Inmate Interview: Cynthia
The following interview is part of a series featuring former clients who served significant time in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The goal of this series is to shed light on the experience of federal inmates. All names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved, and the interview has been lightly edited to add structure and clarity. This interview was conducted by Erica Mynarich.
Cynthia pled guilty to “conspiracy to use a facility in interstate commerce to promote, manage and carry on unlawful activity.” She received a sentence of probation. However, she later violated the probation multiple times and the Court sentenced her to 24 months in the Bureau of Prisons. She was pregnant during the resentencing hearing and gave birth in prison.
Why don’t you first talk about probation?
With pre-trial release before I pled guilty, there weren’t as many rules or stipulations. The probation officer came to the house just to make sure that I was doing whatever I was supposed to do – drug tests and stuff. I don’t think I was on a sweat patch to test for drugs until I got sentenced. So pre-trial wasn’t that bad.
Then there’s regular probation after you are sentenced. At the beginning, they tell you what you are supposed to do, how you are supposed to do it, and what they expect of you. And it’s normal everyday things: don’t use drugs, don’t hang out with people who use drugs, get a job, make a living. The only problem I had was not knowing when they would show up at your house. Sometimes you don’t feel like seeing somebody that day, so you don’t want to answer the door, but you don’t have that option. That was my biggest issue: somebody coming in and invading my personal space, opening drawers, looking to see what kinds of clothes were in there. Are there boys’ clothes in there, you know? If your probation officer knows your boyfriend is a piece of shit, she is not going to want him to live with you.
I guess it’s not difficult if you’re trying to do the right thing. But it is difficult when you are trying to do whatever you want because you feel like you are your own boss. With the patch, for instance, you not only have to control what you do, but you also have to control your environment: who you are around, who you are sleeping with, that sort of stuff. After I got out of treatment and had a job, the probation officer called to tell me I had a dirty patch. And I was like, “absolutely not.”
But Judge Bough still issued a warrant. The probation officers do not believe you can get a positive result just from contact with drugs.
You can. I guess it didn’t really matter because I peed clean, didn’t I?
Well, he put you on probation.
But they do give you chances – a chance to redeem yourself. They will bring something to your attention and tell you the repercussions of it. They might not punish you for it, but do not think they forgot about it. One difference between state and federal probation, I think, is that the Feds try to give you the tools you need to do what you’re supposed to do. Plus you don’t have to pay for federal probation. You don’t have to pay for mental health medication or for counseling; you don’t have to pay for the patch or anything you need to help you succeed.
Or the GPS. Didn’t you wear a GPS bracelet at one point?
Yeah. At one point I left town and got pulled over in Ohio. My probation officer came in the middle of my 28-day drug treatment, and she asked, “when were you going to tell me you were in Ohio?” I was put on a monitor when I got out of treatment, and a week later they revoked me and sent me for 60 days in the Greene County jail.
How was Greene County Jail?
Greene County is a disgusting place. The guards take control and feed off it. Some people are pretty cruel. When you first go there, you don’t have money, and you’re probably in shock. When I first got to jail, the first thing I wanted to find was a pair of socks, because it was cold. As far as being pregnant, they don’t make sure you are comfortable. You don’t really get the medical attention that you need. They will just tell you to drink more water. I had a sciatic nerve problem, and they did nothing for it. The Feds paid for medicine and for my care at Jordan Valley. But the jail would not approve the medicine that my doctor told me I needed to take, so I had to sit there in pain. Big and pregnant, with a sciatic nerve problem, sleeping on metal the whole time I was there.
How long did you remain at the county jail?
I was sentenced to prison in September 2019, and I sat there until the middle of January 2020.
What was your prison sentence?
Twenty-four months. I did about 18 months, plus a little time in the halfway house.
How did you get from Greene County to the Federal Medical Center, Carswell?
An airplane. The Greene County officers drove me to the courthouse where I sat until they were ready to drive me to the airport. I rode on a regular airplane with regular people. The U.S. Marshals who took me were nice. A lot of people gave me funny looks, but I didn’t care.
What happened when you arrived at Carswell in Texas?
You arrive at a regular airport. It was scary because I was so far away from my family. I was pregnant. I was going to prison. The people who dropped me off were leaving and going back to Missouri, and I was on my own. Sometimes they will walk you to meet the other corrections officers; sometimes they’ll just tell you where to go. I guess it depends on the situation. The marshals walked me to where I was supposed to go.
