This is a lengthy letter written by Canadian marijuana legalization activist Marc Emery from a U.S. medium security prison in Mississippi, in which he describes prison conditions and his daily routine. It has been lightly edited and condensed for readability, but otherwise untouched. Read more about Emery’s case here.
There are 1,700 inmates here at Yazoo Medium. There are 12 units of 150 men in 3 buildings. The Medium is part of a complex of a camp (minimum), low, medium security and maximum security (penitentiary).
Inmates at all medium have some violence in their criminal history. Many here are from maximum security, have had a blemish-free record over several years, they can graduate to a medium security, and as they progress, a low security facility.
I am the rare exception to all that. I am the only Canadian here. I have no violence in my ‘criminal history’. I qualify for a camp (minimum security), because of my age and scant criminal history and my charge is a single count of marijuana manufacture. However, Canadians, not being US citizens, are not permitted to be placed in a camp.
In fact, almost all Canadians in the US federal prison system are placed in privately owned (By either GEO Group, CCA, or MTC prison companies) “low” security ‘immigrant prisons’, 95% of that population is Hispanic, from Mexico, Central & south America.
I was assigned to one of those eventually on November 18, 2010, called D. Ray James Federal Prison for deportable aliens in southeast Georgia. It was a very poorly run prison. One of the reasons I oppose any Canadian being extradited to the US to face US prison time is that Canadians with rare exceptions (like myself) are placed in these vastly inferior privately-owned prisons. These privately owned prisons for deportable aliens do not have to comply with US bureau of Prison standards.
All Bureau of Prisons facilities have corrlinks email. It is VERY costly, $3 a minute. I spend about $350 a month for about 3 1/2 hours of email daily. Thats $4,200 a year, or about $17,000 for email for nearly 4 years of use. But because we are limited to 300 minutes of total phone time per month (10 minutes a day), the scarcity of phone time available to talk to wives, children, parents, friends makes the availability of unlimited corrlinks time a godsend (and I’m an atheist, so its my way of saying its the best thing about prison, period!). But none of the private-prisons for deportable aliens (read: Canadians) has a prison email service. I was really miserable at D. Ray James. No email, no music program (no instruments), two televisions for 65 inmates (all but three inmates in my unit were non-English speakers too), a terrible ‘yard’ (that prison, like this one, was built on swamp and marginal lands) where the grass had quickly died. At DRJ, 2,700 inmates (15 Canadians, 150 Caribbeans, 2500 Hispanics, 10 Europeans, 10 Africans) packed into a very small space, the yard there was about one half the size of the yard here for 1,700 inmates. The grass here is of good, durable quality, on much better soil.
Here there is email, an excellent yard, a terrific music program, I learned to play bass guitar here, and have been in a rock band for 3 years now, playing over 100 songs so far, having performed in 14 yard shows (outdoor amplified concerts). We have an excellent amplified electric rehearsal studio here at Yazoo medium, we rehearse out next set list once or twice a week. I have been privileged to work with some outstanding drummers, guitarists, musicians, and I have learned a great deal from them. That has really been a wonderful balm to boredom and any malaise I might have been prone to lapse into. We can practice on acoustic instruments for up to 5 hours a day every day.
Both the immigrant prisons and Bureau of Prison facilities do sell MP3 players and offer music purchase services. My MP3 player ($20 on the outside, $70 here) has 850 songs on it, at a cost of $1,20 or $1.55 a song.
Most of what the prison commissary sells (we can spend up to $320 a month at the inmate store) is junk food, alas, that most inmates like. I would rather the inmate store sell vegetables and healthy foods, because like most institutions, the prison chow hall offers mostly starches, carbs and meats for us at meal time. It is impossible to be a vegetarian because they rarely serve fresh vegetables. So I buy whatever vegetables and fruits I can on the black market. An onion costs $5, a green bell pepper is $3-$5. An apple is 50 cents, as is a banana. a whole cantaloupe or honeydew melon is $5. A tomato is $2 to $4 depending on size. Occasionally a bag of broccoli or cauliflower appears on the black market, and that’s precious, maybe $7-$10 for that.
The chow hall stopped serving a half grapefruit or an orange for breakfast because hooch making is rampant in this prison (as i suspect at any prison), and the prison has eliminated any citrus fruit they feel can be easily converted to fermented alcohol. Unfortunately, I do not make hooch nor would I ever consume it, but I really miss the oranges and grapefruits for eating.
Most Canadians in immigrant “lows” live in dormitories that house 64 inmates. I had no objection to that but I got spoiled at SEATAC Federal detention center where i was incarcerated awaiting trial, because there I was one of two inmates in a 7 foot by 12 foot cell, a very small cell, but you have a bit of privacy and importantly, a toilet to share with just one other. In the dorms at D. Ray James, 4 toilets were for the use of 64 inmates. It was there that i contracted MRSA, quite possibly on a toilet because they were not kept sanitary under those circumstances. My first MRSA outbreak at D. Ray James was extremely painful, frightening and very contagious also, an weeping open wound on my buttock the size of a 50 cent piece. Originally it was a large area on my ass cheek that was inflamed and swollen for two weeks, before breaking and becoming a bleeding weeping open sore for two weeks.
