By Pam Bailey, Rob Barton’s editor and writing collaborator
The first clue Rob was about to be forcibly removed from the D.C. jail came the previous night. A C.O. (commanding officer) ordered him to the medical clinic, saying — when asked — that he didn’t know why: Just orders.
In the clinic, an assistant measured his vital signs: temperature, blood pressure, pulse. On the phone that night, he told me, “I think they’re gonna come take me. And if that’s the case, it’ll happen fast.”
Sure enough, the next morning, Rob was woken up at 3:30 a.m. — told to eat and shower, then….wait.
“I sat downstairs from 5:30 until about 8:30,” he recounts from the destination he didn’t know until they arrived: Northern Neck Regional Jail in Virginia. “Then they chained me up and put me on a van and brought me down here.”
The chain was a “black box:” a belly chain wrapped around the waist, with the ends anchored in a rectangular, black, metal box. Rob’s hands were cuffed as well — also anchored in the box. The result is a tightly fitting restraint system.
“They give you food in little bags, but you can’t really eat because you can’t move,” Rob explained later. “I’ve seen a lot of people whose hands are swollen because their blood can’t circulate.”
The D.C. jail, a way station for district residents waiting for trials or court hearings, had been Rob’s home for about two years — first for a process we had hoped would free him (unjustly, it did not) and then due to COVID-19. Because a coronavirus-related law has given Rob another opportunity for freedom — an early parole hearing — we had hoped he would be allowed to stay in the district jail, which is decrepit but a leader when it comes to rehabilitation. However, the “powers that be” in the federal Bureau of Prisons (which rules over D.C. inmates, since the district doesn’t have its own prison), suddenly and arbitrarily decided otherwise. Virginia is just the first stop on his way back to his former federal “home” at the U.S. penitentiary in Wildwood, Florida — 837 miles and 12 hours away from his mother and friends.
“Why do they do this? And refuse to say where we’re going? The guards do it because they’re robots and they do what they’re trained to do,” shrugs Rob. (Actually, I can’t see Rob shrug, but I detect it in his voice.) “As for these arcane BOP rules, they are supposedly based on a belief that it would create a security threat if inmates knew where they were going and when. But for us, it’s a form of torture, mental torture.”
Rob is literally correct. The BOP uses frequent, forced travel as a Machiavellian form of indoctrination into its system. Insiders call it “diesel therapy.” Donzell McCauley, who is nearly 30 years into a life sentence without opportunity for parole (and one of the most principled persons I have ever met, but that’s another story to come), recalls his experience with this unique form of “therapy” on the way to his first federal prison:
“From July until early October, I was constantly on the move, being driven or flown all over the country, spending night after night in more than 50 jails, prisons and detention centers. At each stop, I was forced to strip naked and ordered to open my mouth. Lift my tongue. Raise my arms. Stick out my hands and wiggle my fingers. Lift my genitals. Turn around, bend over at the waist, spread my ass cheeks and cough. Show the bottoms of my feet. It would be near midnight before I reached a bed at each stop. Then in the morning, I was strip searched all over again, shackled, belly-chained, cuffed and black-boxed to begin another round of all-day travel. The goal is to break your spirit, and it is quite effective.”
Donnie’s story is an example of how extreme diesel therapy can be when the BOP wants to make an example of someone. But throughout a person’s incarceration, moves can be frequent and sudden.
Anthony (Pete) Petty, now awaiting a court hearing in the D.C. jail, recounts, “I’ve been to Lee County (VA), McCreary (KY), Lewisburg (PA), Coleman (FL), Florence (CO), back to Lewisburg and to Big Sandy (KY). And oh yeah, I went to Allenwood (PA). For all these places, you have to wait for an airplane. And when you’re out there on the tarmac waiting, you got khakis on, a T-shirt — because you’re not allowed to take anything with you. It could be 10 degrees outside. You’re freezing. Then the officers come and comb through your hair, make you open your mouth, stick out your tongue, all these things. It harkens back to the days of slavery. Like you’re on an auction block.”
Rob adds: “That’s a defining characteristic of incarceration. You don’t have control over basically anything. It gets to the point where you don’t allow yourself to acquire much in the way of property, like pictures, because you don’t know when you’re going to have to move. When you move, you aren’t allowed to take anything with you. You got to start all over, your mail never catches up with you, your family doesn’t know where you are. And when you get to a new place, they won’t give you a stamp, or even a piece of paper, until you’re there two weeks. On top of that, your family probably can’t afford to visit you, as far away from D.C. as you usually are. The most important thing for rehabilitation is family connections.”
Supposedly such harsh, punitive measures are necessary because the inmates are dangerous enough to require high security. Yet, Rob has been behind bars for 25 years since his original conviction at age 16. He has earned an associate degree in business administration and — while in the D.C. jail — earned a 4.0 grade point average in the Georgetown Prison Scholar program and became a mentor to younger inmates. Why, then, is he still considered in need of maximum security?
“No matter what you do, I don’t care how long you’ve been locked up, people like Rob and I who have indeterminate sentences are seen as lifers in the BOP’s eyes,” notes Pete. “We’re never given a break. That’s the reason why I truly believe D.C. needs its own prison. We could be a role model for rehabilitation. And the data show that when guys get that, the recidivism rate is really low.”
For how long will Rob be held in Northern Neck Regional Jail? We don’t know. Where will he be taken next? We can’t say for sure, but a common pattern is to be driven to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, then flown to Oklahoma, where he will be held in solitary (“the hole”). For how long? We don’t know; we just know that during this period, he will have no means to communicate with anyone. Then finally, he will arrive at USP Coleman in Wildwood, Florida, where inmates are locked down half the time.
This is life in the BOP.