Checking In To Club Fed

Martha, when you move into Club Fed for your five-month stay, there are a few things that you should know. First, give the Bureau of Prisons enough time to plan your adventure. If you don't, you might serve your sentence in either a county jail or a federal detention center. I know from first-hand experience that county jails are bad entertainment. You'll feel bored and claustrophobic in a jail cells (cage), but you'll be spared the terror associated with being trapped in a stuck elevator or Camp Delta in Guantanamo.

Even in Danbury, you could find yourself sitting in a little cage. Some inmates, such as yours truly, start our sentences in the "Special Housing Unit," otherwise known as the SHU (pronounced "shoe") or "seg." I don't know how special you have to be to go to a "special housing unit." Apparently, I was very special because I went to the SHU twice during my three-month tenure at Danbury.

In the SHU, your fashion statement is bright orange, while anywhere else in the prison, you wear khaki. You spend 23 hours in a little cage and one hour in an outdoor pen. It's highly unlikely, however, that you'll spend much, if any, time there because media folks and paparazzi would swarm the prison gates if they found out that you had been consigned to the hole.

The Prison Camp on the Hill

Most likely, you will go to the minimum-security camp, up the hill from the medium-security federal correctional institution. Unlike the fenced-in FCI, the camp is open, though run down. It tends to leak during rain storms, causing a buildup of mold and mildew.

When you first arrive at the camp, your official "job title" will be "A & O" (Admissions and Orientation). You will be given work assignments that are matched to your talents, such as cleaning kitchen drains or sweeping sidewalks with a little broom.

Get a Job but Beware the Wildlife!

Once you're declared medically fit to work, you'll be assigned a job. You will work for seven hours per day for twelve cents an hour. Going to work is not optional, as I found out when I was sent to the SHU for refusing to work (see the article "Protest in Prison" in the June 10-24 Alt Press).

Work can be entertaining. Some of my companions on the ground maintenance crew reported being frightened by the sudden appearance of a deer. Every time they related the story, the deer grew in size and aggressiveness. Eventually, the enormous deer was described as "charging at people."

Keep in mind that all of your supervisors and, indeed nearly all of the prison staff, are also "correctional officers (COs)." They will have other titles, such as teacher, foreman, secretary, psychologist, or correctional counselor. They wear large and noisy sets of keys around their waists. Sometimes they'll try to assert their authority by stating the obvious: "You are an inmate!" or "You are in prison!" Try to resist the urge to say, "Thank you for sharing." Occasionally, staff members throw temper tantrums, which can be scary if they are wielding weed whackers. The re-enactments of these scenes also become embellished over time.

Your new boudoir

The place that you will call your bedroom will be a room with several bunk beds and lockers. Because you're over 50, you will sleep on a bottom bunk. My bed was a top bunk that faced a window and allowed me a stunning view of the sun rising over the hills.

When your roommates first meet you, they will ask many questions. My roommates wanted to know about my protest and if I planned to protest again. I was more than happy to tell them why I felt that the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation should be closed and investigated. Most of my friends had been convicted of drug-related offenses or of the vague charge called "conspiracy." Some of your new friends may even be called "kingpins." One of them is called "Sister." Yes, the government puts nuns in prison. Sister Ardeth Platte will be in Danbury until December 2005 for participating in a "plowshares action" at a nuclear missile silo in Colorado.

Of Needles, Hooks, and Books... Hobbies in Prison

In my room, we enjoyed reading and crocheting. People can mail paperback books to you. Craft supplies and sewing kits can be purchased from the commissary. It's possible to alter your clothing with your sewing kit but that's against the rules, so, um, don't get caught. Some inmates have more unusual hobbies. It was suspected that convicted Watergate crook G. Gordon Liddy wiretapped the warden's telephone during his "non-work" hours when he resided in the Danbury FCI in the 1970s.

What's for Dinner???

Don't expect much variety in your diet. You'll get a lot of (cluck, cluck) chicken: baked, fried, sauced, and turned into salad. Also, you'll eat eggs, eggs, and more eggs. Oh, and take a look at the words written on those little sugar packets. It seems that we got the stuff that the government confiscates when it seizes restaurants and other businesses. It must be a cost-cutting measure. On holidays, you get special food and cookouts.

The Goon Squad

Getting charged with a violation (referred to as an incident report or "shot") is a big production. A lieutenant, summoned from the FCI, calls to the CO's office and questions you. If the lieutenant feels it necessary or if the complaining party insists, you could be delivered to the SHU. Other times, you may be required to perform extra duty, such as garbage removal or goose poop cleanup.

Lieutenants are the goon squad. They are the ones who will bring drug-sniffing dogs into the camp or who will search for drugs in bathrooms and flowerbeds.

Laundry Police, Egg Confiscation, and Count

The COs have the task of counting the inmates, handing out the mail, enforcing the prohibition against visiting in other people's rooms, searching lockers for contraband, and babysitting the inmates' laundry and TV rooms. They also perform room inspections and can be quite diligent about checking for dust in the most unlikely of places. Sometimes, they say the funniest things. When a CO confiscated boiled eggs from one woman's locker, he asked, "Where's the chicken that laid those eggs?"

CO-wanna-bees probably go to training school picturing themselves as heroes in dramatic battles with unrepentant, violent felons. Furthest from their mind is the image of themselves being deputized as the "laundry police," constantly reminding people to remove clothing from the dryer or to put the iron back where it belongs.

What they do mostly, though, is to count inmates, day and night. They are not especially good at counting. If the count is off, the COs go into panic mode and fetch lieutenants from the FCI. Inmates are "government property," and the government doesn't like to misplace any of its property.

Walking in Circles

I remember seeing a movie quite some time ago called "The Confession." Set in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s, it was about the victim of ruthless interrogation by the secret police, who apparently saw the value of cardiovascular exercise and talk therapy. The man was ordered, "Walk! Confess to your crimes!"

In Danbury, you can walk or jog in circles around the track. Confessing to crimes while exercising is optional. You can play softball, bocce ball, or volleyball or take yoga classes... or you can sunbathe. If you are caught wearing an improvised "bikini" or "tank top," you will be ordered to change into "something more appropriate," and your fashion statement will be confiscated.

Checking Out of Cub Fed

Home confinement will be fun for you. Oh, and I've been told that, no, those monitoring devices don't short circuit in the shower. You may even set a fashion trend with your new ankle bracelet. And that register number that the U.S. Marshals assigned to you is yours forever. by Alice E. Gerard (#92095-020)

Being the kind soul that I am, I decided to take a sneak peek at Martha Stewart's new home in Danbury, Connecticut, with the thought of giving her a review of her new quarters. So I made reservations for a 90-day stay in Club Fed. I spoke to a very nice reservations clerk, who invited me to drop in on April 6 or any other day convenient to me... um, OK, not exactly. It really wasn't my decision to visit Martha's new home. The folks in the U.S. Department of Justice were thoughtful enough to make the reservations for me, and, no, I could not change the reservation date (yes, I tried).

On July 2, I was sprung from Club Fed. I sat on the spring-loaded ejection seat, and out I went! OK, not exactly, and, no, I didn't go to prison for "Unlawfully Uttering Bad Puns" (that's annoying, not illegal). The charge against me was "Unlawful Entry onto a United States Military Reservation." I thought that was annoying but not illegal. I forced the government to take me to trial, but I lost and ended up in prison. My attorney has filed an appeal.