Note: To protect the confidentiality of the men listed here I have used fictitious names and omitted information that could lead to the actual identity of the inmate. This story is about my experience, my perspective, so the real identity of the men with whom I served my sentence is not relevant. Any similarities of other, actual persons are coincidental. ___________________________________________________________________________________
In accordance with the 12-month, 1-day
sentencing order imposed by the court on May 8, 2009, I was to self-surrender
to the institution designated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons on a date
The federal prison system no longer has parole. Inmates are statutorily
entitled to a 15% good time credit off their sentence when it is greater than
one year. In my case, I was required to serve a total of 318 days.
The day before, I made the six-hour journey along with my dad and two
brothers. We stayed at a hotel just around the corner from the prison
complex to ensure I reported on time. I enjoyed my last night of
freedom having dinner and swimming in the hotel pool with my family.
Around 10:30 a.m. the next day, I walked into the lobby of FMC-Devens and
announced that I was checking-in. After a quick goodbye to my dad and
brothers and handing them my wedding ring to return to my wife, I was directed
to the receiving area.
On reflection, it seemed surreal to self-report. Just an hour earlier, I
checked out of a Marriott Hotel and here I was "checking-in" to a
place where I cannot leave when I want – and certainly without any of the
amenities to which most of us are accustomed. This was one of many
humorous comparisons and situations I would encounter during my sentence.
It was in the confidence of Christ that I wouldn’t allow my circumstances to
dictate how I felt. I chose to see God in all my
circumstances. Although I was in prison, my joy and peace came
from God. Genuine peace can only come from God as it transcends all circumstances which
we may find ourselves in. “…and the peace of God which surpasses all
understanding will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
Within a few hours I was designated as Federal Inmate 41634-050, wearing the familiar bright
orange jumpsuit, cuffed and escorted across the compound to the Special Housing
Unit. The SHU (or Hole) is the prison's solitary confinement.
I was placed in the hole while awaiting medical clearance for three
days prior to entering the general population. That was undoubtedly the
longest 40 hours of my life!
The Federal Medical Center
– Devens is an administrative facility housing inmates that need inpatient or
outpatient hospital services. I use the term hospital loosely since it
looks like a hospital but it is the ultimate example of government run health
care – at its worst. It is a bureaucratic facility operated by the
Bureau of Prisons that practices the rationing of health
care. Inmates routinely file claims against the Bureau or
its physicians for alleged lack of quality care. I praise God that I was
in good health when I arrived and remained healthy during my period of
As an administrative facility, FMC Devens houses inmates with different
security levels on the same compound. Once medically cleared, I was
assigned to H-Unit, a building with about 120 inmates on each of two
floors. Most cells in this dormitory style setting housed two inmates
equipped with bunk beds, a small cabinet for personal belongings and a shared
H-Unit was designated as a Low security building, but we had inmates with
varied custody levels and all sorts of federal offenses. The compound had
three separate units for housing.
G-Unit was divided for two purposes. The upper floor was similar to
H-Unit, but the lower floor was exclusively reserved for inmates participating
in the Sexual Offender Treatment Program.
J-Unit was a Medium security level building where inmates were locked in their
cells at night. There was also N-Unit, a psychiatric ward on the compound
for inmates who need 24-hour lock-down or those undergoing evaluation.
One of highest paid ($1.00 per hour) and sought after prison jobs is the
24-hour watch program where selected inmates observe those in the
psychiatric ward deemed to be 'at-risk'. Finally, the hole and
the residential section of the hospital contribute to the 1,000 inmates on
the main compound.
I was placed at FMC Devens because it satisfied the bureau's placement policy
of being designated within 500 miles of home, although I was just shy of the
limit by a few miles. Even though I did not have any specific medical
issue, the prison must have a population of inmates who are in good health
to be assigned the various job details to keep the place running. Inmates
perform all the work; correction officers simply supervise.
My Cell Mates
During my stay at the main compound I shared my living space with five different inmates over a six month period. Following are my impressions of those experiences:
1) When I arrived at H-Unit on June 26th, I was assigned to a bunk with a man who was serving his fourth bid (prison vernacular for the number of times incarcerated). His name was Reginald, an offender in his seventies from Philadelphia incarcerated on a drug and weapons conviction who was scheduled for release in 2022.
