(Sometimes the best way to describe something is thru experiential circumstance. The reader can then best judge for themselves…)
The first day I walked onto the rec field at FCI McKean, PA, there was a baseball game in progress. The prison team wore NY Yankee uniforms and the other was a townie-team (Bradford, PA). MacDonald’s, I think.
I could hear my rap-partner’s rock-band (Larry Genoa) in another section of the field playing “Hollywood Nights.” The strong aroma of grilled meat supplied by the prison kitchen was on the barbecue. I could almost imagine the heady smell of reefer wafting in the air. Almost… I bought some ice cream from the inmate-controlled alternate commissary just off the field.
Seeing a group of prisoners sitting on a rail, I couldn’t help but notice an Hispanic or Indian-looking chick in hot pants and halter with long black hair and oversized breasts sitting with them. Inmates generally wore sports clothes in their off-time and the guards had mostly blue jeans, along with their radios and keys.
It was the summer of ’94. Having already served 4-yrs of my 25-yr sentence in three different joints, this was a prison sight one could only imagine. Sitting next to a guy watching the game, I asked, “Who’s the chick?”
He glanced over and smiled. “That’s not a chick, it’s ‘Lola.’ And she’s a he.” That was my first surprise.
As I mused on that fact, I noticed that some of the players on the opposite team were female…real ones. At one point, my acquaintance gave me a look and remarked, “You’re new here, huh?” Yeah. “Well, welcome to ‘Dream McKean.’”
The best example of prison reform that I’ve personally experienced in my 20-yrs in the American Gulag is the tenure of Warden Dennis M. Luther at FCI McKean federal prison, PA.
My time at “Dream McKean”–a name given by inmates throughout the system due to its reputation as the best prison in which to serve time–started before I was transferred there in August of ’94.
I had requested a transfer to McKean as it was considerably closer to my home in Detroit and visits from my family. The Case Manager refused, stating, “We only approve discipline transfers to McKean.”
(I later learned from a staffer to Warden Luther, “The Bureau has a policy of sending only their worst cases with the expectation that they’ll sabotage our program here, thus making it impossible to run the prison the way we do. In fact, once these ‘rotten apples’ come here and find respect and meritorious privileges–Voila!–they’re no longer discipline problems.”)
It was a problem getting the transfer… I was fortunate in that I had become familiar with Julie Stewart and her Washington, DC-based org, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). Larry’s wife, Marilyn, was then the Michigan Director of FAMM.
Marilyn and her FAMM group were making significant headway with influencing prison reform legislation in the Michigan State House and Senate.
Marilyn Genoa wrote a letter to her Congressman, Sander Levin (D-MI), who in turn made inquiry to the BOP regarding my transfer application. That got me moved beaucoup didi-mau (turns out that institutional personalities don’t like giving negative answers to their own within the system).
On the way out of the compound for transfer to McKean, a lieutenant pulled me aside and read me my rights. Surprised, I asked, “What is this for? What am I being charged with?” He replied, “They’ll tell you when you get where you’re going!”
Later, getting on the prisoner-transport bus at USP Lewisburg, I noticed that all the prisoners were being fully chained per usual (hands, waist and legs) except for those of us on the way to McKean. When I asked the guard why, he said, “Warden’s orders at McKean. He don’t like his arrivals being trussed-up like prize turkeys.” That was my second “Dream McKean” experience.
Arriving at McKean, unlike other institutions, we were taken inside to where our property was boxed up, unhandcuffed and waited patiently on benches as our names were called.
(Usually, we’d have been sardined into a small holding cell for several hours until we got the message who’s boss. Our property would normally be scoured and much of it arbitrarily discarded.)
When I was called, she asked me, “Do you have anything to declare?”
I responded, “Ah, no. It’s all been searched a number of times.” After perusing the property list attached, with a smile she passed me the barely opened carton and directed me to my assigned unit, 3-B, up the hill.
The unit CO (Corrections Officer) welcomed me to the unit and handed me a list of available beds in the dorm. “Go ahead and check them out. If you find someone or somewhere you prefer, let me know.” Calling over the unit clerk—his name tag read “Porter”—we set about checking the rooms and talking to what inmates were not at work.
