ABCs of the BOP
A Teacher’s Prison Primer
By: L. A. Johnson
Published by L.A. Johnson
Copyright 2016 L. A. Johnson
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People had always told
me that I ought to write a book about how a single mother could not
only earn a Ph.D. but, was also able to put her son through medical
school. Beyond the obvious, hard work and perseverance, I had never
felt like I had anything of interest to write about until now.
This book is a memoir
of my life in one GEO group detention facility, one CCA prison, and
four federal prisons where I served 55 months for crimes that I did
not commit. Out of an abundance of caution, all names, except those
of public figures, have been changed to protect any and all rights to
Chapter 1: All Who Have Been Bound
October 6, 2009: I
smiled and was cordial throughout the booking process; naivyou would
Aely oblivious to the
trouble I was in. I mean, why worry? This was America and we had
the best criminal justice system in the world. If you were innocent,
lthough it was exactly
like what I’d seen thousands of time on Law and Order, it
seemed more like an out of body experience than reality. A
lackadaisical officer fingerprinted, photographed, and recorded my
name and birth date. But this wasn’t an episode of Hawaii
Five-O, this was reality and I was becoming a cog in the wheel of
I was assigned a
registration number which became a topic of interest and many
conversations during my incarceration as not more than two other
inmates would ever have one similar. For more than half that time,
one of the two was my son.
After I was booked, the
cops returned me to the holding cell that they had initially placed
me in, and brought me a fantastic foot-long chili dog, chips and a
beverage. That turned out to be the best meal I was to have in a
long, long time. One hour later, I met with my court appointed
attorney. A half hour after that, I was in court.
At my preliminary
appearance and detention hearing, I fully expected to be set free on
bail or OR, own recognizance, meaning no bail or bond is required.
The hearing was surprisingly brief. I barely had time to plan for my
trip back to Aberdeen when to my extreme disappointment I was bound
over to the U.S. Marshals’ service to be kept incarcerated until
Next, I had to
determine whether or not to stand trial in Atlanta or return to
Seattle for trial. My attorney informed me that my son had chosen to
return to Seattle. That might be best for the both of us, he added,
since Southern justice was known to be harsh on people of color.
Furthermore, all of the evidence and witnesses we would need to
defend ourselves were in Tacoma and it might prove difficult to get
people to fly to Georgia in order to testify at trial.
He described denial of
bond as a mixed blessing. Had I been freed, I would’ve been
responsible for paying my own way back to Seattle. By binding me
over, the Government was responsible for getting me there. Besides,
he advised that I would have an opportunity for a detention hearing
in Seattle. Because of my ties to the community, I stood a better
chance of being released there than I had in Georgia. So, once again
I was handcuffed and returned to that cold, lonely holding cell.
A lady from New York
was in the cell when I got back. I was happy to have company. As we
talked, we found out that we had the same attorney. She was
desperately trying to cut a deal so that she could get back home.
That Nuyorican would be the only person who said to me “if you are
truly innocent, the benefits of going to trial outweigh anything you
might get out of cutting a deal with the government.”
About ninety minutes
later, we both were handcuffed and put in a van with one male
detainee. The van had a driver and a guard. The man was dropped off
at USP Atlanta; an ominous looking building with tall cyclone fences
and walls topped with razor wire. The guard went inside the facility
with the male prisoner. What was expected to be a quick drop-off
lasted half an hour. Some sort of paper-work mix-up had caused the
delay; the guard explained when he returned.
From there, we stopped
at a convenience store for gas, coffee, and a sack of snacks for the
guards. Finally, we women were delivered to Robert A. Deyton
Detention Facility, a private, for profit prison owned by the GEO
Group, Inc.: One of several area facilities utilized by the U.S.
Marshals to house BOP, Federal Bureau of Prisons, pretrial detainees.
At the officer’s
desk, I asked if my son was there only to be told, “Mam, we can’t
tell you that.” Then, in what would be the only time that
opportunity was made available to me, we were offered our one free
phone call. Since my phone numbers were programmed into my cell
phone, which was now in the custody of the FBI, I requested a phone
book so that I could look up my granddaughter’s number. Ms. New
York got a big kick out of that as the CO, correctional officer, at
the desk politely said, “Oh, we don’t have any phone books.”
So the New Yorker asked if she could have my free phone call as well
as her own since I couldn’t use it. To my surprise, the CO said
yes. She called her lawyer and her sister.
Frederick Douglass once
said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and
it never will,” from then on I became wary of inmates to whom the
officials granted favors.
After her two phone
calls, we were taken to a large room with uniforms and underwear
shelved by size. Asked what size clothes and underwear we wore, we
were then issued two of everything; socks, panties, sports bras,
t-shirts, orange smocks and orange pants in or as close to the size
we had specified. Against one wall, there were curtained off areas
that looked like voting booths. We were sent into a booth and
ordered to take off all of our street clothing; told to face the
wall, squat and cough, then still facing the wall to stand and lift
each foot and wiggle our toes, turn around and lift our breasts,
extend our arms and wiggle our fingers, and finally, ordered to put
on one pair of every item of clothing we had just received.
Everything else, except the clothes we had taken off, was put into a
laundry bag which we carried with us to the clinic. Somewhere during
all of this, I was handed an ID card.
In the clinic we were
weighed, our height measured and the other lady was given a TB test.