Unfortunately, I learned Reginald died shortly after I left the main compound. He was in ill health and was medically unassigned (not cleared for a job detail.)
It was well known on the block that Reginald didn't want a bunk-mate, and as a veteran of the system, he expected to have a private room. Every inmate assigned to his house never lasted long before transferring to another area of the block. He never made new inmates feel welcome, which was quite common among the veterans. As an elderly man he was inflexible and often pretended as if I didn’t exist, which is not easy to do considering the small space we shared. He tried to ‘scare me away’; but, I told him that God put me in his house and unless I was moved we would remain together.
I found out later that many guys in the block were taking bets to see how long I would last with him since all his previous housemates lasted just a few days. The unit was full of guys who were former bunk-mates of Reginald, but those who bet on me to move all lost since I remained with him for 12 weeks.
The first few weeks he ignored me, but over time, became friendlier. During my job detail in food service, I would often put aside some favorite foods for him for when he entered the chow hall. He particularly liked grapefruit, so I made sure he received all he wanted when they were on the menu.
I found great joy in knowing that when I was being friendly to Reginald, I was serving Christ. Food is a precious commodity in prison that can be used in both positive and negative ways. At the very least it can be a significant way to endear yourself to others.
He was estranged from his family and never had visitors. Establishing a relationship with him was the greatest challenge I had to face while in prison. Of all the relationships formed in prison, perhaps the most important is the person with whom you live in a small 10 x 10 space.
The day I was transferred from the main compound, I said goodbye to Reginald and we hugged. He was a very bitter and angry person who was constantly filing legal claims against the Bureau. But, I was glad to know, to care for and encourage an elderly man who was in despair. He often remarked with a surprised look that he was amazed at my joyful attitude. It was then I was able to share that true joy is not based upon our circumstances – like happiness, which often is fleeting. The source of my joy was from my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I prayed for him and occasionally with him as I shared my faith. In the month before I was moved, we openly talked about Christianity and he stated that he believed in Jesus, but considered himself a Muslim who practiced the religion of Islam. I shared with him the words of Jesus, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him,and he with Me.” Revelation 3:20. Jesus is always waiting for the repentant sinner to come to Him. He promises to give us eternal life and an abundant life while we serve Him in the present day. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10:10
A common theme I noticed among inmates was a strong claim of innocence. I have no doubt there were a few who may have been wrongly convicted due to over zealous prosecutors or incompetent counsel. Some well meaning guys tried to persuade me that I was in prison for what others did to me or because of some other unfortunate turn of events in my life.
The lack of accepting personal responsibility for ones action just astounded me. When I heard this banter on the compound and was asked about my story, I unabashedly shared that I committed a crime and was justly punished. The root cause of my crime was sin and I was disobedient to God’s Word. Now I had their attention and could share the message of salvation. God always opens the door to share his Word.
2) In September, I was invited to transfer to the Italian-block of the unit by Gary, the Don of the neighborhood. Scott, a former federal district court judge - with whom I became good friends - was transferred out of Devens due to security reasons and I took his spot in Gary's house. Gary, my new bunk-mate arranged my transfer since he had considerable respect and influence among inmates and staff. Gary turned out to be my most memorable of all bunk-mates, even though we shared a house for only five weeks until his discharge in October 2009.
I didn’t fully realize the significance of the person with whom I was living with until shortly after my move. It was then that I learned of his celebrity status within the prison and on the outside. Gary, who was in his eighties, was serving a sentence slightly longer then mine. He was incarcerated due to a conviction for offenses relating to his involvement in organized crime. He shared stories about the ‘business’ and the mystery surrounding the mob.
What surprised me most about Gary and the others in the neighborhood is that despite what these men did for a living, they considered themselves devout Catholics, upstanding citizens who possessed high moral standards. I learned about their unwritten conduct code and how the mob allegedly had great concern for woman and children all the while being dedicated family men.
When Gary asked me where I was going one Sunday morning, I replied that I was going to Chapel Services. He thought that was great, encouraged me to regularly attend but refused to go with me. We spent hours discussing a myriad of issues including enjoying an open dialogue about matters of faith. The one thing I am clearly reminded of is “…for all have sinned and fall short the glory of God.” Romans 3:23 It doesn’t matter if we justify, compartmentalize or rationalize our behavior. We have all sinned and fall far short from God’s standard of holiness.
