From my time inside America's vast penal system, I know a certain fraction of inmates follow politics closely, while most simply don't care unless the issue or personality in question might affect their own sentence in some way. But among the news junkies in the federal Bureau of Prisons, Robert Mueller's finding last month that there was no prosecutable evidence of a conspiracy between Donald Trump and those close to him and the Russians who interfered in the 2016 election landed hard. Not only did it quickly serve to reinforce the longstanding perception among prisoners—mirroring views held by some in the general public—that the game was rigged against those of lesser means, it shattered inmates' hopes that a clownish villain who preyed on America's fears of crime might finally get his.
"Once again, we see that the rich and well-connected don't have to worry about their criminal actions," Augie Abascal, who got ten years in the feds for trafficking meth, told VICE. “Once again, we see how privileged white people protect their own."
In his suggestion that Mueller—a consummate DC legal insider—let excessive prosecutorial caution stand in the way of obvious facts, Abascal wasn't alone. Still, even cynics who have seen the system from the other side of a cell couldn't help getting excited about the idea of a president possibly being indicted.
"Ever since Trump became president, I watch people on CNN, ABC, and CBS tell me that this time they really got Trump by the balls, that this time he'll finally be exposed for being the illegitimate president that he really is, but I never thought it would happen until Mueller was finished,” an inmate called "Mac 10,” an Ohio man doing time in Indiana for illegally possessing firearms and who like some others quoted in this piece requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from the feds, told VICE. “With all of those lies Trump and his people told, they couldn't come up with any evidence of even a single [collusion-related] crime? Get the fuck out of here. If there’s still someone out there who don't think that our so-called justice system is a shame, then you high as fuck.”
As a former federal prisoner, I know that when the government really wants to, it can indict just about anyone. My friends and I learned that prosecutors sometimes didn't even need dope to find people guilty of drug conspiracies—they just needed testimony to corroborate and support their indictments. That made this an even more bitter pill to swallow for some inmates.
“Should we now believe that no collusion ever existed?” a Missouri man called "Louy" doing life on a meth conspiracy wondered. “I don't think so. I think Republican Robert Mueller needs to answer questions about this in front of one of the House committees.” (Democrats seem to agree, by the way, moving toward subpoenaing the full report and previously suggesting Mueller might personally be called to testify.)
Leaving aside the president's own culpability or lack thereof, “Frank,” an inmate doing life for cocaine and racketeering conspiracy convictions, argued Trump’s family was getting a pass, too. “The problem is that no one really knows what’s in the Mueller Report,” he said, alluding to the public only having seen a brief summary of a nearly 400-page document. “Right now we have no way of knowing how far Don[ald Trump] Jr. and Jared Kushner's involvement went in this."
With previous reports suggesting Trump Jr. repeatedly lied about his infamous Trump Tower meeting and that Kushner misled security officials about his meetings with Russians, Frank found it hard to accept the duo getting off the hook. “There’s no way those two didn’t commit some kind of crime," he said. “I'm not even talking [about something] related to Russian collusion. Like Manafort, Cohen and Flynn, Mueller and his team could have got Trump’s real inner-circle for something. Why did he choose not to?”
While Mueller and Attorney General William Barr would surely argue they simply followed where the evidence led, it does seem as if the special counsel may have respected the president’s “red line” warning against aggressive digging into his personal finances and business dealings.
Of course, that wasn't enough discretion to satisfy those denizens of the prison-industrial complex who actually supported the president.
“I think Special Counsel Mueller and his entire team was one of the greatest waste of taxpayer dollars perpetrated entirely by the Democrats. who have betrayed the entire nation and public trust," Bryan Chappell, an Arkansas man doing 20 years for possession of counterfeit cash and other crimes, told VICE. “It was a shameful witch hunt that produced nothing.” (In fact, Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, another Republican.)
But criminal justice advocates and experts said inmates dubious the system was ever capable of going after a rich and powerful person were onto something.
“It may well be that prosecutors shy away from charging the president and his family with such crimes, even if ample evidence exists, simply because of their inherent bias in favor of the wealthy," Paul Wright, an ex-con and director of the Human Rights Defense Center, an inmate advocacy group, told VICE. “We see this in the steep decline in financial fraud prosecutions over the past 20 years. Part of the problem is “collusion" doesn’t really have a legal definition, nor is it illegal. It appears likely that if anything is going to lead to charges against the president and his children it will be mundane money laundering and bank fraud charges, which would not seem to be a surprise to anyone.”
As Wright suggested, Trump and his family are not out of hot water yet. Investigations are ongoing in the US Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York, and state-level prosecution remains possible. “We really do not know the contents of the Muller report. Barr only gave the American public an interpretation of what is in that report," noted Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore.
But "Denny," a California man doing life for drugs and guns, argued some cases simply aren't more complicated than they look, suggesting lower-level criminals who changed their stories this many times would be lucky to escape jail-time.
“Hell, everyone in the Trump orbit didn't lie about Russians contacts and business dealing just for shits and giggles," he said. “I don't give a damn what Mueller didn't find—it don't take almost two years to figure out that Trump ain’t nothing but a crime boss.”
Robert Rosso contributed reporting to this story.
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