The day I entered prison continues to rank as one of the worst days of my life.
Like most people, I have endured many of the stresses of contemporary existence, but passing through the gates of a federal prison, knowing I was to be there for years, was a nightmare. Being a high profile prisoner compounds the agony. You want all eyes to look elsewhere, yet they are laser-focused on you.
As you say your final goodbyes to the friends or family who delivered you to the prison, your sadness is leavened with trepidation. Even if you benefited from one of the costly prison preparation consulting services, there is no way to prepare for this. Most white collar inmates have never had a real brush with the law, let alone been incarcerated.
Michael Cohen has been imprisoned in the minimum security federal prison at Otisville, NY. I might not be Cohen’s biggest fan, but I still feel badly for anyone who has to enter prison — well, almost anyone. Violent criminals who don’t qualify for execution should never be released into society. (RELATED: Michael Cohen Has A Ploy To Reduce His Prison Sentence)
Cohen, on the other hand, will be released, but only after enduring roughly three years of imprisonment. Media coverage of his entry to prison was replete with references to how Otisville was a cushy destination, as if it were now part of the Sandals network of resorts. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The days of Club Fed prison facilities are over. Long over. Now, all minimum security prisons house a mixture of prisoners, some from the draconian regimes of medium and high security prisons. The federal rules anticipate moving qualified prisoners – those deemed non-violent or otherwise problematic — from the costly higher security facilities to the minimum security locations as a cost savings measure, once a prisoner has completed all but ten years of their sentence.
In the prison where I served my sentence, ninety percent of the inmates were drug offenders, and many served in the medium security prison next door to our facility before being transferred to us.
Otisville’s minimum security facility is much smaller than Cumberland, where I served my sentence, but it still is the destination of inmates transferred from higher security prisons, including the medium-to-high prison right next door, so Cohen will likely not be incarcerated only with white collar inmates. In fact, federal prisons, including minimum facilities, are ninety percent full of drug offenders — hardly Michael Cohen’s previous social circles and milieu.
Cohen’s daily routine in prison will start with a 6:00 am prison wakeup alert, followed by breakfast. As Cohen is now housed in the federal prison where most orthodox Jewish federal inmates are incarcerated, each morning will probably include voluntary communal Jewish prayer, likely in the chapel facility. Of course, Cohen is not obligated to attend prayer services, but prison tends to inspire many inmates to take their religious heritage more seriously than they did on the outside, so he’s likely participating.
Following prayer, the inmates will eat a meager breakfast, usually cold and often featuring fare whose shelf life in the “civilian world” has long expired, and then be shuffled to their work assignments. All federal inmates must work. The jobs are mundane and monotonous, the pay absurdly paltry, at approximately 17 cents per hour — hardly the hourly fees of a top attorney. In one of those solemn jokes imposed by the system, inmates are supposed to meet their court-ordered restitution payments and divorced spousal support obligations from these “earnings.” Cohen likely will have to start off working in the kitchen at one of the more undesirable jobs. I was assigned to wash dishes. Between the heat, steam, filth and noise, it’s not exactly a fun place to be.
Just before noon, inmates are moved to the dining hall for lunch. The goal of all prisons is to spend as little as possible on feeding prisoners, with some bragging that they are able to provide three meals — all within Bureau of Prisons guidelines — for less than $2 per day. Cohen’s past culinary habits are by now forgotten.
After lunch, inmates return to work until they are required to return to their housing units for the nationwide 4:00 PM “count” of all federal inmates. Prisoners must stand silently by their bunks as correctional officers count them, ensuring that none have escaped or otherwise gone missing. (RELATED: Michael Cohen Puts Dagger In The Heart Of Steele Dossier During Congressional Testimony)
Dinner follows the count, though the nutritional content much less culinary quality is not markedly better than lunch or breakfast fare. At least it’s often hot.
After dinner, many inmates try to get exercise, either by walking or doing body weight exercises. The Bureau of Prisons removed all weightlifting equipment from prisons in the 1990s — the judgment was that excessively muscular, fit inmates posed a threat — though some inmates fashion resistance equipment from cinderblocks and steel rods they obtain from the prison workshops. Of course, making your own weights is a serious violation of prison rules and could result in a longer sentence, so pushups are a smarter workout.
Inmates are recalled to the housing units around dusk and are not permitted to leave until the next morning. Most prisons provide a television set in a common room for the inmates, while other prisoners read or use the monitored pay phone to call home.
Since the prison permits only 300 minutes of phone time per month, it is a common sight to see inmates staring at their watches to ensure they don’t use up too much time on the phone per call. That can be a problem if one is trying to call children and other relatives regularly. I recall having only fifty-five seconds per child each day to keep in regular contact with my five children. Missing your family is the worst part of this horrific experience, but at least one has the possibility of regular though fleeting phone contact.
It’s hard to tell what kind of inmate Cohen will be. If he plays by the rules, he can navigate this most difficult time and move on with his life. If he reverts to hustle mode, he might be there longer than he plans.
There are better and worse federal prisons. Otisville, by comparison to some of the other facilities, is said to be manageable. But it is not cushy. There are no cushy prisons. And, I would posit, that even if one were forcibly incarcerated in the Ritz Carlton, the loss of freedom would chafe at one’s soul and become hellish.
Freedom, privacy and dignity are the things that keep us alive and enable us to thrive. In prison, you lose all three.
Jack Abramoff is a former lobbyist and author of “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist.”