By Richard Luthmann
In response to an earlier article: FED Poison? Nutrition Expert Says Prison Food Causes Cancer, Toxicity, a reader submitted this comment:
It’s a little precious when inmates who never took care of themselves, lived a very high-risk lifestyle, drank to excess, or snorted, smoked, and injected drugs that were trafficked literally in someone’s butthole suddenly claim that the same oil that incarcerated humans consume daily is a human rights issue.
And that’s not ALL inmates. But it’s A LOT of them.
But there are many legitimate concerns about how prisoners are treated.
There is a lot to unpack here.
The first question raised is: “Are “A LOT” of these inmates responsible for their long-term health problems?”
To answer this question, we must consider the question.
Who are Federal Bureau of Prisons inmates?
Who are “they?” What are they “in” for?
Are they drunks and crackheads who ran around killing themselves with chemicals until the Department of Justice saved them via criminal prosecution, as the Commentator insinuates?
The Federal Bureau of Prisons does a good job of providing statistics. Check out the BOP Statistics Webpage. The demographics on the site are usually updated monthly.
What Offenses Land Inmates in Federal Prison?
When you look at the inmate statistics, one thing that pops out at me is what prisoners are there for – Offenses:
BOP statistics show that the vast majority of inmates are in Federal Custody because of guns and drugs.
“Drug Offenses” and “Weapons, Explosives, Arson” convictions account for two-thirds of all Federal Prisoners.
Drugs, Guns, and CHOMOs
Drugs and guns are interrelated. Courts have consistently recognized a strong link between firearms and drug dealing/narcotics trafficking.
In United States v. Mitchell, a Federal Appeals Court said, “the evidence of firearms was admissible as proof of a narcotics conspiracy because drug dealers commonly keep firearms on their premises as tools of the trade.”
In United States v. Caggiano, another Federal Appeals Court said the same thing: “Firearms are one of the tools of the trade of drug dealers. Guns, like glassine bags, scales, and cutting equipment, are an expected and usual accessory of the narcotics trade. Any reasonably competent police officer who discovered firearms while searching for drugs would be immediately aware of their evidentiary significance.”
This means that once Federal Law Enforcement has a drug dealing/narcotics trafficking prosecutorial target, they can safely dispose of them in federal prison using the “guns” or “drugs” category. And in many cases, the “guns” category is much easier for law enforcement.
The Feds can conduct a raid based on a “tip” and not find any drugs. But if they do find anyone with a prior felony (even a non-violent felony) and a firearm, then the Feds hit paydirt under the so-called “felon in possession” charge of 18 USC § 922(g), which can land you in Federal Custody for up to ten years.
Suppose the Feds find guns and drugs. Even better. The same § 922(c) has mandatory minimums to land you in a Bureau of Prisons facility for at least five years for simple possession.
From my personal experience, I found this to be the case.
While at MDC-Brooklyn, the supermajority of inmates was there for an amalgam of drug and gun charges.
Because I was also at FMC-Devens and LSCI-Allenwood, the other notable cohort is the Sex Offenders or CHOMOs.
The BOP congregates this class of offenders at Low-Security Institutions (because sex offenders cannot go to Minimum Security/Camps) or at Medical Centers under the premise that CHOMOs have an “illness” that can be treated.
Of the released sex offenders who committed another sex crime, 40 percent perpetrated the new offense within one year of their prison discharge. Most children they molested after leaving prison were aged 13 or younger.
So, going back to the Commenter’s point, is there any evidence that nearly 80 percent of Federal Prisoners who are there for guns, drugs, or sex offenses “never took care of themselves,” “lived a very high-risk lifestyle,” or used chemicals to excess? A look at the numbers shows the opposite trend.
What is the Age of Federal Inmates?
BOP Inmate Age statistics show that 63.1% of Federal Inmates are between 31 and 50. Only 5.7% are below the age of 26.
So the question for the Commentator is: Did all these inmates wake up at age 31, begin living “high-risk lifestyles,” and start using excessive chemicals? Is there minimal crime when you are young, and then, at a certain magical age, the criminal goes “off the cliff?”