I was given a chest x-ray because I’d had TB as a teen. We also
completed medical and psychological questionnaires. The
psychological profile asked questions such as: Are you feeling
depressed? Are you feeling helpless? Are you having thoughts of
committing suicide? Lastly, we were taken to separate but side by
side cells. It’s a good thing they’d had me complete those psych
questions before they threw me in that cell: I was in the hole!
And, the answers I’d given most definitely would have been
Have you ever been
absolutely convinced that no one, not even God, knew where you were,
knew you continued to exist, or even cared? That’s how I felt. My
first day in prison and the next eleven days were spent in the hole,
medically segregated, awaiting the results of a chest x-ray taken the
Tuesday before Columbus Day. In my mind, I was Mrs. Carey and that
cell was my Black Hole of Calcutta.
Never having been
incarcerated, I was shocked to discover that I had to sleep on a
metal bunk with nothing to cushion my body but an exercise mat with a
bump at one end that was passed off as a combination mattress and
pillow. Because the bed was so hard, I found it difficult sleep or
rest; so I cried, that was easy.
With no one to talk to,
and nothing to do but read the criminal complaint for healthcare
fraud that had been filed against me, count the bricks in the wall,
and walk around the 8’ x 10’ cell I was caged in, I kept asking
myself, “exactly what do they expect me to do?” If I didn’t
mind standing at the small window in my door, I was able to see the
TV, but without sound, that was a waste of energy. There was a clock
in the unit, but from the vantage point of my window, I couldn’t
see it. So, the only ways that I could keep track of time was when
the COs came around for count, and by the sunlight I could see out of
the window facing the parking lot. That window was about 4’ tall
and about a foot wide; more like a slit in the wall rather than a
window. I wondered, is this what sensory deprivation is like? Is
this some type of torture or cruel and unusual punishment?
Robert A. Deyton
Detention Facility was located in Lovejoy, Georgia, a small town in
the Atlanta Metropolitan area. From my cell I could see a sign that
said “Lovejoy Police Department;” which made me think daily about
the fruits of the spirit.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness,
temperance: against such there is no law. Gal. 5:22-23.
I came into the facility with Benicar, my own blood pressure
medicine, the medical assistant took my blood pressure whenever he
brought the pill cart. He was a handsome young Black man who kept my
pills in an envelope with my name on it in the top drawer of his
cart. Each day, he would give me one pill. Nevertheless, I was
taken to the clinic twice for observation because my blood pressure
spiked. A result, I believe, of not only being innocent and
incarcerated, but also of being medically segregated.
Blessedly, on my second
day in the hole, one of the ladies in the unit was given permission
to pass me a library book through the tray slot in the door. That
was allowed only because I was in medical segregation rather than
disciplinary segregation. The book she gave me was a Spanish Bible,
Libre Entre Rejas; translation, Free On the Inside. By
relying on my knowledge of Genesis, that same day I managed to read
in its entirety, el libro del Génesis. A couple of days later, that
same lady passed me a novel, written in English. It was one of two
books she’d checked out of the prison library that day. I read it,
but it was weird. I liked the Spanish Bible better.
Never had I been forced
to rise so early just to eat. The breakfast they served was pitiful,
and I had to quickly eat it in darkness. There was no light switch
in the cell. Lights automatically clicked off at 10:00 p.m. and
automatically clicked on at 6:00 a.m. Breakfast was served at 5:00
a.m. when it was still dark outside. Now I understood the cruel
truth and irony in that trite saying “if you snooze, you lose:”
Get up early, eat quickly by feel in that cold, dark cell, or starve.
No one cared. Between the short time I was given to eat; the low
salt, low fat diet I was placed on to help control my high blood
pressure; the half cooked beans and rice; and the fact that I had no
money to buy commissary; I lost weight fast.
Day three: The unit
counselor handed me the Deyton Inmate Handbook through the tray slot,
and told me to read it. There was nothing else to read, so I read it
from front to back. There was a lot to digest, so I boiled it down
to a few simple rules. Inmates were to never disrespect or lie to an
officer. Fighting or stealing would result in disciplinary measures.
Legal mail could only be opened in the presence of the inmate, and
special mailings, such as certified mail, were not allowed. By the
time I got to Seattle I found that I had learned just about
everything I needed to know to survive prison from that first
Our counselor also gave
me two envelopes; five sheets of paper; two stamps; the flexible,
plastic, inside of a Bic pen; and a short pencil, the size used to
fill out lottery tickets at Safeway. As an indigent inmate, each
week I was entitled those items as well as, a sample sized bar of
soap, a sample sized tube of toothpaste, a short handled tooth brush
which was about the same length as the pencil they gave me, a sample
sized bottle of shampoo and two rolls of toilet paper.
No sooner had my
indigent supplies been delivered than two ladies came to my door
asking if they could have my stamps. Admittedly I was scared, but I
viewed those stamps as my lifeline to the outside world. So, I
mustered up the courage to refuse and told them that I had to write
to my relatives to let them know where I was. They understood that
and left me alone.
My first letter was
written to my court appointed attorney. Somehow, I had lost the
business card he had given me. At least that’s what I told the
guards. I’d actually left it at the courthouse. When he had
failed to get me out of jail, I felt like I didn’t need him
anymore. So, before I could mail the letter, I had to ask one of the
guards to get our mutual lawyer’s phone number and address from the
New Yorker who was in the cell next to mine. It took about a day for
me to get that address. Lesson learned: Don’t lose your
attorney’s phone number and address. After I addressed the
envelope, policy required them to let me out of the cell so that I
could drop the letter in the unit mailbox myself.
