A White Collar Letter: What I Learned in the SHU (Solitary) , by T.F., in a Federal Prison Camp
TF is serving his sentence in a Federal prison camp. Before he went to prison, he was a regular member of our White Collar Support Group that meets online on Zoom on Monday evenings, 7:00 pm ET, 6:00 pm CT, 5:00 pm MT, 4:00 pm PT. We celebrated our 200th consecutive weekly online meeting on Monday, April 13, 2020.
Dear Jeff, Please post this letter on prisonist.org. Thank you! T.F.
In May 20 I was handcuffed at the Camp and taken to the Special Housing Unit (SHU) which is located at the High-Security Penitentiary about 1/2 mile from the Camp. I was in the SHU for 14 days, returning on June 3. This blog/letter is only about my SHU experience; the bogus incident itself is an entirely different subject. The SHU is harsh by design so prisoners understand there are consequences for unacceptable behavior, or simply to convey a message that prisoners will be controlled by staff and guards.
Fortunately I had a very good cellmate named Juan, a 26 year-old Hispanic man who was clean, respectful, quiet, and needed to improve his English. Juan was born in the US, but his mother and sisters now live in Mexico (his father died at 42-yrs old, two weeks after Juan began serving his sentence). We played word games and used over 4,000 letters in 13 days! Juan has served 5 years of a 6-year sentence; he was waiting to be released to a Halfway House when it was discovered that he posted two pictures to Facebook 8 months ago when he first arrived at the Camp. His punishment – transfer to a low-security prison, add 40 days to his sentence, an additional 14 days in the SHU, and loss of Commissary, phones, and email for 6 months. His record over 5 years at three different prisons was excellent. He was so excited to see his son who was born a couple of weeks before he was incarcerated – he’s had no visits during his entire 5 years of being imprisoned. I had the privilege of praying with Juan several times while we were in the SHU together, and I am fully aware that my time in the SHU was redeemed for Juan’s sake.
The SHU is for disciplining prisoners; the duration may be a day or two or up to a month but the average is two weeks. During the SHU period prisoners are given a hearing before a Discipline Hearing Officer (DHO) who determines guilt/innocence and assesses the discipline. (In my case, I was originally cited for 4 violations but the DHO dismissed three of them and levied only a minor violation and took away visiting privileges for 30 days which she knew was moot since visiting will continue to be suspended for at least 30 days due to COVID-19. My DHO Hearing was on Day 12 and I was returned to the Camp in two days.
The SHU at the penn has 8 SHU units (A – H) and each unit has 20 – 30 highly secure prison cells. Each cell has a sink, bunkbeds, small desk (1′ x 2′), shower, toilet, and a door slot for food which allows the cells to ‘self-contain’ the prisoners so there is no reason for them to leave the cell. Every fixture is either steel or concrete. I was allowed out of the cell 3 times in 14 days; once to move to a different cell (5 minutes) and two other times for one hour of “outdoor recreation” which consisted of walking in an empty cage measuring 20′ x 30′.
The SHU cell is approximately 115 SF (approx 7.5 x 14). It has a small window measuring 1 foot wide and 5 feet tall, which is enough to get some daylight. No wristwatches are allowed and there are no clocks so I learned to monitor the time by asking a guard what time it was, then marking that time on paper by using the position of a shadow on the outside wall which caused by the sun. The wall outside my window was about 10′ tall and had 3 lines on the wall. The shadow was on the top line at 6a and on the bottom line at 7a. The shadow then moved across the ground and came to a rock pile at 9:30a, and finally the shadow was against the building at 11a. As the sun moved to the afternoon a new series of shadows were created which allowed me to know the approximate time until sunset around 7:45p.
I was “stripped out” upon arriving at the SHU, meaning I stood naked in front of a guard and “proved” I wasn’t hiding any items in/on my body. I put on the classic orange prison shirt and pants (Camp uniform is tan), one pair of underwear, one t-shirt, a pair of socks, and a pair of shower shoes (similar to Crocs). A few days later I was given one extra change of clothes to last one week. I wore my underwear in the shower so I could wash them. Bedding was a sheet and blanket, with no exchanges. One wash cloth and one towel were issued. Toiletries included two travel-size deodorants and shampoo, two bars of soap, and a full-size toothpaste with a mini-toothbrush. Two rolls of toilet paper per week were provided with no additional rolls issued. One travel-size container of disinfectant was issued for the entire week to keep the room sanitary, which I interpret as the BOP’s willingness to have prisoners be exposed to disease as part of the punishment.
Meals were provided three times per day; 7a, 11a, and 4p. The 4p dinner was usually a bologna sandwich and a handful of potato chips. I learned to save the piece of cake that was usually part of breakfast or lunch which I would eat around 8p so I wouldn’t be too hungry when I went to sleep at 10p. I lost 5 pounds in 14 days (185 down to 180), but I quickly regained those 5 pounds when I got back to the camp. (I weighed 208 pounds when I was incarcerated in October).
