Best Places to Go to Prison
Ever wonder what prison life is like for high-profile white-collar criminals like Bernie Madoff, or how Martha Stewart got through her time in prison?
The prison experience all depends on where you wind up, according to Alan Ellis,a criminal defense attorney and co-author the “Federal Prison Guidebook.” Ellis, who specializes in defending federal white-collar criminals, has made a career of bargaining to get his clients the lowest possible sentences and get them into the best prisons possible.
The worst federal criminals wind up behind bars in U.S. penitentiaries. But there are also medium-, low-, and minimum-security prisons. Of those minimum-security facilities, known as federal prison camps, some are adjacent to higher-security prisons and others stand alone. It’s the stand-alone ones that Ellis believes are most preferable.
“The staff is less stressed out,” he said. “As I like to say, happy staff makes happy inmates.”
Federal prison camps also have limited or no fencing, and “zero” violence. Ellis cautioned, however, that these are no country-club — or “Club Fed” — facilities. The inmates are still in prison and away from their loved ones.
It’s not just the camp accommodations that made Ellis’ list. For the low- to medium-security inmate, there are choice assignments, as well.
So where are the best places to do time? Click ahead to see the names Ellis believes should be on every federal inmate’s wish-list, in no particular order.
—Prisoner data as of Jan. 12, 2012, unless otherwise noted.
By Michelle Fox
Posted 19 January 2012
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Number of prisoners: 973
Location: Montgomery, Ala.
The federal prison camp in Montgomery, Ala., is on Maxwell Air Force Base. While inmates can enjoy the music room, pool tables, and a craft room, Ellis says the best perk is the opportunity to work outside the prison camp. Inmates are employed as gardeners and landscapers on the military base. In fact, one of his clients once was a landscaper for the general’s house.
“The general’s wife would invite him in in the afternoon for lemonade and cookies,” Ellis said.
Prisoners can also take correspondence courses in business, psychology, art, music, and foreign language offered by Troy State University.
Number of prisoners: 750
Location: Pensacola, Fla.
This federal prison camp is also on a military base — Florida's Pensacola Naval Air Station. Like FPC Montgomery, inmates have jobs inside and outside the camp, and can interact with military personnel. Inmates may also take part in activities such as movie nights, intramural sports, racquetball, and bocce ball.
Number of prisoners: 868
Location: Yankton, S.D.
This stand-alone federal prison camp is in downtown Yankton, S.D., and was once a college campus. Inmates have the opportunity to leave the prison site and go into the community by volunteering for local nonprofits, such as Habitat for Humanity. The inmate and charity must be approved, and the prisoner is supervised by a representative from the organization.
Those who stay inside the prison camp may play sports, take art lessons, or play any of the instruments in the music room. There is also a library with hundreds of books.
Number of prisoners: 1,299
Location, Morgantown, W.Va.
FCI Morgantown is a stand-alone prison camp in the college town of Morgantown, W.Va. — home to West Virginia University. While it started out as the Robert F. Kennedy Youth Correctional Facility, it now houses minimum-security adult males. Inmates looking to better themselves may get an associate of arts degree in business administration from Fairmont State College.
There are also apprenticeships available in commercial photography, computer technology, and plumbing. For those looking to blow off some steam, there is foosball, pingpong, and bumper-pool tables.
“This is a well-run facility,” Ellis said.
Number of prisoners: 1,215
A stand-alone prison camp in West Virginia for females, Alderson was home to Martha Stewart when she served five months for lying to investigators about a stock sale. Stewart has described her stint behind bars as a time of reflection and learning, according to The New York Times.
Besides taking the time to reflect on one’s transgressions, inmates have plenty of other ways to pass the time. They may swim in the pool, or participate in talent shows and game shows. They can also play volleyball, softball, basketball, tennis, racquetball, basketball, or go roller skating.
Number of prisoners: 1,201 (low-security); 125 (camp)
Location: Otisville, N.Y.
