What I Learned from 13 Years of Witnessing Violence in Federal Prisons
When I first got locked up, I was a 130-pound, 23-year-old junkie who had one thing in mind: survival. After years of being both a victim and an assailant, I changed my life for the better.
All illustrations by Matt Rota
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Thirteen years ago, I pleaded guilty to an armed bank robbery that ended in a high-speed chase and shootout with the police. Since then, I've gone from a small, bum-fuck county jail—where I spent all my time in isolation—to some of the most violent penitentiaries in the United States.
Behind these walls, I'm an oddity: a middle-class, educated, dreadlocked hippie. Navigating through a world where the wrong step could be my last has been mind-numbing. The horrors people hear about are very real in prison. Rapes, stabbings, murders—we've got it all. What people don't hear about is the interactions we have with the officers who make a living off our misery.
Everywhere I've been there's been good and bad cops—ones who have actually changed my point of view towards them, and the ones who bring it right back to where it is today.
When I first got locked up I had one thing on my mind: survival. I was a 130-pound, 23-year-old junkie who had never done any sort of stretch up to that point in my life. The longest amount of time I ever did behind bars was a nine-month county hit for marijuana trafficking out in Arizona when I was 19. With this arrest, I knew I'd graduated to the big time.
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Erie County Pennsylvania is the jail where I awaited trial for my federal case. This was by far the worst place I've ever been incarcerated; they actually threw me in isolation for having dreadlocks. I was threatened with a court order to shave my head and told if I didn't, I'd be "held down and scalped."
I refused to cave, and spent several months in isolation. Most days I was denied my hour of recreation simply because I wouldn't "follow their rules." I was denied mail that was sent by my family, and multiple times I was denied visits. I was the "city boy who doesn't follow orders."
My first day in, I saw two convicts attacking a third in the middle of the softball field; one had a lock on a belt, the other was brandishing the weapon of choice of all prisoners: a bone-crushing prison shank.
This was my first real interaction with the authority figures who would be overseeing my every move after I was sentenced to 16 and a half years. Sitting in that hole I vowed to myself that no matter what they did to me, I'd live my life the best way that I saw fit.
After receiving my sentence, I was shipped down to Pittsburgh for multiple heroin cases that I had been on the lam avoiding. It was like night and day between the two institutions. The correctional officers (COs) left me alone to do whatever I wanted, which was to get as high as possible. Allegheny County Jail is notorious for cops getting busted bringing in packages. Anybody that set foot on my unit was a potential mule.
"I've got $500. What's up?" This was the starting point in negotiations between the two sides.
"OK, OK... how bout a stack? All I want is some cigarettes."
Once you got them to bite that first time, it was on.
I inherited a CO from my boy who was leaving to go do five years in the federal prison system. He'd pick up a package from my brother to deliver to me every few weeks. It was supposed to only be a few ounces of weed and some cigarettes, but eventually turned into a cornucopia of every consumable narcotic known to man.
Opening the package was better than Christmas—shit, it was better than every holiday of my life combined. All the worries about the time I had ahead of me was up in a cloud of smoke and a spoon of dope.
"Jesus Christ. This place is badass," my boy Mark said when he first came onto the unit and saw the smorgasbord. Eventually, my time ran out there and I transferred into the feds. I started out in FCI Gilmer with an assfull of weed to get me going.
Most dudes would take their time and see how things work. Not me—I was off and running, slinging weed like I was back on a Grateful Dead lot, which landed me right in the crosshairs of special investigative supervisors (SIS)—the feds inside of the feds. My cell was liable to get torn to pieces at any given time.
I was also placed on something called "dread check." This form of degradation consisted of me being pulled off the compound, stripped naked, every orifice of my body checked to two onlooking officers' satisfaction, and then my dreadlocks being thoroughly molested. They'd comb through my locks looking for stashed folds of the devil's lettuce while I hung my head down in humiliation.
"We've got you now. We know where you hide your shit," they said on the first of many searches, courtesy of their many informants. Eventually they had enough and hit my cell in full force. Two shifts of the Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) finest annihilating my house. They knew I had shit, and they weren't going to stop until they found it.
After six hours of destruction, they hit the jackpot: over $600 in mailing stamps (the preferred form of currency in the federal system), hidden in a sealed laundry soap box. Fifty individual folds of tobacco. And the kiss of death: a a knot of weed stashed in the false bottom of a legal work folder.
I was hit—sent directly to the hole and then off to the penitentiary for "greater supervision."
"No offense, but you wore out your welcome," I was told by my case manager when he informed me my next destination would be the United States Penitentiary (USP) Pollock in Louisiana. "Good luck," he said through clenched teeth as he walked away. "You're going to need it."
After an extremely tumultuous "misunderstanding" with the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, I was shipped to USP Canaan in Pennsylvania.
Back in the mid 2000s, USP Pollock was a bit like 1960s Vietnam. There were more than a dozen murders in 18 months while I was there, and they averaged dozens of stabbings a month. My first day in, I saw two convicts attacking a third in the middle of the softball field; one had a lock on a belt, the other was brandishing the weapon of choice of all prisoners: a bone-crushing prison shank. When the COs ran to break it up, the attackers shifted their attention from their mark to his saviors.
