When it comes to public corruption cases, former Governor John Rowland has the wrong judge. U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton is not generally fond of public corruption offenders. When he’s sentenced in December, he’ll likely receive more time than his first go-around in the joint. The following is a story (prison tips for the ex-guv) I wrote for the March 2005 issue of Connecticut Magazine. Most of it still applies. Grab a cup of joe.
Prison reality will jolt John Rowland when the federal corrections officer orders him to strip down and bend over.
The officer will not care about Rowland’s three terms in Congress, his 10 years as Connecticut’s governor, his “Johnny boy” friendship with President Bush. “Okay sir, take all your clothes off, turn around and bend over,” he’ll say, searching for contraband–the items disallowed by prison rules. In prison the boy wonder of Connecticut politics will be just another Johnny come lately.
Welcome to the federal Bureau of Prisons, John Rowland.
John Rowland will not be making gravel in Leavenworth. He is designated camp status, the least restrictive form of incarceration with rare occurrences of violence. Prison camp time is sort of like living within an invisible fence. Observe the posted boundaries and the cops won’t bother him. There is little violence in a prison camp because felons there have a lot to lose–good time, phone time, visiting, recreation, etc. In a high security facility a guy doing 30 years for carving out someone’s heart could care less about cracking open a guy’s head with a can of tuna in a sock.
The Bureau of Prisons separates violent cons from white-collar offenders because a guy like Rowland would be angel food cake for a coveting psychopath. Yet camp time for the once-powerful Rowland who not long ago sipped Dom Perignon in a hot tub while grinding on a Cuban cigar at his Bantam Lake cottage will not be a cakewalk.
Substandard food, tight barracks, menial job tasks, dubious healthcare, intellectually challenged cons and obtuse prison guards and the time, oh the time, will challenge Rowland’s mental toughness and survival skills. From day one he will count the days: 365 days and a wake up … 364 days and a wake up, and so on. And in between a prison mantra will rise around his head like the bubbles in that hot tub–“Do the time … don’t let the time do you.”
On the day of his surrender, Rowland will walk through the prison gates before noon. A prison guard with a stare like Freddy Krueger will tell him to take a seat. Soon he’ll be fingerprinted, photographed, issued an identification card with inmate number, examined by a doctor, strip-searched and assigned temporary prison clothes (greens) and slip on red, orange or blue sneakers. His street clothes will be boxed and mailed to his wife. He’ll be allowed to wear his wedding band. Rowland’s watch will be sent packing. He’ll be handed a rolled-up blanket and if he’s lucky he’ll find a toothbrush, powdered paste and a pillow. Depending on the facility he’ll be dropped off or walk to the camp where he will report to a corrections counselor, the guy who eventually assigns his job detail, his bunk and approves his visitors list, for a brief introduction. “Have a question? Ask the inmates,” he’ll be told. Rules and regulations come later.
Once Rowland’s released to the general population he’ll try to figure out what to do next. And that “oh shit … I’m here” feeling will begin to sink in. Veteran cons know the BOP’s propensity to shortchange necessities for new arrivals. Technically, rules prohibit cons from taking anything of value from inmates, but compassionate campers will introduce themselves and ask if he needs toothpaste, razor, deodorant, etc. New cons stick out like blue jeans on prom night. It’s the sneakers and the vacant stare.
Remember Tom Hanks’ whiny managerial rant in the baseball film, A League of their Own?–“There’s no crying in baseball!” Well, there’s no crying in the can for new arrivals. You can look lost, you can look disoriented, you can appear dazed and confused. But don’t cry, especially if you’re a short-timer. Because some banker who’s doing nine years for money laundering will verbally shame your pout into full-fledged blubbering. “You gotta lot of fucking nerve crying when you’re gonna be here for a cup of coffee!” Don’t cry, governor. Prison isn’t for sissies.
The most important thing Rowland must remember is playing by the rules and being where he’s supposed to be. That means in his cube (living quarters) for regular count times, the prison term for attendance. He’ll be counted at midnight, 3 a.m., 5 a.m., 3:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., the evening counts accompanied by correction officers jangling keys and piercing flashlights. He must think twice about hitting the john five minutes before count time. Missing a count is an unpardonable infraction accompanied by severe penalty including possibly a week or two in the hole, the worst form of incarceration, with 23-hour lockdown, infrequent showers, limited phone time and visitation. Isolation sucks.
As the novelty of a celebrity inmate among felons wears off, Rowland will figure out the good guys and bad guys. None of the inmates are boy scouts, although he will meet a handful who received a royal screwing from abusive prosecutors and incompetent lawyers. Most campers, however, are decent guys who messed up. They cheated on tax returns, falsified mortgage applications, phonied Medicare bills, embezzled funds, and peddled coke. But more than anything during his prison stay, Rowland will experience diversity like never before–or ever again. He will meet puny bookworms, goliaths who bench 400 pounds; intellectuals, morons, gentlemen, pariahs; doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, accountants; drug dealers, embezzlers, scammers; Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus; black, white, brown, yellow and red.
For every 100 guys Rowland meets he will like the company of 20, tolerate 30 and ignore the rest. In the end it’s sort of like dealing with the Connecticut legislature.
