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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.

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On my way back from breakfast on Friday December 11, 2009, I was directed to pack-out and report to the discharge department.  Two hours later, I was dragging five large plastic bags full of everything I owned on my way to the Federal Prison Camp - Devens, the minimum security prison which is adjacent to the main facility, but isolated from the inmates at the FMC.

It was a bitter cold wintry day, so the camp driver picked me up and drove me over to my new home.  I found out in the van that my housemate at the camp was the driver and his name is Jerry from New Jersey.  What a great job he had!

What a contrast in facilities between the main compound and this small camp.  The main compound had about 1,000 inmates that were completely isolated from the ‘real world.’  When inmates were outside the housing units strolling the compound or the recreation yard all they could see were two rows of double barbed wire fencing separated by about 20 feet.  There was no way any inmate could leave the prison.

Because Devens is an administrative facility housing inmates with different security levels, it was secured similar to a maximum-security facility.

The camp was quite different.  It housed about 120 inmates in a pole building structure.  There were two-man, 10 x 10 bunks throughout the building.  I joined Jerry in a preferred house on an outside wall that had a double hung window - great for fresh air.  The housing unit was connected to all the facilities, so I could walk from my bunk to the chow hall in about one minute and never go outside. 

The recreation grounds were adjacent to a military cemetery and public roadway (the entire prison facility is built on a part of the former Fort Devens.)  There wasn’t a fence or other barrier in sight.  It is a prison without walls.  Inmates could simply walk away from the prison if they wanted; although, I was advised in the history of the camp that has never happened.

Inmates assigned to federal prison camps are designated as minimum security.  Inmates must be classified as non-violent, non-sexual offenders and have 10 years or less on their sentences.  Most are drug related or white-collar crimes.  I met inmates from many different backgrounds.  They formally were police officers, teachers and administrators, attorneys and judges, accountants, preachers, elected state and local politicians, diplomats and other federal bureaucrats.  There were corporate ceo's and other wall street types.  Many of these men were once respected and successful in their fields but used their positions to gain an unlawful increase for themselves or others – like I regrettably did.

The culture of the camp was different from the main compound as it was the only place in prison where one could experience a feeling of freedom while still being locked up.  Most job assignments were related to supporting the operations of the main compound.  We could see the main compound from the camp and occasionally saw inmates walking around ‘behind the wall,’ but never had any contact with them.

  • My Job Detail

Some campers worked at a warehouse located several miles away in an industrial park and interacted with the public; others worked as vehicle mechanics, at the powerhouse facility, landscaping, or various cleaning details at the camp or administrative buildings.  Some inmates worked in food service, library, or barbershop.  Prisoners at the main compound wore a khakis outfit while campers wore a dark green outfit.  My bunk-mate Jerry had the best job of all.  He drove all the campers to work each day to the various off site locations and drove inmates being released to the bus station or airport.

Because I was short (prison vernacular denoting a short time left on a sentence), my job detail was a hallway and bathroom orderly.  I worked these job assignments until the end of March since I was released in early April from the camp and transferred to a Halfway House in Philadelphia via public transportation on Greyhound.

  • Prison Church

Despite the low population, I was thrilled to learn that the camp had a vibrant prison church.  The three prison chaplains at Devens served both facilities.  There was a Jewish Rabbi Chaplain, Catholic Chaplain and Christian Chaplain.  The Chaplain in charge of the Religious Services Department was the Christian Chaplain who preached at both facilities on Sundays during the Christian Services. 

He was an evangelical and preached without apology on the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  He was a man that lived out his faith in a genuine way.  I learned much from him and appreciated his uplifting and encouraging spirit.
 
During the week, Christian inmates at the camp would meet several times for Bible Study and prayer.  The group of approximately 15 guys interacted with each other daily, since the facility was so small. 

As new guys arrived, we would help them get acquainted with prison life and kept a cabinet of essentials to assist guys who needed toiletries.  Simple things we take for granted on the outside are cherished in prison.  Essentials such as deodorant, razors, toothbrushes etc. are a hot commodity and are difficult to get right away.