Prison is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you did, we are all incarcerated for different reasons. We just wanted to serve our time and get out. Some people are more memorable then others; Gary would fall into this category. I found him to be a loyal person who looked out for those he cared about. He was a very considerate and outrageously funny person.
As he walked around the compound, it was clear he garnered much respect from inmates and enjoyed his status. People like Gary are held in high esteem in prison. Despite his tough facade, he was a demonstrative person in his relationships. He displayed those grandfatherly characteristics that would endear himself to any grandchild. I pray that Gary will reach a decision for Jesus Christ while God gives him life.
On the morning of Gary’s release, he got up early, went to the commissary and bought several of us ice cream cones for breakfast. When he was discharged a few hours later he was picked up in a stretch limo for his trip to a halfway house in New York City. Knowing he was leaving prison in such a classy style seems so appropriate for Gary.
3) Within minutes of an inmate vacating their bunk, the bed doesn’t have time to get cold as another person is moving in. Probably before Gary was in the limo, Fazio was moved into his bunk. He was another inmate in the Italian Neighborhood who lived on the block. I was glad to have a housemate that I already knew, than someone coming onto the unit from the hole.
Fazio owned and operated a gun dealership business in New England when he was prosecuted. He also maintains his innocence and believes he was railroaded by overzealous prosecutors.
Although Fazio and I lived together for just a few weeks, he loved to share stories of his business and personal life. Meeting so many men in prison with such varied backgrounds creates a ripe atmosphere for storytelling. Everyday is filled with tales of amazing lives and escapades. I am sure that embellishments were added, but nevertheless, my life experiences seem so colorless compared to the wild tales of 'Devens Men.' Even some correction officers would share their stories along with us. Fazio had a very supportive family who often visited him and advocated for him on the outside.
A few weeks after he moved into my bunk, he received an unexpected notice of a transfer to a county facility for a writ (court appearance). Usually that meant an inmate had to pack-out (place his belongings in storage) until he returned. The prison would not keep a bunk vacant. He would be assigned another open bed once he returned. Fazio was packed out and gone within two hours. Two days later, I had my fourth bunk-mate.
4) Aaron arrived at my bunk with that ‘deer in the headlights look,’ that many new guys display upon arriving at Devens. In Aaron’s case, he came from another federal facility in the Midwest where he spent a few years, most recently six months in the hole there. He also spent a month in the hole at Devens before coming into the unit. He looked like a guy coming out of the wilderness since inmates do not usually receive haircuts, shave or have tools for personal grooming. That is a natural result of long stays in solitary. During my short stay in the hole, I spent my time sleeping and reading scripture after a kind corrections officer brought me a Bible.
Aaron was in my room for eight days. He was temporarily staying in H-Unit waiting for a bed to open in G-Unit’s Sexual Offender Treatment Program. He is serving a ten-year sentence for a sex crime. He was a businessman, father and grandfather, who got entangled with the dark side of the Internet. He arranged a rendezvous with a minor for sex. Since being incarcerated, his wife died, and he is estranged from his family. During the time he was with me in the unit, and when I saw him on the compound afterward, he always appeared as if in a daze.
On the Italian block many of the guys expressed disdain for inmates convicted of sex crimes. Some ignored Aaron, which was the safest thing for inmates to do – avoid people you don’t like. Guys in the mob and most in prison, have no tolerance for sexual offenders. During Gary’s tenure at Devens, whenever an inmate would come into the unit, especially our block, he would find out what offense the person committed. If it was a sex crime, they were moved out of the area within a short period of time. In prison, inmates better not lie about their crime, as guys on the outside will quickly verify their stories. As odd as it may sound, honesty and trustworthiness is a critical component of prison life. Theft of one’s personal belongings rarely occurs, as it is not tolerated. I could leave my personal property out in the open and was never concerned about theft.
