The Federal Prison Illusion
September 30, 2021
(editors note: After spending a little over nine years in federal prison, Henry A. Goldberg, is currently residing at the Volunteers of America halfway house in Baltimore MD. Mr. Goldberg has seen the injustice and fallacies of the prison system in America and wants to be a voice that leads to change. He feels very fortunate that the prison system was not ruinous for him, thanks to a very strong support system and his deep faith in God. While in prison, Mr. Goldberg took numerous paralegal correspondence courses, and left prison speaking almost four languages. He likes to study all types of history, to learn new languages and cultures, and be an advocate for healthy living.)
My journey in federal prison journey began in 2013 and ended in 2021. That journey has taken me to South Carolina, New Jersey, and ending in North Carolina, with various stops in between. Though I have met people who have been to double or even triple the number of institutions I have been to, I can still paint a vivid picture of the inner workings of federal prison.
I will admit that I had a considerable number of prejudices of what I thought life in prison would be like. To my surprise federal prison was nothing like what television had portrayed it to be. It was not a colorless and abrasive environment in which it was killed or be killed; though I will say, United States Penitentiary prisons are exactly how they are or portrayed on television. Inmates generally view new inmates as a part of the collective struggle, so when you walk through the door, you are usually met with tons of support such as food, clothes, and hygiene. Though prison is extremely segregated, there is a strong sense of community from respective groups, or "cars" as they are known. These cars consist of geographical locations such as DC, Florida, and New York as well as gang, religious, and other affiliations. So, in a nutshell when you enter the prison system, you must tether to your respective group: DC with DC, gang with gang, and Muslim with Muslim, with various sub and splinter groups in between.
These affiliations do not imply formal acceptance by these groups; in most cases you have to provide your paperwork, meaning your case information, to verify that you did not cooperate with law enforcement and/or are not a sex offender. Either one those labels will cause you to request protective custody or at worst be violently attacked and at best to become a social leper. Unlike United States Penitentiaries, in some medium and a lot of low security facility prisons these are non-issues.
When I first became incarcerated in a federal prison, I thought that prisoners run the show on the ground level and every cell, seating, and dining hall arrangements were made the inmate population. I came to this conclusion, because people on the inside advised where to sit during meals, or who I should associate with or even live with.
I was very naïve to believe this for many years. I found out after 4 years of incarceration that the prison security and investigation staff or SIS were behind the scenes pulling the strings and perpetuating segregation between groups in the prison system. It was an illusion of control; the inmates actually thought they ran the prison but that could not be further from the truth. When I arrived at Low Security Correctional Institution (LSCI) Butner, showing paperwork, cell arrangements and segregated dining hall seating were prohibited. Things happen or don’t happen according to how the prison staff see fit. That was just the surface of the federal prison illusion.
The website for the prisons in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) are great, they portray huge recreation yards, gyms, a myriad of programs, incentives to obtain a GED and other educational programs. Loved ones and members of the caring public have a good feeling about what federal prison can offer, a true means propitiation for prior transgressions and the skills to leave prison and become a contributing member of society. Those websites are a façade, a ruse; in many cases those websites are outdated by three years or more. At an intake meeting at FCI Fort Dix in New Jersey, the then education supervisor started naming all the programs that were listed online and all most all of them as he said were no longer available. He ended his speech by saying “this place sucks”, welcome to Fort Dix; that statement can be applied to almost all BOP facilities.
Without programs and educational opportunities, what are BOP facilities? They are a business and business is booming. The prison staff are much less concerned about incarcerated people bettering themselves as opposed to the orderly running of the facility. It is all about money. Inmates are a very cheap means of maintaining the buildings that they are housed in. What would cost thousands of dollars in labor, the BOP can pay inmates pennies, literally pennies to cut grass, repair well almost everything, cook the food for staff and inmates, and all types of labor in between. Most of an inmate’s income gets recirculated back into the prison by high phone call prices, email service, MP3 service (a 10-dollar MP3 player costs $90 in the BOP), and commissary. It is a proletariat society in which no one really acquires any type of ownership over anything or any sense of wealth and achievement.
