Inmate Interview: Mark

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 Shane Cantin.

Mark was convicted of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and spent 10 years as a federal inmate. He served his sentence in all different levels of facilities ranging from camp, low, medium, and high. As an inmate, he successfully completed the 500-hour RDAP program. After he was released, he entered and later graduated from the Federal Re-Entry Court Program.

What other convictions did you have prior to your experience in federal court?

I had an unlawful use of a weapon, possession of a controlled substance, and multiple traffic infractions. In my late 20s, I went to state prison for the possession charge. I did about eight months on a two-year sentence. They gave me probation at first, but then I got caught in Kansas City before I even reported. I was writted up to Kansas City on the UUW charge, which you came to see me on, and they gave me 120 days with a probation backup.

How does state prison compare to federal prison?

Polar opposites.

Tell me about your federal charges.

I was 36 at the time. I was indicted on several counts, but the main count was conspiracy to distribute over 500 grams of methamphetamine. I was looking at a life sentence because of my priors. I was ultimately sentenced to 14 years.

Were you in jail between the time you were indicted and the time you were sentenced?

I spent time in two local jails. I was let out on bond and went crazy for a few months. They were detaining most people then, but you convinced the judge, and he said he would let me out to spend Christmas with my family. Anyway, by the time they got me locked up I had probably spent 6 to 8 months in jail.

You cooperated with the government and ultimately pled guilty to the conspiracy charge as part of that cooperation. What did you have to do, and why did you decide to cooperate? 

They wired me up and I had a conversation with the leader of our conspiracy, who they were having a hard time getting charges against. They just asked me to have a conversation with him and to get him to put himself in the middle of the conspiracy, and I did just that. 

As far as why I cooperated, I had people going down in front of me, people I knew and trusted. One guy in particular had spent over a quarter million dollars on attorneys and still got 27 years because he was going to fight them at trial when they offered him 10 years. So I had to weigh the options. Are you going to let these people completely take your life, or are you going to step up to the plate and be accountable for what you did? When you go to federal prison you think you are the only one who’s ever cooperated. But there are two kinds of people in prison: the ones who cooperated and the ones who wish they had. Because once they get in there and are doing 30 or 40 years, or a life sentence, they can’t believe it. Because nobody is loyal to nobody.

Did your cooperation cause you any difficulty in the local jails while you were there?

Very minimal. I kept my head down and asked to be sent out of the local area. The day they took me to Greene County, I said send me somewhere else. The one time I thought it was really going blow up, you had me shipped to a different jail further away. 

I hadn’t thought about that in a long time.

Believe me, I remember it vividly.

Tell me about how you got to prison after you were finally sentenced.

First I went to the federal prison here in Springfield for a few hours to change clothes. Then they sent me by bus to the transfer center in Oklahoma. The bus ride was a little spooky. You have people all around you who are half-crazy and suddenly you are in there with them. There were no security levels or anything like that. There was a guy yelling and screaming about how he had just got out and how they duped him, and now he’s back in prison. And I’m thinking, “Holy moly, he did 13 years and he barely even made it back to the street.” I was on pins and needles, not knowing who was going to do what, where, when, or why.

I was at the transfer center for about a week. That experience was really unnerving because there were no security levels. You were in there with every thug and killer, and inmates with all different security levels were roaming around you and could even be in your room. You just have to keep to yourself, keep to the bare minimum of what you say and who you say it to. Find somebody you are comfortable with if you need company. 

Did the issue of cooperating ever come up among the inmates?

You hear it thrown around a lot. In my experience, a lot of guys who run their jaw are just covering up their own mess. A lot of those guys throw it around to take the attention off of them, which is another way to go about it if you are that brave. But at the transfer center, nobody had their paperwork, and I used that as a way out.

Tell me about your first impressions of prison. 

I took a plane to the medium-high prison in Butner, North Carolina.1 It was scary going in. There were 9 or 10 of us new inmates, and we walked out on the yard at 9 o’clock at night, while everybody else was locked in their cells for count. So there were eyeballs looking at us from every single window. I felt like a cockroach under a microscope. When they finish count and open it back up, there is a flood of your people, people from your state, who come to meet you. I thought, “Man, I’m going to be called out on the carpet right here,” but somehow I was okay with everybody, and everybody was okay with me. Once I got into a routine, Butner wasn’t bad.

Did you ever feel unsafe at Butner at the medium-high?

Not really. I made a couple of stupid errors. One time I put my foot up in a chair when I was talking to a guy, just like a country boy throws his foot up on the bumper. And this crazy dude who had been on lockdown forever came over and told me he was going to cut my head off because I had put my foot in his chair. I went straight to my room and got a bottle of disinfectant, and I disinfected that chair from top to bottom and apologized to the man. You never know how seriously he took that, and I’d seen a lot worse for a lot less. Other than that I tried hard to stay in my lane.

