|Sandstone as it looks today--much as it did nearly 40 years ago. It is now a low security facility.
Note—This is the seventh installment in my memoir series about my experiences with the Draft and Justice System during the Vietnam War era. The first six previously appeared in The Third City blog and were re-posted here. This is an entirely new post continuing the saga.
Early one morning the guard in the isolation booth that jutted into our unit at Cook County Jail called six names over the speaker with instructions to gather our belongings and bedding and report to the portal. I was one of the names. The others were also Federal prisoners, all of whom had come over from the Dirksen Federal Building in the same van weeks earlier. Evidently Federal Marshalls were done shooting at Indians at Wounded Knee and once again available to transport prisoners.
I rolled my thin pillow, second jail jump suit, spare socks and underwear in my blanket. A small paper bag accommodated my personal hygiene stuff, Bugler tobacco and rolling papers I bought at the Commissary, a yellow legal tablet, Bic pen, envelopes, and stamps—all of my worldly goods at that point.
One by one were we allowed to exit through the portal by the guard station where we were relieved of our bedding and jail clothing, patted down, and handcuffed. We were once again led through the bewildering maze of hallways and locked gates, the din of the whole damn jail ringing in our ears, to a room off of the service garage. There we deposited the clothing we were wearing and subjected to the thorough strip search known as the dance. We were given back the civilian clothing we wore at the time we arrived at the jail. Large manila envelopes containing the personal items taken from us at the time were handed to one of the two Marshalls in attendance. Some paperwork was signed and we were the official property of the Feds.
We were again handcuffed with our wrists in front of us, hobbled by shackles around our ankles, and chained together around our waists. We walked the short distance to an unmarked white van. Each of us was seated and our waist chains were attached to clips on the floor. Our leg shackles were removed. We were told that the Marshalls would kindly allow us to remain handcuffed in front, but that it was a privilege which could be revoked if there was the slightest breech of decorum. A long trip with our hands behind us would be excruciatingly uncomfortable.
After we were all secure we rolled out of the dim cave of a garage into the first blinding sunlight I had seen in over a month.
It would be almost 800 mile trip from Chicago to the Federal Correctional Facility at Sandstone, Minnesota, which was about 65 miles from Duluth. It was about eight hours of driving time plus a couple of short meal breaks, and a potty stop or two.
I remember three of my traveling companions clearly, but not one of their names. One was a Black man in his early fifties, snazzily dressed in a sharp burgundy three piece suit and topped with an impeccably barbered salt-and-pepper Afro. He was friendly and a glib talker. He was going up on some sort of securities fraud rap.
The second guy was a small, meek looking guy named Ted with Greek last name and a balding head who had suddenly taken up sticking up banks in his middle age. He had hit three or four before he was nabbed. Luckily for him, he had only used notes and never showed a weapon. Otherwise he would be headed to hard time at Leavenworth, Atlanta, or some other unpleasant destination.
The third one was the most pathetic of us all. He was also middle aged, the pharmacist/proprietor of a small Chicago drug store. He was accused by the IRS of co-mingling his personal and business income in the process committing some sort of tax evasion. Since he essentially was the company, he didn’t understand what he did wrong. It was a technical violation which ordinarily would have been settled by payment of back taxes plus interest and fines. But the Feds had selected him, pretty much at random, to be an example with which to scare the hell out of other would-be offenders. The poor, plump little man was bewildered and distraught, his entire life in ruins, his store lost, his family shamed, and his respectable ass on its way to prison.
We exchanged these tales of woe on the way up, interspersed with long periods of silence and boredom as the miles went by. We ate when the van needed gas. The Marshalls brought us food in a bag from whatever roadside diner or hamburger stand was near-by. We were allowed to stretch our legs a little—as far as our fetters allowed. We were allowed to go to the restroom one at a time with a Marshall standing guard at the door. We were even un-handcuffed so we could un-zip ourselves hold our peckers to pee. Another privilege, we were told.
In the gloaming we finally pulled up to the prison, which looked to us like a low, broad building, more like a high school from the outside than what I imagined the slammer would look like.
We were disgorged into a large brightly lit room. The Assistant Warden and two or three guards were waiting for us. They signed paper work for us from the Marshalls and took the envelopes of our personal possessions. Then were put through the Dance again and told to put our clothes back on. Back in our clothes, the Warden “welcomed us” with the standard lecture which boiled down to “don’t give us any shit or we we’ll send you to Leavenworth.” We were handed a pamphlet with prison rules, visitation info, and the like.
Then we were taken for our uniforms. Cons behind a counter gave us each the once over and handed us two sets which might or might not fit. Either way, they could give a rat’s ass. If they didn’t fit you would trade later with other prisoners. We were told to strip once again and put on one set. Our clothes, were told would be sent home. We never saw them again. The uniform was just khakis—long sleeved shirts and pants, an olive drab web belt with a plain brass buckle, white t-shirt and shorts, olive socks, and high top black boots. Minus the insignia, we looked like 1950’s GIs. We were also issued bedding—this time including sheets, pillow cases, and a more substantial blanket.
We were told to fall in for a march to our quarters. We emerged from the intake facilities into a large open quad criss-crossed by several sidewalks surrounded by buildings—a row of two story tiers on my left, more housing units and other structures I couldn’t identify on my right, and larger buildings across the way including, I learned the mess hall, an auditorium, and various prison shops and facilities. We were herded to the right, arriving at a unit nearest the administrative wing.
We entered into a large day room with card tables toward the rear and Naugahyde covered chairs and sofas mixed with fiberglass bucket chairs arrayed in front of a TV set on a cart. This, we were told was the processing unit where we would be held a few day until receiving our regular billets and work assignments.