When you arrive for intake, you come in and have to strip down. They don’t spray you with the water hose, but you do cough and squat. They make sure there’s nothing in there, but they don’t spray you or even make you shower. You just change out of your clothes to make sure you’re not taking in anything that you’re not supposed to. They throw away all your clothes; everything you came with goes in the garbage.
Tell me about prison.
I was pregnant when I got to prison, so I went to Carswell. I was due in March. When you first arrive, they do your intake and give you your clothes. They give you two or three uniforms and some pajamas which are hideous. Then they take you to your unit. All the pregnant women slept on hospital beds, in the hospital unit. Carswell is the only woman’s medical facility in the United States. So it’s not only pregnant people who go there but also people who are terminally ill. But it was comfortable because it was something new. I could go outside now. I could see the sky and breathe the fresh air. I wasn’t confined to a cell.
They have another unit called 3 South. That’s for people who might be sick. They need a little attention and can’t be put in general population. Then you have the high rise. The high rise is for normal people – people who are sex offenders who are there for that reason. It’s huge, and they call it “the jungle.” I was only in the high rise for a couple weeks. I feel like my prison experience can’t be compared to anyone else’s because I was in lockdown the entire time.
Because of Covid?
Because of Covid, because of the riots. So the federal prisons are all locked down right now because two people died in Beaumont.1 That’s what they do. If there’s a huge riot here in Springfield, they lock down every facility in the nation. And there are no programs because of Covid. So people can’t even educate themselves, can’t even go to the library and read. It’s sad. I literally sat in a cell for seven or eight months with a girl I did not like, and we did not talk. She snored really loud. She was rude. She was really bad on drugs, she was pregnant, and they let her be on certain drugs that get you high but help draw you off…
So she was a heroin addict, and she was on methadone?
Yeah. And she would make it a point to wake up and get her shot at like 5 o’clock in the morning. They give you methadone. They give you suboxones. That stuff goes through the prison and people sell it. You can make a lot of money from those little strips2 in prison.
What was it like giving birth while you were incarcerated?
You go to a normal hospital, but when you get there you will be shackled. And nobody is there to help you. There is nobody there to hold your hand, or to tell you, “it’s okay, breathe,” or to give you ice chips – none of that goes on. You’re not shackled to the bed when you have the baby, but you have two people sitting in the corner who don’t even care. They don’t know you or anything. They were usually women, but sometimes a male guard would come in. They switch shifts, so they’re awake the whole time while you’re just sitting there. They overdosed me on Fentanyl when I had Emily. I didn’t know they gave you Fentanyl when you’re pregnant, but they upped the dose, and eventually I was nodding off. I could tell something was wrong with me from the way the nurses were acting. I was throwing up, I couldn’t breathe, I was hot. Finally they ended up giving me a shot of Narcan through an IV and it brought me back. It was horrible.
You get to spend three days with your baby, and most of the time they have her back there doing tests. The majority of women who give birth in prison don’t have families to come and get the baby, so the baby just goes immediately to foster care. Three days after it is born and it’s going into foster care. Luckily my mom and dad drove all the way to Texas and got Emily. My mom came to pick her up, and we got to have a two-hour visit. We got to be together with the baby, and I got to dress her up and take pictures. But then you walk out the door, and the baby leaves with your family, and you don’t get to see her again for however long. After you get done with the visit, they call the prison and are like, “she’s done, send a guard to come get her.” You just had a baby, and they put you in shackles, and they put you downstairs into the drunk holding cell, where they put drunk people who come to the hospital. So you’re right back in a cell. Your dreamland is completely over, and you’re shackled and sent right back to prison. It was probably the worst thing I’ve experienced. I’ve experienced some pretty screwed up things, but watching my mom walk away with my daughter and not having any control was probably the hardest. But Emily is great – she doesn’t know the card she’s been dealt yet, and I hope she never does.
What was it like returning to Carswell after you had Emily?
