawling investigation of Russian interference into the 2016 election.
And thanks to some alleged witness tampering on his part, Manafort will spend the rest of his time fighting the litany of charges that include money-laundering, tax evasion, conspiracy, and failure to register as a foreign agent—he's pleaded not guilty—from inside. While his high-profile status and potential to flip make him valuable, and what remains of his wealth something of a carrot in his dealings with fellow inmates, conversations with denizens of the federal lock-up and prison system painted a bleak picture of what lies ahead.
The man's surest option, most inmates agreed, was to go down hard, and prey on the president's unique approach to America's pardon system.
"Do you know how many people in here despise Trump?" —Troy Hockenberry
Incarcerated at the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, in a special block the Washington Post dubbed a VIP section, Manafort will experience what it feels like to be totally helpless for perhaps the first-time in his life. The echoing sound of the holding-cell sliding shut and meager comforts—a former inmate at the facility told VICE News the VIP cell there is a 5x12 dorm room with a cardboard-thin mattress—will serve as a constant reminder of where he is and what he has lost.
"The conditions in Warsaw are miserable," insisted Jeremy Fontanez, who faced a life sentence for murder and other crimes in federal prison in West Virginia and recalled hearing about the jail from a former inmate there. "The place is filled with guys in federal transit, meaning they are in and quickly out soon after arriving. The food is horrible…. At least Manafort is a wealthy enough to afford the expensive-ass commissary."
Instead of Friday night dinner and drinks at a swanky Georgetown restaurant, Manafort was likely eating a baloney sandwich out of a paper bag the US Marshals threw at him, if my own experience in federal lock-up was any indication. This is his new reality as he waits to go through the criminal justice machinery typically reserved for the poor and people of color. He faces up to 300 years in prison, a.k.a. the rest of his life.
"If Trump actually lets Manafort go down, he's gonna be toast," Troy Hockenberry, who's doing time on a gun charge at a federal prison in Indiana, told VICE. "Do you know how many people in here despise Trump? By the time he hits his cell everyone will be saying that he's the guy who 'helped Trump win'—doesn't matter if it's true or not. All the vodka in Russia couldn't help dull this dude's pain if he ends up in the feds [for good]."
Some inmates suggested cooperating with prosecutors—and risking Trump's ire and foreclosing the possibility of a pardon—was Manafort's only move in the short term.
"At this point it seems impossible that Manafort will beat all, if any, of these charges," speculated Nicholas "Sawed Off" McDougal, who's serving 12 years in federal prison—also in Indiana—for armed robbery. "How will he fare in here? It could go either way for a guy like him. He has access to financial resources greater than 90 percent of federal inmates. This can help or hurt him. He could end up a victim of extortion or someone's 'sweet thing.' He has experience in running campaigns so perhaps his charisma can save him from that fate."
In the event that Manafort is ultimately found guilty—he faces two trials: one in July, the other in September—it's not implausible that he would end up in a United States Penitentiary (USP). These are the nation's maximum-security prisons, where he almost certainly be less than warmly received by scores of inmates who loathe Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. If that's the case, Manafort may feel compelled to seek the protection of an Aryan prison gang, perhaps the only kind of clique that would be kind to him—for the right price. Otherwise, African-American and Hispanic inmates could feel entitled to take out their aggressions on Manafort every time Trump sent out a tweet that they perceived as racist, inappropriate, or insensitive.
"The way I see it, Manafort is in a tough spot," offered Augie Abascal, who's serving ten years in the feds for trafficking meth. "He's facing too much time to walk free, so even if he does try to cooperate he's gonna have to go do some serious time, and who will ultimately be in charge of housing him? Trump’s people. So if he does roll on Trump, he'll be put in a USP and that won't be good. If he doesn't roll, then he's guaranteed to go to a USP. So what's this fool gonna do? At the end of the day, he can always go into protective custody and do all his time in a cell alone or in some spot with a bunch of cho-mos."
Prisoners were virtually unanimous on one point: Manafort's profile as a lackey of the man in the White House would put a target on his back, assuming he is ultimately found guilty.
"None of the president's friends can come to the wrong FCI or USP, because these prisoners see the president's whole cabinet as being extremely racist," Donald Green, who's serving life for a drug conspiracy that included murder and other crimes, told VICE. "His only hope is for Trump to pardon him. If he touches down in the wrong federal joint and that clemency doesn't transpire, there'll be crazy drama."
That was the prevailing sentiment among inmates dubious of Trump and even more dubious of his approach to law and order: Trump will never let Manafort go to prison if he gets convicted. In fact, inmates insisted, no one who gets touched by Mueller or anyone in the special counsel's office will see a day in the feds. Manafort may be at Northern Neck right now due to his own sense of entitlement and stupidity, his capacity for high-profile greed in the affairs of governments both foreign and domestic. But his best shot, they concluded, was to suck it up and survive just like anyone else—and pray to God the man in the Oval Office didn't forget about him.
"He's not going to be able to slide into some white-collar camp after he's sentenced unless he gets in front of a Republican-appointed judge," Robert Lustyik, a former FBI agent serving 15 years for corruption, told VICE. "He won't be able to walk the yard because he’s going to have to cooperate at some point, and we all know what happens to a rat behind the wall. His only saving grace that Trump just lets the trial take it's course and then pardons Manafort before he is wearing lipstick and cleaning some guy's cell for him."
Robert Rosso contributed reporting for this story.
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