Off to the left was our accommodations—an open barracks with steel-framed cots lining both wall with a footlocker along side. We were told to pick an unmade bunk. I got one along the inner wall where windows opened onto the Quad. We quickly made our beds—I struggled with getting the flat sheet to fit the thin mattress. We would have to learn quickly, we were told. There would be daily inspections.
At the head of the room was a rack containing paper packages of Tops tobacco, little cotton sacks or Bull Durham, rolling papers, and books of matches. These were free. In those distant days the Feds figured smokes were a necessity and knew that we would not yet have our commissary accounts set up, or would never have any money in them. Like I said a long time ago.
We had arrived too late for dinner. I was hungry, but had to put up with it. It would be the last time I was ever hungry in that joint.
I rolled and smoked a few in the day room, and puttered around my bunk. Lights out was at ten o’clock. We were first lined up by our beds for a roll call—of our numbers. I almost failed to respond to mine as I barely recognized it. We would be counted by our beds four times a day—before being marched to the mess hall for meals and at lights out.
I lay in the bunk eyes wide open unable to sleep. Soon I was serenaded by snoring, quiet whispering, and the gentle moans of guys beating their meat. I thought I heard the horn of a distant diesel locomotive. Without expecting it, sleep overcame me.
Wake up was at six in the morning. Prison was turning out to be a lot like the Army I was serving time for avoiding. We showered, shaved, and shit quickly in the latrine which was off of the day room, got dressed, made our bunks, and waited for roll call and inspection.
Units were marched off in some kind of shambling formation in rotation to the mess hall for breakfast. As the rookies, our unit went last. No matter. They did not run out of food. The mess hall was large and set up like a cafeteria. Grabbing a tray I was astounded to be offered a selection—eggs fried, boiled, or scrambled; bacon and link sausage; biscuits and gravy; flap jacks with real butter and syrup; oatmeal and cold cereal; white and whole wheat toast. There was fresh, good coffee with plenty of cream and sugar, little glasses of orange or apple juice, white or chocolate milk in cartons.
It turns out that in those days the Feds figured that well fed prisoners caused less trouble. No food riots like regularly erupted in state joints where they tried to penny pinch on the grub and considered lousy food part of the sentence. In fact, way back then the Federal prison system was considered far more humane in every detail that state penitentiaries of whatever level of security. That is no longer the case. During the tough-on-crime years of the Regan Administration, the whole philosophy of rehabilitating prisoners was tossed out in favor of rigorous punishment, super high security, and the longest sentences in the world. Now days all but a handful of country club facilities for white collar criminals and former Congressmen are dreaded by all.
At any rate, the same largess was available for lunch and dinners. Entrée selection at dinner might have been limited to just a couple, but they were well prepared with ample portions and a selection of deserts. No wonder meal times were the highlights of our days. While I was there I actually porked up.
Sandstone in those days was considered a medium security facility, but on the low end of that scale. Tougher than the low security prison farms, but lacking the cell-blocks of harder joints. Experienced cons assured me you could do time there “standing on your head.”
The first day I received a work assignment as the unit orderly. The duties were not onerous—a couple of hours a day of collecting trash, sweeping and mopping, dusting, and cleaning the latrine. The most onerous duty was once a week scouring the shower tile grout with a tooth brush to get out the mildew stain.
During the first few days, as we were being processed, I was the only guy with a work assignment, meaning that I had to do my chores in between my physical exam; batteries of intelligence, personality, and aptitude tests, and a lengthy intake interview with the assistant warden. I also filled out forms listing my preferences for assignment, although I was told that those were not a major consideration.
Inmates could be assigned to work around the prison from coveted light duty like administrative clerks, library, and dispensary workers, to the kitchen and mess hall, maintenance, and the dreaded laundry. Trustees could be assigned grounds care and the large garden which took them outside the barbed-wire perimeter. You could also be assigned to education and job training. Finally, you could be assigned to Prison Industries working for a few cents an hour for either your commissary or going home money. In those days Federal inmates were forbidden from producing anything for the market that might compete with free labor. Items were produced for use by the Bureau of Prison, other Federal agencies, and the Armed Forces. I can’t remember what the Sandstone shops produced back then.
Most guys got their assignments and were on their way out of the intake unit within about five days. Not me. Either I was the best damn orderly they ever had or they couldn’t figure out what to do with me. I stayed there for a month as cons came and went around me.
That made it hard to make friends. But there was one young guy from Kansas City who was up on some sort of charge concerning a radical bombing plot. Given our ages and background we got close for a few days. He told his story, I told mine. We philosophized. One night the conversation drifted toward snitches. I told him self-righteously that I could never turn evidence against my friends and fellow workers. He fell silent and withdrew. I later realized that he was at Sandstone instead of drawing hard time in a high security joint, because he must have made a deal with the prosecutors.
After my intake tests were completed, my duties as orderly gave me more free time than most. I checked books out of the library—a thick biography of Napoleon and some science fiction novels come to mind. I wrote letters, of course. I was listed as a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International and a lovely middle-aged woman from England adopted me and began correspondence.
Work assignments were generally over by 3 pm unless you were in food service. We were free for two hours to use the exercise yard, a large area outside the walls surrounded by wire. There was a soft ball diamond, a football field, cinder track, a weight lifting area, tennis and volleyball courts, basketball hoops, and even a little six-hole prisoner build mini-golf course. I tried the putt-putt course a couple of times, but beings earnestly un-athletic by inclination spent my exercise time simply ambling around the cinder track and soaking up the Minnesota sunshine. If it was raining, there was a well stocked gym, too.
So my days and weeks went until they finally figured out what to do with me.
Next—Sandstone Marking Time.