‘I Will Not Be Silenced’
Prison controlled me for 15 years, but now I’m speaking out
Earlier this year, Leonard Schenk reached out to me through the federal email system, saying he had heard I was working on a report to document the systemic human rights violations within the Bureau of Prisons. He described rampant abuse and myriad types of retaliation. And then, out of the blue, I received notice that Leonard had removed me from his approved email list. And that was that. I never heard from him again. That is, until this week. Leonard had been released into a halfway house in Florida, and immediately got in touch. This is his story, and why he cut off contact. Spoiler alert: It calls into serious question President Biden’s recent executive order, requiring law enforcement officers (including in the BOP) to intervene if they see another agent use excessive force against a detainee. Culture eats executive orders for breakfast.
By Leonard Schenk
On December 27, 2020, at around noon, Lieutenant M. Craig entered Unit C-2 at FCC Yazoo City Low (Mississippi). She walked straight into the television room, past all the other inmates, until she reached me and barked, “Stand up!” [Lt. Craig can best be described as looking like a 5'11" Medea with a big perm wig].
I complied but protested. “Mrs. Craig, why do you keep harassing me? This is the third time in the past six weeks you’ve walked past all the other men in here to harass and intimidate me.” [I am 6'1", with dreads to the middle of my back, and the only Anglo-Saxon sitting in the African American section of the TV room. And as for why she was harassing me; I already knew. I’d filed grievances against her for falsifying documents.]
Lt. Craig became irate. “Oh, Mrs. Craig is harassing you, huh? Take that blanket out of your chair and shake it out.” [Mrs. Craig always talked about herself in the third person.]
I was sitting in another chair, so had to walk over to my blanket. But when I did, she barked again: “Where are you going? Mrs. Craig said to remove the blanket from your chair!”
I responded that I was in the process of doing so. But then Mrs. Craig pulled out her mace, pointed it at me, and called on the radio with her other hand for Unit C-2 Officer Black.
Meanwhile, another officer, Officer Thrasher, entered the TV room and asked, “What’s going on here?”
As I began explaining, Mrs. Craig cut him off by aiming the mace directly in my face. At this point, C-1 Case Manager Mrs. McCraney entered the TV room. She assessed the scene, then asked, “What’s going on? Why do you have that mace pointed at him?” [Case Manager McCraney knew me as a hard worker who worked two jobs, took every program available, and stayed to himself.]
I answered, “Mrs. Craig walked in here past everyone else, directly to me, and told me to stand up. She began harassing me. This is the third time in SIX weeks…”
Mrs. Craig pointed her mace at me again. “He refused to wear his mask!” [This is the way she often harassed people during the pandemic, whether or not we were wearing it.] I laughed while readjusting my mask. “Mrs. Craig, you’re just going to lie like that? Tell the truth.”
Mrs. Craig broke character, “Oh, I’m lying?” [That was the first time I’d ever heard Mrs. Craig speak in the first person about herself in four years.] She raised her arm higher in an attempt to spray me with the mace.
Case Manager McCraney grabbed her arm and pulled it down, “What are you doing?”
Mrs. Craig pointed with her other hand and whined, “He refused a pat-down.”
Mrs. McCraney told Officer Thrasher to pat me down, but Mrs. Craig said, “NO! He’s going to the lieutenant’s office.”
Mrs. McCraney wagged her head, but told Thrasher, “Take him to the lieutenant’s office.”
“No, he’s not going with him! He’s going with Mrs. Craig!” Mrs. Craig whined,
Mrs. McCraney looked exasperated. Officer Thrasher looked insulted.
“I’ll walk with you. Schenk, walk in front of us to the lieutenant’s office,” Mrs. McCraney decided.
When we all arrived, Lt. Caldwell came out and told me to come in for a strip search. Nothing was found in my possession, so I waited on the bench outside, from approximately 12:45 until 2:45 p.m. Lt. Caldwell finally came out and informed me I could return to the unit.
Upon my return, Officer Thrasher stopped me to apologize for the conduct of his colleague.
At approximately 3:25 p.m., I was informed by Officer Thrasher that I was wanted in the lieutenant’s office again. This time, I was served with an incident report. Mrs. Craig had falsified another government document, again. I supposedly had refused to wear my mask.
