Some were model citizens — until they weren’t.
Many of the participants who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 are now facing the consequences of their actions, including the likelihood of serving time in federal prison. At least some of them, who may have never crossed swords with the justice system before, won’t be prepared for what’s ahead.
Prison is a vastly different world with a culture that is completely alien to those who have never experienced it. As surprising as it might seem, even many criminal defense attorneys know little about prisons. They don’t understand what their clients will go through or are going through. Many of these rioters may be about to find out.
I served a dozen years in federal prison, earning a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree while behind bars, so this advice comes from personal experience.
What can Capitol rioters who are arrested, tried and convicted expect?
• Not all federal prisons are equal.
One hard-to-appreciate issue is the culture of each federal institution, While we think of prisons as a standardized experience, this just isn’t the case. Each federal prison has its own unique culture, and these cultures spur folklore-like names. For example, USP Victorville in California is known as “Victimville” and USP Beaumont in Texas is known by an equally nefarious name, “Bloody Beaumont.”
In contrast, inmates refer to FCI Petersburg Medium in Petersburg, Virginia, as “Sweetersburg,” while Federal Prison Camp Alderson, where Martha Stewart was incarcerated, is “Camp Cupcake.”
• That first day can be a shock.
On arrival, after fingerprinting and an interrogation, a guard might escort the inmate to their housing unit, but the guard also might simply point them in the right direction. Either way, the walk is nerve-wracking. Walking into the housing unit, the inmate will look like an obvious new arrival to the other inmates.
• Figuring out who to trust could prove a challenge.
Those who took part in the insurrection and go to prison will find themselves surrounded by people who are less than trustworthy. If they are not careful — and even if they are — they can become the targets of scams, schemes, thefts and violence.
• Services are available — but limited.
Inmates do have access to religious, educational and recreational services, but not to the degree people might think. In reality, educational services amount to being allowed to get books, with limited class opportunities.
The religious services might simply mean they will give you a Bible and can attend a weekly religious service. The recreational services?
During the pandemic, that likely means that a few days a week they will allow you an hour or two outside.
• COVID-19 changes everything.
With the pandemic in full swing behind bars, many federal prisons have drastically reduced inmate activities. Inmates have virtually no access to the chapel, education department, law library or commissary.
Additionally, new arrivals should anticipate being isolated for two weeks upon arrival. They should also not expect protective equipment such as KN95 masks, latex gloves or hand sanitizer. Instead, they can expect thick, ill-fitting khaki masks, caution tape around the doors of fellow inmates who are positive for COVID-19, and an uneasy sense of unrest and fear.
One problem Capitol rioters who are convicted will experience is trying to understand the culture of the individual federal prison before they arrive.
This is critical. If the institution is particularly violent or experiences significant prison politics, new arrivals need to know that ahead of time. That way they can develop a plan for how to interact with other inmates, and how to react to the typical initiation rituals at the various security levels.
Of course, if they have never served time, that’s not the kind of planning they are used to doing.
Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the managing director of Zoukis Consulting Group, which provides help and advice to people in prison or who are about to be incarcerated.