By: John Tighe
I must say that some unusual developments have taken place since I first started writing this series. Some people that I haven’t heard from for a while have reached back out to me. And I notice a different look in the eyes of people I don’t know, but who know who I am, when I stop for coffee at Uncommon Grounds.
I applaud Frank Parlato for reaching out to the NXIVM diehards for help in exonerating me, but I won’t hold my breath for that to happen because, according to them, I’m a demonic suppressive. I think hiding a brick of blow in my trunk and calling 911 is more their speed. But I digress…
On July 21, 2015 – the day after my 58th birthday – I drove with my wife and family to Federal Medical Center (FMC) Devens, an “Administrative-Security” federal prison in Ayer, MA. To better explain, Devens is a medical treatment facility that houses all security levels of federal prisoners: i.e., from out-custody inmates to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber – and prisoners at every level in-between.
Outside the prison is a small prison camp. The prisoners there maintain the fields, ponds and inmate cemetery (Devens is also where many old inmates go to die).
Prior to reporting to FMC Devens, I had a nice lunch with my family. After that, we headed to the prison so I could turn myself in.
I can’t explain the mixture of feelings I went through as we neared the prison. Everyone was trying to be cheerful, but I was wondering if I would survive long enough to be with them again.
We went into the Administration building – and I told them who I was. The Correction Officer (CO) on duty – never call them “Guard” – said I had time to hug everyone good-bye (It was like a living funeral). Then it was time for them to leave. Everyone was brave and no one cried.
Once my family left, the CO handcuffed me and took me in. I had a bag with 10 empty prescription bottles – and paper copies and a DVD of my medical records. I was led through multiple locked steel doors to a dirty area that was the prison’s Receiving & Discharge (R&D) Unit.
I was told to strip – and asked if I wanted to donate my street clothes to inmates who would be released at some point in the future (I readily agreed to do that). Then I was given underwear, a T-shirt, and a giant orange jump suit.
Next, I was interviewed by a nurse. She was nice – and, when no one was around, she warned me: “You must fight for healthcare and your prescriptions. Be your own advocate, fight to live”. Then she shut up when a CO came in to take me to the Special Housing Unit (SHU). Among inmates, the SHU is usually referred to as “the hole”, “solitary”, or “the pit”.
I was marched a half-mile through the compound – which is generally closed to all inmate movements except for 10 minutes every hour. Next, I went through another series of locked doors – where I was strip-searched again and locked in a dirty windowless cell for the next 11 days.
The Transitional Period
Throughout my stay in the SHU, cold food was shoved through a slot in the door three times each day. Once, I got a change of clothes – which required me to strip naked and shove my old clothes through the slot and wait for them to shove new ones in.
A nurse came by one day to say they were working on verifying my meds. Finally, a case manager came and sent me to an eight -man cell, full of kids who were young druggies from Portland, Maine. They were genuinely nice and helpful – and I appreciated the information they shared with me about the “Devens Dos & Don’ts”.
Devens looks good from the outside. Inside, it’s a deteriorated old military base with broken toilets, bad heating, and all sorts of other mechanical and structural problems.
My first cell was a good half-mile from the Chow Hall and the Clinic, with a large hill in between. Shortly after I arrived, my feet broke down from all the walking I had to do in my previously used prison boots. Thinking back on the advice the nurse had given me, I started to push for my meds – and to be assigned to a medical unit closer to the Chow Hall and the Clinic. Once my meds were approved, I also had to go to “Pill Line” three times a day – which was another long hike.
Medical Services at FMC Devens
The Chief Medical Officer was nicknamed “Dr. Death”. He was a one-legged, drunk POS. Fortunately, he was too bad even for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP). One day after he fell down drunk, he was walked off the prison grounds with the help of two COs – and was never seen again.
Next, a young Mongolian doctor from the U.S. Public Health Services took over. He was very professional – and quickly moved me to a two-man cell in a medical building. He also took me off Pill Line – and made my prescriptions “self-carry”. He even went so far as to call my Oncologist back in Saratoga Springs, NY to get more details about my case (I had small bowel cancer with a re-section of my small intestines back in 2012). After that consultation, he told me “Your complex medical condition is beyond the care level Devens can provide – and your care is being transferred to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston”. Although he was fired a couple of years later for lying about his accreditations, that man saved my life.
My First Prison Test
A few months later I had my first prison test. I got into it with a tough black gangster from South Boston. He warned me to stay out of the yard. So, of course, that night I went to the yard.
