Prison Camps and Mass Over-incarceration of Non-violent offenders and Moms Like Me!

What image comes to mind when you here the word “prison camp”? Before being incarcerated in a Federal Prison Camp when I heard of camps or prison camps I think of the Holocaust or being a prisoner of war in Korea.
These days there is more and more support for prison reform and even our President and Attorney General acknowledge that many of those in prisons are non-violent, first time offenders that should not be behind bars. Well you should know that there is an entire segment of the prison population that are not behind bars… they are in PRISON CAMPS.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons houses inmates based on a scoring system that rates inmates based on public safety and recidivism criteria. Those who score the highest are designated to the facilities with the highest security and supervision. Those inmates that score the lowest are housed in minimum security facilities called Prison Camps. I have been an inmate at the Danbury Federal Prison Camp since July 16, 2012.
I self surrendered over two years after I was arrested. In that two years I was supervised by the Probation office in New Haven, CT. Living in Branford, CT I would take the short drive once per month and verify that the information they had on file for my residence, employment etc is still correct. I never had any incidents of non-compliance with the strict rules they placed on me during those two years. During those two years I was able to stay home with my two sons Jacob, who is now 5, and David, 3. I spent my days raising them – playgroups, skating lessons, swimming lessons , trips to the library. On July 16, 2012 they had their mother taken away from them to serve a 41 months sentence in exchange for a plea of mortgage fraud.
On the Bureau of Prisons scale for custody classification, I have the lowest possible points so I was designated to the camp, but when I self surrendered I had to ‘check in’ at the FCI which is on the same property. The FCI, a low security facility, is surrounded by razor wire and has bars on the windows. When I drove up I was very intimidated since I have never seen a prison except for on TV. My family walked me into the lobby and we said good bye. Because my boys were 2 and 4 when I came , I acted like they were on a field trip and smiled the whole time. Motherly instincts kicking in, I assured them they would be seeing me in a few days and to have fun with Daddy. When they left an officer took me through a metal detector, then placed handcuffs on me… for the first time in my life. Thankfully the cuffs were only on for a brief walk through another series of doors and then I was brought into a room where the R&D department is. Yes, they call the department Receiving & Delivery… which is a foreshadowing for what I was in for. Rather than a prison with programs and rehabilitation , this facility is like a warehouse for women and R&D where you start.
The officers in that department were very friendly and the atmosphere was light. I was held in a cell with another women who had self surrendered from Boston. She was given a sentence of a year and a day and was leaving behind her husband and 16 year old son. We spoke very little while we were waiting to be processed, both experiencing a bit of shell shock. After being stripped searched, photographed, and signing some papers ( now I wish I had copies of!) we were introduced to our Camp Counselor. The air in the room was immediately sucked out. Her cold and harsh demeanor is what I think of what I think of a prison employee. The title of counselor is deceiving because she is not a counselor as the normal definition alludes, but rather she is supposed to enforce rules and hand down discipline as well as assist us with things we need throughout our incarceration. ( another blog topic in and of itself).
When myself and the other newly inventoried inmate were complete with our processing, we were walked to a door that goes to the outside of the FCI. The doors open and we were standing with an officer between two sections of razor wire. She calls main control for them to open the exterior gate, and releases us OUTSIDE of the razor wire fence, back into the street in front of the building. She points up a hill where a 70’s style building stands and tells us to walk there , to the Camp, and find the officer when we get there … then the gate closes behind us and the officer went back inside behind the concrete walls.
The woman and I look at each other feeling like we are being set up. We just surrendered ourselves to begin a prison sentence, and now we are walking across the property unattended?
Once we arrived at the camp building which housed 216 women, an inmate greeted us and showed us to the office where the ONE correctional officer assigned to the camp is. He gave us our room assignment and then we were left on our own. Unless an inmate goes to staff, no one reaches out to you other than the inmates who were so kind and generous. You are given a small pack of toothpaste, soap and deodorant when you come in, and after that you have to purchase ALL of your hygiene products. There is a policy against giving another inmate any items, but out of necessity, the inmates typically bring soap, toothbrushes, deodorant , shampoo, etc so the new women can have necessary hygiene products.
I was stunned by the hospitality of most of the women, but what was even more stunning was the physical aspects of the facility. The camp is set on a hill overlooking miles of woods as well as Candlewood Lake. Between sunrise and sunset inmates can freely leave the building to be outside, where they are not confined by any type of fencing or perimeter. There are areas that are known as being “out of bounds”, but there are no physical barriers – most just follow the rule of not going there. The building itself has no bars on the windows, no locking doors or cells. In the time I have been here there have been a handful of fights and the officer has placed us on lockdown, but that consists of telling us to go to our room, which we do.
In the summer months I spend most of my days outside sitting at a picnic table reading or crocheting, or on the track. There is also an outbuilding where a gym is next to the track. The sunrises are amazing and I would wake up and head out side to have my first cup of coffee to watch. Women can also be seen sunbathing on the sand of the volleyball court on sunny days.
I work in the garage, which is a half mile drive from the camp behind the FCI compound. For my job I have a permit to drive vehicles without supervision. There are also two inmates that hold the position of ‘town driver’. Their job is to transport inmates to local hospitals and doctors offices as well as released inmates to bus stations or airports such as JFK or LaGuardia… all unsupervised. They leave and come back with no issues with public safety.
On top of having a significant amount of freedom, there are very few programs to participate in. The recreation department offers the most, but how is learning to crochet or knit helpful in reducing recidivism? Religious Services offers sporadic programming and I was fortunate to take part in the only 6 month reentry program that is offered at the camp. Unfortunately it is only offered once a year to 10 people which hundreds pass through these doors in any one year. No educational programs are offered beyong a GED. A group of girls I spend time with all hold college degrees, with nothing offered to us to aide in our reentry since most of us are unable to work in the fields we were previously employed. If you read the mission statement for the facility, it speaks of education, treatment, vocational training but in reality they do not exist. It is these facts that make it more suitable to call this facility a WAREHOUSE rather than a CAMP. We are simply shelved in this buidling with all the time at our disposal while our families and communities are suffering. There has to be a better way!
While I was stunned that as a first time nonviolent offender I was handed down such a lengthy sentence, I am still stunned at how many women are in here not just on first offenses, but ‘offenses’ that could truly be labeled as moral dilemmas, not criminal acts. These camps are by there very nature houses for inmates that do not pose a threat to public safety.. so why do they exist? The Federal Bureau of Prisons is in a self declared crisis in terms of population and budget. They have a number of policies they can be using right now that would alleviate the population, budget , and most important reunite families.
You can help bring attention to these camps not only by sharing this, but by asking the members of Congress that represent you why they are not addressing the Federal Prison Camp population. President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and most members of Congress say too many Americans are in jail for too long for no reason… What are they doing about it???

Stacey Petro
reg # 17986-014
FEDERAL CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION
ROUTE 37
DANBURY, CT 06811
United States of America

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About whoistoblame

Mom of two, currently serving the last 12 months of my sentence in a halfway house and wanting to go home to my children.
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