After I had Emily, it was just lockdown. The guards had shields and bullet-proof vests on; they had airsoft guns, and they were standing in front of every room. They said we were locked down until further notice. And to be honest, the days just blended together. I don’t know how long we were in lockdown. We were not allowed to leave our cells. We were not allowed to get hot water or ice. We were not allowed to have commissary. We were not allowed to do anything. Then the Covid stuff came, and we were locked down even worse. You were down to a five-minute phone call to family once a day, and that was only if the phone came around to you, because you could not leave your cell. Eventually, people were able to use email and the phones, but for the majority of my incarceration, I was confined to a room. It was overwhelming. Normally you could run in the yard. You could play volleyball or basketball or horseshoes. They had a pool table room. There was a library you could go to, and a weight room.
Tell me more about your cell.
There are different kinds of cells. The hospital cells are a hospital room with a bunch of beds. Then you get to 3 South, which is the level under, and it’s open. It looks like the room in Orange is the New Black. It’s an open bay with no walls, and everybody is in a cubicle. The cubicles have two bunk beds and a locker for each person. You have to keep your bed made up. You can leave a pair of shoes on the ground if it is okay with your bunkie, but you have to make sure. You have to keep your locker clean and locked. You clean every morning. In the high rise, there are actual cells. Every cell is different: there could be two people in a cell; there could be six people in a cell. Where I was there were four people.
They do counts in the morning, in the afternoon, before bed, and while you’re sleeping. They will tell you to “rack up” for count, which means go to your cell and stand by your bed. The guards count every single person in your unit, and you stand there until they are done. When you see them leave – you’ll hear their keys jingle or whatever – then you can go back to whatever you were doing in your cell. You can’t leave your cell until they call “good verbal,” which means everybody is accounted for.
What was the food like? Did you get enough?
No, and the food is always rotten. You scan your ID tag when you go eat, so they know you’re not eating more than you’re supposed to. I thought going to the Feds I was going to get all this good food, but that’s a lie. There’s a national menu, which you get used to. Mondays are hamburgers, Tuesdays chicken patties, Wednesdays some sort of rice, like chicken and rice, and Fridays are fish. On Saturdays, they would do brunch. Some days they would do pancakes, some days they would do French toast. And then you’d have your typical dinners. They would always serve breakfast. They have to provide a hot meal – it’s part of the rules of the Feds, that they provide three hot meals. But that got messed up during Covid. They weren’t providing three hot meals. They were providing two sandwich bags of bologna and bread, and the bread had sat in there with the bologna juice. We couldn’t get commissary, so we ate that soggy bread and that nasty bologna and that rotten fruit, because if we didn’t we were going to starve.
Did you have any issues with guards?
I experienced some sexual harassment from guards. There was a male guard who would always come into the bathroom when I was taking a shower. When they enter they are supposed to say, “male entering,” which he did, but as he walked past me he would flick whatever he had in his hand so he could look. It was demeaning, but I didn’t make a report. What’s the point? If I go above you and tell someone that you were being mean to me, you’re going to find out. You’re not going to get fired. What you’ll do is make my life a living hell.
I know because one time I did tell somebody. I had a pair of shorts that were tight. They were my sleep clothes that I wore in my cell. You wear your uniform, not your greys, when you leave your unit to go to the library or to go eat. You wear your uniform from 7 a.m. until 4 pm. So I was on my way to brush my teeth, wearing my shorts, when a guard came around the corner and asked if my clothes had been altered. They will take your clothes away if you alter them. I was already in a bad mood because this guard never left me alone. So I told him, “No, I’m just fat, okay?”
And he said, “well, since you’re just fat and those clothes aren’t altered, that’s fine, take them off and give them to me.”
I said, “you want me to take my shorts off in front of everybody and give them to you?”
And he said, “Give me your shorts.”
I said, “absolutely not.” I went to my cell and changed my clothes and brought him the shorts. Then he came in and ransacked all my stuff. He chopped my clothes up with scissors and handed them to me. Those were clothes I had purchased. He wanted me to take my pants off – that’s how I felt. He wanted me to take my shorts off, and to humiliate me.
Afterward, I told my case manager, and the case manager must have told him, because he came into my cell and was like, “I’ve been going through your emails and messages, and your conversations are really boring. You better keep them that way, because I’m watching you. You think they’ll fire me? No. There’s a shortage of staff, and Covid is going on. You’re an inmate.”
He retaliated in that kind of way, monitoring all my stuff. So even if you do tell on that person, they are going to retaliate against you and work together. You’re not in a secure place where people are there because they care.
