United States Penitentiary
It was a hot afternoon. I was in the back seat of a late model Pontiac GTO, handcuffed to a body chain with leg irons around my ankles. We were approaching Marion prison which looked like something out of a science fiction movie. The first thing you see when approaching a prison is the water tower. This one looked like a space ship poised for takeoff.
Marion had the highest security rating in the U.S. Prison system. It had been opened four years earlier to replace Alcatraz as the ultimate prison. Alcatraz, sitting on an island in San Francisco bay, had been falling apart and getting very expensive to operate. It cost a fortune just to ship water out to it and four convicts had escaped, somehow getting through the treacherous waters of the bay. First time in the history of Alcatraz that anyone had escaped. The official position of the Bureau of Prisons was that none of them had made it, all having drowned even though the bodies weren't recovered. But the convicts knew better because one of them had received a postcard from South America signalling that the escape had been successful.
The car was driven by a young United States Marshal, accompanied by his brother who was riding shotgun as a guard. He carried his gun in a holster on the right hip. That put it about two feet from me, sitting as I was in the middle of the back seat. I'd been watching it for four days as we travelled from the Federal Prison at El Reno, Oklahoma on the journey to Marion. I couldn't just reach forward and grab it because each of my hands were handcuffed to the prisoner on either side of me. They were both short-termers who were going to the minimum security ranch at Marion and I knew they wouldn't cooperate with my grabbing the gun because they had no interest in escaping. I had twenty-six years to serve and a lot of interest in escaping.
We pulled up to the entrance at the guard tower and the Marshals turned their guns over to a guard. Nobody is allowed to carry weapons into a prison. They have to be checked before entry. This is to prevent the convicts from overpowering someone and arming themselves.
We drove in through the entrance and parked the car. I was escorted into the reception area and unchained. After a week in the back of the car, I was ready for a cell with a bed and a hot meal. The prison had a feeling of newness to it and the smell of disinfectant that is common to all institutions. It was laid out with four spokes radiating from a central hub that contained the control room. We went through five electronically controlled gates, each one closing behind us before the next one would open. Our progress was monitored by remote television cameras spaced along the corridor. My first impression was that they were very serious about security.
We reached the Captain's office and I was turned over to a prison guard who told me I was being placed in the Isolation Unit until I could be classified. So I was taken to H-Block and placed in an isolation cell. It was a surprise. The cell was big, with a metal bed bolted to the wall that had springs rather than being the usual slab of metal. The mattress was about three inches thick and there were clean sheets and blankets on the bed. A metal toilet and sink was bolted to the back wall, with hot and cold running water. As cells go, this was a five star hotel. If this was isolation, I figured the mainline cells must really be something. I later learned they were exactly the same. The whole prison was one big isolation unit. That was its purpose. To isolate the most dangerous convicts in the federal prison system.
I was left in Isolation for three days, reading magazines and a few old novels. The food was good, and served hot. I did light exercise every day in my cell and they’d let me out once to shower. The water was hot and I had all the time I wanted in the shower, by myself. I’d served six months in the Los Angeles County Jail on a narcotics charge when I was nineteen. There, a whole tank of about one hundred prisoners would be herded into a shower room with about fifteen shower-heads. We were given ten minutes to shower, then herded back out. There wasn’t time enough to get raped but you usually didn’t get clean either. It was hard to even get wet. So the Isolation unit at Marion was feeling luxurious.
On the morning of the fourth day, a guy dressed in a suit appeared in front of my cell. I was laying on the bed, reading. I got up to greet him. “My name is Dr George Camp,” he said by way of introduction. “I’m the Associate Warden here.” He was tall and slender, good looking with sharp features, light hair and glasses. I later learned that the ‘Dr’ came from a Ph.D in Criminal Justice.
“Do you know why you’re in Isolation?” he asked in a conversational tone of voice.
“No,” I replied in an ‘I don’t care’ tone.
“I wanted you to know where you’re going to spend all your time if you try to escape from Marion,” he said, still being light and friendly. “I’m releasing you into the General Population today. Stay out of trouble. And forget escaping, Windes. You can’t escape from Marion.” He walked away.
I sat down on the bed and thought about what he had said. The information I had about this prison was that there was no way to escape, but I wasn’t buying it.
Copyright 1994-2009 Liana Di Stefano & Ken Windes