"Shkreli needs to realize that serving time in federal prison comes with discomfort."
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
The prevailing notion seems to be that as far as prisons go, FCI Fort Dix, the new prison home of convicted fraudster and super-villain Martin Shkreli in New Jersey, is pretty sweet. After all, compared to the most hellish federal lock-ups in America's vast system, the place’s seemingly generous amenities can make it sound like a resort. NJ.com went so far as to call it a "Club Fed."
But 35-year-old Shkreli probably won’t be playing X-Box there like he joked last August—unless he gets a guard to smuggle one in. Of course, that is entirely possible at Fort Dix, given the reported pliability of the guards and the amount of contraband that has historically been on the compound.
When I first transferred to the low-security facility myself, in 1999, I found it wide-open for a prison—more like a little town of its own. Coming down from higher-security facilities I spent the bulk of my 21-year sentence in, I was surprised at the laid-back attitudes of both the staff and inmates, who seemed to operate on a different wavelength from the more ferocious federal pens. In fact, as the Bureau of Prisons handbook for the spot notes, "There are no bars, towers, or locks on rooms within the community units" at the facility.
Don’t get it twisted, though—this is still prison, and at the end of the day, prison sucks, no matter where you’re at.
Located about 80 miles south of Shkreli's stomping ground in Manhattan, Fort Dix is a sprawling facility situated on a fully operational military base. It’s divided into two sides, East and West, along with a satellite camp, where Shkreli might have done his time if a judge didn't deny him that privilege. About 4,000 prisoners occupy the main facility, with some 300 more residing at the camp.
The layout of the place is, without a doubt, its most remarkable feature.
"When I first got there, I couldn’t believe how open the compound was," Alvin Conerly, a former federal prisoner who served time for racketeering and was at the facility from 2008 to 2015, told VICE. “It reminded me of the projects. There were cell phones everywhere. Anything you wanted as far as illegal stuff like drugs, weed, and even cigarettes—there was so much stuff going on at Fort Dix and it was huge. A lot of contraband comes over the fence.”
It often felt like the prison was self run—Conerly, for one, said there was only one correctional officer in each unit who was responsible for overseeing upwards of 300 prisoners housed in the old, converted Army barracks. Twelve-man rooms occupied the second and third floors with two-man rooms on each end for prisoners with seniority, he recalled.
"They got community bathrooms," Conerly continued. “And the bathrooms could be territorial. If you didn’t live on that part of the floor, you weren’t supposed to use that bathroom. Movement on the compound is restricted. They call ten-minute moves once an hour and the compound is all gated off into sections with barbwire on the fences.”
The former inmate suspected that someone like Shkreli, who at least before his conviction had money and is well-known—if also reviled—would have few problems there. "People that have money do better at Fort Dix," he said.
When I was at Fort Dix, I paid one inmate to clean my room, another to wash my clothes, and a third to smuggle me food from the kitchen. I felt like I was living like a king for around $500 a month, so it's fair to say Shkreli will be able to buy himself a decent lifestyle, too, assuming he still has access to some cash.
Still, it won't be a cakewalk.
“Clients of mine have reported that Fort Dix was old and rundown, that staff is indifferent, the education department sucks, and the bathrooms are dirty,” Justin Paperny, a federal prison consultant with White Collar Prison Advice who served an 18-month federal sentence for violating securities laws, told VICE. "Shkreli needs to realize that serving time in federal prison comes with discomfort."
“You are told when to work, when to eat, who to share space with, and when you can visit with you loved ones," he added. "Many aspects are out of your control. Cell phones and tobacco smuggling are pervasive. He needs to avoid that and lay low. I would tell Martin to focus on what he can control."
That was the attitude that helped me survive multiple decades in the belly of the beast. I made the most deliberate choices I could about who I would associate with, what books I would read, how I would exercise, what sport teams I would play on, and what educational programs I would take. In prison, it’s all about developing a routine and sticking to it.
"Softball is huge at Fort Dix," Conerly said. "They got a double baseball field and can play two games at once. They got A-league—which is fast pitch—B- and C-leagues. There are a lot of Dominicans there, and that’s what they play. That’s a big thing on the compound."
I played soccer, basketball, football, racquetball, and lifted weights while I was at Dix. It’s hard to imagine Shkreli as much of an athletic type, but the recreation department at the prison was probably its best feature.
The food was another story.
On the West side, they had two chow halls, where you had to swipe your prison ID card for every meal. The most popular meals were burgers and fries—what prisoners referred to as “McDonalds” on Wednesdays—baked chicken on Thursdays, and fried fish on Fridays. Other than that, as Conerly recalled, the food was terrible. But then again, most prison food is shit.
"Ice creams are the most popular item at the commissary," Conerly said, adding, "Everything is in pouches—fish, rice. The prices are high for what you’re getting and they always run out of things like pizza kits and ice creams.”
Each prisoner is only allowed to spend a certain amount at commissary each month too, around $325, Conerly recalled. Big Willie prisoners have historically gotten around this by putting money on other inmates' accounts, but it's a far cry from the filet mignon, lobster, and cauliflower Shrekli was known to enjoy at midtown Manhattan's Capitol Grille.
"One thing I learned about is they don’t want to write any shots," Conerly said, using prison slang for misconduct tickets. "Their way out is giving you extra duty. If you refuse they’ll have no choice but to write you a shot. For the petty stuff, they usually don’t write you up, though. The staff isn’t bad, but you know who the bad ones [and] good ones are.
Before I was pushed out of Fort Dix after writing an article in Don Diva magazine, I found it a very serene place. I spent a lot of time in the Education Department, where I took correspondence courses, had access to a typewriter, and worked on my degrees and my writing. Shkreli can really use the time he has to do productively—if he wants to.
"He needs to focus on coming though this process and avoiding the nonsense, complaining, and bickering," Paperny, the prison consultant, told me. "Different places have different benefits, but they are basically all the same. You have to focus on the positive and not the negative. What matters is what he’s doing and how he’s preparing himself for his eventual release.”
Shkreli, whose pharmaceutical and hedge-fund trickery are the stuff of legend, will be required to get a relatively dull job. Most prison gigs are BS—the only thing they want is for you to report. Once a month they have a census count and you have to be on your job detail so you don’t get caught out of bounds and written up, which could lead to losing privileges like phone, email, visiting, and commissary.
If Shkreli keeps his nose clean, he can have an uneventful bid, because most veterans of the federal system consider Fort Dix a kiddie camp. But he will have to adapt to the prisoner mentality and learn the etiquette. As at other federal prisons, fights do jump off because of the different gangs in play, and everybody marks their territory fiercely. Violate, and it could be your ass.
In other words, Shkreli will still need to watch himself.
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