Was there anyone you felt you could rely on?
No. When I got there I shut down emotionally, and I don’t think I’ve ever reopened. I’ve kind of set my mental and emotional state where it feels like this is just how I’m going to be. I have that button where I can just turn off and not feel anything. I didn’t have anybody I could confide in because I didn’t let anyone in. I was scared to, they were inmates, you know? There are some good people in there, people I spoke to, but a majority of the time I was by myself. I liked it like that. There was just too much drama. I moved to 3 South, and people wanted to be my friend. I would play Spades, and we would bet on games, and we would spend hours playing, but the people are vindictive.
What about your case workers and counselors – were they helpful?
My counselor was horrible. She didn’t want to help anybody get out. She didn’t care. She would come in and just shake up the unit. The guards would go to her to complain about inmates not racking up immediately, or about us being loud. Mind you, there were two or three hundred girls in this open-bay unit – it’s going to be loud. But they would complain, and she would come in and make you move your cell. So you would have to uproot, whether you had been there for two years or for thirty. She caused chaos; she would just come in and yell at people and degrade them.
The case worker’s job is to get your paperwork done. You really have to do it yourself. The prison systems are supposed to get you out before your home confinement day. That should be the date you leave the halfway house and go home. The caseworker talks to you and has you sign your halfway house paperwork. Then the halfway house sees when they have an opening and sends that date back to the case worker. That date could sit on the case worker’s desk for weeks before you know, because they just don’t care about that stuff. They don’t.
How did you get to the halfway house after you were released from Carswell?
I flew, and it was a horrible experience. We had to quarantine for 21 days in a cell by ourselves. We didn’t get anything – we were just quarantined. I had a full-blown anxiety attack when I got in the car to drive to the Dallas airport. I was car sick because I hadn’t been in a car for God-knows-how-long. I told the guard to pull over because I was about to throw up, but she said she couldn’t because it would be a breach of security.
How was the halfway house? Was it Alpha?3
Yeah. I mean, it was a good environment, but they can’t control a lot of the things that go on there. Alcohol, drugs – they try to control it, but they can’t. They were supposed to do my paperwork but didn’t do it. I told Jeff at Alpha I was coming home on a certain date because that was my set day to come home. But he didn’t fill out the paperwork correctly, so I had to wait another month to come home.
How are you now that you are out of prison?
Prison screwed me up. I’m very shut off from the world. I don’t want to leave my house. I don’t want to be around people. People give me anxiety. I feel awkward. I stay home and deal with my controlling mother, and my children who are so spun out of control, and my dad who’s an alcoholic now because I got taken to prison. He had to take care of my kids, because my mom didn’t. Now he’s an alcoholic. It has ruined their marriage. My son sees it. My daughter doesn’t see it yet, but it’s only a matter of time.
Looking back, what do you think of your experience in prison?
Prison wasn’t “horrible.” I would never want to go back, but it’s not like I saw people get raped with brooms in the bathroom – you know, I didn’t see things like you see in the movies. I saw a girl get stabbed in the head with scissors over pills at the commissary. At first, I thought, “I’m going to see people die and get raped,” but that’s not what it’s like. There are people in there who want to change, who will guide you to do the right thing.
What is your best advice for someone going to federal prison?
When I got to prison I felt like I needed a handbook on me all the time. You think things are going to be so military, but they’re really not. You need to learn how to mentally deal with that. And you need to know that the world is not going to stop out here. When I got out of prison I thought everything would be just how I left it. But it changed drastically. In there you think the world has stopped for everyone and it hasn’t. My best advice is to come out with a plan. While you’re in there don’t waste your time doing drugs or finding a girlfriend or whatever. Don’t focus on that. Focus on a plan. I didn’t have one, and it’s taken me a year now to make a little bit of a plan. You have to have a plan when you get out, because they are not going to help you.
1Beaumont is a high-security federal prison located in eastern Texas. The Federal Bureau of Prisons declared a nationwide lockdown on January 31, 2022, after two Beaumont inmates were killed in a gang fight. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/federal-prisons-locked-coast-coast-deadly-fight-texas-facility-rcna14308
2Dissolvable suboxone strips are used to treat opioid addiction.
3Alpha House is a transitional living facility in Springfield, Missouri.