Of course not.
What happens, especially with drug and gun cases, is that criminals “graduate” into the Feds. The BOP bid is usually not their first prison bid. Most of these prisoners went to prison once or twice in a state correctional system.
And between substantial prison and juvie time, state parole, and regular urine tests, these offenders were not using chemicals to excess before they entered the BOP. The BOP doesn’t serve martinis or provide hookers and blow. Very little “high-risk” or excessive illicit chemical use is going on.
CHOMOs also tend to “warm up.” Federal law has long mandatory minimums for sex offenders. Many lawyers argue that sex offender laws are overly punitive.
But many states have short minimum terms for first and repeat sex offenders. New York State, for example, has minimum sentences for the most severe sex offenses of three-and-a-half, two, and one-and-a-half years in prison, and even probation.
Why? The trial lawyers lobby for one reason. Trial lawyers can get “repeat business” with relatively short first and second-time sentences on the state level. Once they go Federal, CHOMOs tend to be “one and done,” thrown away for a decade at least on average.
And for most sex offenders, the “high-risk lifestyle” is the illicit sexual activity. Except for sexually transmitted diseases, CHOMOs do not exhibit the types of long-term health problems the Commentator insinuates.
Is There Widespread Chemical Use in the Federal Bureau of Prisons?
Prison is a dull place with little to do. If you are a relatively smart inmate, you keep to yourself and a small group. You keep your head down, play cards, read books, stay out of the way, and pass your time. And there was even less to do while I was there under the BOP’s Covid-19 Modified Operations.
But not everyone is smart. Inmates involve themselves in stupid shit all the time. And it almost always goes sideways. If your fix is gambling, sex, drugs, or something else, the prison economy usually finds a way to meet your needs if you can pay the price. And if your vices get you into debt, things can get dangerous.
To the extent I saw chemical use, the largest category was the abuse of prescription drugs doled out by the BOP. Prisoners with prescription needs (legitimate or not) would provide prescriptions to other inmates (voluntarily or not), sometimes for value (if you weren’t getting shaken down).
The drug of choice was suboxone, which would also come in as contraband because the BOP was very tight on doling it out, even to those with legitimate needs. Excellent reporting from the Marshall Project details the BOP’s suboxone horror show.
The most prevalent illicit drug in Federal Prisons is K2 or synthetic marijuana. K2 usually doesn’t show up on prison drug tests, while suboxone might. A recent article in Filter by Jimmy Iakovos, the nom de plume of a prisoner in Georgia, gives a realistic picture of the contours of the prison K2 epidemic.
K2 users in prison generally get caught because they “Epp Out” – prison slang for having an episode. There’s no telling what a batch of K2 will do. If you smoke a bad batch, you literally lose your mind. And if the guards catch you, it’s right to the SHU.
I saw an inmate we called “Black” (a ubiquitous prison name for dark-skinned dudes) smoke some bad shit and proceed to climb to the top of a bunk bed and yell: “Get me the fuck out of here,” at the top of his lungs for five minutes in the middle of an open-air dormitory at LSCI-Allenwood.
His cellies tried to calm him down, but it was too late. The guard had already seen him, heard him, and “pushed the button” for backup.
Within 60 seconds, five guards were having a tough time restraining a guy who was 5 foot 2 inches, 130 pounds, soaking wet.
Within 120 seconds, it was a cop convention at the front of our unit. You have to hand it to the prison cops. They have each other’s backs.
Black got hog-tied in cuffs on his hands and feet and carried out the unit’s front door, belly down, by eight or so officers. He went to the SHU. We never saw Black again. He probably got shipped to another compound with a higher security designation.
The DOJ Knows About Poison
The Department of Justice knows all about K2 and its health effects. They release a Resource Guide, along with the DEA, every year entitled Drugs of Abuse.
