Gone Are America’s Cushiest Federal Prisons

It’s always amusing to see how minimum-security prisons get characterized in the media. The days of “country club’’ prisons are long gone, and people should know better by now.

The matter arose again recently when a wayward horse trainer/doper named Jason Servis began serving his four-year sentence at Pensacola Federal Camp in the Panhandle of Florida. Servis pled guilty to doping horses, including, get this, a horse named Maximum Security, who was disqualified for interference after winning the Kentucky Derby in 2019.

A horse-industry writer noted that Servis was headed to a “cushy’’ federal prison, citing a 2009 Forbes report that ranked the nation’s “cushiest’’ prison.

Well, I can assure you that Pensacola Federal Camp is not cushy, it’s not a country club and it’s no Club Fed/Club Med. The days of “country club’’ prisons are long gone – if they ever existed.

The long-closed federal prison camp at Eglin Air Force Base, also in Florida’s Panhandle, earned the title of Club Fed for its manicured grounds, sterling ball field and the fact that some inmates could serve as groundskeepers for an adjacent golf course. But the inmates couldn’t play golf, they didn’t have their own rooms and no one would mistake the place for anything other than an open-air prison.

Federal prisons come in different shapes and sizes. There are maximum, medium, low and minimum security prisons. Prison movies – think Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke, are far from reality but neither are the urban tales of an easy life at a federal prison camp.

Most camps do not have high fences or armed guards patrolling the grounds. The inmates generally are either white-collar criminals or drug dealers with sentences of less than 10 years. There are no violent offenders in camps and violence is rare.

But there’s nothing cushy about the places, including Pensacola.

The weather is brutally hot and humid in the summer and winter mornings are downright cold. In minimum-security prisons, inmates live in barracks-style conditions. Bathrooms are communal, the food is industrial-grade, medical care is mediocre and the routine is regimented, with early wake-up and lights out for everyone at the same time.

People like investment banker Michael Milken, celebrity homemaker Martha Stewart, and New York City Police Chief Bernard Kerik all spent some time in minimum security and all have written or talked about it.

None said it was a cakewalk. Because it isn’t.

The Hall of Fame sports bettor Billy Walters devotes a chapter and a half in his bestseller Gambler: Secrets of a Life at Risk, to his time at FPC Pensacola. He writes: “Like a lot of folks, I thought I had understood and appreciated the concept of individual freedom. But I had no clue just how much we all should treasure our liberties until I lost mine. The daily decisions I take for granted – what to eat, what to wear, what time to go to bed – suddenly were stripped away. The only way to survive was to adapt and adjust to the realities of life inside the “the System.’’

Walters noted that “even in an institution without bars or walls, the inmates are penned up like cattle.’’ He lived in an 18’-by-22’ room with nine other men. Asbestos and black mold covered walls and leaky ceilings throughout the buildings, which were erected more than 50 years earlier. Air chillers ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There was no heat, not even in the Pensacola winters, when nigh-time temperatures hovered in the 40s and low 50s and occasionally dipped below freezing. No radiators, no portable heaters, even on shivering-cold days.

Cell phones were prohibited, TV viewing was decided by committee and no one got to choose their neighbors.

The New York Post did a profile of FPC Pensacola when reality TV star Todd Chrisley arrived at the institution to serve a 12 year prison term for fraud. Perks of the prison include inmates getting to play racquetball, volleyball and horseshoes. They can even gather in the prison theater for movie night. However, this was not the whole story. An inmate at FPC Pensacola penned a letter to President Joe Biden telling the president and his administration that all is not well at the camp.

Sean Pierre Jackson, 33, is serving a 36-month prison term in Pensacola for fraudulently obtaining more than $800,000 in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) loans. Jackson was not short on his complaints about Pensacola, which included no air conditioning in housing units, lack of drinking water, bolted windows, black mold and exposed asbestos, mismanaged food department, improper medication prescriptions, among other items. Jackson stated that both he and Chrisley are afraid that their complaints to the warden may land them at another prison. “Considering that both I and Todd Chrisley have been informed by multiple staff about an attempted retaliation scheme to ship us,” Jackson wrote, “under the false pretense of ‘staff safety,’ for exposing the corruption and inhumane conditions mentioned herein I am desperately seeking the assurance of immunity from your office for both Todd [Chrisley] and myself.”

Prison camp, a number of former inmates have said, is a place to keep your head down, keep quiet and do the time. The now-dated Forbes list needs updating because, even as prisons go, Pensacola is certainly not cushy.


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