Last August, Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman and a lodestar of shady lobbying in DC, was convicted of eight counts of tax fraud, bank fraud, and failure to disclose a foreign bank account. His case stemmed from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election but was not, as Judge T.S. Ellis III noted in court, directly related to "collusion." Instead, the trial centered on his business dealings and especially his time as a lobbyist and shadow power broker on behalf of a pro-Russia party in Ukraine. Manafort was facing 19 to 24 years of incarceration under federal sentencing guidelines that have been used to bury first-time and nonviolent drug offenders, including myself, for decades at a time. Regardless of what it all meant for Trump—and the possibility Manafort might be pardoned by the president—the guy looked screwed.
Instead, Manafort got 47 months, or a lighter sentence than if he'd been dealing crack, as VICE News reported.
Although he still faces up to ten more years of prison in another case for conspiracy against the US and obstruction of justice via witness tampering, the immediate reaction to Manafort's bid was best summed up as generalized, if somewhat partisan, outrage. Public defenders railed at a system that routinely puts marginalized people behind bars for decades while white-collar offenders get off easy. Resistance-style scholars and politicians seemed furious that a man who represented everything wrong with the political system wasn't assured death behind bars. And, of course, Donald Trump expressed sympathy for his former crony.
Meanwhile, inside the federal prison system where Manafort, barring a pardon, will be spending at last the next few years, inmate reactions were actually quite varied. Certainly, there was anger, and indignation. But also cynicism, and despair—along with the occasional expression of relief that at least someone may have received a reasonable amount of time that actually fit their crimes.
“For almost two years now, I come in from work and half of the unit is sitting around watching CNN tell us that Trump and all of his people are going to jail," Brandon Greer, who got ten years for gun and drug charges and was serving time in federal prison in Indiana, told VICE. “And Manafort gets 47 months? Are you fucking with me? I could sit on my ass for 47 months and not bat an eye. This son-of-bitch lied to banks, didn’t pay his taxes, and all kinds of other shit and here we have a prison system full of dope dealers doing five to life? It makes no sense!
"This entire Trump show is a media-created circus and I'm tired of it," he added. "Rich people get away with whatever they want and all these son of a bitches are on the same team, the Democrats and the Republicans.”
At sentencing, Judge Ellis argued Manafort had led an “otherwise blameless life." But as plenty of commentators noted, this is the same guy who lobbied for murderous strongmen like Jonas Savimbi of Angola, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, and Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, before hooking up with Trump.
“Yeah, blameless, I'm sure. What bullshit," Berton Mays, who’s serving 96 months for a felon in possession of a gun charge, told VICE. “Manafort was given love by a judge who was obviously a crony."
When Congress created the federal guidelines for sentencing in the 1980s, it was done at least in part with an eye toward fairness in the judicial system. The idea was that judges wouldn’t have excess discretion and might be less inclined toward discrimination or bias, conscious or otherwise. In the beginning, these guidelines were obligatory, but after 2005, they became advisory in many cases not involving drug crimes with mandatory minimums. Still, to some inmates, the Manafort sentence made it clearer than ever that only certain people—that is, white guys—got the benefit of the doubt in America.
"It seems to me that Congress might consider making the guidelines mandatory [again] because Judge Ellis proved the point: judges discriminate based on race," Augie Abascal, who got ten years in the feds for trafficking meth, told VICE.
At the same time, some prisoners were pleased that Manafort hadn't been doomed to death behind bars, finding a bright spot in the fact that an American judge enjoyed discretion in the first place.
“With Manafort receiving a sentence well below what the federal guidelines called for despite the circumstances of his case, and the government's stance that they wanted to bury Manafort in a federal prison for 24 years, [it] shows that federal judges have the discretion now to give offenders a second chance. But most don’t," Andre Cooper, a man serving three life sentences in Maryland for racketeering, drug dealing, and homicide, told VICE in an email. “We congratulate Manafort and the federal judge. No federal offender wants to see another person get buried by the system regardless if you’re rich or not. We just ask for fair justice around the board.”
Nicholas “Sawed Off” McDougall, who's serving 12 years in federal prison in Indiana for armed robbery, likewise deemed Manafort’s sentence appropriate.
“I find Manafort's sentence to be fair—he did financial crimes, that's not the same as putting a 12 gauge in someone's face," he told VICE. “These other trials awaiting Manafort will most likely add a few years to his sentence, but he'll be fine. Seven months in solitary has probably been rough on him… When he actually gets to a prison yard, his outlook will be more positive, and he probably won't be in that damn wheelchair, either.”
Sawed Off touched on a key point for those despairing at Manafort's sentence to bear in mind: He's still facing more time, looking at as many as ten additional years being added to his sentence. While it remained to be seen if that time were imposed concurrently—as an extension of his bid—or consecutively (that is, running simultaneously), I can tell you from 21 years of experience that even a few years for an old guy like that is no joke.
Then again, the prospect of a pardon loomed. Damon Helton, who’s doing 30 years for a continuing criminal enterprise charge in Indiana, couldn't help lamenting the state of the political and justice systems in America generally, even as he specifically looked ahead to Manafort possibly getting bailed out.
“It would be easy for me to say that this is a case of ‘white privilege,’ but it goes deeper than that,” Helton told VICE. “All of these people—media heads, politicians, judges, celebrities—they are all part of this cabal and they look out for one anther. Oh, Trump threw a wrench in the game, and so has Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but even they get sucked in to this system and they are all one and the same."
"Manafort is a part of them," Helton added. "He will probably end up getting some more years tacked onto his time, but Trump will pardon him and the state of New York will leave him alone in the end. Only the non-connected do real time.”
Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.