Federal inmates are seething this week at comments made last Tuesday by Charles E. Samuels, director of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), in testimony before Congress.
Samuels, appointed by President Obama in late 2011 following the embarrassing drunk-driving arrest of former BOP Director Harley Lappin, told lawmakers that his agency was forced to contend with a large inmate population on limited resources. Which sounds perfectly reasonable. But Samuels also claimed that federal inmates are not placed in solitary confinement—a.k.a. "the hole"—as a matter of policy.
"We do not practice solitary confinement," Samuels said.
Suffice to say prisoners VICE spoke to tell a very different story.
"Reading what Samuels said was like watching Bill Clinton change the meaning of 'sexual relations' when he denied that Monica Lewinsky gave him head," says Jay Martt, a federal inmate serving 14 years for robbery at FCI Terre Haute, a federal prison in Indiana. "He's redefining what solitary confinement means in modern times."
No longer are inmates placed into dark black rooms with no lightening whatsoever and served bread and water like they were during the times of Alcatraz, according to Martt. Instead, those who violate rules, or are placed under investigation, or are in need of protection (or have become the targets of disgruntled staff members) are placed in special housing units (SHU). There, they are segregated from the general population and confined to one- and two-man cells.
Samuels denied this, too.
"We do not, under any circumstances, nor have we ever had the practice of putting an individual in a cell alone," while housed in the SHU, Samuels swore before members of the Senate.
"How can he get away with saying such a bald-face lie?" wonders Martt. " Of course they put guys in single-cells in the SHU. All that one of these senators needs to do is subpoena any log-book from any SHU in the BOP and they could prosecute Director Samuels for lying to members of Congress."
Samuels did accurately testify that the average stay of an inmate in the SHU is 65 days. But missing from his testimony was the fact prison officials tend to overuse on these segregation units—as well as any kind of nod to the mental anguish that inmates sometimes endure while living in a cell either alone (in a "solitary-type" setting) or with another inmate for such a long period of time.
"Prison officials like to tell the public and the courts that when we are put in the hole, or the 'SHU,' that we get one hour out of our cells every day for recreation. It's a lie," Martt, who gets released from prison next year, tells VICE. "Sometimes, when the staff feels like it, they might let us go from our cell into a cage that's the size of two cells combined with up to six other people in it, and we stand around looking stupid. That's what the BOP calls our 'one hour' out of the cell per day."
Inmates placed in confinement are also given the bare essentials, often not having deodorant, enough food to eat, or access to the writing materials they need to contact their loved ones. And the showers, if they work, sometimes have limited hot water. "We are at the mercy of our handlers," according to Martt. "And most of the time they treat us like dogs."
Troy Hockenberry, serving a ten-year sentence for a gun charge, says it's the misuse of the special housing units that concerns him. "I know a guy who was sent to the hole for not tucking in his shirt. He stayed back there for over a month—for not tucking in his shirt! That's absurd," he said. Hockenberry argued that staff will target inmates that they don't like and have them placed in the SHU for an "investigation." According to BOP policy, an inmate can remain in the SHU under investigation for a period 90 days, at which time a decision must be made: Charge the inmate, or place them back into general population.
"But they've got a trick for that, too," Hockenberry tells VICE. "They ask for an extension." An officer investigating an alleged wrong doing can request three extensions, meaning that an inmate can be held in the SHU for nine months without ever being charged. "The bottom line is they can do whatever they want to us and nobody cares," Hockenberry concludes.
What annoyed inmate Jeff Bowman the most about Samuels's testimony before Congress was not what the BOP director said about solitary confinement. Rather, it was that Samuels claimed that he had no control over the length of an inmates stay.
"Last year, the Justice Department amended the policy for compassionate release, and made it a lot easier for sick people or people who are the primary care-taker of their kids to get out early if we fit a certain criteria that (former Attorney General) Holder outlined for us," Bowman says. "But Samuels isn't letting anybody out. I think USA Today reported that out of the hundreds or maybe even thousands of prisoners who are eligible, only three or four got out. Samuels can easily direct his wardens to get on the ball if he wanted to—he has that power, and he knows it, but obviously isn't interested."
Daniel Brown, who's serving 41 years for drugs and guns, would like to see Samuels take a leadership role in the criminal justice reform movement that is sweeping the nation.
"It's easy to sit here and criticize Samuels for all of our grievances, but that's not going to solve anything. It's okay to be against something, as long as you are for something," Brown tells VICE. What Brown is for is more earned "good time credit" for those who are programming.