Porter had a clipboard and asked me if I had money in my commissary account, cautiously answering yes, he asked me if I would like to order anything from the local MacDonald’s. He showed me the commissary form and a menu. I could see he was having fun with this.
I assumed the standard prison-role and said, “Porter, do I look like a fuckin’ newbie who just fell off a rutabaga truck?”
He laughed and assured me it was all legit. “Check with the CO if you want. You can order whatever you want from the menu. We put it on this form. And it’ll come delivered to the unit on Saturday about noon…fresh. Burgers, fries, shakes, whatever you want. Every unit gets a weekly rotation. You’re lucky, this week it’s our turn.” He was right.
I found a pleasant Colombian guy whose cellmate had just been released. As I spoke conversational Spanish and having considerable experience in Colombia myself as both a criminal investigator out of Detroit and a pilot, I was invited to move in. He too was a pilot and also doing a 25-yr bit for cocaine conspiracy, so we had a lot in common. (We remain good friends, as I do w/a number of my former cellmates…small world.)
The next day I met with my counselor. Every 6-months and whenever transferred, inmates meet with their counselor for review. Recommendations for schooling, work, behavioral adjustments, security points and level, housing transfers—whatever—are discussed.
The final item he brought up was a copy of the “shot” (discipline report) that had arrived with me. Asked about its basis, I told him that I had no idea what it was for, other than describing the scene with the lieutenant when I left FCI Schuylkill.
He ripped it up and threw it in the waste-basket, saying, “We don’t clean-up others people’s bullshit. Your conduct from now on will be what determines your future. Have a nice day.”
I quickly learned from dual-notices posted at various spots around the facility exactly what was behind all this liberal and friendly behavior.
The notices address a list of the warden’s philosophical guidelines. One refers to prisoners and the other to staff. Recalling an incident at the institution that I had just come from, now made perfect sense.
Someone had posted a reprint of this notice as an official memo in the locked staff board at the UNICOR factory at FCI Schuylkill, PA, where I was the senior Quality Control clerk (I worked at various UNICORs for a total of 14-yrs; usually as a senior clerk to management).
“Inmates are sent to prison as punishment and not for punishment,” was how it started. In a punitive institutional environment, it’s a remarkable statement. Revolutionary in the context of the American Gulag…
Several inmates who had access to the locked board were sent to the “hole” for posting “contraband against the security of the institution.”
(The staff side of the list included a number of do’s and don’ts in the treatment of prisoners, for instance, “Never lie to an inmate.” “Treat inmates with the courtesy and respect that you demand for yourselves,” etc.)
This is anathema to the authoritative, conservative mentality. The American Gulag is a vast warehousing system of surplus labor (very few inmates are social predators; most are merely violators of various types of legislation regarding moral, religious, consensual and public offender codes).
The stats that I’ve researched as a Forensic Criminalist (PsyD) in the federal prison system finds that from 3-to-15% of the inmate populations are violent, predatory criminals, depending on the type of security-level institution…high, medium, low and minimum.
My Lutherian time at McKean (1994-95) also coincided with the denial of prisoners having Pell Grants (moneys used for undergrad tuition), despite the fact that prison schools never accessed more than one-half of 1% of the funds deployed.
President Clinton’s punitive legislation (as an aspect of his “welfare reform”) led to massive abandonment by schools of prisons across the nation, despite the fact that higher education was a proven anti-recidivist factor.
I recall an incident sitting in a college Spanish class in our education department (University of Pittsburgh instruction) when our Cuban teacher got a strange look on her face, covered her mouth and exclaimed, “Oh my God, look at those women!”
Turning around, we saw “Laverne & Shirley” talking out in the hall. They were a cross-dressing gay couple, doing their off-time thing.
(Education classes were only available at night. Every prisoner has a job, otherwise we’re free to do pretty much as we please in the evenings up to about 10pm. Prisons usually have a ten-minute hourly move status. McKean had open-movement in the evenings and weekends.)