He saw me, marched across the field, and as I stood up from a bench, he deftly put a shank to my neck. At this point, I still had four and a half years to go and just didn’t give a shit.
I told him “Go ahead, you’ll be doing me a favor”.
I meant it and he knew it.
He smiled put the shank away and said: “You’re all right, white boy”.
We became good friends for the rest of my stay.
A Disastrous Christmas Eve
My next incident at Devens occurred on Christmas Eve 2015.
We had two-man cells that were locked from 10:00 PM until 6:00 AM. Each cell had a toilet and a sink – and we had showers down the hall.
Unfortunately – and I previously mentioned – the entire Devens facility is a broken-down dump. Pipes break, sewage and sewer flies come up from the shower drains, toilets overflow and the only “plumbers” available to deal with these everyday problems are self-taught inmates.
So, on December 24, 2015, I was taking a shower when I heard a popping sound – and was suddenly hit with 190-degree water coming out of the showerhead. I jumped back – and fell naked onto the shower room floor.
Once I sat up, I could see that the skin on the top of my left foot was gone (I could actually see the bones in the foot – and a couple of toe bones too). And the skin on my left leg was peeling off like toilet paper.
I got some clothes on – and some inmates got a wheelchair for me. The unit CO wasn’t going to go near me – so a couple of friends took me to the Medical Unit, where it turned out all but one nurse had already left for the upcoming holiday.
The nurse wrapped all the burned areas as best she could. She requested authorization for an ambulance to take me to a hospital but no one who was working had the authority to approve such a request. So, she checked my burns one more time – and then went home at the end of her shift.
Christmas is not a good time to be in prison when you have a medical problem.
You can’t believe how much fluid you lose with 2nd and 3rd degree burns. I just lay in my bunk until the medical staff came back the day after Christmas. The staff all felt bad and sent me to a hospital, but it was too late. I already had a MRSA infection in my leg. I was burned, sick and infected – and the next two months became an endless string of IVs, burn dressings, and cleanings. I still have the scars, but eventually the burned areas healed.
Because I had shower flip-flops on when I was showering, there was some skin that didn’t get burned. So, when I got home, I had a flame tattooed on with the words “Burned to the bone”.
After all the drama surrounding my scalding shower, time seemed to go by a little faster.
I became good friends with several inmates – and, most important of all, my wife, friends, and family members came to visit me at least twice a month for the next five years.
Some of the People I Met at Devens
While I was in Devens, there were over 1,000 inmates there.
But only about a hundred of us ever had visitors. We were like a little club.
There were overpriced vending machines in the visiting area – but no one really cared about them. We were happy and content just to be able to sit with and talk with our family members and friends.
Because we were such a small group, I got to know some high-profile inmates this way.
For example, I was at the 100th birthday of John Franzese AKA “Sonny,” one of the gangsters in the movie “Goodfellows”. Yes, you read that right: his 100th birthday! “At one time, he was the oldest prisoner in the U.S. – and perhaps the whole world. He went home at 101 – and died a year later.
I also became good friends with billionaire Raj Rajaratnam. He was released before me and wrote a book about the BOP and DOJ called “Uneven Justice” – which I hope to review here on Frank Report at some point in the future.
I liked Peter Madoff [the brother of Bernie] and his wife until he asked if my wife could send his wife 10k. Once a con man, always a con man.
And finally, Anthony Weiner. Yes, that Anthony Weiner! His father would visit with his son, but I never saw his wife, Huma, at Devens.
Day-to-Day Life at FMC Devens
Besides visits, I also went to Mass every Sunday with all the mobsters.
I read a lot and learned to navigate all the little social groups that exist in prison.
Throughout all my time at Devens, I continued to lose weight. So much so that at one point, they started giving me Ensure to drink every day.
Beth Israel (BI) Hospital had been treating me for thyroid cancer throughout the time I was at Devens. My thyroid was the first thing they cut out. But, unfortunately for me, the cancer had already spread to my liver. Now I had metastatic liver cancer – and things weren’t looking good.
Then they got worse.
I had been living in the same unit for several years. I was well known and respected. I had my own chair in the TV-room, and I had gotten everyone in the unit to agree on a schedule for what would be on our TV.
Early in my stay, I had a run in with some Neo-Nazis (Some were members of the Aryan Brotherhood – and others were members of the Unforgiven – both hard-core prison gangs). They hid behind their pagan religion Asatru, whose White Nationalists worship Norse gods. They had swastikas and face tattoos and all the bad ass prison shit.