Inmate employment in the BOP on paper is designed to teach the inmate discipline and helps him to establish a pattern of maintaining employment. However, in federal prisons the correctional officers routinely speak disrespectfully to inmates who are working at a prison job. There is no real teaching of discipline since the working conditions are so terrible. If working in the BOP was my first taste of employment, I would balk at the idea of trying to procure a job once I left because I might conclude that all bosses speak disrespectfully.
Prison guards are the overseers of employment, and in many cases, inmates are met with much disrespect, scorn, and rebuke with no means of being able to retort; there is no HR department. Inmates that complain to the administration are subject to retaliation by cell shake downs, harassment, and in more extreme circumstances, the officer telling other inmates the offense and other personal information of the complaining inmate. And in most cases inmates cannot simply quit their job, so they are forced to work in toxic environments that adds a tremendous amount of stress and mental health issues. If you are financially stable and don’t want to work, you can go to school and become prepared to work in the year 1990.
As I mentioned before most of the programs that are listed on the BOP website are no longer available, so the heart and soul of the education department is the GED program. There are other programs such as ESL (English second language), ACE (adult continuing education), which are non-credit classes taught by inmates, and the apprenticeship program certified by the Department of Labor, in which an inmate can obtain skills as a custodian, plumber, electrician, and landscaper. There is also a way of taking correspondence courses if one can afford it. The BOP has developed a system in which if you do not have a GED or High school diploma or cannot prove that you have one, you will be enrolled in GED classes and subject to disciplinary actions if you do not attend.
I have seen people with PHD’S and Master’s degrees enrolled in the GED program because they could not verify their credentials. The ones that chose not to attend were given incident reports. I will not linger on this topic, but the fundamental problem with the GED program is that you cannot force someone to learn. Granted there are plenty of people who earnestly want to better themselves, but there are plenty that do not have a desire to do so. Forcing others to do something that they do not want to do, is not effective at all. The fallacies of BOP education or lack thereof is extremely evident outside of prison.
I am currently at the Volunteers of America halfway house in Baltimore, MD. There are so many people that have no idea how to use a smartphone, computer, and type, it makes me wonder how will these people find employment in 2021. The curtain has been lifted from the federal prison illusion, the BOP is not a means of returning to society, our recidivism is their job security. As I mentioned before things happen or don’t happen according to their will, they do not want us to break from the yoke of the mental slavery of prison. Once you have become oppressed and mistreated for so long, it is hard to break from those chains, the illusion becomes truth and an environment outside of that is abnormal.
It would be very inappropriate for me not to address the COVID-19 pandemic in the BOP. I was at LCSI Butner during that time, and there is a disproportionately elderly and medically vulnerable population at Butner; also LSCI Butner is an open dormitory prison, meaning social distancing would be impossible. Granted, COVID-19 was new and the administration did not have protocols in place but, incompetence and apathy were running the show. Inmates were forced together in large groups, masks were not readily available, soap was missing from the restrooms and the warden was nowhere to be found.
We did have one town hall meeting where the warden arrived with guards armed with pepper spray, and one inmate asked about the lack of soap, to which the response was that inmate was forcefully removed and placed in restraints. Mind you that LSCI Butner had the most Covid inmate deaths, including a staff member death. Yet prison authorities were desperately trying to reopen the UNICOR labor factory while the compound was still on lock down and there were still active COVID-19 cases. When we were told that the factory would reopen, we asked the captain how this could be. She replied by saying “money”.
To be fair, not every staff member is a bad person, and not every inmate leaves ruined, but that is a small percentage. I earnestly hope that this brief description of the BOP is enough to ignite a movement to change this antiquated system, and truly implement policies that will cause a shift from eternal condemnation to redemption.
After spending a little over nine years in federal prison, Henry A. Goldberg, is currently residing at the Volunteers of America halfway house in Baltimore MD. Mr. Goldberg has seen the injustice and fallacies of the prison system in America and wants to be a voice that leads to change. He feels very fortunate that the prison system was not ruinous for him, thanks to a very strong support system and his deep faith in God. While in prison, Mr. Goldberg took numerous paralegal correspondence courses, and left prison speaking almost four languages. He likes to study all types of history, learning new languages and cultures, and be an advocate for healthy living.