My attorney was a kind
man. Like me, he was a retired African American teacher. In that
letter I asked him the whereabouts of my son who had been
incarcerated two days before me, and the address of Pastor Macklin in
Tacoma, Washington. When my lawyer replied, he said that according
to my son’s attorney, he was already in transit to Seattle. Also,
he had checked the internet and had found a “Macklin Ministries”
in Tacoma. He gave me that address.
Pastor Macklin had
worked for me and my son prior to our incarceration. From that
association, I knew that she was involved in prison ministry. So
when my attorney gave me the address, I wrote to her to let her know
where I was, and that I was on my way back to Seattle. It was of
paramount importance to me that someone on this earth would know my
whereabouts. When I finally saw her at SeaTac Federal Detention
Center, Pastor Macklin told me that she did receive my letter.
To this day, I still
marvel at the omnipotence of God. He had put Pastor in my path to
bring peace to my troubled mind in my day of need.
On day four, one of
the guards gave me a dust mop and left the door open so that I could
clean my cell. It was almost like being out. Never in my life had I
ever been so happy to be asked to clean my room. To stretch out the
time the door remained open, I cleaned very, very slowly.
Soon, I discovered that
I could get out of my cell on request if I said I needed to call my
attorney. To avoid total mental breakdown, I used that ruse to get
out at least twice. The guards seemingly realized the mental
turmoil I was experiencing and kept reminding me that I was
technically not in the hole: That I was not in disciplinary
segregation, but rather I was medically segregated to insure that I
didn’t spread disease to anyone else in the unit. “You wouldn’t
want to make anyone sick would you?” they asked.
The doors to the cells
were enough to scare the bejesus out of you. They had to be at least
6 inches thick, solid steel, and they were automatic. At breakfast,
after count, and at lights out (bedtime), a warning beep was sounded
throughout the unit, and all the doors (but mine while I was in
medical segregation) would open or close simultaneously. You had to
be sure to keep your body parts out of the path of a closing door to
escape serious injury. They weren’t like those elevator doors that
slide back open if you waved your hand in front of them as they
close. If only one door was required to be opened, like mine, a
command like this was given to central control via walkie-talkie:
“Officer Smith to central control, please open cell door 8A.”
For better or worse,
throughout the rest of my incarceration, that would be my only trip
to the SHU, the Special Housing Unit; also commonly called the hole,
jail, or, seg for segregation. It was an experience that I would not
forget, nor take lightly during my entire prison stay. If medical
segregation was like that, I knew that I would not survive
disciplinary segregation which could last for months.
2: Down in the meadow in a little bitty pool .
. . . .
Day 11: A fire alarm
got me out of unit A, alpha and into unit B, bravo, the other women’s
unit. Still confined to my cell in the new unit, I was sprung the
next day when over-crowding, and the need for the extra bed in my
cell led to the discovery of the negative results of my TB test.
Another prayer answered. According to the date stamped on the
document they gave me, my clearance had been on file for three days.
Apparently, despite my daily inquiries, no one had actually taken the
time to look for it. Once I was out of medical segregation, I took
advantage of all the freedom to be had.
My first observation on
being released from seg, was that the other ladies who had come over
with me during the fire alarm had been sent back to the other unit.
That concerned me and I wondered why I was still in unit B. But, the
guards explained that all of the women in the other unit had already
been sentenced; that most of them had served almost all of their
time; and that many were just waiting to be released. On the other
hand, unit B consisted of pretrial inmates only. I was pretrial;
therefore, I was left there. Other than size, inmate status, and
racial makeup, I’m unable to compare unit B with unit A because in
“A” I was locked down more than ninety percent of the time. All
that I really remember is that they let me out of that cell twice to
call my attorney, twice to go to medical for observation, and once to
shower. They let me out to shower when after a week, I complained of
The new unit was
smaller. There were two tiers against one wall, with eight rooms
upstairs and eight rooms downstairs. Since there was one bunk bed in
each room, there were 32 female inmates housed in that unit.
Everyone, especially my new roommate who had been transferred from
county, kept telling me how fortunate I was to be there. Robert A.
Deyton, they said, was the newest and the least crowded of the
facilities used by the U.S. Marshals to house pretrial inmates.
All of that talk
sounded fantastic, but it couldn’t change the fact that I was
living in a toilet that was actually smaller than the bathroom in my
house. Besides the bunk, there was a commode, a sink, two shelves,
and a metal desk with an attached seat that was bolted to the floor
and to the wall; literally, a toilet.
Apart from the fact
that the facility was relatively new, while I was there, they went
through an accreditation review. So, the food and other services
were noticeable improved. For instance, I was issued a big, warm,
fluffy coat, an orange sweatshirt, and an extra blanket. But they
didn’t stop there; the kitchen started thoroughly cooking the red
beans and rice, and they served chicken with chocolate cake for
dessert almost every day. I felt like Templeton at the fair.
Two TVs were available;
one for English speaking and one for Spanish speaking inmates. One
TV was bolted on each of two opposite walls. Radios and headphones
were required for audio reception. That was new. It had never
occurred to me that television reception of any kind was available on
a transistor radio. Is this what Charles Osgood meant by “I’ll
see you on the radio”?
