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How to get to prison

Most folks spend their lives trying to stay out of prison. Yesterday, F[F]M innocently (heh) posed the question of how one gets admitted.

I’ve been volunteering at Alderson Federal Prison Camp for several years now, and there are many, many ways to reserve a bed in a U.S. federal slammer. Our laws are so harsh that we provide three hots and a cot to tens of thousands more people, a large percentage of them women, than we did 30 years ago, before the mandatory minimum sentencing laws were passed in this country.

Thankfully some forward-thinking legislators are working to reverse this trend.

So how do you get in? Here are some ways the women at Alderson got there:

Choose the wrong boyfriend. If you live with a guy who is dealing drugs and he gets caught, you’re as guilty as he is, whether you knew he was dealing or not. According to the way our laws are interpreted, you should have known, and had you known you should have turned him in. This law can be applied to anyone who knows anyone who has anything to do with drugs. So be careful. Here are a couple of cases worth noting. FAMM offers many more.

Choose the wrong lawyer. Should you catch a federal charge, you want to make sure you have good representation. Your boyfriend’s drug money won’t be available to pay your attorney’s fees, so having a well-paying job or coming from a family of means would be helpful. A good lawyer may not keep you out of prison entirely, but your stay might be shorter.

Be an addict. If you’re addicted to smoking crack, snorting coke, shooting heroin or using meth, or if you’re abusing prescription drugs (OxyContin, methadone, Vicodin, etc.), you’re probably looking over your shoulder, waiting for the feds to catch up with you. Or you’re so stoned out of your mind you don’t even care. They’ll probably find you, eventually, and you, too, can find yourself in a multi-year residential program for criminals.

Steal money from your employer. White-collar criminals end up in places like Alderson, because it’s a low-security facility. (So do first-time, non-violent offenders.) It might take years of skimming before you’re caught, so enjoy it while you can. More than likely you’ll be prohibited from working in your chosen field after your conviction, but you can learn new skills while you’re in prison – landscaping, culinary arts, motor vehicle repair, janitorial work – anything a prison needs to keep operating is a career opportunity.

Commit an act of fraud or perjury. That’s how Martha did it, and we all want to be like Martha, don’t we? Her stay was short (see “Choose the wrong lawyer,” above), she wasn’t involved with drug dealers and she’s managed to dot all her i’s and cross all her t’s since her release. Those of us working for sentencing reform thought, for a brief shining moment, that Martha might speak up on behalf of the wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters and sisters who are incarcerated under our conspiracy laws. Sadly, it hasn’t happened.

Violate your parole. Should you find yourself released from prison, you definitely want to be like Martha, crossing all those t’s and dotting all those i’s. If you forget to keep a date with your parole officer, or submit a dirty urine sample, or can’t find a job in the specified period of time, you could find yourself back in prison as a guest of the government.

That’s a short list of How to Get to Prison. As you can tell, I’m an advocate for the inmates and I believe in sentencing reform. Nothing would make me happier than for these first-time non-violent moms to be able to go home and raise their children, contribute to society and live good, honest lives. Whether their sentence is six years or 16, it generally takes about six months for them to learn all the lessons they need.

Okay, off the soapbox. Thanks for the question, F[F]M. I hope I never meet you in Alderson. Heh.


Fat[free]Me said…
Sorry, I didn't mean to be flippant. The laws are very tough in your area and it seems grossly unfair. I think bad luck does have a lot to do with how many people get incarcerated, even mental health issues, too.

Well done on your work there and thanks for the eye-opener.
Laura N said…
I actually very much appreciate you answering this question, Debbie. I know you spend a lot of time & energy at Alderson, yet I didn't really know who you were working to help there. I know diddly about prisons & criminals (lucky me!!!) but even someone like me on the outside can see things are really messed up with how things work. Our church has a prison mission outreach, for a men's prison. We bake cookies every year for them (thousands of cookies--I think each inmate gets 4) & there are a group of folks who go there on a regular basis, like you do. I've baked cookies, but nothing else. I'm thankful for people like you who serve this highly under-served group.

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