Laughing, we explained to Mrs. Rodriguez that they were not “women.” She was visibly relieved, saying, “I’m so glad you told me. I don’t want to sound racist, but I thought they were staff and two of the ugliest black women I had ever seen!”
While “Laverne & Shirley” often hung together, they each had their own boyfriends and a rather lucrative side-business in addition to their daytime jobs on the UNICOR prison factory furniture assembly line.
(The public tends to misunderstand the role of gays in prison life. People believe [thanks to Hollywood, TV cop-dramas and other corp-media bullshit] that homosexuals live a life of fear, abuse and rape. Quite the opposite is usually true.
(I recall once when Shirley’s boyfriend was locked down in the “hole” [SHU: Segregated Housing Unit]. Shirley, quite distraught, was allowed to stay there with him over the weekend. Only at “Dream McKean…”
(Sometimes there are certain inmates who have been “punked out” due to the fact that they’re snitches and arrogant sociopaths [such as Martin Shkreli] and the like. Mentally, they tend to be victims looking for a predator…)
Another feature of Warden Luther’s McKean was the Honor Unit. The prison had four major units, each divided into A&B sides. Unit 1-B was the Honor Unit. If a prisoner had a shot-free record after 6-months at McKean (no discipline violations), he could apply for the next available residency in the Honor Unit.
The Honor Unit had a number of earned privileges, among them was open-movement and whatever privileges all the other units had, except we had them all the time, not just on a weekly rotation.
I was also fortunate in that I was appointed as one of the warden’s dozen Mentors (in fact, the last Mentor before his orchestrated retirement). Mentors met w/the warden weekly to discuss prisoner issues and suggestions.
One of our members, usually Michael Santos, appeared on the Friday early-evening closed-TV presentation w/the warden to discuss inmate/facility issues and proposed suggestions. The show was always a big hit. McKean at that time had some 1200 prisoners.
There was also an “I Care” program. The winning inmates of each unit who won the weekly award for the most clean room (2-man cells, but at McKean under Warden Luther there was never a lock-down; the doors were left unlocked), received a rotating TV set for the following week. (Otherwise, there were several TVs in the Common Areas.)
Unit 1-A had a library of tapes for the music sets and TVs (including a number of “mis-labeled” XXX-rated ones) for further use. Inmates could purchase and keep in their rooms various types of music instruments and typewriters for our personal use.
I recall there were several California Hell’s Angels at McKean, one of them being this 6’6” Chinese giant who could play the best rock and Flamenco guitar that I’ve ever heard.
As for inmate behavior… I don’t recall there ever being a serious incident at McKean during Luther’s tenure… Who would want to jeopardize their residency there?
After Willy Nelson was convicted in a tax-evasion case,* part of his pay-back was holding certain free-concerts as community-service. Among his acquaintances was one of the Hell’s Angels. Willie came to McKean upon his request (and the warden’s approval) in the summer of ’95 and held a concert on our rec field…
(*After Willie, Kris Kristofferson, Joni Mitchell, Robin Williams and Peter Coyote held a 1987 fund-raising concert for Leonard Peltier [the Ojibwa-Lakota accused in the killing of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Rebellion in ’75–still-today serving two life sentences] irate cops and the IRS investigated Willie, sending him a bill in 1990 for $16.7-million for tax evasion.)
At McKean, I got visits from family and friends who traveled from Detroit. Unlike other compounds, summer visits at McKean were held outside between the security fences in an area behind the visiting room.
We were given blankets and could sit in a relaxed grassy-knoll atmosphere. Usually a band was invited to play and a barbecue and ice cream were set up by the kitchen, along with various games for the children.
While doing my 20-yrs of prison time, I had a number of notable cell-mates throughout the system, including a Vietnamese ship’s captain, a Lufthansa pilot, an Air Force general, CEOs, police, an IRA officer, a Cuban Bay-of-Pigs commander, and Chelsea Clinton’s father-in-law (former Congressman Ed Mezvinsky).