When I arrived in prison, I was on my own for a while as no one offered to help me during those first few days.  I remember my first few nights in the unit, I couldn't even get a bed-roll or essentials.  So, I know how helpful it can be for new guys to have a few essentials when they arrive.  These toiletries were furnished by inmates by purchasing them in the commissary out of our own pocket – it was our form of tithing.

Prison is a place where one can feel very alone, despite living in an glass house environment where there is no privacy.  So these acts of kindness were much appreciated in helping new guys adjust to prison life.

Shortly after my arrival to the camp, I noticed a guy sitting on his top bunk, adjacent to mine, watching me intently as I organized my belongings.  After a few minutes of his intense staring, I introduced myself. 

His name was Michael from Vermont and he was serving a sentence on a weapon possession conviction.  He arrived a few weeks before me and said he spent most of the day on his bunk reading and keeping to himself.

Over the next few weeks, we began to become acquainted and I invited him to camp church and Bible study.  One day I gave him a Bible which he eagerly accepted.  But a few hours later, I found it back on my bunk. 

When I asked him about it, he replied that he didn’t think God was interested in him – and he wasn’t interested in God.  As the weeks passed and I spent more time with him, it was evident he was a man in despair.  His wife stopped writing and informed him of her intention of filing for divorce.  He was beside himself!

One of the most devastating things that can happen to a guy in prison is having their family break-up.  Prisoners are living in a controlled environment with limited contact to the outside with no influence over the lives of their family.  It is not uncommon for men to receive notices of divorce or be informed that their children will no longer visit due to the decision of the other parent.

Many times, as a result of feuding parents, visits with children are halted as a form of punishment toward the incarcerated spouse.  It is very sad and heart-wrenching to see grown men who love their families face such anguish.

Simply knowing that your wife and family love you and is eagerly waiting your return makes all the difference in the world.  Contact with family or others is limited and inmates can never receive telephone calls.  Inmates receive a monthly allotment of 300 minutes for outgoing monitored telephone calls to approved contacts. 

A rudimentary email system was established to allow for unlimited communication with approved contacts on a monitored system - for a hefty fee.  Postage stamps could be purchased at the commissary for sending out mail.  Outgoing mail may be inspected and all incoming mail is opened before delivery to an inmate.

Generally, inmates at the camp seal their envelopes and place them in the outgoing mail. But guys on the inside have to submit their mail for inspection prior to being sealed.

Shortly after my arrival, I met another inmate at the camp, whom I will call Will who was down for 20 months.  He was in a police department in the south when he committed his offense and was sent to Massachusetts due to the high profile nature of the case.  Will and I became good friends and we grew in our faith as we could clearly see the hand of God in our lives and in the lives of others.  We were both very active in the camp church and I hope to see him again someday.

Despite my short time at the camp, I am left with a few fond memories that kept the days moving forward.  Since I had a window in my bunk, I often kept it open for fresh air and occasionally noticed that a few ducks would visit outside the window.

Whenever they were around, I fed them bread that I got from the chow hall.  This feeding started out gradually which then grew to an occurrence several times each week.  Many times, when reading or napping on my bunk I would hear tapping on my window and see the ducks announcing their arrival.  I also took care of a stray cat that wondered the compound all day and night.  In the winter months I placed food and water outside for this feline so he wouldn't starve.

During my stay, I looked out for these animals even though I was criticized by the other inmates.  I hope others continued to care for them after my departure.

The Devens camp participated in a dog obedience training program for service animals where two inmates were selected to train one dog for a period of six months. 

Three dogs were trained at the camp and lived 24/7 with the two inmate trainers in their bunks.  These inmate trainers were completely responsible for their care and training with the help of an outside agency. 

The beneficiaries of these service dogs were disabled veterans.  Having animals walk around the unit and intermingle with inmates is very uplifting for many guys, especially those whose sentences are very long.

Another memorable event for me was the privilege of preaching God’s Word on a Sunday before I left the camp.  There is a tradition for inmates about to be discharged of being offered the opportunity preach a sermon. 