The Otisville, N.Y., prison is where disgraced financial adviser Kenneth Starr now calls home. The money manager to the stars is serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence for stealing $30 million from his clients.
There are actually two prisons at Otisville — the medium-security facility and a satellite prison camp for low-level offenders. It’s the prison camp that that Ellis prefers for his clients, especially for those of the Jewish faith.
“Otisville is prized by observant Jews,” Ellis said. “There’s a full-time rabbi, religious furloughs, and if you are an observant Jew, you are in with other observant Jews. There is a strong religious program there.”
Number of prisoners: 1,215 (medium-security); 483 (camp)
Location: Sheridan, Ore.
Ellis says another well-run facility is the camp that shares the grounds with a medium-security prison in Sheridan, Ore. Sixty miles from Portland, the camp is in a “lovely area” of the state, Ellis says. For loved ones who come to visit inmates, there is a very “charming” country inn nearby, the attorney says.
Inmates can participate in a variety of organized sports, such as flag football, soccer, and volleyball. They can also get trained in a number of trades, including construction, personal fitness training, and landscape design.
Number of prisoners: 1,424 (penitentiary); 554 (camp)
Location: Lewisburg, Pa.
The federal prison camp in Lewisburg, Pa., is adjacent to a maximum-security U.S. penitentiary, whose inmates have included Al Capone, Jimmy Hoffa, and John Gotti. What makes the camp special is the staff, Ellis said.
“The staff there is very happy,” he said. “The cost of living is cheap. The staff can hunt and fish to their heart’s content. The quality of life for the staff is better. People like to be there.”
Located off Interstate 80 in north-central Pennsylvania, the camp is also easily accessible for inmates’ families living in the Northeast.
Number of prisoners: 1,329
Location: Sandstone, Minn.
The federal correctional institute in Sandstone, Minn., north of Minneapolis, houses low-level adult male offenders. While it is not a prison camp, Ellis likes Sandstone because of the people who work there. “It’s very well-run and has a very professional, competent staff,” he said.
Inmates may hit the craft center for leather craft, or paint and make stained glass. There are also several intramural or extramural sports, a pool table, and other diversions. Plus, it has services for many faiths — including Catholic, Jewish, Native American, and Muslim.
Number of prisoners: 318 (camp); 4,653 (other prisons)
Location: Butner, N.C.
FCI Butner is part of the latest trend — a federal correctional complex that includes several prisons with varying security levels. The campus in Butner, N.C., also includes a medical center.
While it’s the low-security facility that Ellis prefers, he said the entire campus is viewed as the “crown jewel of the Bureau of Prisons.” One criminal who scored a cell is Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, who calls FCI Butner Medium home. Madoff “hit the inmate lottery,” Ellis said.
The prison complex is close to the Research Triangle area of Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill — that means good quality interns are available to work for free at the facilities.
Taft Correctional Institution
Number of Prisoners: 1,759 (low-security); 567 (camp)
Location: Taft, Calif.
Taft Correctional Institution in Taft, Calif., is a privately run prison under contract with the Bureau of Prisons. There are two prisons on site — a low-security facility that primarily houses criminal aliens and a minimum-security prison camp.
Again, it’s the prison camp that makes Ellis’ list. What he likes is that Taft is family-friendly.
“When families visit, they have a lot of activities for kids,” he said.
It also has parenting programs available for inmates. If that’s not enough, one of his clients told him the bathrooms were “immaculate.”
Prisoner data as of 1/18/12
Number of prisoners: 935 (low-security); 137 (camp)
Location: Dublin, Calif.
Rounding out Ellis’ list is the female prison camp in Dublin, Calif. It’s situated on the Camp Parks Army Reserve Forces Training Area Military Base, and shares the site with a low-security correctional institution. Offenders housed at the camp provide labor to support the base.
What Ellis really likes about the facility is that it’s in the San Francisco Bay Area. Not only is there good weather, he said, but the people who live in the area and work in the prison have “progressive attitudes.”
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