I was often criticized for speaking to Aaron, as it was perceived by some that I approved of his crime. But, I felt my first responsibility was to God, not other inmates. People knew my faith and I cared for him, like I did for others. I wanted to share how believing in Jesus changed my life and how it can change him. He listened and was polite. He knew all the salient facts of Christianity, but somehow didn’t seem to make the distinction that mere knowledge of who Jesus is and what He did for us was a not a substitute for having an intimate and personal relationship with Him.
On a final note, many guys in my block couldn’t understand how I continued to engage him in conversation, knowing that I had teenage children. I told them and Aaron in very clear terms that his crime repulsed me and makes me sick. I explained to Aaron that as a father, if my kids were ever sexually molested I would "go into protection mode" and would want severe actions taken against the offender. That is a natural, visceral reaction of any dad who loves and cares for his children.
Every inmate at Devens is there for committing a crime. We have violated the laws of the United States. But, all of us - every single person - has violated God’s holy standard. More importantly, there is nothing we could ever do to earn the approval of God. His standard is holiness and righteousness. We are sinners. He hates sin and it must be punished. But, God’s love for His creation is so great that He provided a way to satisfy that holy standard so we can be reconciled to Him. “For God so loved the World that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall notperish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16 and; “But God demonstrated His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
So, when I look at Aaron – and the hundreds of other sexual offenders at Devens, I see men that are lost, who need to repent and find the forgiveness that Scripture promises. Jesus is eagerly waiting to come into their lives not for who they are or what they did, but for who He is and what only He can do for us and in us.
5) After Aaron was transferred to G-Unit, I was alone for a few days until Elliott moved in next to my house after arriving from a several month stay in solitary for disciplinary reasons. After several days of watching conflict between Elliott and his bunk-mate escalate, I invited him to live with me even though I enjoyed the small space by myself. I felt sorry for him since I knew his bunkmate was very difficult to get along with – there are many guys like that in prison.
Elliot was serving a 20-year sentence for conviction of possessing marijuana with the intent to distribute. He was very bitter about his sentence and how he was mistreated by the Bureau. He was not a well man and had litigation pending against the Bureau for alleged poor medical care. He shared with me a story of how his back was injured which now requires him to use a walker for mobility due to a fall that happened while in the care of Bureau medical staff. During the seven weeks we lived together, I assisted Elliott with some legal briefs, as he was still challenging the Bureau on several issues.
During the seven weeks we bunked together, I learned he classified himself as a Native American. Based upon conversations about his beliefs, Elliott saw all faiths as similar – the belief in a ‘higher power.’ Upon intake each inmate completes a form designating his faith which entitles him to follow the worship practices of that religion while incarcerated. I suspect that Elliott’s choice of Native American was a matter of convenience since it allowed inmates the freedom for uninterrupted worship in a Sweat Lodge that usually lasted for about six hours, much longer than traditional worship services.
Elliott was a nice guy who was anticipating his transfer to a halfway house in the summer of 2010 to begin the process of his release and reunion with his family. We spent many nights just talking about the reunion with our families and about Jesus and His plan for salvation. We spoke freely and just enjoyed each other’s company. Unfortunately, a few days before I was transferred to a minimum-security facility, Elliott awoke feeling very ill.
I went to get medical attention and was told to advise Elliott that he could use a wheel chair to transport himself 500 yards up an incline to the hospital. I was incredulous as he was severely sick and couldn’t even get out of bed. After waiting over an hour, a medical team arrived and brought him to the prison hospital. That occurred on a Monday and by the time I left on Friday morning, he had been transported to an outside hospital for treatment. I never got a chance to say goodbye, but I did leave him a note with another inmate.
I arrived in prison on June 24th and was transferred on December 11, 2009 to the Federal Prison Camp – Devens, a minimum-security facility adjacent to FMC.
My Job Details
A few other personal observations about my experience at this facility worth noting:
A) After orientation was completed in early July, I was assigned to work the morning Chow Hall detail. I woke up at 4:30 each morning. The inmates assigned to work in each unit were picked up for transport to the kitchen and dining hall to prepare for 6:30 am chow. I was initially assigned the dining room Beverage Bar with four other inmates. My responsibilities involved providing a continual flow of beverages for morning and lunch chow. My shift ended with the end of Main Line at 11:30 am. I was paid at Grade 4 - $0.12/per hour – tax free!
