A federal inmate’s view from the inside, 1-21-19
Natural disasters are always engines of change. Destruction of property, loss of life, and the displacement of whole communities are the headlines that follow the last shakes of an earthquake, or the high water marks of a thousand year flood. We learn of the impact of tornados, wildfires, and hurricanes.
Through all of the grievous news reports comes a common feature found in the American people, a drive to better understand, and help those who have suffered misfortunes at the hands of nature. Those disastrous events spur change in our communities, our science, our government, and of course, our hearts. In the outpouring of bad news we can learn what our neighbors had to endure. Their stories act as a catalyst for empathy and change.
In light of the storm Hurricane Michael that steamrolled over much of the Florida Panhandle, The New York Times published an account of the struggles and opinions of the community of Marianna, Florida. The residents of this town were greatly impacted, not only because of the destruction of residential and business property, but also because the hurricane damaged a federal prison that employed many locals.
The article published on Jan 7, 2019, served to inform many people about the effects of President Trump’s choices on conservative townships that voted for him. More importantly, it humanizes those who hold a career in the criminal justice system and the challenges that those employees and families face after such a disaster.
There might be an adjustment that should be made regarding this published story. The NYTimes states that there were 7,000 residents living in Marianna, Florida when Hurricane Michael hit. I wonder whether this number included the over 1,300 inmates housed at the Marianna Federal Correctional Institution.
Of course, the article’s focus of Michael’s impact is on the employees of an institution that supports the community of Marianna. And it should be. Knowing the impact of President Trump’s government shutdown on the families who are supported by a federal check is a reality that needs to be shared with everyone, both liberal and conservative. Those federal workers now must commute to Yazoo City, Mississippi to facilitate the housing of the ~1300 displaced inmates due to the storm. The relocation does not come at the best of time since the US Government has been in the midst of the longest shutdown ever in Washington D.C. Yet in the shadow of this popular topic, is another story.
On Tuesday afternoon of October 9, all eyes were on the TVs in my living unit watching the news, learning about a storm that was about make landfall on the Florida Panhandle at Mexico Beach as a Category 4 hurricane. Mexico Beach is about an hour south of Marianna. Our Unit Counselor called a town hall meeting of our unit, Mohawk B, in order to inform us, Marianna FCI inmates, that the hurricane was plotted on a path close to Marianna. We were assured that the prison is equipped and prepared for this. The Counselor stated that heavy-duty bags would be distributed in order to “protect our personal property from possible water damage.”
We, the population as a whole, did not think much of this “warning.” While the surrounding areas were being prepared for damaging winds and flooding, we simply continued with our daily programming. Nothing became “re-enforced” or storm-proofed on our compound besides the tiny stacks of sandbags that garnished the few doorways leading into the housing units.
As rumors circulated that evacuation orders were being issued to all Jackson County residents, I began looking out beyond the present administration building, out towards the parking lot. I was expecting to see the arrival of some kind of emergency relief – trucks loaded with pallets of bottled water, MRE’s storm supplies, busses for transport. But not even one FEMA trailer was to be seen.
On Wednesday, October 10 we were locked into our cells without any information or explanation. The only indication was the growing presence of something big outside. The wise inmates were prepared. Just as preppers “on the streets,” some of us stocked up on water, some traded sweets for Ramen soups with other inmates. Most either had already made a telephone call or used the email system to tell their loved ones that this event would be over shortly. “Don’t worry about me. We live in the safest building one could possibly occupy in a hurricane. I will call back in a day or two.” Everyone was caught off guard. It would take five days before families could even get news from Marianna FCI that the prison had been emergency evacuated. It was a tense week before communications with families was restored through Corrlinks.
But back to the night of the hurricane, which turned out to be a Category 3 as recorded by the Marianna Municipal Airport. I got to watch the spectacle from a seat that very few have ever been able to occupy. I mentioned that the structure in which I was housed, was probably the best option for an occupant during a direct hit from a hurricane, and for good reason. A building designed to keep people from escaping also does a wonderful job stopping nature’s attempts to enter — kind of. Shatter proof, re-enforced, plexi-glass, poured concrete walls with extra rebar, and metal framing, all create a sense of security.
I felt so secure that I was inspired to write a letter and sketch the prison grounds, sitting on my desk, just inches separating my face from 120 mph sustained winds, all while sipping a cup of hot coffee and snacking on a honey bun. Who else could claim such a post during a storm of this strength, all while people’s lives outside of our collapsing fence were being torn apart? Ironic.
Prior to the storm hitting, our water was shut off without explanation. (Hot water takes longer to deplete, hence the mid-storm coffee brew.) What does run out quickly however, is the water needed to flush toilets, or simply water to drink.