Situated in front of
the bank of rooms were six metal bench type tables, similar to picnic
tables. We ate, played games, read books, did hair, and watched TV
from those tables. Most tables were self segregated by race and
language spoken. There were only two white women in unit B; the
opposite of unit A where there had been only two Black women.
Because I had no radio, I sat at the table closest to the English
language TV so that I could read the closed captions.
Religious services were
held at least once a week. Volunteers such as preachers,
missionaries, evangelists, and musicians came into the prison to
minister to us. When they came, a CO would yell out that anyone
wanting to attend religious services needed to meet her at the door
in ten minutes with their ID. We would be taken into the hallway;
patted down, then escorted upstairs to a room that had seemingly been
set aside for church. I was able to attend twice before I left.
Deyton had a small
outside courtyard, about 400 square feet, with a basket ball hoop.
Within that courtyard was a much smaller diamond-mesh cage used by
prisoners in disciplinary segregation. What excited me most were the
blades of grass and weeds growing between the cracks in the paved
yard, the bug I saw, the airplanes flying overhead, the fresh air,
blue sky, and sunshine. We were allowed outside for about half an
hour, twice a day. Some ladies would sit in the shade and read. I
sat on my coat, and warmed body and soul in the sun; not realizing
that it would be more than two years before I would be able to sit
outside in the sun again.
As I was growing up, my
mother used to call herself Aretta Franklin. Not only because she
could sing so well, but also because her first name was Aretta: She
thought it was a clever word play on its similarity to “Aretha
Franklin” who had just become famous. “Down in the Meadow” was
one of those short songs that I would always ask her to sing again
and again. In unit A at Deyton, I felt like one those little fishes
she used to sing about.
Mama was also
remarkably imaginative and used to tell me that if she ever went to
prison, she would use that time to read all of the good books that
she could get her hands on. So, when the opportunity presented
itself, I went to the library. Deyton had an all purpose library;
which is to say, it contained both legal books, as required by law,
and leisure reading books. The librarian was a very nice Black lady
who helped me find information on how to get released on bail when I
arrived in Seattle; and, she recommended the first book I checked
out, All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. I
consumed that book in about a day and a half. As they also had All
Things Wise and Wonderful, on my next trip to the library, I
checked out and read that too. Somewhere along the way to Seattle, I
found The Lord God Made Them All. I was never able to find
any other books in the series.
One day as I sat in the
unit, I noticed that an inmate was being groomed by another one who
stood over her with thread pulled taut between her hands. The one
standing rubbed the thread swiftly over the face of the seated
inmate. I’d never seen anything like that before. So, I asked a
lady sitting next to me what was going on. The answer was threading;
the way to remove facial hair when you don’t have tweezers. “Just
keep living” my great grandmother used to say, “you’ll learn a
lot.” Boy was she right.
My first prison bunky,
Martha, was from El Salvador. I’ll always remember her as the
person who forced the prison to release me from the hole. She told
me that she had been stopped at the Atlanta airport with a suitcase
full of clothes that had been dipped in a liquefied solution of
cocaine. Apparently when dipped in water, the cocaine would rinse
out, the water would then be evaporated, and the residue would be
“cocaine.” My response to that revelation; WOW!!!! I didn’t
know that. According to her, she had been bringing the clothes to
her friend’s daughter and had no idea that she had brought drugs
into the country. Her act of kindness had landed her in the county
jail where she had stayed for two weeks before a bed opened up at
Martha and I shared our
greatest fears with each other. Her’s was that it might be years
before she saw her 6 year old daughter again. Mine was that nobody
knew where I was and that I might vanish from the face of the earth
and my folks would never know what happened to me. She reassured me
that the government knew where I was. Precisely, she said “don’t
worry LaWanda; they know exactly where you are.” When I was
a child, my grandmother, who I called Sister, explained to me that
God works through the hands of His people on earth. So, I slept very
well that night. The hand of God had been made visible to me through
Martha’s comforting words.
Some of the inmates
were argumentative and always itching for a fight. This was
especially true of a young Black woman with a huge, keloid scar
across her face. Although aware that everyone was almost compelled
to look at it, she never really got used to the stares. Eventually,
she got around to telling me about it in a most dramatic fashion.
One day, while I was watching TV, she sat down beside me, grabbed my
hand, forced it to her face, and rubbed it around the scar. Shot in
the face with a shotgun, she was the only survivor of several people
caught in a drug house rip-off. Once my heart stopped racing and I
was able to get my hand back, I expressed my regrets at her
misfortune. I managed to say that I had guessed that it wasn’t a
knife wound because it was so jagged.
One day, her bluff was
called by a quiet inmate, who never bothered anyone. Scarface was
forced to back down when the guards refused to intervene; rather,
they just stood outside the unit watching the altercation through the
large, reinforced glass window in the wall. After that, she calmed
down appreciably. But realizing that I could easily become her next
target, and because of my age, I picked up on the subtle lesson that
the ever present camera can be your friend, and for the most part,
stayed out of unmonitored areas throughout my stay in prison.
Other than Scarface,
and my bunky, Kate was the Georgia inmate who impressed me most. She
had helped me navigate the complicated phone system when I wanted to
call my attorney. Whenever she was upset with someone, Kate would
tell them “if you don’t leave me alone, I’m going to write a
book and use your real name in it.” That was always good for a
laugh. Kate had me convinced that when I got to Seattle, I would get
out with an ankle monitor. She had worn one for a year before she
violated her probation and was sent back to prison. Before her
arrest, she had been working on a nursing degree. After her release,
she wanted to go back to school and finish her studies in order to
make a better living for herself and her son.
