Ex-congressman may go to 'Club Fed' if he's lucky

Ex-congressman may go to 'Club Fed' if he's lucky

December 7, 2005 UNION-TRIBUNE

Trading up to a Rancho Santa Fe mansion helped get former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham into trouble. Now, it looks like he'll have to trade down to a barracks he'll share with 100 other men.

Instead of 10 armoires, Cunningham's belongings will have to fit in a locker.

And he can say goodbye to sleigh beds. In his new residence, he'll have to heave himself onto a thin mattress on the top bunk, where the new guys always get stuck.

Legal experts say the eight-term congressman who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion Nov. 28 is almost certainly looking at several years, and as much as a decade, in federal prison.

Cunningham won't know where he'll be sent until after his sentencing Feb. 27. The best – and most likely – scenario for him, former inmates say, would be a minimum-security prison camp.

The federal prison system has several levels of penitentiaries, from maximum-security facilities with razor wire and guard towers to fenceless camps.

"Prison is bad," said Barry Minkow, who spent more than seven years in various levels of federal prisons for defrauding investors out of more than $20 million in the ZZZZ Best Co. scam in the mid-1980s. "But if you're going to be in prison, camp is the way to go."

Dubbed "Club Fed" because of the lack of razor wire, the campuslike settings and such features as tennis courts, camps are nothing like the violent prisons in movies like "The Shawshank Redemption," former federal prison inmates and criminologists say. Even so, a prison camp is no country club – especially for a 63-year-old man accustomed to power and luxury.

"There is no Club Fed," said Stephen Richards, co-author of the handbook "Behind Bars: Surviving Prison" who spent three years in federal prisons for a drug conviction in the late 1980s. "In the free world, people with money and privilege get their way. In prison that will not help him. It will hurt him. All of the prisoners will know he's a congressman. If he acts like a congressman, he's in deep trouble."

Staying out of trouble won't be all that difficult, said Minkow, now pastor of the Community Bible Church in Mira Mesa.

It's a myth that most of the 188,232 federal inmates are white-collar criminals. About 53 percent are drug offenders, 14 percent are in for weapons violations and 11 percent for immigration violations, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics. Less than 1 percent are in for banking or insurance fraud, counterfeiting or embezzlement.

Still, violence in camps is rare because inmates don't want to risk getting sent to tougher medium-or maximum-security facilities.

"He's not going to have to worry about being bullied or extorted or beaten up or anything like that," Minkow said. "We're not going to give up a camp to go sock the congressman in the head."

Nor will he get any special treatment. "The Federal Bureau of Prisons will treat him the same as every other prisoner," Richards said. "He will wear the same clothes. Eat the same food. Sleep in the same crowded, noisy dormitories. He will be one of the people again."

Cunningham's lawyers likely will request that he be permitted to drive himself to prison. Federal inmates are permitted to bring a religious medal like a cross, dentures, one pair of eyeglasses, a plain wedding ring and legal paperwork.

Although he can request to do his time at a specific camp to be near family, the Federal Bureau of Prisons makes the final decision and can move an inmate at any time. (Martha Stewart asked for Connecticut but got West Virginia.)

One choice might be the Lompoc penitentiary, which is in a grove of towering eucalyptus trees outside the Santa Barbara wine country.

Carole Santos' husband, Michael, who is serving 45 years for a drug conviction, was transferred there this summer.

During visiting hours, the couple can embrace and kiss when they greet each other, and again when she leaves. Federal prisons do not permit conjugal visits.

She buys lunch from a vending machine, which they share at a picnic table outside. An inmate offers to take a picture for $1. "It looks like a beautiful park," said the Seattle woman, who posts her husband's writings about prison life on his Web site, michaelsantos.net. "It's a very soothing environment."

But inmates never forget where they are, former prisoners say.

Inmates are strip-searched after every visit. Each prison has its own peculiar rules that inmates must abide by, such as keeping only five books at a time or only two shoes and three pairs of socks, Santos said.

Prisoners also adhere to a strict schedule, usually: Lights on at 6 a.m., then breakfast in the cafeteria, then work.

Most federal inmates are assigned a job. Cunningham most likely will start out washing pots and pans, cleaning shower stalls, buffing floors or mowing grass for 12 cents a hour. If he behaves, he could move up to a higher-paying, more desirable job that might allow him to go off-site for short periods of time. Top pay is $1.15 an hour.

At Lompoc, Minkow worked as a baker and later collected trash, which meant driving to the dump on nearby Vandenberg Air Force base, a luxury for him at the time. Michael Santos works in the dairy, milking cows.

At 4 p.m., inmates stand next to their bunk for a daily head count. Dinner is at 5 p.m.

During their free time, Lompoc inmates can go to the library, which is in a trailer on the grounds, play basketball, stroll the walking paths or watch television while wearing a headset in the common room. Lights out is 11:30 p.m.

Cunningham's military service may help him cope, said Jeffrey Ian Ross, co-author of "Behind Bars: Surviving Prison" and associate professor of criminology at University of Baltimore. Even so, he said, "it's tough for anybody who has gained a considerable amount of respect and power" to have lost so much control.

In any case, Cunningham will have plenty of time to reconsider his past politics. In 1995, he co-authored a bill called the "No Frills Prison Act" to prevent "luxurious" prison conditions. The bill prohibited unmonitored phone calls, in-cell TVs, coffee pots or hot pots, viewing of R-rated movies, food better than what enlisted Army personnel get or unauthorized hygiene products or clothing.

Luckily for him, the bill fizzled.

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