Saturday, April 30, 2011

Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue; also, Why the Bad Lawyer Went to the Hole

Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue (2011, Simon & Schuster), a new book by Eric Felten, was the subject of Diane Rehms' wonderful WAMU and NPR program Thursday which at the link you can listen to for yourself.  The program was a nice follow-up on Diane's interview of James B. Stewart which I just blogged about and provided a similar link to. 
Both new books and interviews deal with the problem of lying which Stewart condemns and Felten explains.  Stewart actually addressed elevation of misplaced loyalty in connection with Greg Anderson, Barry Bonds' trainer who (unlike Floyd Landis) remained silent throughout the criminal prosecutions connected to the Balco and steroid scandals.  Anderson was jailed for contempt of court.  According to James Stewart, at one point when Anderson was released from the federal penitentiary other inmates stood and applauded Anderson's loyalty to Bonds, the sport's cheat.  Stewart points out in the Diane Rehm interview that this is an elevation of prison core values--in other words misplaced loyalty over truth. 

The virtue of loyalty, obviously played itself out (and continues to play itself out) in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina with the murder of African-Americans residents by New Orleans' cops and the cover-up by the so-called thin blue line.  Of course, this recurs again and again through-out history, for instance, the NYC police corruption scandals uncovered by the Knapp Commission lay at the heart of the true 1973 Sidney Lumet movie, Serpico.  Don't snitch.  Cops and criminals don't snitch. 

I Go to the HOLE

The HOLE in federal and most state institutions is formally called the Special Housing Unit or informally, the SHU (pronounced like footwear.)  At Morgantown the SHU is a totally secure stand alone structure in blond brick with a red aluminum crown topped by bright stainless razor wire.  Friends of mine ironically call it the red roof inn.  FCI, Morgantown is a minimum security prison "camp" except for the maximum security SHU.  The SHU is where you go if you become subject to disciplinary segregation or in some other way, become a housing issue.  As an inmate, the SHU/HOLE is the last place you want to go.

This is because incarceration in the SHU/HOLE is twenty-four hour a day lock down in a "one" or "two man cells."  In "two-men" cells, you and your bunkee work out how to shit and share the stainless steel toilet and sink a couple of feet from the bunks.  A little sliver of window on the steel door allows you to see a foot or two in each direction, a sliver of window on the opposite side allows you discern some reflected light through the razor wire.  Inmates without a radio have no idea what time of day or night it is except for meals being slid through a slot on the door.  The barely edible offerings from the chow hall are reduced to fully-vile via the method of sitting in covered trays that effectively give every item on the tray a steam bath, so that for instance-bread slices are reduced to wet wash rag-texture. 

If you're housed in the SHU/HOLE in anything besides the coldest days of winter you are supposed to get 1 hour of rec per day on a postage stamp sized exercise yard.  Imagine, however, that it is coldest days of January and in your cell you are already chilled to the bone.  Your feet are in thin canvas tennis shoe flats do you take the hour to walk around outside knowing that once outside you are not allowed back in until the hour has expired?  Also when you're in the SHU if the cell door opens for any reason you are cuffed up from behind through the slot where your food, paper, or mail if any is also handed to you.  Every other day you have the opportunity to shower which entails this cuffing movement to a shower cell and uncuffing.  This is the highlight of every two days in the SHU/HOLE except for weekends, there is no shower on the weekend.

I went to the SHU/HOLE because I witnessed and reported the sexual assault upon my bunkee, a Chinese kid from DC by a Latin King drug dealer from Chicago.  I was at Morgantown two weeks when for the second or third time I watched "Ruiz Chavez" (not his real name) aggressively come onto my bunkee, "Pang" (not his real name.)  Chavez told Pang that he wanted to "enter [him] and [Pang] to have his babies."  The problem was that this "joke" behavior was, over the course of two weeks that I witnessed it--becoming more aggressive and beginning to involve touching Pang on his buttocks and grabbing at him in a way that if it happened to me I'd call the police.  Amazed that no one was saying anything, I started asking guys what the hell they thought was going on.  A couple of guys confirmed for me that Chavez had done similar things to them, one guy Kelvin (not his real name) said Chavez had touched his groin and that he wanted "guys to submit anonymous 'cop outs' to the lieutenant."  A cop out is a inmate request form.