When they invited me to join, I told them I wasn’t interested. After that, they always held a grudge
A white guy named Scarface was moved into our unit. He was 45 years old and was a murderer who had been shot in the leg and needed an operation. He had also been stabbed seven times including a couple of times in his face. On his third day with us, he was sent to the SHU for 60 days for threatening a nurse. A couple of days after he got out, he confronted me about the TV.
He walked up and went to change it. After I told him to “sit down,” he proceeded to read me his resume.
He had “killed three men, been stabbed 7 times, was a Nazi, and a bad motherfucker.”
I looked at him and said, “That’s great – but I’m watching CNN”.
He sprang at me in a second. This was a real prison fight for my life. He had broken my jaw and one eye was closed. I head butted him as he screamed, he would kill me over and over.
Chairs were being thrown and we eventually fell out into the hall.
He kept hitting me in my side and I thought he might have a shiv.
Finally, all the noise attracted a CO – which is where I got lucky.
Old Scarface immediately turned his attention to the CO and screamed he would kill him.
Each CO has an emergency button – and this CO pushed his. As I fell back against a wall, COs came running from every corner of the prison.
They beat and pepper-sprayed Scarface until he was just curled up on the floor. Then they threw him into the SHU – and took me to the Medical Unit.
After a quick trip to the hospital for X-rays and treatment, they tossed me into the SHU for 60 days “pending investigation.”
Finally, they ruled I had acted in self-defense – which meant that I didn’t lose any of my “good time.”
Still, 60 days in the hole is a long time.
Beth Israel Hospital
Throughout much of my time at Devens, I was being taken to BI every few days. Each time, I was marched to R&D, stripped searched, and then chained-up with belly chains and shackles.
Two COs – one of whom was armed – drove me the 37 miles to BI in a prison van like I was El Chapo.
I must have gone to BI more than a hundred times for various types of procedures and treatments: e.g., RFAs, MRIs and several surgeries (Per BOP policy, my family was never told when I was in the hospital).
Prior to one of the major surgeries I had at BI, I arranged to have my body sent home if I died so that I wouldn’t end up in the prison cemetery.
The staff at BI was always kind to me. I was chained every moment – even on the operating table. The only time I wasn’t chained was when I was having an MRI.
Despite what seemed like a hopeless case, I held on – and slowly started to get better.
Once I was back at Devens, I was always afraid I would end up in the basement – AKA Prison Hospice. Inmates would say “In the basement no one can hear you screaming”.
So many inmates died in the basement that once a month, we had a memorial service for them.
Three of my cellmates died – and I spoke for each one at their service.
COVID-19 Comes to FMC Devens
While I was sitting in the TV room in January 2020 and watching CNN, I heard about a new virus in China. A friend asked, “What do you think?” I answered “We’re fucked”
COVID started slowly at Devens – but the prison administration immediately started using it as an excuse to cut back on things.
Visiting was the first thing to be cut out. Then the Library, the yard, and finally Chow Hall.
Inmates got sick and began to die.
We were put in lockdown – which means we were in our cells at least 23 hours every day.
We had the same three meals every day: i.e., bran flakes and sour milk for breakfast; something warm for lunch; and for dinner, 4 slices of bread, 2 slices of slimy turkey bologna, and a piece of rotten fruit.
Notwithstanding the lockdown, more and more prisoners became infected – and we could see private ambulances coming onto the prison grounds almost every day to pick up inmates who needed to be hospitalized.
It was a scary time – and seemed to go forever.
Then the COs started getting sick – which resulted in staff shortages and 24-hour lockdowns for the inmates.
The End – and a New Beginning
Then in April, I was put in total lockdown – and transferred to the SHU. Except for a few trips to BI for follow-up testing and treatments, that’s where I was housed until I was released from Devens
Throughout this time, I had little communication with any prison staff – and no one could tell me exactly when I would be going home.
Finally, on July 8th, my discharge papers came through the slot in the door.
I was taken to R&D, given a pair of pants, some old sneakers, and a T-shirt – and then released to my wife and family.
I had fucking survived.
I left Devens and came back to a world being ravaged by a pandemic – and where it seemed that no one could agree on what day it was, let alone agree on what should be done to stop the spread of COVID.
I was the happiest man in the world.
And why not?
I was alive – and back with my wife and family – after spending five years in the wilderness.
Stay tuned for Part 4 of this series.