Thursday, March 19, 2009

Roundhouse Roundup: Manny's Prison

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 19, 2009

Will Manny Aragon’s new job be washing the Unabomber’s underwear?

The former state Senate titan — sentenced this week to 57 months in federal prison on corruption charges — agreed to report within the next 60 days to the minimum security “prison camp” in Florence, Colo., which is about 35 miles west of Pueblo, Colo.

The camp, which holds about 500 male inmates, is considered a satellite of the Administrative Maximum Facility, better known as the supermax prison in Florence, which is home to some of the country’s most notorious criminals.
Ted Kaczynski
Lovely neighbors: Among the current guests in the supermax are Unabomber Ted Kaczynski; terrorist Jose Padilla (an American convicted of lending support to al Qaida); Omar Abdel-Rahman, aka “The Blind Sheik,” and a couple of others convicted for their roles in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui; Terry “Oklahoma City Bomber” Nichols; Richard “The Shoe Bomber” Reid; and former FBI agent-turned-spy Robert Hanssen.

The prison next door, where Aragon will serve his time, doesn’t host as many famous people. But New Mexico’s former state treasurer, Robert Vigil, convicted in the wake of an FBI kickback investigation, is there. Vigil is scheduled for release in December, according to the Federal Prison Bureau’s Web site.

It also was the home of Eddie Davidson, the “Spam King,” who was convicted of fraud for cheating strangers in an e-mail scheme.

Last July, Davidson walked away from the prison camp. Soon afterward, he shot and killed his wife, 3-year-old daughter and himself in nearby Arapahoe County.

The Florence prison also was in the news in January after a 47-year-old prison secretary there was sentenced to six months in federal prison for having sex with an inmate assigned to clean her office.

Get a job: “As a minimum-security facility, each of the 500-plus men assigned to Florence Camp was within 10 years of his release date,” says a Web posting by inmate Michael G. Santos, who spent 18 months at the camp. “There were no convicted sex offenders at the camp, nor were there inmates who had been found to have committed acts of violence within the past several years.”

Most of the minimum-security inmates get jobs servicing the supermax and other facilities in the Florence complex, Santos said. “All capable inmates reported to regular work assignments,” Santos wrote on his Web site. “Staff members assigned those jobs according to institutional need, though savvy inmates sometimes succeeded in maneuvering their way into desirable jobs.”

Santos was of seven inmates assigned to work at the supermax laundry. “Other camp inmates were required to work in food services, landscaping, or worked for the education department as tutors,” he wrote.

Santos was sentenced to 45 years in prison on federal cocaine charges in 1987. He could be released as early as 2013. His stint at Florence began in December 2003. He writes and sells articles about prison life — aimed at new prisoners coming in — on a Web site run by his wife.

He said workers from the camp traveled to the maximum-security prison by bus. “Guards from the supermax searched us, requiring us to walk through metal detectors and sometimes to strip off our clothes for a full body search.” They worked seven-hour shifts in the locked laundry room, “washing and mending clothing for the supermax prisoners who lived locked in single cells.”

Super salads: Here’s some good news for Aragon. According to Santos, “The meals at Florence Camp were better than at any of the other prisons where I had been held. Portions of the main meals were abundant, but I especially appreciated the fresh salad bar as well as a hot bar offering rice and beans. If the scheduled meal did not seem agreeable, I could always bring a pack of tuna and add it to a salad.”

It might not be like those steaks at the Bull Ring that Aragon got used to as a legislator. But it could be worse.

“Four microwave ovens were available for inmate use inside the housing unit,” Santos wrote. “A hot-water dispenser was also available for instant coffee or cooking dry soups. Many inmates preferred to purchase rice, beans, tuna, and other items from the commissary; they prepared meals in the housing units when they wanted to avoid the institutional setting of food services.”

Santos said he shared a two-man cubicle in his housing unit.

“Each of the housing units was of an identical floor plan, constructed in the shape of an X.” Each wing of the X held approximately 36 men in cubicles with either two or four beds. When I was confined there, the bed frames were made of steel with springs, and mattresses were sufficient for a comfortable rest.”

Inmates in each housing unit have six television rooms. “They were small, with seating capacity for fewer than 20. In order to lessen possibilities for confrontations with others,” Santos wrote.”

Inmates have access to a laundry, Santos said, as well as “a commissary, a chow hall, two classrooms, a small library, a recreation room for the table games, arts and crafts rooms, and a gymnasium. Outside, the camp had an excellent weight lifting area, and a running track that circled a softball and soccer field.”

Drawbacks: Aragon will have a better time if he’s not in the habit of sleeping with a blanket over his head. “At Florence, guards frequently interrupted routines with unscheduled census counts, or they might take privileges away from the entire camp if an individual broke one of the many rules,” Santos wrote.

“Having had many years of confinement behind me, those disruptions did not bother me, though newer prisoners found the controls suffocating," Santos wrote. "For example, at Florence, guards sometimes woke prisoners in the dead of night if the inmate committed the infraction of covering his head beneath the blanket.”