I became acquainted
with both of the white women in the unit. One was married to a Black
man by whom she had several children. She loved showing off their
pictures. Generally, she sat at a table with the Black inmates.
Maybe because she didn’t speak Spanish or maybe because her husband
and kids were Black; I didn’t ask her why. The other white female
stayed mostly in her room. She had cut a deal to serve 24 months of
what could have been a 25 years sentence for mail fraud and would
soon be released. Her story was that she had worked almost 25 years
for the post office and was close to retirement when she got “the
supervisor from hell.” The supervisor made her so nervous that one
day, while sorting the mail, she mixed up the out of state mail with
the local mail. Seizing on that harmless error, her supervisor had
her charged with trying to steal mail.
As part of her
agreement, she had to forfeit her pension. But, she was already
getting her dead husband’s pension and she lived with her mother.
Since her mother’s home was paid for, she didn’t have to worry
about paying for housing. So, rather than risk going to prison for
25 years, she took the deal in spite of the fact that she was
innocent of the crime. Her’s was the first of many versions of—why
I took the deal even though I was innocent—that I would hear during
my stay in prison.
Saddest of all the
inmates at Deyton was a Vietnamese woman who didn’t speak English.
Allegedly, she had been incarcerated for four years without a
hearing. And, due to her inability to speak or understand English,
she didn’t even know why she was there or what her charges were.
She either couldn’t eat, or simply didn’t like the food the
prison served. So, she would wait until everyone else was finished
eating and collect their scrap vegetables and meat. With the scraps,
she would make a delicious soup in a plastic bowl by boiling
everything in the microwave. I always wondered why she wasn’t
worried about catching something. A day before I left, her lawyer
came and gave her a date for her hearing. We were all very happy for
her as she would likely be getting out shortly thereafter with time
Cell searches were a
real threat to inmates. If your cell was searched and contraband was
found, you got a shot, a write-up that entitled you to a hearing, and
risked going to the SHU. My cell was never searched at Georgia, but
many others were. One of the ladies there for check fraud received a
bill for a mattress she had slit open and stuffed another mattress
The day before I
left Georgia, I witnessed the generosity of women in prison. A
birthday celebration was held for one of the Mexican ladies in the
unit. To my surprise, I was invited to attend; probably at the
suggestion of my bunky, Martha. Lots of commissary snacks, chips,
dips, and soda, were served. Best of all was the Chocolate cake; a
concoction of peanut butter, marshmallows, a Butterfinger bar, and
who knows what else. But, it was sweet and it was delicious.
Chapter 3: Head ‘Em Up, Move ‘Em Out
A week after my release
from medical isolation, I was awakened at 2:00 a.m. and informed that
I was leaving. Rather than turn them in, I left my new coat,
sweatshirt and blanket with Martha. We replaced them with her older
coat and blanket which I stuffed into my laundry bag and tossed into
a laundry cart that had been placed by the unit door for the return
of prison clothes.
As I sat waiting at one
of the multipurpose tables, one of our guards shared with me her
knowledge of the federal prison system. Remember, she said, this
will most likely be the only institution you will ever be in that has
only women watching women. From here on out, most of your guards
will be male. Also, remember that in federal institutions, if you
are 60 years of age, you can request and be given a lower bunk based
on your age.
Most of the guards at
Deyton were middle aged, Black, church ladies. Those were the kind
ones. They treated us like family members. I remember that one of
them let us stay up past “lights out” to finish watching a post
season baseball game. Not realizing it at the time, I would
eventually miss their empathy.
Shortly after our
conversation, another guard came and escorted me to the clothing room
where I was given my clothes that I had worn in and told to go into a
changing booth and put them on. From there, I was taken to a holding
cell. Two ladies were there already. We were given breakfast, and
told to use the toilet. After we ate, we were taken to the discharge
area. The guards had a large, resealable, plastic baggie for each of
us that contained all of our records.
I don’t know what
prompted me to ask, most likely a desire to survive the flight to
Seattle, but I asked if my blood pressure medicine had been placed in
my bag. In fact, neither my pills nor my medical records had been
included in that bag. And, the guy from the clinic, someone I had
never even seen, acted as if he didn’t even know what I was talking
about. So, I told him that my pills were kept in the top right hand
drawer of the pill-line cart and insisted that he go get the bottle
of Benicar I had come in with. After all, those pills were my
personal property and I was entitled to take with me. Reluctantly,
he went back to the clinic, checked the drawer that I had specified,
found the Benicar, put it in a medical records envelope along with
all of my clinic records, and attached it to my paperwork. The only
things that I was allowed to actually carry out there were the
criminal complaint, my property statement, and my TB clearance.
We three women were
handcuffed, shackled and placed in a small, white bus; which was
about the size and shape of those yellow school busses for
handicapped students. Male prisoners were already seated at the back
of the bus when we got on. So, we were seated up front, closest to
the driver and the guard and were separated from the half dozen males
by a locked, steel mesh wall.
The trip was
uneventful. We women were quiet, but the men kept up a constant, but
entertaining banter. A clock on the radio showed that it was a
twenty minute drive to the airport. Hartsfield-Jackson was on the
freeway sign where we exited. But, the van didn’t drive us to
either the domestic or the international concourse. Instead, we were
in a meadow with a runway and a few small warehouses. I could see
large planes taking off, but we seemed to be about five miles away
from the real airport.
