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“High-profile prisoners from Alabama: Big names tell us about life on the inside”

That is the title of a Birmingham News article which surveyed five high-profile Alabamians serving time in the Bureau of Prisons. The differing views on federal prison life provide insight into experiences common to many prisoners (e.g., how to cope with the tedium and make productive use of one’s time).


With respect to designations far from a prisoner’s release residence, 65-year-old John Katopodis, a former county commissioner, was housed at Devens, MA before being transferred to Fort Dix, NJ, and former state senator 72-year-old E.B. McClain was recently moved from “a federal prison camp in Pennsylvania” to a “facility in North Carolina.” There are numerous minimum- and low-security institutions closer to Alabama, which is located in the BOP’s Southeast Region, than those found in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, all in the Bureau’s Northeast Region. As reflected in what McClain told loved ones when in Pennsylvania, proximity most directly impacts visitation and, consequently, a prisoner’s community ties: “I encouraged my family not to travel here to visit [….] The distance is too great[….]”
Katopodis reports being transferred to Fort Dix following three episodes that resulted in SHU placement.
Katopodis wrote in an email that the first two occurred because he stood up for other inmates, one who was being cursed at and bullied by a guard, the other who was punished for “saying out loud that he hated the place.” He said his third time in solitary confinement came after prison officials intercepted a letter he wrote U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., about the failure to implement a law designed to help prisoners re-enter society.
“I was arrested for ‘suspicion of encouraging a group demonstration’ and held in the hole in total isolation and only with my own thoughts (a dangerous thing) for 25 days,” Katopodis wrote. He said he was then “transferred to a higher classification prison … with only a few months left on my sentence, a highly unusual move.”
[…]He also is concerned about abusive treatment he said he witnessed. At Devens, he said, the federal Bureau of Prisons’ “stated core values of reciprocal respect and dignity … are posted on the walls throughout the institution, but largely ignored by the staff.” He cited verbal abuse as well as some officers who “regularly demeaned inmates for sport, in one case having them handle raw sewage from a sewer spill without benefit of gloves or protective clothing.”
Katopodis was not alone in voicing concerns about treatment by staff. Former county commissioner Gary White and White’s wife “have lodged numerous complaints about what they consider abusive treatment, and they even filed suit…. The case was dismissed without being heard, but the Whites say the complaints about abusive conditions were valid.” Like Katopodis, White was transferred, from FPC Edgefield, SC to FPC Memphis, TN, where “[f]or months” he reportedly “slept on a three-tiered cot in a hallway because there was no regular bed space available.”
These accounts highlight what too often occurs when prisoners stand up for their or others’ rights. Sadly, a longstanding truism regarding how to “do time” is that it’s better to blend in then to stand out, that those who draw attention to themselves tend to have greater difficulties with staff. Personal power dynamics between staff and prisoners can foster negative, if not outright hostile and abusive, dealings. Former college chancellor offered: “A violation causes life to get harder[….] Those who complain are reminded they are in prison.” Experience suggests that such difficulties frequently arise with “Type A” individuals who struggle to cede authority. This includes “white-collar” offenders whose professional lives involve high-level decision making and/or management responsibilities. Conflict arises when such individuals confront correctional staff who have little-to-any interest in their thoughts or perspectives; who expect compliance with vague institutional rules (i.e., open to interpretation); and who, as a means of exercising power and control, punish conduct that but for tensions with a given prisoner might well go unchallenged.
The articlealso touches on medical care and accommodation. For instance, 86-year-old former county commissioner Chris McNair is housed at FMC Rochester, MN, “which is similar to a hospital” and is “located next to the Mayo Clinic.” While McNair voiced no complaints in the story aside from the distance from his wife and family, others designated to standard correctional institutions did. White’s wife reported that his medications had been withheld, and Katopodis provided: “While in the hole there, my medications, upon which my life depends, were stopped abruptly on two occasions and it took a threatening letter from my local attorney to get them started again while I held my breath that I would not stroke out[.]” “Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, said the prison system withholds medications only for sound health reasons.”