Officer Thrasher asked to see the frivolous report and stated that it was B.S. and submitted a memo on my behalf. Nevertheless, I was later told I had to report back to the lieutenant’s office, where Caldwell informed me I was being sent to the Yazoo City penitentiary’s Special Housing Unit (SHU, also called “the hole”).
The cycle of retribution begins
I promptly filed a grievance with the warden, charging officer misconduct, attempted assault with a dangerous weapon (mace), falsification of government documents, and retaliation. My complaint was, as expected, denied, so I appealed to the BOP’s Southeast Regional Office. I was denied again. When I tried to proceed to the next step, by filing with the BOP Central Office in Washington, D.C., the staff denied me the necessary forms. Therefore, I was forced to manually complete the four required copies, on plain, lined paper. I never received a response, and it is my belief that the prison staff tampered with my mail.
Meanwhile, I was prohibited from buying any food items from the commissary, which is necessary for proper nutrition (since the food offered for meals is insufficient). And I was found guilty of Lt. Craig’s charges, without any notice to me or opportunity for due process.
I was housed in the USP Yazoo City SHU without cause for 128 days. I was then shipped to the federal transit center in Oklahoma, where I was held for two months. From there, I was flown to the Harrisburg (PA) airport and then bused to USP Lewisburg for two days. Finally, I was bused to FCI Ray Brook (a medium-security institution, where I had previously earned low status) in upstate New York. That was over 1,000 miles from my family — a clear-cut form of retaliation.
In October 2021, I was transferred again, this time to USP Lewisburg and then on to FCI Cumberland (another medium-security facility), even though I had been told in writing by my case manager that I would be sent to a low.
I arrived at FCI Cumberland on October 25, 2021, where I was kept in the SHU until December 1 (39 DAYS) due to a lack of bed availability. FCI Cumberland is double-booking beds and kept men in the SHU until they could make space for them. FCI Cumberland is overcrowded and the RDAP program (residential drug treatment) is at least 12 to 24 months behind schedule.
All of my property from Yazoo City Low was never shipped to me. I had to repurchase many items, and I filed a tort claim for over $34,000. And yeah, it really does add up to that much when you factor in sentimental photos I can never replace. Meanwhile, I was denied all of the First Step Act incentives, even though I qualified for all five types.
While at FCI Cumberland, I heard about Pam Bailey, co-founder of More Than Our Crimes, who was investigating chronic mistreatment within the BOP. I connected with her on the prison email system and shared this story with her, as well as the behavior of Officer Dawson, who had a habit of beating up inmates he didn’t like.
Violence in Prison Comes in Many Forms
Beatings aren’t just prisoner-on-prisoner, but also guard-on-prisoner
Then, at about 7:30 in the morning one day on March 10 (2022), the SIS [internal security] officer, Officer Lindner, called me to the lieutenant’s office. And they took me into this unfinished-looking room, with cinder block walls. It’s a threatening, intimidating type of place. The SIS officer told me that if I didn’t quit communicating with Pam about the officers there, he was going to write me up three times so he could throw me in the SHU. And then he’d allow that same Officer Dawson to beat me. His excuse was that Pam is with the media, and we were not allowed to talk to the media. But that is a complete and utter lie. Pam’s with a nonprofit.
I was so close to release (into a halfway house) that I couldn’t risk it. I had to stop, so I took her off my email list.
Now it’s my turn
When you’re in the BOP, you often run up against an officer who is having a bad day, or maybe is drunk, and end up in a truly adverse situation. As a 13th amendment chattel citizen, all we have is our pen to demand our rights. I’m out now and I won’t be silenced.
I’m going after the BOP in court, starting with the damage they’ve done to my dental health. I was on a list, waiting for routine dental care, for 12 years. The only time I got to see anyone was when a tooth was hurting like crazy, and then they just pulled it. I was in prison for 15 years; I went in with 28 teeth and came home with about 14. Even now, I’m sitting in a halfway house with a tooth that needs to come out of my mouth because it’s so bad that I’m having trouble eating.
A lot of the lawsuits filed against the BOP charge deliberate indifference. We need to make them care.