The 2022 Edition has this to say about the health effects of K2 on the human body:
According to the DOJ, K2 is a poison introduced into Federal Prisons as contraband by illegal means. Only a small percentage of inmates use K2, and an even smaller number will experience adverse health effects. While disturbing, the aggregate health effects on the prison population are statistically negligible.
On the other hand, seed oil is legally introduced into the Federal Bureau of Prisons Facilities through the BOP National Menu. Every prisoner, to the extent they eat, is forced to consume seed oil, which has long-term carcinogenic and toxic qualities. The aggregate effect of seed oils is substantial.
Additionally, the supply and distribution of seed oils are under the control of the BOP Wardens and Administrators. Unlike K2, they could remove seed oils from Federal Prisons by edict. They did the same thing with whole milk, banished from the National Menu, never to return.
Length of Sentences
Above, I alluded to the fact that Federal Sentences for sex offenders were generally harsher than state sentences. This is typically true without exception for all classes of crime in the Federal System. And the BOP Statistics on Sentences Imposed are telling:
Most BOP inmates serve sentences of 10+ years.
There are very few “short-term” Federal inmates. According to statistics, 52.2 percent – over half of Federal Inmates – serve ten years or more. Nearly 80 percent serve five years or more.
This means most Federal inmates are “long-haulers,” many of whom have been in prison for substantial portions of their life before their current Federal bid.
These inmates are not the drunks and crackheads who ran around killing themselves with chemicals until the DOJ “saved them” via criminal prosecution, consistent with the narrative told by the Commentator.
Do “A LOT” of Inmates Bear the Social Responsibility for Long-Term and Irreparable Harm Caused by Extended Incarceration?
The vast majority of federal inmates, if they are not dependent on the criminal justice system when they get into BOP custody, are dependent a decade later.
Experts have warned for decades that institutionalization or prisonization renders some people dependent on external constraints. They gradually lose the capacity to rely on internal organization and self-imposed personal limits to guide their actions and restrain their conduct.
When this external structure is taken away, severely institutionalized persons may no longer know how to do things on their own or how to refrain from doing those things that are ultimately harmful or self-destructive.
It is not in dispute that long-term incarceration in Federal Prisons has clear, far-reaching, and often irreparable mental health consequences that build up daily during an inmate’s extended term of incarceration. It should be a no-brainer that environmental concerns have the same effect.
So, to answer the Commentator, it’s not prisoners who are responsible for the daily issues of prison life that, in the aggregate, lead to long-term, irreparable physical and mental health issues. Once the inmate becomes the “property” of the government, it is the government that “owns” the problems.
If anyone is responsible, it is the wardens and administrators in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, if not legally (because civil liability under a deliberate indifference standard is nearly impossible), then from a policy expectation and societal costs perspective.
Can BOP wardens and administrators make small changes in daily inmate life to promote long-term physical and mental health? Of course, they can. The problem is that they are not motivated to do so. Seed oils are a perfect example.
The cost of the front-end modifications is relatively small. It would not take more than a few thousand dollars to make a changeover to healthy shorteners across the board during the BOP’s next revision to the National Menu.
As a result, the BOP produces, on aggregate, inmates who, during extended incarceration and upon release, are in worse health than they would otherwise be.
However, the back-end cost of the BOP failing to act now can mushroom into the hundreds of millions. Over a generation, healthcare costs borne by taxpayers for inmates in the prison environment and those released, most of whom remain on public benefits, become astronomically greater.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If we are unwilling to limit future (potentially astronomical) costs by simple, low-cost fixes, we must ask why?
The answer to this question is raised by the Commentator when he talks about what is and isn’t a “human rights issue” and admits there are legitimate concerns about how prisoners are treated.
This next point is premised on fairness, which has practical, philosophical, and policy dimensions. I will seek to address some of these in another post.
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Richard Luthmann is a writer, commentator, satirist, and investigative journalist with degrees from Columbia University and the University of Miami. Once a fixture in New York City and State politics, Luthmann is a recovering attorney who lives in Southwest Florida and a proud member of the National Writers Union.
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