Jonson Miller, a graduate student at Virginia Tech university and committed peace activist, spent fifty-seven days at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institute in West Virginia this summer for a trespassing conviction he received after protesting the continuing operation of The Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation [WHISC]. WHISC, formerly known as the School of the Americas [SOA], operates as a sort of military training ground for South Americans looking for United States aid in ridding their countries of rebels and anti-government groups. The interview took place over several sessions, including through regular old mail while he was still “down.”*
*Down = when you’re doing time, it’s called being down.
Q: So, can I ask the question we all wonder about? About personal hygiene practices and the dangers therein?
Miller: Most people are very clean here. The only danger is if you shower without shower shoes. You’ll get unbelievable foot fungi and other such things.
Q: Oh hell, I was trying to avoid saying it right out. The soap and shower ordeal. If you drop it, can you pick it up? Are there repercussions? How’s the “he’s my bitch” social dimension in a prison of activists and drug dealers?
Miller: Yes, you can pick it up! I haven’t heard of any rape here. However, there is much consensual sex. We have showers with stalls here. From what I hear, rape isn’t nearly as prevalent in even the high security penitentiaries as people believe. But I haven’t been there.
Q: Okay, thanks for letting me ask that. Shifting back now, we were talking about reading or lack thereof, in the hole. Out of the hole, what did you read?
Miller: I read four books in the Dune series. I got a lot out of those. Seriously, I really liked them. I read the autobiography of Nelson Mandela. And Why We Can’t Wait, by Martin Luther King, Jr. about the 1963 Birmingham protests.
Q: Do you get to listen to the radio? I’m assuming no TV. No TV right?
Miller: We do have TVs, but you have to buy a radio to listen to either the radio or TV. But I didn’t buy one, because I don’t want to give them the money.
Q: Did others watch it a lot? Like, is there a big room where they all hang out and watch The Practice or Court TV?
Miller: There was definitely much TV viewing. There were three small TV rooms in our housing unit. Either CNN or Fox News was pretty much always on. There was always a TV preacher on in the morning before “work call.” Soap operas in the afternoon. These are actually great for people in prison, because they have very long and continuous stories that you have to keep up with. I imagine it really helps to pass the time. There are also movies each weekend. Sports were another big draw. And just like soap operas, they really help to pass the time.
Q: You’re better off without it. A few weeks ago I was grading tests while watching television, and I ended up watching about 2/3 of a really bad made-for-TV movie about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. I couldn’t tell if it was a dull and tired story because that’s how all bands were, or if it was because this was a made-for-TV movie, you know?
Miller: No, but my heart aches for your suffering. Poor me, I’m only in prison.
Q: We sort of touched on this, but then glided past, so let me go here again. What’s the political atmosphere there? Different views?
Miller: As I said, few people have love for the government, but most people seem fairly conservative. There are many libertarians. I get along better with them than I do conservatives. There are also a few Black Nationalists. They’re cool too.
Q: What are they like? Like in the movies? Loud and angry? I didn’t know they were still around.
Miller: The Nation of Islam and other groups are still around. One of my best friends here is in the Nation of Islam. He doesn’t care that I’m white. And we’re both angry at the government and racism. But he is very pleasant and full of laughter.
Q: Tell me this: how do all these people get to the camp in the first place?
Miller: As opposed to the higher security places? Basically, you either get convicted of some misdemeanor or a non-violent crime (like me) and they send you here. Or you work your way down. This place, the work camp, is a satellite area separate from the main correctional facility, which is known as “behind the fence.”
Q: Do they keep close tabs on you? Are the guards bastards?
Miller: You mean Cops.* You have to see, well, it’s like this. First off, they are Federal employees. Keep that in mind. And besides that, they are prison employees. So, it’s the laziest of the lazy. You know, they have snitches inside. These guys, these snitches, think they’re scoring points with the Cops, but the Cops hate them. It’s just more work for them.
*Cops = anyone on prison staff and any inmate collaborator.
Q: What do they snitch about?
Miller: Things like having contraband. Or sneaking to the woods to get stuff smuggled in. Stuff like that.
