Inmate Interview: John
The following interview is part of a series featuring former clients who served significant time in federal prison. 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.
John pled guilty to possession of child pornography, which has no mandatory minimum. Ordinarily in the Western District of Missouri, a defendant receives a sentence of approximately 5 to 10 years for this crime. However, due to mitigating circumstances presented at the sentencing hearing, John received a sentence of a year and a day. The extra day is significant because it allows a defendant to earn good time credit. Thus, a defendant with a sentence of a year usually serves more time than a defendant with a sentence of a year and a day.
You were in Greene County Jail prior to sentencing, and for a little while after you were sentenced; could you talk about that experience?
What’s interesting is that you had told me that no one would know what I did – that I should keep that information to myself. As soon as I got there, a guard told me that everyone was going to know what I did. Still, he said he wanted me in the general population and not in T5.1 He said I would be fine in general. And I was fine for the first day. My bunkmate was a crazy person, but I got along fine with him, and even told him I was gay. The next day, the head white supremacist guy came over to ask why I was there, and I made up something drug-related. Within an hour or so, I found out that everyone knew why I was there. They told me I had to leave. So I got out of there and went up to T5.
When people get there should they just ask to go directly to T5?
Yes, for this crime. Everyone there wants to feel like they’re better than someone else. No matter what your crime is, at least you’re not that guy. Well, if you’ve done this crime, you are that guy. Everyone wants to feel like they’re superior to you. And they’re going to make an example out of you. So yes, you need to go to T5.
How long were you in T5, and how did you know what to do?
I was there for five months before sentencing, then I waited for another month before I was sent to prison. You learn from other inmates. You have to ask them because the people who work there don’t care. They are not there to help you, or to answer your questions. In fact, if you ask them anything they will say, “ask the inmates.”
What was it like being transferred to prison?
They don’t tell you when you’re going to be transferred. They do it early in the morning, right as you are waking up, maybe because they don’t want any drama. There is a lot of “hurry up, hurry up, got to go, hurry up.” So you say your goodbyes very quickly and give away your stuff because you can’t take anything with you. Then you go downstairs to a cell, where you sit for about four hours. So they’re in a hurry, but they’re not in a hurry. They bring you your breakfast, and you sit there and wait for everyone else who is being transferred that day.
We drove to the Oklahoma transfer center in a van. There were two females and the guards did not want us sitting together. I was one of the last to get in the van, and I as I got in, the guard told me, “All right, I have to put you in a seat with these two women, so you better behave yourself.” I told him I was the perfect person to sit next to the women. Of course, we were all shackled.
You had a little layover in the Grady County2 jail. What was that like?
Yes, I was there for a week. It’s a very old building. You get strip-searched and put in new clothes. It was a pretty small setup: a bunch of beds pushed up against the wall, and a TV. But it was well taken care of, and I didn’t have any problems there. No one asked what you were there for, and the food was excellent.
Then you went to the transfer center in Oklahoma City?
Yeah. At the transfer center, you get on a huge bus, which takes you to the airplane. You don’t know where you’re going – the guards don’t tell you. The marshals there are not happy. I mean, it is the first time I’m seeing them, and they point a gun in my face. They get all up in your face asking if you have any paper on you. You’re outside at this point, you’re shackled, and the wind is everywhere and your hands are up. They just use any excuse they can to scream at you.
You eventually wound up in Forrest City.3 How was that facility organized? Did they keep people with child pornography charges separate?
Well, you can go into protective custody, but I didn’t go into it. I don’t know who all went into protective custody. I had no idea what I was doing when I first got there. I was walking around, looking for my bunk, and an inmate asked where I was going. I told him I didn’t know and showed him my papers. He asked if I was a sex offender, and I didn’t say anything. And he said “You have to tell me. We will find out.” So he took me to the leader of the SO group, who was nice enough to introduce me to everyone and show me to my bunk. You need to find the leader of your group. Because everyone has a group leader. The black guys have their guy, the Mexicans have their guy, and the sex offenders have their guy.
What if you’re a black sex offender?
Then you go with the black guys because with them it’s all about their race. Always. The white guys are the only ones who don’t take their sex offenders.
Were you ever afraid?
No. I was in the low-security facility, and the people there don’t want to get sent to medium. I knew guys who had worked for years to get from a higher facility to the low facility, and they were not going to screw that up. My bunkie ran a church group on the weekends. The Mexicans and black guys would come to it even though he was an SO. They would still come and read the Bible together. You’re lucky if you’re at a low-security prison. Nobody wants to mess that up.
Did you witness any fights?
I saw one incident out in the yard that was really bad. A guy came up to another guy who was sitting at a picnic table and bashed him on the back of the head with a rock. Blood was everywhere. The guy who got bashed on the head was in prison for trying to burn down a mosque, and he had been running his mouth about wanting to kill Muslims. And if you do that, you’re going to get a rock to the back of your head.
