Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Prison Tales - My Friend Sam, Part One

My best friend Sam recently went to prison. Is Sam some crime kingpin, drug dealer or violent gangster? No. He is a fireworks dealer. Sam loves fireworks like I love comics. Or Dutch Chocolate Almond ice cream from UDF. Or Farrah Fawcett circa 1977. You get the idea.

Sam stocked a case of firecrackers that the Federal Government said were overloaded. Instead of going Boom!, they went BOOM! They said he had to have a special license for them, which he did not have. It was really no big deal, but since 9/11 the ATF has been cracking down on what they see as dangerous explosives. Don’t get me started on the ATF. I support most law enforcement 100%. I’m a friend of the police. However, from what I have personally seen on this case, the ATF are belligerent, jack-booted thugs that should be embarrassed by their gross incompetence. And those are their good points.

The ATF, along with lying Federal prosecutors, trumped up a case against Sam to keep their conviction stats up. They told him they would give him 10 years with a guilty verdict if he didn’t plead out. Statistics show that Federal government prosecutors win convictions in over 90% of their cases. When an entity has unlimited resources (tax money stolen from you and me), if they want you, they get you. If it sounds like I’m angry it’s because I am. Sam copped a plea, was ordered to sell his business, and got 18 months in a minimum-security “work camp.” A hefty fine would have been fair punishment, but I suppose there just aren’t enough people in prison. I went down to visit him for the first time this past weekend.

The prison is a large, institutional-looking building in a rural area. Across a gravel road is the maximum-security Federal prison. Sam may have had to go there if the work camp was full. The day he self-reported, the maximum-security prison was experiencing a riot, so he got the camp. Thank God for that. I entered the building and filled out the form for visitors. There are endless rules for visiting prisoners in a Federal facility. You can’t wear shorts. You can’t wear open-toed shoes. There is a long list of things you can’t bring in, including food, cell phones, a camera, weapons, a wristwatch or any reading material. Good thing I left my guns at home. The only things you can bring in are your Driver’s License and car keys.

I filled out the form and handed it to the guard. He swiveled in his chair and handed the form to another guard in a glass booth next to him. There seemed to be some problem, as they whispered, looked confused and concerned and mentioned my name several times. The booth guard handed my form back to the desk guard. He looked up and said, “We have you down as “Gerald,” yet you signed the form as “Jerry.” He waited for an explanation, as if he had never heard of a nickname before. This confused both guards as if I had written my name in Klingon. I told him, “My name is Gerald, but I go by Jerry. What if I scratched out “Jerry” on the form and wrote in “Gerald?” He thought it over like it was the final question on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and consulted the other guard. Still looking bewildered, he turned to me and said, “Okay.” Like we’d try it and see if the governor approved. I fixed the form, handed it back to him, and after much whispering I managed to go through the glass doors to the visitation area.

The visitation area is a large, windowed room with airport-style plastic seating. It has room for maybe a hundred and fifty visitors and prisoners, bathrooms (not lockable), a children’s area and a row of vending machines. After a few minutes, a guard brought Sam out. He looked good. He’d lost around 10 pounds (not that he needed to, he’s always been in good physical shape) and was dressed in a dark blue shirt and matching pants. His shirt had a patch with his name and prisoner number. We hugged hello—it was great to see him!

Tomorrow: The Visit and Prison Culture. You'll find it here.

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