"I would like to see Director Samuels speak to Obama and lawmakers about the rehabilitative inmates who are working in UNICOR (federal prison industries), and have completed two very important programs: Life Connections and the Challenge Program. These are the pinnacle of federal prison programs, yet inmates who have completed them, or who are actively working in UNICOR, do not earn any time off of our sentences, such as the inmates who complete RDAP (Residence Drug and Alcohol treatment Program). It makes no sense that the only inmates who are currently eligible to get a year off their sentences are the drug addicts who complete RDAP, yet the inmates who work in UNICOR or who complete Life Connections and Challenges get nothing."
Re-entry programs and education are also weighing on the mind of James Diederich, a habitual criminal who is looking to change his ways.
"Samuels has a $7 billion budget to work with," Diederich tells VICE. "Look around you. What do you see? You see a bunch of idiots who sit around all day watching the Kardashians, TMZ, BET, CMT, and VH1, and most are in here forming new conspiracies. It wouldn't be like this if we had more educational programs—if they taught us real trades or business skills, or let us earn a degree. But that's not how it is. Instead, the BOP's educational system is like this big scheme to make it appear like they are offering us all of this good stuff."
The truth, Diederich says, is that education departments in most federal prisons rely on inmate tutors who are allowed to oversee a classroom with no supervision. He has taken an Adult Continuing Education (ACE) course where staff never made an appearance, and the inmate tutor would just pass out some material for them to read and never offer a word of advice.
"Then, six weeks later, I received a certificate saying I completed a class that I know nothing about—we didn't learn anything," Diederich says. "That's why I've just been taking mail-order classes that have nothing to do with the BOP. It's the only way that I can better myself."
Another inmate who has been in prison over 20 years but wishes to remain anonymous leveled even more disturbing allegations about the BOP's educational system.
"If you look at my inmate file, it says that I complete 33 ACE classes and completed some of the college courses that were available back in the day when the BOP did care about rehabilitation. But I have never stepped foot in a classroom. Each certificate of completion that's in my file has been bought and paid for," the prisoner tells VICE. For a fee of about $5, he says, he was able to purchase the certificates from inmate tutors because there was never any staff oversight, and this just didn't happen in one prison, but in five separate ones.
"And I'll tell you something else," the prisoner continues. "I personally know one of the guys who Obama just let out of prison through the clemency process, and he never took any classes either. He bought all of his certificates just like me."
Kenneth Choice is serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug crime. When he first learned that Obama had appointed a black man to head the Bureau of Prisons, he was excited. "For all these near 20 years me and other black men in here have felt like we have been living in a white man's prison," Choice says. "We got convicted in white man's courts, then we were out in a white man's jail, then things changed."
The election of our nation's fist African-American president, the appointment of a black attorney general, and finally the appointment of a black prison director left Choice with no doubt things were going to change for the better.
"I thought we'd get better food, better programs to help us, better health care and dental care, and better education classes and maybe even more work out at UNICOR. But to tell you the truth, under Samuels, things done got worse," Choice tells VICE. The quality of food took a sharp turn for the worst, over the years programs have slowly disappeared, and medical and dental are at an all time low, according to Choice. "I just can't understand why he won't really get his act together and try to do better for us."
To be fair, Director Samuels inherited the legacy of Harley Lappin: a rise in violent prison gangs, a prison system saturated with illegal narcotics, and a high recidivism rate that is arguably a function of the lack of educational opportunities and meaningful programs funded by the government. In an effort to turn things around, immediately after he took over, Samuels began sending staff frequent emails in order to boost morale. In one email sent in April of 2011, Samuels encouraged all BOP employees to foster a "curse-free" environment in order to gain the respect of inmates.
"Fuck him!" one correctional officer who was working at the Butner Federal Prison complex said at the time. "Who he think he is? Herman Cain?"
Inmate Dave Franklin believes that Samuels is in a difficult position: With Obama pushing for immediate sentencing reform, Franklin says, there are a lot of staff members uncertain about their future.
"There's big changes coming and they are coming fast," he tells VICE. "It will be impossible for the director to really get anything of any significance done." Nevertheless, Franklin would love to see Samuels mandate that the rank and file, along with the administrative heads, adhere to BOP policy and program statements, with significant repercussions if they don't.
"It's like this," Franklin says. "BOP staff do commonly lie and screw us inmates about everything. On a daily basis they falsify federal documents; whether it be for lying on an Incident Report to get us in trouble or saying that they held safety discussions when they never really did. They lie about making hourly rounds in the SHU, they lie about the quality of food they serve us, or the number of the rolls of toilet paper that they give us. They lie about the number of microwaves we are allowed, or the number of library books they order for us… It's just nonstop and I just wish it would stop."
It seems like the BOP director has a lot to answer for, with the federal Bureau of Prisons still a corrupt system that needs serious reforms. Hopefully this grilling of its top administrative official by Congress—and his transparent attempt at misleading lawmakers—is the first step in an overhaul of a massive, dysfunctional bureaucracy.
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