The first shock of our situation came as we saw the fences blowing down. “We are going to get locked down for a really long time now,” was the collective inmate thought. But the next thought was, “How are we going to flush our toilets?” “And where are those damn bags to protect our family photographs, artwork, legal material?” The roof is getting ripped off. Both housing units on either side of Mohawk have lost their lids. Thanks to inmates who live in cells facing those units, they were able to scream the news to the blind. Waterfalls started to manifest out of drips. My window started to blow small bubbles, looking like sea foam. The pressure difference between inside and out was amazing. The window was moving like a speaker diaphragm. I distanced myself.
The compound outside looked bad. I love trees. My prison compound has had many trees. Therefore I love/loved my compound. Typically trees do not survive the winds of a hurricane. This became all too obvious on the trip away from the Institution. The wonderful live oaks I was so used to staring at on our prison grounds, were ravaged. They fell victim to a force they had never had to deal with.
All around the compound were bits and pieces of debris. Everything was mixed up as if a giant blender had mowed through, combining parts of the surrounding forest with the nearby airport and various bits of prison structure. The exterior devastation almost looked as bad as the now condition of my cell, mainly around the toilet area. Recall, no running water for over 24 hours. Preparing for a hurricane is difficult.
On Thursday, October 11, we, the inmates, were now granted access to bottled water, two 16.9 ounce per day. Prison staff brought us the plastic bags. The storm is now past. Directions come with these large, thin, clear garbage bags. “Pack anything you need into the plastic bag. Put your name and registration number on a provided label. Attach the label to the bag. Place the bag on your bunk.” Crap! I have not moved for five years!. What does “need” mean? This is very ambiguous. No clarification is provided. (Where are we going? How long are we going to be gone?)
On Friday morning October 12, we were suddenly given two name tags and told to pack a garbage bag “with our necessities, but no food,” and put the rest in a locker, labeling each with a sticker. But we were not told what “stuff” would be needed, nor where we would be going, nor for how long? We were not allowed to bring any personal property. Being a long-term resident of a prison makes one very attached to one’s personal possessions.
The next thing we knew is that we are all hustled into a holding cage located in the Special Housing Unit, new handcuffs and shackles are being handed out liberally. All inmates at this point were equal. Everyone around me is anxious, because this transition from the housing unit to the bus is happening so quickly.
160 male inmates are now standing shoulder to shoulder to shoulder comparing their war stories of the monumental choices that had to be made; what actually goes into the “go bag.” Personally, I had an odd lapse of foresight and put anything of value back into my locker. College books, letters, family photographs, address book, paints and my art supplies. Basically anything that I thought would be difficult to replace, I placed in a locked box thinking of safety. A gamble. Other inmates were quick to point out that I was doomed, or that certainly my personal property was. These are the things prisoners struggle with.
That day that we were packed into the cage was also the same day we arrived at Yazoo City United States Penitentiary, Friday, October 12,th an impressive organizational feat moving 1300 men.
When the BOP transport buses, now filled with inmates and flanked by Florida State Patrol Troopers cruisers sped out of the FCI compound, nobody was prepared for the devastation we saw through the windows. Speeding by mile after mile were scenes of nuclear destruction. Carcasses of artifacts mixed in with timbers knocked off their roots, were lying strewn all over the ground. This was serious. Our convoy was escorted to the Talladega airport under a heavily armed eye. We were then loaded onto a Boeing 737 without a clue as to where we were going. Rumors are a sport in prison population, and the sport of this day said we were going to Illinoismississippicolemafloridaville.
We inmates had been lucky to be housed in bomb shelters while entire family houses and community installations were blown away. Some inmates’ families had moved closer to their loved ones in prison. They actually opted to move closer to the prison to provide support. What became of them?
What those residents of Marianna and the officers with whom we interact every day, and what residents of the greater Panhandle had to deal with, was far more impactful on them than what most inmates are willing to admit. But it’s obvious now who continues to live with difficulty. Missing one’s intellectual and personal property hurts badly. It feels like a deep loss. Having items go missing because some distracted inmate put them in the wrong container is regrettable, but at least I have a roof over my head.
Empathy is lacking in the prison population. That feature, or lack of, defines most of us. But maybe some good is realized out of this experience. Hurricane Michael humanized the Marianna FCI Staff members in my eyes. I try to ask some of the federal employees that I know are now commuting 7 hours between Marianna and Yazoo City, how they and their property fared. To me it is important to let them know that I am aware of their hardships, even if they might not be aware of mine. Maybe this is an indication that I am changing, and maybe we can try to better understand each other.