When Chavez repeated an assault on Pang on December 29 of last year I put a signed "cop out" in describing in detail what I saw.  I was paged over the public address system and ordered to go to the lieutenant's office.  There Lieutenant Shaw cross-examined me in a manner that conveyed the lieutenant's pre-judgment that I was naive and oversensitive to the ways of the inmates.  This impression was someone dispelled by my answer to the questions:  Where are you from?  What did you do for a living?  Unbeknownst to the lieutenant I worked on two occasions as a summer intern at a federal prison camp and a medium security federal prison in the 1978 and 1979.  Nonetheless Lieutenant Shaw assured me that he knew this Chavez who he termed a problem that he would address informally in an effort to avoid sending me and Chavez to the SHU/HOLE together.  Shaw then paged Chavez who was informed, according to Chavez that inmates in the bunk wing were snitching him out.  Chavez then spent the next few days threatening and following inmates he suspected of snitching him out; especially, his victim Pang.  I felt that instead of solving a problem for Pang I had created an additional problem.

I sent a second cop out to the Warden, this time complaining that not only was I threatened by Lieutenant Shaw with the SHU, but that the way my original cop out was handled I had created a threatening environment for the Carlson inmates that I resided with because Chavez was accusing others of "snitching' him out.  Monday, January 3d I was sitting in the library when I heard my name and Chavez's called over the Public Address system demanding that we go to the lieutenant's office.  As you might imagine any anonymity I had previously enjoyed as the source of the complaint about Chavez's sexual assaults on Pang disappeared with that joint announcement.  I was briefly cross-examined by a Captain King who wanted to know whether I was "lying" about all the "hearsay" I included in my detailed cop out.  Sounding very much like Robespierre Captain King told one of her lieutenants, "Take him to the SHU!"

As I was marched to the SHU, hands cuffed behind my back the lieutenant informed me that I had in record time "fucked up" paradise, Morgantown being one of the "best places on the FORBES listing of prisons to do time."  Forty-eight hours later this same lieutenant informed me that his investigation revealed that if anything my report understated the degree of problems created by Chavez.  He also acknowledged that after reading my PSI (pre-sentence investigation) I knew more about sexual harassment and sex crimes than any official at Morgantown.  He also told me that he couldn't understand how Chavez's conduct was tolerated non-violently once it came to light what had been going on.  The lieutenant was conciliatory and assured me that he hoped to have me released that very afternoon which was Wednesday, January 5th  In fact I was in the SHU for 6 more calendar days.  Apparently a still angry Captain overruled her investigator.

As you might imagine, going to the SHU was traumatic.  My family did not know where I was and my ability to communicate with them was limited to mail, oh, I did get one phone call which I made on a portable phone rolled up to the cell door with me reaching through the slot.  Unfortunately I reached my very distracted daughter then tending my new, days-old grandson.  It was not until my letters caught up with my wife almost at the time I was released that she understood what happened.  When I wen to the SHU I was stripped and cavity searched.  I was given over-sized orange coveralls and green tinted underwear.  The little bits of property I was beginning to assemble were trashed by the COs who showed up at my locker in Carlson and "packed me out." I was put in a two-man cell with a young guy, Jason, a Chaldean kid from Detroit.  Poor Jason had been in the SHU since New Year's Day when he was observed by Lieutenant Shaw waving at his kids as he left the visiting room.  For this and other offenses Jason spent 31 days in the SHU. 