Did you have any trouble sleeping?
At night, it gets pretty quiet. There are fans and everything. Surprisingly it’s not that bad. There are recreation rooms where the TVs are located. The black guys have two rooms, the Mexicans have one room, and the white guys have one room, but no sex offenders are allowed in any of them, unless you’re black or Mexican. If you’re a white SO, there’s no TV. And that is the inmates’ rule. The people working at the prison will tell you the rule is unacceptable, but they do nothing because they don’t care. They do not care. That’s the biggest thing to take away from all this – they don’t care.
Were you on any medication while in prison?
Yeah. Getting medication at the prison is so bad. You have to stand outside in line and wait for your meds. You go at about eight in the morning, when the line opens, and you tell them your name and they give you your medication. The woman who was in charge of meds was a very mean woman. Having to deal with her every morning was the most stressful part about being there. I would cheek my medicine and take it back to my bunk and cut it in half. I weaned myself off of it and eventually stopped going. It was wonderful not having to deal with her.
Is it easy to get medical attention in prison?
You can see a doctor, but you have to figure it out yourself. The inmates in your group start telling you how you do this and that. When I got there, the people in charge told me the dentist came once a week and had a 12-month waiting list. If you have a medical emergency with your tooth, your wait time is 12 months. They don’t care.
Did you have to take any kind of sex offender treatment?
Not while I was there. But you have to get a job, and you’re required to take some sort of class. My bunkie taught a business class. It was very interactive, more like college than high school. And in class it didn’t matter what race you were, or what type of crime you had committed. Once you were in the classroom you didn’t talk about those things.
What kind of jobs were there, besides teaching classes?
Laundry is a good job because you take it to three buildings and it allows you to get outside. I probably would have done that if I had stayed there long enough. And there was a library. It was small but good.
What was visitation like for your family?
My parents said they had never been more disrespected in their lives. If your family comes, they’re going to be treated badly. As an inmate, you had to stay in your building until they called you to tell you that you had a visitor. They called your name on the intercom during the day when everyone was playing music and watching TV, so often inmates did not even hear their names called. And they don’t care if you don’t hear it. I remember just standing under the speaker and not knowing how long I would have to stand there. One hour, two hours – you don’t know. But it’s worth the wait because you get to see your family and hug them.
Were you allowed to use email?
No, the warden said we couldn’t use email because our crimes were computer-based. But even people who committed computer crimes were allowed to use email. So we should have been allowed to use it, but they just didn’t like us.
What was it like getting ready to leave prison? How did you know your out date?
On your first day or two, you meet your caseworker. You will never meet a person in your entire life who cares less about you than your caseworker. He’s overworked and underpaid, and he does not care. Eventually, he asked me who I was and told me my release date. When that day comes, you get up and give away all your stuff and go stand outside the door. The door you leave from. I sat on a bench outside that door and waited for the caseworker to show up for work. When he came in and asked what I was doing there, I told him I was leaving that day. I gave him my name and number and he told me to follow him. It’s a different world when you walk through that door. Most of that morning is a blur. I filled out paperwork and they brought me the clothes that I wore the day I pled guilty.
You went straight home after that – no halfway house. What was that like?
No, they decided to leave me in Forrest City instead of sending me to the halfway house. So yeah, there was so much in the air. I didn’t know what was happening. When I got out, someone handed me my new cell phone, which was a flip phone. I called my probation officer for the first time. He did not answer. I left him a message and he got back to me the next day.
I was required to do sex offender counseling, which I completed in less than two years. I have ten years of supervised release, but about a year ago my probation officer said we could discuss an early release at the halfway point if I keep on the right track.
Is there anything you wish you had known at the very beginning of all this?
Polygraphs are bullshit. I did it every 6 months. I failed one, then retook it and passed. It’s all about whether you’re stressed or not. That is all it is. They are judging whether or not you’re stressed out, so just calm down. They asked if I had lied to my PO in the past 6 months. I said no, and it came back true. They asked if I had been unsupervised with any minors. I said no, and it came back true. They asked if I had had any sexual contact with minors? I said no, and it came back false. So I had to drive to Kansas City to do it again. That’s all it was.
Anything else you want to talk about?
If you’re going to look up anything, look up low-security facilities, because that’s where everyone wants to be. If you have to go, that’s where you want to be. So you’ll be fine, you will get through it. It’s not that bad.
1 The T5 pod is reserved for people charged with sex offenses, and for inmates with chronic medical conditions. Now that Greene County has a new jail, the pod names may be changed but there are still designated pods for sex offenders.
2 Grady County is located in central Oklahoma, southwest of Oklahoma City.
3 The Federal Correctional Institution, Forrest City, is a federal prison complex located in eastern Arkansas, not far from Memphis, Tennessee.