Our driver parked
beside a car with a Black man sitting in it. He came to the door of
our van and called my name. He identified himself as the Assistant
Warden of Deyton and said that he was there to be sure that I boarded
So, the squeaky wheel
really does get the oil. I recalled that when members of the
accreditation team had come through the facility, they had asked if
anyone had anything they wanted to say to them. I raised my hand and
one of the ladies sat down by me with her notebook. I explained to
her that I needed to be sent to Seattle as soon as possible so that I
could get out of prison on bail. Two days later, I would be on a
plane headed out of Georgia.
We were taken out of
the van and our chains were removed and returned to the van we had
been transported in. The weather was cold for mid October and we
shivered as we were lined up and patted down by the marshals. Next,
we were restrained with a different set of handcuffs, ankle and waist
chains. Both handcuffs and ankle shackles were, in turn, locked to
the front of the chain around our waist.
I was terribly
disappointed and hurt. Never had I dreamed that I would be
transported in this manner, like cattle on a cattle drive. I really
thought there was a prisoner concourse at Hartsfield-Jackson, tickets
would be purchased, and we would board Delta, SWA, or one of the
commercial airlines to be whisked off to Seattle, complete with a
movie and a meal. In reality, other than the fact that we were in
Georgia, nobody but the U.S. Marshal Service knew exactly when we
would depart, where we were, or where we were going.
Finally, we were led,
single file, one at a time, onto a huge plane that looked like Air
Force One, except that it was all white. As we approached the plane,
for the first time I saw that four federal agents stood around it;
one each at the nose, tail and both wings. They were dressed in
khaki pants and navy blue polo shirts, wearing shades, and carrying
We three females were
boarded first. To my surprise, there were already women on the
plane. After we were seated, the men filed in. The marshals sternly
warned us that we were not to speak to the men as they passed by.
If you’ve seen the
movie Con Air, which I hadn’t seen or even heard of at the
time, you get an exaggerated Hollywood version of what happened next:
We didn’t crash in Vegas. Con Air is the popular name for JPATS,
the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System.
Our flight crew
consisted of a pilot and copilot, one female agent, and about four
male agents. Like the agents outside with shotguns, they also wore
khaki pants and navy blue polo shirts. Unlike the agents outside, I
didn’t see that any of the marshals on the plane had any weapons.
There was no door on the cockpit, no first class section, no overhead
bins for carryon luggage, and no flight attendants. The marshals
were our de facto flight attendants. Because I was seated in the
second row I could hear and watch the pilots at work. Once the 120
seats on that plane were all filled, the “fasten your seatbelt”
sign came on and we took off with about eight female prisoners, a
crew of about seven, and at least 100 male convicts.
After the seatbelt sign
went off, the marshals opened large coolers that were already on the
plane, and began to pass out the sack lunches that were stored in
them. We were fed, saran wrapped, baloney and cheese sandwiches, a
pack of peanut butter and cheese snack crackers, a pack of cookies,
and a small bottle of water. Eating while handcuffed was difficult.
So, we frequently had to help the person next to us open her water,
or remove food from packaging, or simply to lift food or water to her
mouth. When everyone appeared to be finished, marshals walked up and
down the aisle with large trash bags to collect paper, saran wrap,
plastic water bottles, and any uneaten food.
Naturally, after we
ate, many people had to use the bathroom. I was one of them. It was
nearly impossible for me pull up my ankle length, blue denim skirt
while trussed up with my hands cuffed together and chained to my
waist. So the female agent not only escorted us women to the
bathroom, but also helped adjust whatever clothing we were wearing so
that we could use the bathroom. Also, because I was wearing a skirt
and my socks provided very little protection from the iron cuffs, my
ankles hurt badly. It was then that I first got the idea of manu-
facturing shackles lined with soft packing foam.
Our first stop was
somewhere in New York State. I knew that only because of a sign that
I saw when we touched down. Some prisoners were taken off, and
others were brought on. I noticed that some of the new convicts had
a large, black X on back of one hand. The “X”, one of the
marshals said, designated those who were going to facilities, such as
county jails, where the BOP had leased beds, as opposed to a federal
facility. We weren’t on the ground long; maybe thirty minutes.
Our last stop was
the federal prison in Oklahoma City. FTC Oklahoma was an
administrative security, federal transfer center located in Oklahoma
City, Oklahoma. During my final visit with my attorney, he had
warned me that I might be stopping off in Oklahoma before continuing
on to Seattle. Nevertheless, I was still a bit perturbed because the
sooner I reached Seattle, the sooner I would get out on bail. Or so
I still believed.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Chapter 4: A Slight Detour
FTC Oklahoma was set up
just like a large domestic airport. The plane rolled right up to the
entrance of the prison. When we were taken off the plane, we didn’t
go down the steps; instead, we walked right into the prison receiving
area. Almost immediately, all of our shackles were removed, and we
were taken to holding tanks.
According to my
attorney, and virtually all of the women in Deyton, everyone had to
go through Oklahoma in order to get credit for time served if
convicted. That didn’t really make sense to me and having to stop
in Oklahoma was an annoyance. I really needed to get to Seattle so
that I could get out on bond and go home.
The booking process at
Oklahoma City was virtually the same as it had been at Atlanta; only
a whole lot longer. As a matter of fact, by the time I reached
Seattle, I found that the booking process was virtually the same in
all federal correctional institutions. Only the faces changed.