Communicating with my wife and others was virtually impossible. BOP policy affords a prisoner two 15-minute calls per month while in the SHU (standard for prisoners ranges from 300-500 minutes per month), however I was denied any calls for all 14 days despite making 7 written requests. The guards refused to provide any explanation for the denial, other than the last two nights when ALL phones were disabled by the BOP nationally due to the civil unrest from the murder of George Floyd. I was provided with 3 mailing envelopes, 5 pieces of paper and two small pencils (the size used for scoring golf). A sharpener for the pencils was not provided so I used my fingernail to ‘sharpen’ it. Stamps could only be purchased through Commissary which was only allowed after I was in the SHU for 12 days. The BOP’s policy and practices regarding SHU prisoners being so severely restricted from communicating with their family is reprehensible, but fortunately the light is shining brightly on their immoral behavior and I choose to believe that reform is in the air.
A small library cart came down the aisle on Fridays and each prisoner was allowed to select one book for the week. I was not allowed to bring my reading glasses from the Camp, but was told I could buy a new pair on Commissary day (again, 12 days after I arrived.) I read the Bible a lot which is always a good thing.
A routine is really important in the SHU, and using the time to think positively is critical. I spent time thinking and planning for the time I’m released. Bonnie and I returning home to Florida is my top priority. I started making plans last fall while waiting for my Sentencing in mid-December. I have draft plans for staying in my industry. I worked on those plans while sitting in the SHU. I’ve learned to focus on the past only as it helps me remember the direction I was heading before hitting this detour, but the detour will end and I will get back on my path again a little wiser, a little more humble, but still the same me that I’ve always been.
The lights came on at 6 am, followed by breakfast at 7 am. I would doze again until around 9:30 am then I would write or read. Lunch was at 11 am which was followed by some light conversation with Juan and playing some Hangman. Some of the other inmates would hold conversations by hollering through the cracks in the door, and Juan would translate for me since 80% of the SHU inmates were Hispanic. Dinner was at 4 pm, followed by some more conversation and Hangman. A newspaper was shared by the inmates using string pulled from the blankets and made into a sort of fishing line. The line was connected to a flattened tube of toothpaste which was rubbed with some soap so the tube (with the connected line) would scoot rapidly under the doors and across the aisle pulling the newspaper along. Lights out at 10 pm, and another day done.
The BOP mind games are designed to be unsettling. The guards and leaders would not tell me when I would have my DHO hearing or when I would be returned to the Camp — one leader suggested that I “might be shipped away from the Camp” which I knew was a lie designed to intimidate me. One thing I’ve learned is to remain calm and strong because the BOP is constantly working to manipulate prisoners as a means of control (somewhat understandable). All prisoners want to do is to do their time and go home to their families, but many of the BOP staff live in their fantasy world of over-importance and relevance that no prisoner respects. I have come to realize that prisoners see their plight as temporary and something to be endured and overcome, but many staff members see their position as permanent, significant, and a way-of-life. In my experience, many of the guards and staff are the moral-equivalent of police officers employed by Sodom & Gomorrah; they are delusional in thinking their employment is noble.
The guards were a mixed bag, as all guards are. Some are quiet, some are helpful and respectful, but others are mean-spirited, immature, and low-lifes far worse than the worst prisoner I’ve encountered in my 8-month journey through 4 jails and the Camp, and now the SHU. Three guards were talking next to me at the outdoor cage where I was placed while waiting to be “processed” into the SHU. They began a foul-mouthed discussion (common speak for prisoners and guards alike) about the idiocy of wearing face masks. The conversation took a filthy turn when one guard told the other two that he uses his wife’s “feminine napkin” for a mask, to which the other guard replied he did the same thing – except he painted his red down the center. That led all three of them to have a jovial conversation about their various sex acts with their wives during their cycle. WHO TALKS LIKE THIS WITH THEIR CO-WORKERS AND IN FRONT OF A TOTAL STRANGER??!!?? I’ve heard plenty of locker room talk in my time and I certainly have heard more filthy conversation in the past 8 months than I have in my entire life of 50 years, but these guards and others like them are at a level that not even the worst prisoners I’ve met come close to being. I’ve learned that prison in many ways is more harmful to guards than it is to prisoners.
On my second day in the SHU another guard looked at my I.D. (BOP mug shot) which was on the outside of the door as he was handing my food through the slot. He barked loudly for all the prisoners and other guards to hear, “well – who do we have here? And then he yelled my name. Wow – we don’t get to see too many mug shots with a guy in a suit! He looks awful important! Let’s guess what he did – maybe insurance – nah. Real estate – maybe. Kinda’ looks like a lawyer – wouldn’t that be something!” I remained silent as I took my food tray. He then said, “come on – tell us who you are.” I sat down and ate my food, never giving him the satisfaction of even a glance. After he walked away and returned to his work station, the other prisoners who knew me from the Camp told me not to let that bother me — they know I am a good man.
It’s interesting how the SHU bonded the prisoners together in solidarity. Not necessarily against the guards, but rather with each other. We were struggling against oppression individually and together. Like the bonding that occurs in the military, especially when soldiers are in the trenches. And how religion (any religion) grows stronger when Believers are oppressed, beaten, imprisoned, or martyred. Togetherness makes the struggle more meaningful.
When I returned to the Camp I was treated as an Overcomer – I am now “one of them”, a real prisoner. I went to the SHU at a high-security prison for two weeks, and came back stronger. Another experience in my fascinating journey. I’m not sure how God will use all this experience, but I know He has a plan and a purpose and I’m looking forward to experiencing further redemption. God is good. All the time.