By Jennifer Myers, Associate Prison Professor
I was a thirty-six-year-old, educated woman from the Midwest when I was sentenced to three years in federal prison. I had no idea what to expect, and boy was I scared! I’d never been in trouble with the law, besides the occasional speeding, or parking ticket. All I knew was, I’d just gotten my designation letter in the mail and I had three weeks until I had to surrender to Federal Prison Camp Alderson, where I knew I’d be under the watchful eye of the BOP.
But, what did that mean?
Martha Stewart to Federal Prison
Federal Prison Camp Alderson had re-gained popularity. A few years earlier, prosecutors indicted Martha Stewart. She pleaded guilty and a judge sentenced her to serve five months in federal prison.
Martha served her time, there, tucked in the basin of a mountain in West Virginia. I hired a prison consultant to prepare me. I’ll never forget the first words out of his mouth when I told him I was concerned about which camp I’d be designated to. He said: “Jen, federal prison camps, like McDonald’s, are all alike!”.
What is Club Fed?
I told my prison consultant that I’d read articles online. Those articles talked about Federal Prison Camp as being like a “Club-Fed.” Club Fed meant an ‘easy’ prison, with comforts.
He was quick to abolish those outlandish rumors. They gained fire back in the days when FPC Lompoc for men had sported a tennis court. I’d even heard Federal Prison Camp Alderson had a swimming pool!
None of this was true.
The minute I hit the compound, I was in a completely different world. Suddenly, everything and everyone I loved was “out.” I was “in.” Not only was I locked up, but for the first time in my life, I was a minority. I felt like Alice in Wonderland and I’d dropped down the rabbit hole.
After being strip-searched, guards issued me a prison ID badge. I had to wear the ID badge around my neck at all times. I received my prison clothes. I stood at the edge of the track the women walked around, feeling so incredibly lost, and filled with despair.
I had no idea how to be in this new world of prison.
In the beginning, nothing about Federal Prison was ‘easy’ or ‘fun.’ I was an inmate and I was incarcerated. Even one day in prison locked up, in my opinion, is one day too long. Still, I knew the importance of taking responsibility. I was guilty, and I was here to do my time. I saw no swimming pool gleaming in the distance, or, other luxuries in sight. The first night, I rolled up my jacket to use as a pillow and was given an empty creamer bottle to drink water out of. I didn’t even have a pen. Of course, as the weeks went on, I shopped for belongings that made prison life a bit easier, and I got more used to the prison routine.
Still, prison was prison, and I knew I wasn’t getting out anytime, soon.
The one thing I can say about FPC Alderson is the location is beautiful. The compound resembled a college campus. It is surrounded by mountains on all sides. It has grass and trees, which I know now IS a luxury. Still, every night I went to sleep, I’d wake to the feel of the metal bar of my bunk underneath my plastic pillow, and think, I’m still here…here in prison.
Still, every night I went to sleep, I’d wake to the feel of the metal bar of my bunk underneath my plastic pillow, and think, I’m still here…here in prison. Every day, I counted the days until my release.
In a Federal Prison Camp an inmate has what they call “free movement”. Unless you’ve been told you have to be somewhere specific (and usually you are), you can go wherever you want that’s ‘in bounds’, as long as you sign out. Yet, you can only go two places at one time. Then, you have to come back, sign in, and, sign back out. The compound closed and we were locked in our Range by 8:00 p.m., until morning, when it re-opened at 6:00 a.m.
Prison Officers and Activities in Club Fed
We had officers and guards. The guards counted numerous times throughout the day and night. Our time was mostly controlled. There was nothing during my prison stay that reminded me of my childhood girl scout camp experience, of a country club, or a luxury spa.
If anything, the pain that someone experiences locked up, is the same pain no matter what prison you are in. The more you can begin to accept this, as an inmate, “do your time, and don’t let your time do you” the greater chance at success you’ll have to weather your prison experience with grace and ease.
Yes, some evenings, we could roller skate, outside. I taught Pilates and Yoga. We had classes like Aerobics, Beading, Crochet and Step Class. Eventually, during my incarceration, I took County Line Dance and Guitar.
Still, we were in prison, and treated as such. We feared if we did something wrong we’d get a “shot” (an incident report), or get taken to the SHU (solitary confinement). We ate expired food, had dizzy spells from lack of protein, got Staph infections and our hair fell out—one woman escaped, one committed suicide and another woman died in her cube—all of that happened in my first year in prison.
Tiny gifts , though, began to surface as I made friendships with some of the other inmates. Women, inside prison or not, are nurturers and need relationships. We did everything together! We went to church, walked the track, and ate dinner, together. My best friend Erica would come every night to the range where I lived. She would knock on the door just to say good-night. I met many incredible women inside prison, many who I’m still friends with—ten years since my release!
Again, did I want to be incarcerated? Not at all! But, the experience changed my life, and ultimately, for the better. It depends on what mindset you go in with—and what you do with your time, once you’re in prison.
Sometimes, the hardest journeys we take produce the greatest gifts.
Sure, in Federal Prison Camp, there are options that people locked up in higher security prisons don’t have—it’s nothing compared to being incarcerated in a maximum security prison. But, there is nothing easy about being incarcerated, no matter what prison you’re in.
Prison is prison.
Don’t be fooled if someone tells you, serving federal time is Club-Fed time. Don’t even focus on that.
Instead, make the decision to focus on YOU—it’s your journey!