“Camp Cupcake” — that’s how R.L. McFadden, the administrator of a federal prison camp near Butner, N.C., describes the minimum-security prison where convicted ex-Rep. Frank Ballance (D-N.C.) is serving four years for steering federal money to a North Carolina nonprofit he controlled.
Until recently, ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), who was sentenced to eight years and four months for taking $2.4 million in kickbacks from defense contractors, was a fellow inmate.
Part of the sprawling Butner Correctional Complex, the 328-man satellite camp where Ballance is residing boasts open-dormitory style housing, just eight prison guards and no towering fences or guard towers to prevent escape.
“It’s an easy place to do your time,” McFadden said in an interview. “This is definitely the place for your low-level offenders.”
McFadden says Ballance, now known as prisoner No. 24792-056, works as a library orderly and a peer counselor in the camp’s “I-Care” program that helps inmates adjust to life inside.
Though he failed to get his sentence reduced by arguing it was improperly linked to a case against his son, Ballance, 64, is making the most of his time. He will be released in June 2009.
“He’s a mature gentleman. He conducts himself as a gentleman. He doesn’t cause problems,” McFadden said.
“I never see him engaged in anything but walking and eating,” he added. “He doesn’t miss any meals.”
Following an unusual wave of Congressional corruption cases, Ballance is part of a quartet of ex-Congressman cons currently in federal lockup or headed there shortly.
Besides Ballance and Cunningham, former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) was sentenced Jan. 19 to 30 months in prison for accepting bribes connected to the Jack Abramoff scandal and will report to prison soon, while ex-Rep. James Traficant (Ohio) already is behind bars, serving eight years for bribery, fraud and racketeering.
Three of the four ex-Members — Ballance, Cunningham and Ney — are lucky: They are likely to serve out their sentences in federal prison camps, or minimum-security facilities without perimeter fencing, very few guards and nonviolent offenders, most of them there on drug charges. Prison riots or attacks aren’t likely to occur in these low-key facilities.
Traficant currently resides in Minnesota’s Rochester Medical Center, where inmates of all security levels are housed, with an undisclosed medical condition.
The flamboyant ex-Member has taken up painting. Though prison officials put a stop to him selling his artwork, several paintings still are listed as going for $100 plus $29 for shipping and handling through Traficant’s Web site, beammeupart.com.
According to his Web site, the 65-year-old ex-Member was recently chastised by prison authorities for purchasing too many stamps for his Christmas cards. He is slated to be released in September 2009.
But experts in the federal prison system, and ex-cons who have been there themselves, say that it would be misleading to think that Congressional felons are living the high life at a “Club Fed”-like facility, eating steak and lobster for dinner and spending their days on golf courses.
These experts say that life in a federal prison camp, especially for someone who used to be in a position of authority, is hard. While there is little supervision, and you can walk away at any time, the same rules and regulations that govern an inmate’s every move apply to low-risk inmates as to their more violent counterparts.
“Clearly, if you’re going to have to go to an institution, the minimum security places are the places to go,” said Alan Chaset, a retired Virginia attorney who specialized in reducing sentences for convicted felons.
But Chaset warned that the relative freedom of such a place could pose an overwhelming temptation.
“Particularly for folks who have lived a very comfortable life, being in a facility without a fence sometimes is a heck of a lot more difficult,” he said. “There’s going to be that phone call or that letter or whatever interaction with family that makes you want to be home.”
Chaset added, “If you look out and there’s no restriction except that which you impose on yourself, that’s tough for some folks.”
Attorney Allan Ellis, who also works to reduce sentences, said that once-powerful inmates like Congressmen may have a problem with “attitude adjustment” and boredom.
“The biggest problem being in prison is that for somebody like a Congressman, or for a former executive, it’s a complete change in mindset,” said Ellis, who publishes a “Federal Prison Guidebook” that lists the cushiest prisons in the country. “Heretofore you’ve been giving orders, telling staff what to do, making weighty decisions. And now you’re being given orders, you’re being told when to shower, what work to do. It’s 180 degrees.”