"That's what those fuckers get for trying to break it up," the convict next to me said as we continued our walk to the chow hall.
You hear all kinds of stories about the penitentiary when you're in the medium; they always end with, "You don't want to go there." But to me, the max was the best place you could do time.
The COs would leave you alone to do your bid. At all times, my cell door window was covered. If they wanted me for something, they didn't dare come inside; they'd knock on the door politely and wait for me to come out. Then they'd respectfully tell me whatever the reason was for intruding in on my day.
After informing me of the request (because everyone carries around a sword in prison, there's no such thing as an order), they'd leave and allow me ample time to ponder whether I felt like fulfilling the proposal. As long as I wasn't stabbing someone, the cops could care less what I did. They knew the convicts ran the prison. We kept the order. If someone was out of line and had to go, it was dealt with swiftly and justly. All they had to do was clean up the mess, and they graciously played their part.
But after an extremely tumultuous "misunderstanding" with the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, I was shipped to USP Canaan in Pennsylvania.
Cannon and Pollock were two completely different worlds. I didn't even last two weeks before I received a "shot"—disciplinary report—for using another inmate's telephone. That incident landed me directly on the other side of the table from the self-appointed and appropriately named man called "The Hammer." The Hammer was the Disciplinary Hearing Officer who took pride in taking everything from you. He "hammered" me with a loss of my phone and commissary (or prison store) rights for two years, taking 90 good-conduct days with him for an added kick to the nuts on his way out.
Canaan was a miserable compound. Half the inmates there had zero privileges. Something that wouldn't have even been looked at twice in Pollock would cost you years worth of good time. There were convicts that couldn't go buy a pair of shoes and talk to their families until the 22nd century.
In 2013, an officer was brutally murdered in C block. The inmate who did it took more than half an hour to take out year's worth of pent-up aggression out on an authority figure who represented the guards who controlled every aspect of his life. As tragic as the incident was, what made it even worse was that the officer was actually a good guy. He was one of the few that were there to do the eight hours and go home to his family.
What preceded the attack was one of his fellow officers on the earlier shift tearing apart the inmate's cell for the third day in a row. During the search, he destroyed the convict's headphones. When the inmate confronted the officer about it, he was told, "It happens." After a further debate between the two, the officer said he'd be back to hit him again tomorrow.
The thing that most people don't understand about the convict/cop relationship is this the officer's worst enemy isn't us—it's their fellow officers. We're just trying to do our time and be left alone. We're in prison as punishment, not for punishment. When we're targeted by those who are simply here to babysit us, that's when we begin to lash out.
After the homicide, Canaan turned into a chemical warfare battleground. Any type of incident would merit a noxious dose of pepper spray from the COs, followed by a beating out of sight from prying eyes and cameras, and then a trip back to the hole. I left Canaan that same year following another "misunderstanding," this one involving 19 Mexicans with knives. I was shipped off to USP Hazelton in West Virginia.
The years of shakedowns, strip searches, and beatings have taken a toll on me and every other prisoner in the system.
The only thing consistent in Hazelton is inconsistency. You can eat breakfast at 6 AM, or at 8:30. You can get outside for recreation at 7:30, or nine o'clock. At any given time, you can look forward to receiving the most extensive pat-down in the history of mankind. This includes hands going down into your pants, and a nut-tap that would make a dominatrix blush.
As I currently reside here, and know the ramifications of what I'm writing, I can only say so much. Freedom of speech is one of the liberties we absolutely do not have behind these walls.
I'm subject to being gripped up and sent to isolation, all my property destroyed, and then being shipped off to the 24-hour lockdown facility in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, for simply speaking out on the conditions we endure everyday.
What I will talk about is the one bright spot in USP Hazelton: the think-tank group sponsored by a staff member that wants to see change for the betterment of the BOP. With her help, college professors and students from West Virginia University, along with other members of the community, come deep inside the belly of the beast to help create programs for the convicts who have spent decades behind bars.
The core of the group, called "United Circle 4 Hope," consists of convicts who are never going home—lifers who are trying to bring about a positive change in the stagnant culture of the federal prison system. This collective is one that everyone should have a vested interest in supporting. The other inmates they help will soon be your neighbors and coworkers, the ones who will be building your houses and serving your food. Without receiving the training they require, and a shift in ideology that the classes present, they'll be the ones robbing your house and selling drugs to your kids.
The years of shakedowns, strip searches, and beatings have taken a toll on me and every other prisoner in the system. It's turned our approach from one of survival to resentment—reactivity to proactivity. The only way inmates will change their actions and ways of thinking towards their overseers is the hiring and training of staff that are of the same mindset as the think tank sponsor in USP Hazelton. And the community at large has to push for better education funding for prisoners re-entering society.
I have grown up in the federal prison system, and been taught life lessons by men doing life sentences. I've been a victim and an assailant. In a few years, I'll be a free man—a part of your community. I changed my life for the better while incarcerated.
It's time that others have the programs to change for the better, too.
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