A Voice from Prison Blog | Criminal Justice Reform & Constitutional Rights

Unbelievable Conditions At Federal Prisons

It’s interesting to see the disparity between inmates and staff. The line between has a clear demarcation that shows who is afforded the basic necessities and rights, as well as who isn’t. Currently, I am incarcerated at a Federal Prison Camp. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t have tennis courts and get to sit around playing games all day long. In fact, this facility is considered a working camp. Every inmate is required to work and we do a majority of the work for the entire facility: food service, warehousing, transit, maintenance, facilities, vehicle repair and service, and janitorial services. All of this at the rate beginning at $0.18 an hour. We don’t have any days off except for government holidays and weekends and can not miss work for any reason. Missing work is considered a refusal to follow an order and results in a 100 series infraction, which is in the same classification, surprisingly, as murder and escape.

Camp conditions, at least at my facility, are less than ideal. Summer has arrived and it is hot here in New Jersey. One thing we lack as inmates is access to air conditioning. Staff offices, correctional officers’ offices, and the visiting room, where family can visit with you for an hour behind a plastic screen while wearing masks, have AC units. Our living dorms, laundry rooms, cafeteria, library, gym, and TV rooms do not have AC. The only exception is the classroom, where staff from outside the prison come to teach. What exacerbates issues further, at the time of writing this, two ice machines are not operational and the other is only partially operational. This is one room we have had access to during the summer when class isn’t in session. On a hot day, as many as 50 inmates, especially our older population here, are packed in there after hours. We have several inmates well over 65+ in our camp who are subject to the same work and conditions. Access to medical care after hours is non-existent and the response time is often over 30 minutes after something has been called in. What exacerbates things further is that, at the time of writing this, two ice machines are not operational and the other is only partially operational.

As with any prison facility, the correctional staff likes to maintain a tight control on contraband. This often includes cigarettes and cell phones, but at my facility, there is hardly ever any violence and weapons are pretty much never found. I also haven’t heard much about drugs ever being found, with the exception of cigarettes, which most state prisons allow. Now, I agree that contraband should be limited and that the safety of staff and inmates should come first, but I have to question why in all the shakedowns and raids they do here, the only concern is finding chargers and cell phones along with occasionally cigarettes. This is what SIS (BOP’s equivalent to a SWAT team) looks for when they come in on raids and shakedowns. Now, I don’t necessarily agree with anyone breaking the rules in a prison institution, but I have to question why this is such a huge concern. Most inmates here use cell phones to stay in contact with family. We are limited to 500 minutes a month, and two 1 hour visits behind a solid screen. Once those minutes are used, that’s it. You can’t use someone else’s minutes or keep in contact with family with the exception of paying to use the messaging service on the computers at the rate of 5 cents per minute – which adds up quickly for someone only making $0.18 per hour. We don’t have internet or other access to information from the outside.

Last night, staff claimed they discovered several cell phones and chargers stored in the educational room. As our punishment, for all inmates within the entire camp, we are not allowed access to AC for at least a month as summer comes around here. That is especially dangerous for the older population as it puts their lives at risk. On top of that, as punishment, all FSA classes are effectively cancelled. FSA stands for the First Step Act, which allows us to get time off our sentence for completing programs that will ultimately benefit society at large after we leave the institution. It was huge for us, as sentences within the Federal system are often 2-3 times greater in length than State sentences. What I was charged Federally with, in Texas, is considered a misdemeanor which is punishable by not more than a year in jail/prison. I am currently serving 6.5 years of a total sentence within a federal facility. This is greater than six times what my own State would charge me with! So having a chance to ‘work off’ some of your sentence is a huge opportunity. Congress clearly felt this was important as well when they passed the bill.

Now, I am not 100% certain if the BOP or administrative staff can refuse programming as a punitive measure, but nonetheless, programming has been cancelled by the education staff. And of course, our access to any A/C is cut off, unless in educational programming, which has been cancelled. Last year, in the living areas of the dorm, the temperature reached 98 degrees in the summer early afternoon. As I write, I hope this doesn’t come off as a bitching session about poor prison conditions. Many in the general public would agree we prisoners should experience hardship as part of our sentence. However, I believe this is to such an extreme that lives are actually in danger. What is worse, medical care is extremely limited. Last year, the initial response by the camp manager was to spray cleaning chemicals in an inmate’s face from a distance, whom he believed was infected. The inmate was of course treated for the reaction to the chemicals and medical care was given, but not until at least an hour later. Heat stroke is extremely dangerous and if not attended to quickly, the individual can eventually die.

Here are the clear cut facts without any of my bias:

  • No A/C is provided for inmates at our Federal Prison Facility
  • Temperatures can get to at least 98 degrees
  • The inmate population has many older individuals, including several over 65+ years
  • Medical response can over 30 minutes once a CO calls it in
  • All inmates are required by prison administration to work, almost all of which climate control does not exist
  • All staff areas have A/C which is not accessible to inmates unless called by a member of the staff
  • Most inmates will go through the entire day, including several hours in the sun, without access to cooling
  • Ice machines are broken
  • Showers are the only way we can cool off, and there are roughly 250 inmates to 12 working individual showers

While I believe our position is less than desirable and even dangerous, there will always be others with more hardships. In the sister prison facility here at Fort Dix (the low security prison and the largest Federal Prison by population size) the conditions get even worse. Since I can not speak to them personally, I will leave on this note. This is America, the country that sets the precedent for most of the world in many matters. We are a wealthy nation, even with our current economic distress. Our rights, within this great country, are guaranteed in origin by our forefathers. I believe that means that no individual, regardless of what they are accused or convicted of doing, should be subject to forced manual labor in harsh conditions, especially where their life is endangered – not least by our own Federal government. Unfortunately this is what’s happening. In law school, they teach us that there are two different kinds of law. One on the books, the other in action. There is a wide disparity between what occurs and what is actually guaranteed. The average law abiding citizen can be charged with roughly three felonies per day on average, as determined by scholars (I recommend the book “Three Felonies a Day”). Anyone can end up in a similar position with our current legal system. Would you want a loved one to be subjected to similar conditions? Would you be comfortable accepting these conditions yourself if accused of a Federal crime?

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