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Federal versus State Time
[ Non-fiction : Incarceration Stories/ ]

Federal versus State Time:

Short time tends to be more ferocious and angry, but long stints can drive a convict completely mad.

While working as a volunteer within a high security (Class Six) prison within the US Federal Penal System, I became acquainted with several inmates who taught me lessons about life inside the joint. One issue we often discussed – because it was constantly on their minds – was that there are distinct differences between time served in a federal facility, versus time served in a state or county prison.

Most convicts in a federal pen are in for the long haul, and they try to settle into a routine and lifestyle that will allow them the mental fortitude and physical endurance to go the distance. Hotheads more accustomed to doing “short time” because of petty crimes, assault charges, or drug convictions can implode when confronted with decades of life on the inside. But long-timers and lifers learn to rely on patience and psychological skills that can keep a convict from going mad while pacing inside the walls.

They often explain that when you serve that kind of time it feels like you're in for two days, no matter how long your sentence. You’re in your first day and your last day. Those who are expert at doing time adopt a Zen-like ability to insulate themselves from the ticking of the clock by calibrating a convict timeframe devoid of expectation or restlessness.

The convicts always pointed out that they were affected by two distinctly different categories of challenge while inside; one was psychological or mental and the other was physical. They described how short time served – for example in a city, county, or state jail – usually involved more physical pressure. If someone wanted to make your life miserable, they would do so with violence or threats of violence. But they said that while doing longer time, mental and emotional pressures were the worst. Although physical threats always exist in any lockup, convicts described how guards and others would exert power by playing cruel and diabolical mind games.

If, for instance, you expected a visitor it could be cause for elation and raised expectations. If the visitor didn’t show up, it could make you crazy with frustration and despair. So if somebody had it in for you, they might “accidentally” misplace the visitation form. You would not know it until your big day came, along with a tremendous letdown, disappointment, and burning anguish. Other slow-play “tricks” meant to torture convicts might involve everything from work assignments to delivery of mail.

The 30-something convict named Billy could cope better with the mind games than he could with the physical threats, however, and he harbored a deeply rooted fear of doing “short time”. Many inmates who do short time are young, reckless, bored, and angry. Convicts doing longer stints may be more adjusted to a routine or more focused on maintaining a reasonable amount of balance in their jail life, but inmates doing short stints tend to let their boredom bring out their worst. For many short timers, time in the slammer is a chance to show off and act tough, whereas long timers see it as a chance to survive as an individual who cares more personal sanity than social status.

Some men actually gain power and influence by living within the prison culture, especially if they are intelligent hustlers with violent leadership skills who will soon be released to the street. Billy was not one of those. Billy wasn’t cut out for prison life, and was smart enough or fearful enough to mind his own business and try to do his time without getting noticed.

Other inmates knew Billy as a wallflower. He was small in stature and socially reserved, and went to great lengths to avoid confrontation or trouble. Billy’s jacket of crimes had earned him about a decade of hard time in a federal prison, and after serving that time he would owe a southern state another two years for lesser charges.

For most convicts the expiration of a long sentence is cause for celebration, but in Billy’s case it created an impending sense of dread and doom. Billy was scared to do time in the notoriously hostile state prison. As his days in federal waned, his anxiety and fear intensified. He kept his apprehensions to himself, but as his release date approached they boiled inside his gut and haunted his thoughts, even as he slept.

As others slept the night before his transfer, Billy used a homemade knife crafted from a toothbrush and a razor blade to slit a cellmate’s throat. The guards found Billy sitting on his bunk waiting for them. When they asked why he did it, he simply stated “Because now I have to serve life in here for murder and you can’t send me down to state [prison].”

The lifer who first told me the story about Billy shrugged. “Which is worse,” I asked, “serving mental time or serving physical time?”

“Physical probably, but these mind games can be more cruel and harder to heal.”

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