Ellis noted, “People that are more obsessive, more into being masters of the universe, have a more difficult time.”
One thing the ex-Congressmen won’t be able to take advantage of in prison is the conjugal visit, which is forbidden in the federal system. The most contact with loved ones they will be able to enjoy is a hug or kiss upon greeting during regular visitors hours.
“We don’t let them make out,” quipped Josias Salazar, the administrator of the minimum-security camp where Cunningham is housed in Tucson, Ariz.
Ellis has heard good things about the 1,300-man Federal Correctional Institute in Morgantown, W.Va., where Ney is likely to be transferred.
Ney’s attorneys argued that an alcohol abuse problem contributed to the former Congressman’s criminal behavior and Morgantown has a residential drug abuse program. If Ney, 52, is accepted into the prison’s program, which involves a half-day of “programming” five days a week, he may qualify for a reduced sentence.
“He’s doing fine. This is a tough time for him. But he’s a strong guy,” said Ney attorney Mark Tuohey.
There is not much violence at Morgantown, but one inmate attacked another with a broom handle in 2003. Instead, the prison houses such inmates as Richard Hatch, the former “Survivor” TV star who was convicted of failing to pay taxes on his $1 million winnings.
R. Keith Neely, who spent three years at Morgantown for cocaine distribution, said there weren’t many fights when he was there, just a lot of shouting. Inmates lived a “spartan” existence and traded things like canned tuna and tomatoes for favors.
Neely, now a real estate broker in Charlotte, N.C., participated in the drug abuse program and praised it.
“You just confront your issues and you confront the other people’s issues too,” Neely said. “A lot of people had problems with grieving.”
Neely described the prison’s setting as “pretty,” with a pond containing ducks and deer wandering onto the premises.
“Visually, it’s very bucolic. It’s actually set in what West Virginians refer to as a hollow,” added David Novak, a white-collar crime consultant with clients in Morgantown who served time for mail fraud at a prison camp in Eglin, Fla.
“It’s surrounded by woods,” he added. “It’s very, very pretty. There is quite a bit of wildlife in the area.”
Novak said Ney will be sleeping in a “high-density” dormitory, where 100 men would cram into a room about the size of half a basketball court.
Ney will spend at least part of his day working on “menial” tasks such as landscaping, kitchen duty and doing laundry.
“Although the food is certainly calorically adequate, I would put it on par with the type of food you would get in a school lunch program at an inner-city school,” Novak said.
The most important time of the day is a 4 p.m. “silent count” when inmates must line up by their bunk beds to be counted. After that, they are free to spend their evenings at one of three libraries or exercising.
Novak cautioned Ney not to assume an “elitist” attitude and be tempted to befriend prison officials who may seem more socially equal than other inmates.
“Inmates, despite urban legend, are not animals. They tend to be pretty kind human beings,” Novak said. “When you see a new person on the compound, it’s almost taken for granted that most people are going to say something to them that’s kind.”
Cunningham, now prisoner No. 94405-198, will spend his days in similar surroundings at a prison camp 10 miles southeast of Tucson, where mountains and a ski resort are nearby. He is set to be released in June 2013.
Camp administrator Salazar said the 65-year-old former Member arrived at the 128-man camp about three weeks ago.
The camp is spanking new — it opened in June 2006 — and is part of a new $100 million high-security complex that houses some of the nation’s “meanest” prisoners, according to the Arizona Daily Star.
Ellis said that the main task of the camp inmates was to provide the labor to finish construction on the high-security facility. “It’s there to help finish up the new adjacent penitentiary,” Ellis said. “It’s purely a work camp. There’s not a heck of a lot of programming there” such as education, he said.
Inmates spend their time working eight-hour days, Salazar said, on such things as groundskeeping, food service and mechanical duties. They sleep on bunk beds in open dormitories with concrete floors. There are three TV rooms, but there is only basic service. “We don’t get a lot of channels,” Salazar said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s all that nice. It’s not an ugly place,” Salazar said. “This is not a place that I would really want to be in.”