Males were booked in
first because they were said to be more difficult to deal with, and
because there were always more of them. Female prisoners, who were
considered easier to handle, were held for hours in holding cells;
generally four or five to a cell. There were six in the holding cell
that we occupied for what seemed like endless hours. There was no
clock in the cell and with so much time to kill, five of us got to
know each other. The sixth lady didn’t speak English and couldn’t
tell us anything about herself.
One prisoner, whom I’ll
call Taz, was on her way to South Korea. Convicted for murder, she
had been incarcerated for ten years in New York. A lady from Boston
pointed out that murder is a state crime, and asked how that could
have landed her in a federal prison. Well, Taz explained, she had
been cooking meth while she was high. She had accidentally knocked
over the brew which then caught on fire. Everything in the room,
including her victim, was burned. She survived, unscathed. But
since the death occurred during the commission of a drug offense, the
feds were able to assume jurisdiction.
Taz couldn’t speak
English when she was first incarcerated, but eventually learned to
speak it out of necessity. Due to her small size, she had learned to
fight to defend and protect herself. After ten years, her country
had secured a treaty transfer which allowed her to complete the
remainder of her sentence at home. South Korea was flying a plane to
LAX to pick her up and take her home.
Before I retired, my
fellow teachers had always used the phrase “bouncing off the walls”
to describe hyperactive students. Well, Taz was a veritable
Tasmanian devil. Almost every five to ten minutes she would kick the
door and yell obscenities to our unseen guards for keeping up locked
up so long in that holding cell. Then, she would grab a roll of
toilet paper, wind huge wads around her hand, and then flush the wads
as though she was trying to clog the commode. If she had been
wearing a pedometer, I’m sure that it would have registered five
miles or more. I doubted that she had remained seated more than
fifteen minutes during the entire time we were there. She was one
scary lady. Afterwards, in the unit, I made it a point to steer
clear of her. Lesson learned: Stay away from crazy people.
Next was a 28 year old
white lady from Boston. She and her two boyfriends had gone to a
house to steal guns that they knew were inside. She was the driver
and waited in the car while the guys broke into the house to steal
the guns. All three of them were caught as she was driving away. In
court, the two guys claimed that the whole thing was her idea, and
that she was the ring leader. She believed that they must have cut a
deal with the prosecutor. So, she was angry and bitter that she had
been sentenced to eight years, while each of them only got six.
There was an illegal
immigrant in our group. She had paid a courier two thousand dollars
to transport her to America in the back of a truck. After being here
only three days, someone reported her to immigration. She had been
picked up and was now being transported to ICE, previously known as
INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) to be deported back to
The remaining lady had
come from Georgia with me. I had already heard her story while we
were eating breakfast together at Deyton. But she told it again,
seeking advice as to what to do from our cell mates.
She was so young, only
18. Born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee to parents who were
school teachers, one at the local high school, the other at a local
community college, she should not have been there. According to her,
she just happened to be visiting her boyfriend when his house was
raided. In fact, she was asleep on the couch when the cops kicked in
the door. She had no idea that his house was being watched or that
her boyfriend was suspected of being one of the biggest drug dealers
in the area. Originally arrested by state police, the feds had
exercised their right to assume jurisdiction of drug related crimes.
She had been offered a deal of five years if she cooperated with the
government. But since she knew nothing, she couldn’t tell them
anything. So now, she faced 25 years in prison.
When it was my turn, I
told them that my billing clerk had ripped off the government and
blamed it on me. There was nothing else to tell. My knowledge of
the case was based on what was alleged in the criminal complaint.
After what seemed to be
an eternity, the medical cart came and gave us medical and
psychological questionnaires and a plastic ink cartridge from a Bic
pen to write with. The forms were in English. Most of my 25 years
teaching were in Spanish bilingual classrooms. So, I was happy to
help the lady who couldn’t speak English complete her forms.
When our forms were
completed and collected, we were taken back to receiving and sent
into a clothing room that was at least triple the size as the one in
Georgia had been. The routine, however, was the same. We went into
curtained off booths where we stripped out of our clothes, faced the
wall, squatted and coughed, stood and raised each foot, wiggled our
toes, turned, lifted our breasts, extended our arms, and wiggled our
fingers. While we stood naked, we were asked what size panties,
sports bra and pants we needed, and issued our prison clothes.
Our new clothing was
standard BOP khaki as opposed to the orange we had worn at Deyton. I
was given the opportunity to provide an address where I wanted my
street clothing sent, or to sign a form donating my clothing to
charity. Since I couldn’t recall my granddaughter’s address, I
had to sign the form. Gone were my £100, leather, water-proof,
hiking boots that I had bought so many years ago in Scotland; and the
blue jean skirt that I had bought for five ariary at a street market
in Madagascar. That was painful! I felt as though I was shedding
the last vestiges of life as I had known it.
Worst of all, my braids
had to be removed before I could be allowed on the floor. Why, I
asked? I can’t do hair. I’ll look awful! The answer: Because
you could hide a weapon in your braids, or they could be used to
construct a dummy as part of an escape plan. A couple of ladies who
had come on the plane with me volunteered to help me remove my
braids. One was the Spanish speaking lady I had just helped complete
her medical forms. The other was the 18 year old who had boarded the
plane with me in Georgia. It took us about three hours to get all of
my extensions out.
Finally, at about 3:00
a.m., we made it to the women’s unit. Based on my age, I asked
for and was immediately assigned to a lower bunk. The guard in
Georgia had been right.