For me, the most notable and educational cellmate I had at McKean, was the former Chief of the Navajo Nation, Peter MacDonald.
As cell-mates with Pete, I learned most of the Native American history I know. We remain friends and Pete is today the Director of the Navajo Code Talkers Assoc (of which he was a Marine-corp member in WW-II).
Other close acquaintances I knew at McKean were Gene Gotti (the Teflon Don‘s brother); Novi Tocco of the Detroit Mafia family; and Miles Connor, one of the more famous art thieves (Miles was also a rocker who often performed at McKean.
Across the road in the Camp was former Detroit Tigers 1968 World’s Series pitcher Denny McClain [which I attended in ‘68], but I never met him. Wesley Snipes was also a more recent inmate (after my time) at McKean on his tax-evasion case.
My time at “Dream McKean” (under Warden Luther) ended abruptly in July of ’95. While I continued at McKean until 2001, the “Dream” was gone. Warden Luther was forced to retire from the BOP. The new Director of the BOP, Kathleen Hawk-Sawyer sent in James Meko to “clean up McKean, and bring it back on line,” a real charmer.
The largest prison revolt in America’s history in which McKean played a significant part, occurred in October of ’95. It came about as a confluence of events having little to do with McKean, but our reaction followed, and in some respects exceeded many of the other 40+prisons that rioted. The entire federal prison system was put on lock-down.
Should anyone ever doubt the ability of the BOP and the gov’t to shut down the media, they need only study that period (if they can even find the info). Few have ever heard of this mass uprising as a nationwide news-blackout was enacted with total effect. Basically, some 38,000 young, black prisoners were facing imminent release under a crack-cocaine change in the sentencing law to take effect automatically on November 1st, 1995 unless Congress acted otherwise.
When O.J. Simpson was found not-guilty of dual-murder on October 3rd, the nation had an instant reaction; blacks were celebrating and white’s throughout the nation were in stone shock. The US Congress, mostly a white-male conclave, had an instant racist reaction to kill the crack-legislation in record time.
They couldn’t get revenge on OJ, but they sure could make other Blacks pay. In fact, the ongoing OJ coverage helped mask the mass prison rebellions.
The October Rebellion spread throughout the federal prison system. At McKean it started with the kitchen workers the next morning.
Instead of an actual lock-down, Warden Meko ordered all the cells be unlocked (which he instituted after Warden Luther’s leaving) and the units abandoned by staff with the outer doors locked. Prisoners immediately took over each of their own units and trashed much of their insides.
A siege came into effect with the state and local police surrounding the institution. SWAT-like teams roved the compound. Meko was clearly looking for a cause célèbre by creating the conditions for a “riot.”
One of the units was almost totally burned out (4-B) and another unit partially so. A siege with clubs, flash-bangs and tear-gas commenced with some units being assaulted by smashing and repelling thru their roof-top skylights.
Over 200 prisoners were sardined into the SHU and eventually transferred throughout the system. It took about a month to bring the system “back on line.” That gave the excuse for new draconian and punitive rules being instituted.
From 1990-to-2010 I served in over a dozen federal prisons. I’ve been in high-security USP penitentiaries, spent some 15-yrs in medium-security FCIs, and I’ve even served in Camps … what many refer to as Camp Cupcakes (females) and Club Feds (males).
I’ve worked at every job one could imagine, including–after my transfer to a camp in 2006–being attached to the Air Force at Maxwell AFB, Montgomery, Alabama as a dog-trainer, and to the Navy at Pensacola NAS, Florida as a Haz-Mat officer… But by far my best experience was easily “Dream McKean“…
Given the definitional lack of socio-moral development (one’s lacking a sense of social consciousness and responsibility) conservative authoritarians never seem to comprehend that when you act in hate and punitive retribution, you RECREATE that hate and reaction in others.
As for “Dream McKean“–at the risk of sounding like a hopeless romantic–the thought that best comes to mind is:
“Don’t let it be forgot / That once there was a spot / For one brief shining moment / That was known as Camelot.”
Dr. Publico (Nick Medvecky, PsyD) February 2016…