Sex offenders have it better in prison now than when I entered the federal system in 1993, but it's still not going to be paradise for the former Subway spokesman, who will soon plead guilty to child porn charges.
Jared Fogle, the former Subway spokesman who famously lost hundreds of pounds by eating the fast-food chain's sandwiches, is what's known in prison parlance as a chomo. As in "child molester"—the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth that other prisoners kick to the side to make themselves feel more human.
Prison culture is all about making yourself seem bigger, stronger, and, crucially, more righteous than everyone else. Pedophiles and others convicted of sex crimes against minors are universally detested. So when Fogle agreed to plead guilty to federal charges of receiving and sharing child pornography and paying for sex with teenagers on Wednesday, inmates took notice. The good news for the disgraced sandwich mascot, who's expected to be sentenced to between five and 12.5 years in prison, is that the federal system has slowly been improving conditions for inmates who would be pariahs in prison. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in 2015 is a totally different animal than it was back in the 1990s.
The bad news is he's still going to be singled out.
"Child molesters have minimal rights in federal prison," Steve, who was recently released after serving two years at FCC Forrest City—a low-security facility in Arkansas where plenty of sex offenders are incarcerated—tells VICE. Chomos' fellow inmates often "keep them from watching television. They give them a very small amount of space on the recreation yard or in the chow hall, they're not allowed to go in certain areas or be around certain functions. And given the high-profile nature of this case, I'm sure [Fogle's] not going to even have the opportunity to leave his cell or cubicle without being harassed and threatened. His best bet is to do his time in segregation where no one can get to him."
Indeed, if Fogle is put in a higher-security prison with murderers and other violent criminals who prefer to see him as a sort of unique evil—and doesn't seek out or receive protective custody—he's in trouble.
"As far as the Subway guy goes, if he is sent to any USP [United States Penitentiary] other than Tucson, then he will be hurt or worse once he lands in there," a prisoner we'll call Tim who's been inside for over two decades tells VICE. "However, things have changed for chomos in the past few years... Prisons have so many of them that they make certain prisons, such as USP Tucson and [medium-security facilities] such as Marianna, Florida, just for them. If you are not a chomo and go to there, they tell you up front, 'If you put your hands on one, then you are getting ten more years.' They screen everyone going to those places."
The facilities in Tucson and Marianna have special housing units for sex offenders, and others, like FCI Forrest City, have informally become safe havens, which suggests the BOP has learned to house sex criminals with caution.
"I think the Bureau is tired of paying for all of the hospital bills and perhaps lawsuits over them getting smashed everywhere they go, so they have whole prisons of them," Tim says.
Another penitentiary veteran we'll call Judge agrees. "The dude is going to go to a low or an FCI, and they aren't about shit down there," he says. "With any luck, he'll go to a place where they'll extort the shit out of him before they kick his face off. If he came to the pen... It'd be a wrap, he wouldn't have time to even put his bedroll down, because he'd be the prize—someone you'd get famous off of for smashing out."
I went to federal prison myself in 1993 on an LSD conspiracy charge, and back then, you didn't really see sex offenders on the block—you only heard about them getting beat down or checked into the hole when their paperwork didn't pass muster. (Inmates are often asked by others to present documentation to prove they didn't commit sex crimes against children, among other things.) But around 2008, when I was at FCI Loretto—a low-security prison in Pennsylvania—I started noticing an abundance of convicted pedophiles on the yard. There were still some dudes who towed the hardline anti-chomo convict stance, but the paradigm was shifting.
"I think in this day and time these chomos is not getting treated like they are supposed to," Ali, a prisoner who's been in for over 20 years, tells us. "In fact, most people respect some of them whores. Of course some of them will try and get money from [Fogle]."
I remember one incident from later in my bid when it was driven home by staff that sex offenders had a right to be on the yard. I was lifting weights in the gym with a couple of older Mafia guys who, like me, had spent a decade or more in higher-level institutions, and we had the dumbbells we used for our workout all lined up by the wall. A slight, geeky kid with glasses walked over and picked up a pair of 15-pound dumbbells we used for shoulder raises and started curling them. His whole demeanor just screamed child molester .
One of the guys in our group hurried over and yelled at the kid. "You don't touch no fucking weights in this gym, you fucking chomo. Ever."
The kid, his eyes downcast, put the weights down and retreated, not wanting any problems. But one of the guards witnessed the whole incident and called the block's lieutenant, who summoned us to his office.
"Look," the lieutenant told us. "I don't like these guys any more than you do, but I am here to make sure they do their time safely. So next time one of them come up to you, you give them the weights, understand? This is their compound, not yours."
We had a good laugh over that, but the truth is we didn't fuck with the guy again. The low-security prison was too sweet a deal with its reduced rate of violence and less of an emphasis on hardball prison politics. After doing decades in higher-level joints, all of us enjoyed the comforts of the low. We let it ride.
So while the former Subway mascot might get harassed and dudes might talk shit to him because he is so high-profile, I doubt he'll get beat down all the time. In fact, the celebrity status could help him—whether in terms of his treatment by others or the fact that correctional officers take pains to prevent a bold-faced name from making news from inside.
"He looks just like a chomo and he'll be treated like a king," one prisoner named Will who's doing 16 years for a cocaine conspiracy charge and did most of his bid at FCC Forrest City tells VICE. "He'll get to play softball... and be treated like a star... The feds take care of their chomies."
And on yards where a lot of sex offenders are already housed, the speculation has already started.
"Here the debate has already started over whether or not he'll immediately be checked in [to protective custody], or whether he'll be allowed to freely walk the yard," says T-Mac, who is doing time at FCC Forrest City. "Forrest City offers Jared an excellent 'around the clock chomo protection' and the chomos here are praying that he's sent here to join their huge chomo-hood. It's also being predicted that perhaps Jared will be selected 'chomo shot-caller' for the chomos at whatever institution he's sent to."
Chomos aren't necessarily complete pariahs. I even had a buddy at FCC Forrest City that used to run game on a sex offender. He called the dude his "chomeboy" and used to walk around the yard with him, let him eat in the chow hall with him, and basically just hung out with the man. He said the guy was buying him bags of commissary—prison goods—each week, so it was a bit of a soft extortion game.
I personally had plenty of conversations with sex offenders informing them of the rules when they arrived in prison, and most of them didn't want any trouble. They just wanted to do their time and maybe play some Dungeons and Dragons. Prison is what you make it, and if you stay quiet, blend in, and don't make any waves, even a convicted sex offender can do time relatively peacefully in the feds.
Of course, that doesn't mean Fogle will be enjoying himself.
As one former inmate named Jimmy who did over a decade in medium-security institutions like FCI Beaumont put it, "He will have a rough time in prison."
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