Forbes.com Walter Pavlo January 16, 2023
Jaime [full name withheld] had not been feeling himself and was disconnected from the rest of the prisoners at USP Tucson satellite camp, a minimum security federal prison in Tucson, Arizona. He had only been in prison for 2 years on an 11-year sentence for drug and money laundering charges and his usual bubbling personality had disappeared over the previous two weeks. Recently, he mostly spent his time laying in his bunk reading or staring at the ceiling, distant and alone. Jaime had only been at the camp a few months after previously being in a higher security level prison due to the length of his initial sentence (over 10 years). His release date is stated as March 2031.
The mood at camp on the morning of Saturday, November 12, 2022 was upbeat as the visiting room promised to be full of family, mostly wives and children of prisoners, who were visiting their loved ones in prison ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. Lockdowns, as a result of COVID-19, had restricted visits for the past two years so visits were more precious to the prisoners who longed for their connections to family and friends. An in-person visit kept hope alive.
Jaime had visitors that Saturday and he made his way to a room adjacent to the visiting room where he was lightly patted down by a correctional officer to make sure there was no contraband. Such pat-downs were a formality on the way into visiting with more intensive pat-downs on the way back out.
The door opened at around 11:30am and Jaime entered the visiting room to see his wife and two children who sat at a table surrounded by other families who had been there since earlier in the morning. As Jaime approached them he pulled out a pistol, pointed it at his wife and pulled the trigger. The gun did not go off. He pulled the trigger 4 more times and each time the gun jammed. He threw the gun, ran, then jumped the wall which surrounded the visitation courtyard. He sprinted away and eluded capture for a moment. Then trucks with armed corrections officers closed in on a maintenance shed on the prison compound. Jaime gave himself up, was handcuffed and later transferred to a medium security prison where he is awaiting additional charges. However, more immediate punishment was about to be imposed on the other 95 federal camp prisoners who had no idea what had happened.
Minimum security camps are usually docile environments. Disciplinary infractions at these prisons usually involve contraband alcohol, drugs, food and the occasional cell phone. Fights or gang activities are non-existent as white collar prisoners mix with low level drug offenders. For many, it’s their first extended prison term.
Few of these prison camps even have secured fencing where some prisoners go out into community as part of their work assignments before coming back to prison each evening. The security is so relaxed that the rare escapes are referred to as “walk offs.” A gun in a prison camp is so unusual that every retired BOP professional I spoke with had never heard of such an incident. The Tucson attempted shooting was indeed an anomaly.
The visiting room was cleared. Prisoners were told to get against a wall, separating them quickly from the horrified visitors who were held for a bit longer until the staff could fully understand what had taken place. One by one,
prisoners were led from the visitation room, strip searched and told to return to their dorms. An hour later, an announcement was made that prisoners were to exit the building when their name was called. As each prisoner was called, they held their hands behind their head, walked backwards until each reached awaiting corrections officers who again frisked them, zip-tied their hands and sat them on a gravel surface. Armed officers walked around the prisoners as they sat in the Arizona sun. The last few men who were suspected of possibly having knowledge of Jaime’s intent were taken to a concrete slab, zip-tied their hands and placed them face down on the concrete.
As hours went by, prisoners, some in their 70s, were exhausted from sitting. Medications that would normally be dispensed at around 4pm were missed. According to one prisoner who was there, no water was given and some of the elderly prisoners could no longer sit and fell over into the gravel. Men urinated on themselves, unable to even get up to go to the restroom. As a bus arrived, prisoners were called by name, four at a time, strip searched and loaded into a bus to be taken to the adjacent USP Tucson, a high security prison, and placed in F-2 Unit where they locked into cells that had stainless steel toilet, a sink and bunk bed. The orange jumpsuits they were all now wearing would be the only clothes they had for weeks.
Without legal counsel, prisoners were pulled from their cell and interviewed in a conference room by prison staff who demanded to know if they knew Jaime, knew that he had a weapon and if they didn’t know anything then why didn’t they know. As one prisoner told me who was questioned, “There was a moment where I didn’t want to answer anything for fear of incriminating myself but had I refused, they would have segregated or isolated me more. I had nothing to hide but I was afraid of what they [BOP staff] could do to me.”
Prisoners told me of being cut off from family with no communication at all for 30 days after the incident. Showers were limited to 3 per week and when those did occur the prisoners were led to showers where they were let out of handcuffs for a brief period to stand in 6” of dirty water from a clogged drain. The water was so cold in the showers that most men could only stand under it for about a minute. When placed back in their cells there were no books to read, no magazines, no paper on which to write.
It did not take long for word of the attempted shooting to go through the prison community of families. Immediately they wanted to know what had happened to their loved ones but there was no email, no phone, no letters that were allowed to be sent from the 95 minimum security prisoners that were now housed in a maximum security prison. Phone calls to the facility mostly went unanswered.
Such isolation is sadly common in federal prison where some 10,000 prisoners are held in solitary or near solitary confinement. According to an executive who retired from the BOP, only one-third of the prisoners housed in restrictive housing are there for disciplinary reasons, the majority were there for pending investigations, protective custody or some other reason. The use of solitary confinement is a problem within the BOP and something the Senator Dick Durbin views as a major problem. Durbin and others introduced legislation last fall to force the BOP to manage this problem saying, “The goal of our criminal justice system should be to rehabilitate offenders and prepare them for successful reentry into our society … but the continued overuse of solitary confinement undermines this objective, causing psychological harm that is difficult, if not impossible, to undo.”
This wide spread application of housing nearly 100 prisoners for over 60 days in solitary confinement is the type of abuse that Durbin has called on to abolish. Prisoners across the country are used to such corporal punishment where one person commits a violation and the entire camp population is punished. A prisoner from the Tucson camp told me that lockdowns and suspension of privileges were commonplace before this major incident as prison administration hoped that such punishment would lead to more prisoners telling on other wrongdoing. Now, these prisoners spend 23-24 hours each day in a locked cell of USP Tucson while the BOP conducts an investigation that seems to have no end. They have missed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years calls or emails to family.
These minimum security prisoners have now been housed in these conditions for over two months with virtually no contact with the outside world. Visitation has been suspended and corrections officers have informed many of the prisoners that they will likely be shipped at some time in the future to another institution. According to a person I interviewed who has a loved one locked in one of these cells, no counselors or case managers have visited the prisoners to tell them how long they will be there or if they will be shipped. The prison camp where they once lived has been torn apart looking for clues related to Jaime’s actions and the only prisoners at the camp are those who recently surrendered to the facility.
The BOP is embarrassed by this situation and it should be. This was a lapse in security and while Jaime will ultimately be held accountable, the investigation, according to some of the prisoners there, has long been over but they remain locked down. Even the prisoners at the adjacent high security USP Tucson were locked down for 3 weeks after the incident, missing all visitation over the holidays when most family visits take place.
Just last week, some exercise equipment was moved into a common area in F-2 Unit. While the men welcomed the opportunity to have some time to work out, it also means they may not be going back to the camp anytime soon. Their punishment continues and they have done nothing wrong other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.