I was doing time at FCI Fort Dix, a low security prison in New Jersey that housed mobsters, drug dealers, drug mules, white collar guys, fraudsters, snitches, political prisoners and undocumented immigrants in 2001 when the Twin Towers crashed to the ground in New York; the events changed everything dramatically, not just out in the world, but even for those of us locked up and isolated deep
inside the system.
Author: Seth Ferranti
I had a midnight orderly job in my unit and I remember being woken up by my cellmate who told me the news. I immediately went downstairs to the TV room and watched the images of the Twin Towers burning. People jumping out of the buildings. It was crazy because this was live TV. Staff and prisoners a like were in a frenzy. "I remember being in prison on September 11th," says Michael Santos. Santos, who now runs Prison Professor, did 26 years in the Feds and was only about halfway through his sentence when we were struck. "At the time, I'd been incarcerated for 14 years and I had 12 more years of imprisonment awaiting me. A friend came to my room to tell me that our country was under attack."
We were close to New York so a lot of inmates were worried about their families, and everyone was on the phones trying to see what was up. "As a prisoner, I had limited access to the telephone," Santos recalls. "Many people from New York were confined with me. Some lost family members or friends in those attacks." Unable to reach out, we could only sit and wait for news to come to us.
Widespread paranoia and forced
It was a paranoid time in the world and inside our nation's correctional facilities. People were scared and the government seemed vulnerable. Amin, a Sunni Muslim prisoner who did 20 calendars in the Feds says, "They immediately locked up all high-profile inmates everywhere," as if they were suddenly going to rise up and take advantage of a seemingly defenseless authority. "They took all of our Islamic books and then gave us the books that they wanted us to have"—books free of anything that might promote camaraderie among Muslim inmates. Some facilities even invaded Islamic practices, even appointing imams without the input of those practicing. There are still complaints by Muslim inmates who are being denied halal meals necessary for their faith.
"What I noticed after 9/11 is that institutions started taking note to odd behaviorisms [that were usually overlooked]," says a Brooklyn native we'll call Rock, who is serving a life sentence and currently housed at FCI Otisville. "If you had a crew, group, gang or any form of unity, they actually concentrated on you to figure out what your philosophy or ideology was. They monitored the phone system and mail extra hard." Reading materials were all under scrutiny, and priviledges seemed to disappear if there was any sort of suspicion that you were "affiliated" in any manner. "They concentrated a whole lot of time, energy, and attention to those they deemed a threat to our country, and if you conducted yourself like a person who didn't appreciate the latitude/laws of this land; they could make your bid very uncomfortable."
This new scrutiny even came down on me, despite my attempts to keep a low profile, to show dedication to my family who lived nearby and visited often, and my dedication to my future freedom by pursuing a bacherlor's degree and starting a writing career while behind bars.
After September 11th, the Federal Bureau of Prisons took “several significant steps to limit the threat of radicalization” including:
INCREASING SUPERVISION within the federal system so that no inmate-led religious groups meet without 100 percent staff supervision
INSTALLING ELECTRONIC MONITORING DEVICES in chapels
INCREASED SCRUTINY of religious volunteers and contractors
SCRUTINIZING THE CONTENT of religious materials entering prisons and being presented to inmates
"A White Boyz Tale"
I had found a little success getting published in prison newsletters and even had a story written about me in Rolling Stone. I was trying to let the outside world know about the 25-year sentence I'd received for a first-time nonviolent drug offense. I had interest from a producer at MTV who wanted to make a documentary about my case and compare the time I got to the time Wall Street guys like Michael Milken were serving for their fraudulent schemes. I was also working on several pieces for magazines like Penthouse about prison life.
Just as I was making headway in my career as a prison writer, 9/11 happened and all interest in the aforementioned projects dwindled. Worse, the new protocols led me to being transferred to a higher level security prison for closer supervision due to my writing. In July of 2001, I had a piece of fiction published in Don Diva magazine entitled A White Boyz Tale in which I fantasized about convicting all of the politicians, prosecutors and wardens responsible for crimes committed against the American people in the guise of the ruinous "war on drugs." The piece didn't go over too well with my keepers, but prior to the attack they could do nothing about it beyond censoring the article.