Clothes and Commissary
Shortly after Rowland’s arrival an inmate tailor will size his former gubernatorial paunch and order prison-issued garb–prison greens, undergarments, socks, black army boots, a jacket, coat, baseball cap.
At federal camps adjacent to razor-wire high security prisons the campers sport green while the high-security cons are adorned with khakis. This alerts the officer with the rifle in the guard tower not to shoot the free-roaming guys in green. If Rowland wants to wear sweats, Nike sneaks, shorts, listen to a radio with headsets, he must purchase those items at the commissary. Once a week he will fill out a commissary sheet with his requests for items. It’s sort of like shopping at a Walgreens on paper. The stuff will be delivered to him in a laundry bag. He may purchase up to $290 per month at the commissary. The Bureau of Prisons clothes you (basically), feeds you (marginally) and houses you (regrettably). After that you’re on your own.
For 10 years Rowland lived in a mansion. He will reside in a partially enclosed cube 8 by 8 feet (no bars) and probably in the top bunk bed. Lower bunks are reserved for the elderly and back ailments clearly defined in federal probation reports, the document that compiles offender history. He will step on a footstool that looks like a mushroom, grab the bedpost and hoist himself into the sack. Rowland is six foot tall and two hundreds pounds. He’ll feel like he’s sleeping in a catcher’s mitt. He’ll get used to it. A mass of men in dormitory-style housing unit–snorers, hackers, coughers and flatulence–will abound. His best friend in the joint will be his bunkmate, also known as celly. If he doesn’t like his celly he’ll find another he can get along with.
John Rowland loves good food. After all, he’s from Waterbury, lots of tasty Italian restaurants there. The food at a camp depends on what you’re used to eating. If you’ve lived on cafeteria food all your life the food is marginally passable. If you love roasted rack of lamb with rosemary, garlic and a Chianti reduction the food will look like somebody ate it already. Baked macaroni and cheese, sloppy Joe, chicken chow mein, rice galore dishes are typical. The BOP carbs inmates to death to keep them full. A lot of the stuff is downright mysterious looking. When he’s desperate for something better there’s always the vending machine where White Castle hamburgers and chocolate bars can be coaxed. A man in the can must learn how to use a microwave. Rowland can order spaghetti, tomato sauce, garlic, olive oil, tuna, almonds and walnuts from the commissary. And he will see many inmates dicing, chopping, mixing and preparing an assortment of microwavable meals.
Rowland will be required to work. This could be cutting grass, plowing snow, raking leaves, working in the kitchen, cleaning toilets. If he cleans toilets and does them well he will be a hero among the inmates and staff. Scrubbing bathrooms is not a highly coveted job, he will see and clean unspeakable things, but it’s a job, even at the starting pay of 12 cents an hour. He might give new meaning to the word John.
Visiting, Mail and Phone calls
Rowland will experience painful separation anxiety the first time Patty Rowland leaves the visiting room. It will get better. He will be allowed 25 visitors on a list that may be amended. Depending on the facility, such as Otisville, visiting hours are flexible and accommodating, not so at a place like Fort Dix (once home of former Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim and Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci). There’s nothing like mail call in the can. His outgoing mail will not be read–a benefit of camp life. Incoming mail will be checked for contraband. Rowland will be assigned a pin number to make up to 300 minutes of calls per month (an average of 10 minutes per day so he must ration his minutes) with a 15-minute time limit per call. His monthly phone bill will be at least $60. Phone calls are monitored. Unmonitored legal calls can be arranged. He will not be allowed to conduct business while in prison so if he’s thinking about going back into the insurance business he better save the commissions for when he gets out.
Some guys play cards, some Monopoly, others Scrabble, still others work out religiously, walk, run, lift weights, watch television. Others spend all their time in the library or chapel. Rowland will probably opt for a version of all of the above. A Roman Catholic mass will be available to him on Sunday.
What passes for health care at a camp will make Rowland’s skin crawl. For instance, the dental chair at Camp Otisville doubles as a barber’s chair. If he needs medical attention a physician’s assistant will show up each day to meet a conga line of cons (pill line) around 7 a.m. If he thinks he can fix all things medical while in the can he should think again. Short of chest pains and blood spurting from his ears, he’s stuck with the physician’s assistant.
The former governor will be underwhelmed by the intellect of the average BOP cop. Many of them are jarheads who have forgotten they’re no longer fighting Desert Storm. But he must be respectful, as you would a grammar school principal. No back talk. They will not hesitate to punish wiseguy inmates. His most regular contact will be with a corrections counselor who handles job assignment and visiting and phone lists and his case manager who manages all things external such as discharge date, assignment to halfway house near the end of his confinement, legal visits and mindless pre-release courses (like learning how to balance a checkbook) that help with the transition from incarceration to society. For the most part if Rowland doesn’t makes waves he’ll be fine.
What He Will Learn
What are the most important things John Rowland must know about the months ahead? Play by the rules, be respectful to inmates and staff, expect no special treatment (because he will not get it), mind your own business, carve out a routine, work out, prepare for the future. And keep a sense of humor. In prison, you live by your wits and Rowland’s biting sense of humor will probably lend itself well to the environment. In time he’ll adjust and blend in. It’s a short stay–a fat farm for a former governor smart enough to start over, and not screw up again. (Update: Rowland wasn’t smart enough.)
After all, redemption is a powerful motivator.