Did you have a roommate?

Always. Sometimes two, but in the cells you always just have one. Once you get down to lower level you are in open dorms and sometimes there will be three in a room.

How did you get moved down to the lower security facilities?

Back then, at the bare minimum, you needed 18 months of clear conduct to move anywhere. You got to have no warrants, no wants, and you got to clean up all your paperwork. Because once you get down to the lower levels, there’s less security, it’s easier to escape…all of those things are a factor. So, when you are at your first location you must clear up all your warrants and wants. Remember we cleared up mine out of Florida? Because that’s the reason I couldn’t transfer. At a bare minimum 18 months usually rolls into 24 months, and then with a little kicking and screaming they might transfer you. But I couldn’t ever get them to transfer me off of Butner.

At what point did you start thinking about what you needed to do to succeed after prison? 

For six years or so I just continued my drug habit. I continued selling drugs in prison. I continued producing illegal alcohol. I was known as a bookie. Pretty much everything I was doing out of prison I was doing in prison. When I got down to the camp level I joined a group called “Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life.” A lot of my buddies had joined this group, and when I got there I didn’t recognize half of them because of changes they had made. The lady running the group was the head psychologist for the whole compound, and she was just doing it out of the goodness of her heart. It wasn’t part of her regiment or anything. Anyway, I felt something was changing and it was really the Lord working on my heart, though I didn’t know it at the time. I started realizing I had an out date. I had made the same bad choices so many times and wound up in a train wreck. I knew if I didn’t change something, I was going to wind up being in prison the rest of my life.

You completed RDAP2 toward the end of your sentence. Could you tell me about that? 

After Butner, they sent me to Forrest City, Arkansas. I got a letter stating I was receiving a two-point reduction for a drug law that had changed. That took me from having almost four years left to just a little over two in a flash. I had already planned on taking the RDAP program mainly because I was looking at the year off.3 Now that I only had two years left I didn’t have time to get the year off, but I still knew I needed every advantage I could get, so I signed up and transferred to Peking, IL to enter the RDAP program. By that time it wasn’t about the time off for me. It was about staying sober and staying on the right path when I got out.

You take a lot of slack from other inmates about RDAP, because you have a special housing unit and while you’re on the yard with everybody else they like to poke fun at you for being in the program. RDAP required me to work on every aspect of my life. It wasn’t just about sobriety. They help you with your job interview skills, with your life skills, with financial skills. It’s about a 10-month program of intense work to restructure your life and deal with your baggage — your guilt, your shame, your hate–the victim role we all play at times. It helps you deal with all that and gives you a fighting chance to make it out here on the streets.

Did you go to a halfway house for a while when you got out?

Yes, but I was only there for a short time because of my track record coming out of prison. I had a great counselor who trusted me and believed in what they were seeing in me. I hit the road running the first day they let me out with a pass. I went out and got a driver’s license, insurance, opened a checking and savings account – all in one afternoon. They say that takes most people a month. I had two job interviews right after that, and about a week later I had a job. So I was only in the halfway house for about three weeks. 

Then you got involved in the Re-Entry Program of the District Court.4 Could you talk about that?

I did. The program was a year long, and it really restructured my mind and the way I thought about the courts. Because the court had always been the enemy. The courts would always bring bad upon people you knew — that’s how I viewed them. But the Re-Entry Program was a beautiful thing. If you wholeheartedly and truthfully want to change, those people will try to help you in whatever way they can. For me, the court went from being a bad place to a beautiful place. I saw them buy tools for a struggling mechanic so he could get to work and have the tools he needed. I saw them buy canoes and stuff so fathers had something to do with their kids. I had never seen officers of the court love and care on ex-convicts like they did in that program. They really want to see you succeed.

What is your best advice for someone going to federal prison?

Life is not over. At the beginning of my case, I felt like my life was over. I had a pretty good breakdown in your office. I truly thought my life was over, but life is not over. It can be a fresh beginning if you are willing to step into it. If you are willing to work for it and do whatever it takes to get back out here for your family and your kids and your own well-being. I met the Lord in prison and it wasn’t just a jailhouse conversion. I walk it out to this day. Prior to that I was doing what I did out here. I had the same reputation in prison that I had on the streets. You just have to want to change and then be willing to put in the work to make it happen. 


1 The Federal Correctional Complex in Butner is located about 25 miles from Raleigh, NC, and consists of four separate facilities, including a low-security prison, two medium-security prisons, and a federal medical center.

2 The Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) is a voluntary 500-hour therapy program offered to federal prisoners with substance abuse problems.

3 The Bureau of Prisons can reduce the sentences of RDAP graduates who are “nonviolent” offenders by up to one year under federal law.

4 The Western District of Missouri’s Re-entry Court offers programming for individuals on federal supervision who are in need of substance abuse treatment.