Life in the SHU/HOLE is as you might imagine, pretty horrible.  I mentioned the toilet, the lack of recreation,  the vile food (with no calorie burning activity I lost 5lbs in 8 days,) but the worst is the endless days and nights.  If you sleep all day you will not sleep at night, but what do you do?  Fortunately, the prison psychologist, rightfully concerned about my mental health, slid my Alcoholics Anonymous text through to me.  I wrote letters with the stubby little flexible pen given me.  Paperbacks from a library cart were handed out.  I was able to knock out about 800 pages of pulp per day.  As I was given a book, I'd beg extras.  Since the authorities would only give me two at a time, I'd collect two for my bunkee who did not read, that way--even in the SHU I was working my book addiction.  In all seriousness, I do not wish the SHU on anyone--including Chavez, who I personally saw as a seriously disturbed person who needed intensive mental health intervention.  I don't think he's a homosexual, he was an opportunistic predator looking for a chance to victimize others.

Chavez went to the SHU (I could hear him but I did not see him and) he did not reemerge from the SHU during the duration of my stay at Morgantown.  Why Chavez was at Morgantown eludes me.  While in the residential units he was strange, scary and dangerous.  Carlson residents suspected him of being the "mad shitter" some one who threw his feces around the toilet areas.  In the showers and his bunk he'd moan and groan for hours on end.  The authorities had already removed him from at least one unit because of disciplinary problems.  At Carlson he would stomp around the circumference of his upper bunk screaming, "I'm the devil, I'm evil, I want to kill you."  When last I heard Chavez was slated to released to hometown Chicago in May.  Good luck, Chicago. 

The official fig leaf justifying my incarceration in the HOLE was that I was being "protected."  How uprooting an inmate from their social supports, eliminating the ability to routinely communicate with their family on the outside, trashing the inmate's property, and thrusting them in the HOLE/SHU with the perpetrator of a sexual assault in a manner that clearly communicates to the inmate population that the witness "snitched out" the perpetrator--operates to "protect" the inmate is a mystery to me.  That is precisely what the authorities did to me. 

And this then is the connection to the elevation of prison core values.  You see, I contravened the inmate value by reporting Chavez's sexual assault on Pang--the authorities knew this although they compounded the problem by leaving no doubt that I was the source of the report by associating both our names in the public address call to the lieutenant's office on January 3d. So even though what Chavez did was obnoxious, criminal, violating a little statute called PREA (the Prison Rape Enforcement ACT)--my act in reporting was viewed as a more problematic and potentially more "dangerous."  And while I was seriously in no danger whatsoever at any point (except, perhaps from Chavez, himself) I was ostracized to some degree by many of my former bunkees.  Frankly, like big deal--I wasn't planning on post-prison networking with any of them.   For the most part, whatever iciness I felt upon my return to Carlson after my 8-day ordeal in the SHU/HOLE dissipated pretty quickly with many guys thanking me for "taking the bullet."  And, yet on the morning I waited to walk out of Morgantown an inmate danced around mocking me for "snitching out Chavez." 
It's jail.  My best thinking got me jail, FCI, Morgantown, and the SHU.  But, I do not share prison values.  I went to the SHU, because I do not misplace loyalty.


  1. Terrific post, it makes me think back to the BL posts about the lying and coverups by the Catholic Church that you wrote about. It's funny to think that they were just doing the old prison virtue ethic. Keep up the good blogging.


  2. Your story about going to the Hole is a story about the incompetence, insecurity, pettiness, sadism, and meanness of guards, not one about the relationship of loyalty and truth. Why do you dress it up to make it look more intellectual. The segment "Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue," has no connection to the rest of the post. Do what you do best, describe facts. You get outside your skill set when you start to analyze.

  3. I like this post a great deal. Analytically, you made a terrific point about the rise of prison values of loyalty over truth. That the don't-snitch culture triumphs over permitting a bunkmate get assaulted by a thug is precisely obvious from your story. The SHU is what happened afterwards. Some people are just obtuse.

  4. BL - it's pretty sad when you have to defend yourself under a made up name (and a bimbo name at that - reminds me of David Lat's "she" persona when he first started Underneath Their Robes). Whatever works for you I guess.

  5. I'm so glad you are back...christine

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