Serving 1,000 inmates in about 30 minutes was a challenge, especially during breakfast when grumpy guys rolled in and who didn’t have the patience to wait until the milk dispensers were refilled. It also didn’t help during inclement weather when guys were forced to walk outside in the rain and snow and by the time they reached the beverage bar they were wet, cranky and holding cold food. I always greeted the inmates as they strolled by and ran my section as best as I could. Even if no one appreciated my efforts, I knew I was performing my duties well and serving the Lord.
B) After about two months, I was transferred to the Common Fare kitchen. I, along with 2 other inmates were responsible for preparing special meals for those on dietary restrictions during the various religious observances. During the year each religion was entitled to a special meal while some religions required special meals for a number of consecutive days. Two of the religions we catered to most during my time in the kitchen were Jewish and Muslim.
C) About a month before I transferred to the Camp, I was reassigned to the evening snow removal and compound cleaning detail. For each job detail I had, it paid the same hourly rate.
During orientation, I had requested a job detail in the Education Center or Library. I expressed an interest in becoming a tutor in the education department for those inmates seeking their GED, a requirement while in prison. The Director of this department told me that I was over qualified and would need to seek a different job detail. All inmates had to work unless medically unassigned.
Once I was at Devens for a while, I realized that most department heads did not want inmates with expertise in their fields or positions they had on the outside to perform similar duties in prison. The only exception was the maintenance department and various trades.
We were informed during orientation that all Bureau staff, regardless of their positions, were correction officers first, their specific job assignments second. The rational was simple: Custody was the foremost priority and everything else was secondary. The common consensus among the inmate population was that many correction officers who ran departments felt intimidated if an inmate knew more about a specific area then they did.
During my time at Devens, I encountered inmates representing all professions and occupations and it reminded me of a small city. I believe there were men of such varied backgrounds that we had all the necessary experience represented to run a small town.
Although I was disappointed that I was assigned a job detail I didn’t request, I accepted that it was where God wanted me to be and I performed those functions with a cheerful heart.
Sometimes I think God has a sense of humor as I wound up working in the Food Services Department in prison, since it was the food services account at my former employer where I regrettably diverted funds for unlawful gain.
How did I spend my time?
Many people have asked how I spent my time in prison. I am amused by that question, but certainly understand how curious people are about prison life. I would be too.
In addition to reading, reading & more reading, I kept a journal, and spent every minute I could in the prison library, chapel or in the Recreation Yard. The facilities were too small for the number of inmates housed at Devens which created overcrowded conditions. This elevates the stress level of inmates which creates an atmosphere ripe for chaos to erupt.
In the library, I spent time watching movies when available or taking classes. All classes were taught by inmates and some were horrible, but it gave me something to do. For instance, I took a class on finding a job upon release, and I was simply astonished that the inmate instructor advised inmates to lie on their job applications, or at the very least embellish the truth. I interjected right away and said that every inmate should be prepared to be brutally frank and honest about their life. I strongly believe we need to embrace our past experiences, not hide from them and certainly not lie about them.
I knew that speaking up would not be viewed favorably by the inmate hierarchy, but I just couldn't allow that very poor advice to misguide any inmate. I was already ignored by many lifers because I had a short sentence. My comments, although meant to be helpful was viewed as challenging the authority of veteran inmates which was never acceptable. I took some heat, but it didn't phase me since I did what I thought was right.
At the Chapel, I started a weekly Bible Study group where we would pray through the Psalms and Proverbs. We took sections of the Old Testament and studied the lives of the major prophets. I also availed myself of the Christian movie library.
On the mornings when I was off from work, I exercised on the
track in the Yard. I purchased a small radio and started out walking the
track to eventually running. By the time I left the main compound five months later, I was running 5 miles a day
and had lost over 25 pounds. So, there was some positive outcomes from
prison life; I left healthier than when I arrived.
You will note by the adjacent picture that it appeared I had a crew cut. Shortly after my arrival, I shaved my head and figured that by the
time it grew back, I would be ready to leave. There are no
regulations on inmate hair length, but considering the environment and the
practicality of living in a prison, it just made life so much easier.
Plus, I didn't have to worry about vanity; although there were many men who were
very preoccupied with themselves and their bodies, but that is another story.