Q: How do you go to the woods and get things smuggled? You can just walk out?
Miller: I don’t know. I didn’t see anything. I didn’t hear anything. I don’t know anything.
Q: Don’t they keep track of the prisoners at all?
Miller: They have different ways, yeah. There’s Count Time,* when they make you go to your cell or cubicle. There’s Recall** too. That’s when you have to just go back to your housing unit. It’s a lower level Count Time.
*Count Time = happens at four and at nine. At four you have to stand outside and be counted. At nine you can be in your bed or someplace similar, and be counted there, so long as everyone is in their place.
** Recall = When you have to go back to your housing unit. So, for Jonson, if he was out playing the banjo with his band of Fundamentalists and Black Nationalists, they’d have to all get back to their cells.
Q: What happens if someone’s gone?
Miller: It depends which kind of count we’re talking about. It’s funny. They have Census* too. The thing with Census is that the Cops go around and count people. But they only have to be within ten of the correct number.
*Census = when the Cops go around and count all the people they can find. Different than Recall, since the prisoners aren’t called in, and Count Time (same reason).
Q: You’re serious? That’s wild. Do you think that’s like a negotiated number in the Cops’ contract? Maybe they used to have to be within six, but during the last contract talks they bartered up to ten?
Miller: They are federal employees.
Q: How many people are we talking, in the prison? And how long are these guys there?
Miller: The main area? There are 4,000 prisoners total, I think. But only 400 in the work camp. The thing is, people can be in the main prison for decades. In the work camp, I think three years is probably the longest. There’s this one guy, he was a Weatherman from the sixties. He’s been in jail for, I think, twenty-seven years.
Q: What did he do?
Miller: He broke into a National Guard armory and stole stuff. And they tried to blow up some communications towers. Stuff like that. But, he’s worked down to the camp here. And now he’s on this last six months.
Q: Do you workout a lot? As far as I know, prison is all about working out and clanging metal cups against bars.
Miller: We don’t have bars here — just concrete cubicles — so there’s no clanging. But there is lots of working out. Not that I do any of it.
Q: You know what I wonder about? Do people barter a lot? I can picture guys lifting weights and hanging out in an open space, but making deals on the side. Like working out is a front. What’s the economy like in there?
Miller: I don’t know about it being a front, but as for bartering, the black market currency is cans of mackerel. They cost about $1 in the commissary — like a giant silver dollar. You can pay someone some cans to buff the floor of your cell or do your laundry.
Q: Is it worth it? I can’t picture buffed floors being a priority. Laundry, maybe. But floors?
Miller: Actually, having a buffed floor is required. The Cops can harass you if your cell isn’t clean. They don’t usually do anything, but one time a Cop cut off the TVs because he thought our housing unit wasn’t clean enough. But prisoners do barter for other things.
Q: Such as?
Miller: Food, ingredients. Some people did some cooking with food bought from the commissary and the microwave in our housing unit. It’s like Taco Bell. You only have four ingredients: refried beans, rice, summer sausage, and Goya seasoning. But, somehow, folks managed to come up with a dozen different recipes.
Q: So maybe they were watching the Food Network.
Miller: We don’t have that many channels — at least I don’t think we do. Hell, I don’t actually know; I never watch it. You have to understand, though, that bartering is basically necessary. We’re not provided with our basic necessities. It’s small stuff, but, for example, you have to buy your own nail clippers from the commissary. You have to have them, but they won’t give them to you. Phone calls cost $3 for fifteen minutes. Stamps are thirty-seven cents each. How are you supposed to get this stuff if you are making 10 cents/hour working for the prison?
Q: What would happen if the prisoners just didn’t do the work?
Miller: The prisoners often don’t have anything else, so they take the jobs. But the cops would flip if we all suddenly refused to buy anything from the commissary or to take their slave jobs. What would be the point of this place if we refused? They might as well send us all home at that point.
Q: Okay, I’ll leave it there for now. I’ll see you soon, huh?
Miller: Yeah, thanks for the questions. See you on the outside.