I chose to speak on the topic of Pride.  It is the oldest recorded sin in scripture and often takes on many different forms.  Pride is sin - and sin is what causes separation from God and brings upon His wrath.  I thought this was an appropriate topic as it was sin that brought forth my downfall and those of my fellow prisoners.  “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18; and, “…the fear of the Lord is to hate evil; pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverted mouth I hate.”  Proverbs 8:26

  • Visitations

Finally, I would be remiss, if I didn’t mention the several visitations from family and friends.  During my entire time at Devens – the FMC & FPC – I enjoyed five visits.  Inmate visits are highly regulated and those wishing to be added to an approved list must disclose significant personal information.

The first three visits occurred during my time on the main compound.  My first visit was in August from friends of ours we met several years ago who live in Massachusetts.  They live less than an hour’s drive from the facility and had no idea that Fort Devens was now a prison and that there were sexual offenders incarcerated in their backyard.  It was nice to see them and I got to enjoy an ice cream for the first time in two months. 

At least my wife would get an update on my condition and know that I am alive! 

My second visit was from Larry Burd, Senior Pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Bethlehem Pennsylvania, my hometown church, who drove five hours to see me.

He was accompanied by Doug McCloud, a former pastor of Calvary who had left a few months before to become a pastor at a church not far from Devens.   What a joy and encouragement it was to see these Godly men and share stories.

My final visit at the main compound was in November 2009 from my Dad, brothers Michael and John and Alex, my son.  The last time I saw Mike, John and Dad was when they dropped me off on June 24th.  Four months later, the first thing they mentioned is that I lost weight.

Actually, that was one of the benefits of my prison experience.  I know I left healthier then when I arrived.  But, perhaps the biggest change I noticed at the visit was how much my son had changed. 

So much can happen in four months to adolescent boys.  He was obviously nervous about seeing me.  It was probably due to the environment where I was and the fact that he hadn’t seen me in a while.  It was the longest period of time away from my family. 

We had a nice visit; I answered all the curious questions that people have about prison life.  What made the initial encounter a bit easier was my new appearance – it was an ice breaker.   I shaved my head shortly after I arrived which made the daily grind of prison life a bit easier. 

I know there was some discussion on whether it would be a good idea for my son to see me in prison, but in retrospect I am so glad he came – and so was he!

Before I had my first visit, I noticed that many guys would come back into the unit from visiting very quiet and exhausted.  Some of them told me that visits were never intended for the inmate, but was for the family on the outside. 

I never understood that until I had a few visits.  Prison life is so mundane that inmates often create their own world or reality while incarcerated.  It helps them to psychologically cope and do their time.

A day or two before a visit, guys often got anxious and once the visit was over they would often become depressed.  I experienced a similar emotional cycle after my visits – one that I discounted until it hit me unexpectedly. 

The reality of knowing your family or friends can walk out, get into their cars and drive home – or to a restaurant – and discuss the visit while you are heading back to the compound takes an emotional toll. 

The process that an inmate goes through on the day of the visit is also aggravating.  On the main compound, all inmates at visiting were stripped searched to ensure contraband was not brought back into the facility.  Guys had to choose a seat in the visiting room and had to remain there until the visit was over. 

Inmates could not walk around with visitors or even approach a vending machine.  Guys with small kids could not hold them on their laps or hold their hands.  For me, the day I arrived, I decided that I could handle anything for a year, but my heart ached for those guys with small children who would be down for a long time.

Not only were conjugal visits prohibited in federal prison facilities, guys couldn’t even hold their wives hands or embrace them throughout the visit – other then a quick embrace upon arriving and leaving.

My final two visits occurred after I arrived at the camp.  Melinda traveled to see me along with a good friend of hers in February 2010.  They stayed for the weekend at the Marriott Hotel I had stayed the night before I reported.  It was good to see Melinda for two days.

Initially, I didn’t want Melinda to visit for many of the reasons mentioned, but after she left, I was glad to see her.  Visiting at the camp is much more relaxed.  We were able to show affection for each other, walk around inside and outside and just enjoy each other without an officer staring at you. 

For Melinda, seeing me in prison made it easier for our eventual reunion a few months later.
 
Shortly before I left for the Halfway House, Pastor Doug stopped by again.  It was always good to see him and he has been such an encouragement to me over the past few years.

As difficult as it was to be away from Melinda and the kids for almost a year, I know that this time apart has had positive outcomes for all of us.  We are on a different path now – a path that we never would have envisioned.  But, our lives are now properly focused; the Lord is now center of our lives.