Shortly after September 11th, it was all gloves off in the Bureau of Prison. The rights of prisoners seemed to disappear overnight. I thought the anger over my piece had faded, but I was informed by my unit team that action was being taken against me due to the fact that the article depicted a threat against law enforcement officials—it didn’t matter that it was referring to a future, hypothetical event which would probably never occur, or that it was journalistic hyperbole in the most extreme sense. All that mattered was that the climate of the country had changed, and no one questioned authoritarian motivations anymore.
I was deemed a security threat and subsequently found myself rounded up with all the Muslims, inmates from the Middle East (regardless of political or religious affiliation) and anyone affiliated with militias. We were transferred to FCI Fairton, a medium-to-high-security prison, just a couple of hours a way.
The Pentagon’s 1033 program, which authorizes the transfer of military hardware to state agencies, has distributed over
in combat equipment from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to local police across the United States
A new demographic behind bars
The same push for the stiffer penalties which had handed me a 25-year sentence for a first time, non-violent offense had another unexpected outcome, one that is unique to a post-9/11 world: the incarceration of veterans returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Thirty years of anti-violence legislation has increased the penalties for all crimes in our country," says Jude Litzenberger, Executive Director of the California Veterans Legal Task Force. "General intent has replaced specific mens rea (criminal intent) for most crimes so prosecutors can more easily secure convictions and mandatory stiff penalties for certain behavior."
Most of the veterans who end up behind bars are there because of mental health conditions acquired while in combat, or trying to readjust to life back home after returning from the violence they faced abroad. "Research continues to draw a link between substance abuse and combat-related trauma and/or mental illness and we know that many communities have seen increases in the number of veterans become involved in the justice system due to these issues," says Chris Deustch, director of communications at Justice for Vets. "This can be exacerbated by difficulty securing employment, unstable housing, and family strife."
Vets, being trained not to show weakness to enemies, will turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with mental health conditions from military trauma instead of asking for help. "This early success in self-treatment causes these veterans to deny they need help or seek it until there is a crisis, often an arrest," Litzenberger explains. And because of general intent legislation, courts overlook the mental health conditions that "led them to offend." And just like that, a whole new demographic was created behind bars.
The Department of Justice and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimate that there are
veterans in the corrections system.
Reconciling with the past
Looking back now I can understand my treatment; prison officials were looking for enemies around every corner at the time, just like everyone else. And because I had the audacity to criticize the government and law enforcement, I made myself into an enemy too. There was a heightened sensitivity in our country and people were in a state of fear. I felt self-righteous about it at the time, but in retrospect I can intellectualize the reaction. Not that I agree, but I can at least understand.
I was released in February 2015 after serving 21 years. I have noticed that a lot of things are different in the world, mostly how much technology has changed. But a lot of things are different due to what happened on 9/11. Going to the airport and traveling by air is completely different to me; I remember the first time I went through the security check points and how I had to have my toothpaste and other toiletries in a plastic bag, and how I had to take them out of my suitcase. That was a trip for me, but just a normal part of life for people nowadays. I visited some friends and Washington DC and went to the White House and everything is blocked off now. You used to be able to drive on the street right in front of the White House, but now its all barricaded. There are cameras everywhere—something I had grown used to in prison, but didn't expect on the outside, along with metal detectors and checkpoints everywhere.
But I have found that, as the fears from 9/11 reside, hope springs anew. Hope is eternal and even after spending 21 years in the netherworld of corruption and violence I am glad to finally be free, even in a world where security seems to trump the individual freedoms of the unincarcerated.
Seth Ferranti is a multi-media writer and journalist who pens true crime and prison related stories for Vice and The Fix among others. He started his career in journalism while incarcerated and is now continuing it in the real world. Read more of his work at Gorilla Convict.