Houston Chronicle

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Reprinted From – January 3, 2006 Issue

Prison camp shortage forces an uneasy mix Inmates file suit after cost-cutting plans leave them in the company of violent offenders

By Mark Babineck

Hundreds of miles from their homes and surrounded by violent criminals, a group of inmates at the La Tuna Satellite federal prison near El Paso yearn for the days when serving time meant freedom of movement, rare body searches and a bunk within a day’s drive of their families. But a reduction of minimum-security camps, some of which had been ridiculed in the past as easygoing “Club Fed” facilities, has meant nonviolent offenders are shoulder-to-shoulder with those considered to be more dangerous by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

“A number of the inmates express a great deal of pride concerning their gang affiliations,” Lawrence Jay Levine, serving a 10-year sentence for selling methamphetamine, wrote in a lawsuit.  Levine helped fashion the lawsuit on behalf of himself and dozens of other inmates transferred to low-security La Tuna earlier this year from the minimum-security Nellis Federal Prison Camp near Las Vegas, which is closing next month as a cost-cutting measure.

The rise in classification from a minimum- to low-security prison has meant a culture shock for many Nellis transfers. Inmates say once-sporadic searches are now regular, the inmate population is tougher, and movement is closely regulated and monitored, even trips to the bathroom.

Levine and a band of former Nellis residents are suing the Bureau of Prisons, demanding they be returned to minimum security and moved farther west than El Paso, which for many of them is well beyond the 500-mile maximum distance from home the prison system seeks to maintain.

Unavailability of federal minimum-security camps is a festering issue, prison consultant Ed Bales said. The inmates’ problem is that the government appears to have neither the room nor the inclination to help. “they’re seeing a different element if they’re in anything higher than a camp status. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Mike Truman said low-security units are designed to house minimum- and low-security prisoners together, meaning those with the lowest classification are not technically out of place under government rules.”Some minimum-security inmates in low (security prisons) are allowed to go outside the gate and do work, such as cut grass,” Truman said.

Levine has been a frequent jailhouse litigator in his more than seven years in custody, but some fellow inmates supporting the lawsuit are recent arrivals who say they just want to serve their time in an appropriate setting
Ginny Carter, wife of La Tuna inmate Robert Carter, is helping file the paperwork on behalf of unhappy Nellis transfers at La Tuna. She contends her 60-year-old husband deserves to be at a prison camp after pleading guilty to a $17 million insurance fraud scheme.  The judge recommended a minimum-security camp, and Nellis had been ideal for the Carters because most of their family is in California. She said the move 590 miles east to Texas, coupled with the hike in security classification, was a double hardship.

“The reason they established the camps is to isolate these people from that (harder core) environment,” said Carter, who has pleaded innocent to charges related to her husband’s scheme. “My husband certainly accepted his responsibility. I don’t think they should be coddled, but they should have some dignity.”

Bales, the consultant, said recent closures of prison camps were blamed on cost-cutting, but the federal prison system also appears eager to shed the “Club Fed” legacy.

Nellis, along with the Eglin camp in Florida and the Seymour Johnson camp in North Carolina, were preferred destinations for white-collar criminals and other low-risk inmates, All are attached to Air Force bases, where they provide convict labor, and all three are in the process of shutting down.
Facilities with relaxed environments and cush work details no longer are priorities for the prison bureau. I  think it’s the main reason they closed the facilities,” said Bales, who added that many camps now are located in complexes adjacent to tougher units. Wardens who oversee the multi-unit complexes tend to treat prisoners in camps more strictly, however, minimum-security prisoners typically coexist well with low- or even medium-security inmates.

Ginny Carter said the prison system should try harder to accede to court recommendations on classification.

“Why bother having judges recommend how to process people, then not follow it?” she said.

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