Cell lights were
dimmed, but kept on all night at Oklahoma. Surprisingly different
from the total darkness I’d experienced in Georgia, where the
lights automatically shut off at 10:00 p.m.
My only bunky in
Oklahoma was called Frankie, a Native American who had been
incarcerated for almost two years for running marijuana. With only
five months remaining on her sentence, and despite the fact that I
had kicked her up to the top bunk, she was quite friendly. This is
the story she told me.
Born on a reservation
in Arizona, she knew the area like the back of her hand. So, she
would drive out into the desert to a predetermined drop-off spot and
pick up bundles of weed that had been walked across the border by
Mexican mules. The Mexicans didn’t stay here; they just dropped
off bundles or bags of weed then walked back to Mexico. Frankie
explained how she had been caught because she didn’t follow her
The mule wasn’t there
when she arrived to pick up the packages. He had never been late
before and her first inclination was to just turn around and leave.
In hindsight, had she done that, she would not be in prison now, she
said. But, she really needed the money, so she stayed and waited.
The drop-off was half
an hour late. She tossed the packages in the trunk of her car and
left. She had driven less than a mile before a car coming from the
opposite direction passed her: Strange because she hardly ever
encountered any cars on her trips to the desert. Frankie said she
knew she was in trouble by the way the man driving the car looked at
her. Sure enough, in her rear view mirror she saw the car make a
She didn’t even try
to outrun them. Instead, she pulled over, gave herself up and
cooperated with them to get a lesser sentence. She had to cut a deal
because that would be her fourth conviction. And of course, the more
convictions you have, the stiffer the sentence.
I asked Frankie why she
did it: “Easy money” that she needed to take care of herself and
her kids. During my stay in prison, that was the top reason given
by young women with children for knowingly entering into a life of
Oklahoma City had three
TV rooms with sound, so inmates didn’t have to purchase a radio to
hear TV. And while most of the guards in Georgia had been female,
and mostly Black, most of the guards in Oklahoma were male, and
mostly white. Just as the female CO had told me before I left
There were inmates with
nicknames like Juicy, Tito and London. London was a Black female
with a Lord Jesus hairstyle, a goatee, alto voice, flat chest, and
she looked so much like a man that I queried a guard about her
gender. I was assured that only if the equipment was female would
London have been placed in our unit.
Tito was another
questionable female. Her physical appearance was that of a Mexican
male, but she could also have been Asian. Tito was inspirational.
She had fought her case and won. The marshals were transporting her
to Los Angeles to be resentenced by her original sentencing judge.
She was optimistic that her sentence would be reduced to time served.
I learned about
“fishing.” A rather disgusting practice of placing an item in
plastic and flushing it up the toilet to another inmate’s cell. It
worked, although I never understood why or even how they knew the
final destination of the flushed item.
Once in that unit,
except for medical emergency, you never left it until you were flown
out. Everything you might need was brought to the unit. Clinic was
held once a week in the small TV room. But, to be seen by the PA,
you had to sign up on a clipboard a week in advance. The pill cart
came at least twice a day. Worship was held in the large TV room.
And a book cart was the library.
The unit also had a
microwave, a washer and dryer, and a supply room. Supplies such as
hotel sized shampoo, soap, and toothpaste were issued twice a week.
Toilet paper and sanitary napkins were on a shelf where inmates could
always access them. I saw Tito grab a handful of pads one day. Of
course, in deference to his desire to be referred to with male
pronouns, he may have been using them to clean his room.
Most of my days in
Oklahoma were spent attending worship services, watching TV, working
jigsaw puzzles, walking up and down the stairs and around the quad
for exercise, and folding men’s laundry. As a pretrial detainee, I
wasn’t required to work; but, I did. Mostly to break the monotony
of prison life: But, also because there was an incentive. Anyone
who volunteered to work was given an extra tray at chow time. No,
the food wasn’t that good. However, that extra apple or orange was
a great afternoon snack for someone who didn’t have any money on
Ninety percent of the
books on the book cart library were Bibles or spiritual and
theological books, written by ministers or evangelists. As I had
nothing else to read, I read them.
In addition to the
books and the numerous spiritual volunteers, there was a Jamaican
woman who had been transferred to Oklahoma from Canada. She held
daily Bible study and prayer vigils in her cell that everyone was
invited to attend.
Those books, worship
services, Bible study and prayer vigils brought me comfort and helped
me to dispel a festering hatred of Bethann and how she had framed me
for healthcare fraud. I left all of that resentment behind in
Oklahoma. Today, I rarely think of her. And when I do, it is with
When I first met him
in Georgia, my attorney had told me to never discuss my case with
other inmates. He said that they would and did cut deals by telling
the prosecutor what other inmates had told them about their case. He
added that if you had nothing to tell, they had been known to
fabricate or twist what others had said. Snitching could and did
reduce sentences or even buy time out of prison. There was a big
problem with that advice; most inmates discussed their cases all the
time. Talking was seemingly a form of cathartic release.
In Oklahoma, the legal
phrase “11(c)(1)(C)” was added to my vocabulary. I learned about
it one day in the TV room. Another inmate and I were there alone
when she told me that she had been busted with $100,000 in her house.
She had used the 11(c)(1)(C) to guarantee that she would get the
deal she bargained for. The 11(c)(1)(C) is a type of plea agreement
that binds the judge: If she or he is willing to sign off on it.