I hated D. Ray James, and wrote a weekly blog about how stupidly and terribly it was run, naming names. I got 3 people fired from there who were idiots and the BOP came to investigate and issued warnings and reprimands. After 5 months at D. Ray James, they had enough of me bitching and complaining and had me transferred to the care of the US Bureau of Prisons. I am so grateful to have been sent here. Even though it is a medium (since BOP “lows” only accommodate Americans, and Camps are also for US citizens only), it was the only BOP facility I was eligible to be sent to, on a ‘management variable” (meaning at their -the BOP- discretion), short of a penitentiary. Penitentiaries are just like you see in the movies, dangerous rough places with rough bruisers and lots of violence, guard towers with armed officers, the works. A medium is a step down security wise but it is a very polite environment, let me tell you. Any infraction that raises your security points means you could be sent to the penitentiary (right next door) and only a very institutionalized inmate (and I have encountered many of those who cannot handle a ‘medium;’ and do in fact create situations requiring them to be put back in the pen) would prefer that. NO rational person here wants to go back to the penitentiary.
Here we have those BOP 7 x 12 cells, but half the prison has cells with 3 men in them, that is extremely crowded in a 7′ x 12′ space, believe you me. I was in one and when we had 3 men in it, it was very challenging on ones state of mind. Half the prison is 2-man cells and for the last year I have been in one of those, as much more agreeable (but still tiny) living space for 2.
I have been incarcerated 50 months, two in Canada awaiting extradition, 48 in the U.S. Alas, I am not delivered home on the day my sentence ends on July 9 (1,825 days = 5 years, less 235 days -15% off- for good conduct credit = 1,590 days, I have done 1,532 days as of today), I am picked up by US Immigration and taken to a GEO Group (people that ran D. Ray James immigrant prison I hated) deportation facility in Louisiana that takes 4-9 weeks to deliver me to Windsor, Ontario, so probably sometime in late August I will be in Canada.
We are ordered into our cells at 9.40 at night every night, no exceptions. The door of our cell is locked. We are ordered to have lights on a 10 pm and a ‘count’ is done. Then I usually read with my little night light till about midnight and sleep fitfully till about 4 am and finally fall into a real sleep between 4 and 5 am and sleep till 8 am when we are required to be out of bed with the bed made. The door unlocks at 6 am and we can come out into the unit or stay in our cell. There are 9 televisions in the unit, 2 are Spanish language, two are are sports. One TV is ‘controlled’ by the whites, three are controlled by the Hispanics, 5 are controlled by the blacks, but any one can watch any TV. 60% of the prison is African-American, 25% Hispanic, 13% white, 2% native and Asian. I rarely watch TV. On weekends there are 2 recent movies on the TVs that the institution puts on. They must be PG-13. No R rated films.
Inmates incidentally fund every aspect of the prison except the staff, the facility or the chow hall. But all TVs, all TV programming (cable services), all pool tables in the rec centre, all musical instruments, all sports equipment, all exercise equipment, is paid for with the profits of the commissary that is used exclusively by the inmates. the commissary covers its costs and all profits are deposited in the Inmate trust Funds which pay for everything that inmates use outside of the basics of the facility, staff, chow hall, education. We buy our own clothes other than 3 basic khaki uniforms and a clunky pair of boots.
On that note, there are 6 guys out of 150 in THIS UNIT who have been given LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE for minor amounts of drug trafficking, always crack cocaine (black guys). But methamphetamine sellers or makers get minimum 20, often 30 years, and they are usually rural white guys. There is one Mexican fellow in here who has served 18 1/2 years of a 35 year sentence for 50 kilos of marijuana. I’ve read his history (he applied for sentence commutation recently). Theres another fellow, a Jamaican, who got 30 years for marijuana trafficking into the US and he’s 57 years old, having served only 2 years of the 30 years. My 5 year sentence is at the very low end of sentences in this place.
OK, back to daily life.
So breakfast is from 6.45 to 7.15, thats usually grits or oatmeal, and a fruit (apple or banana, no more grapefruits or oranges).
Everyone has a job. Some guys work in the UNICOR [Federal Prison Industries] factory, about 350 guys. They work from 8 am to 3.30. They get paid around 30 cents an hour to $1.50 an hour tops. At the factory here, we make uniforms for the US armed forces, everything the US military wears in basic uniforms is made in prison factories. This factory is exclusively devoted to making clothing, virtually all for the US armed forces. My friend Joe made $120 for 200 hours of work last month! That is a typical average.
My friend Doug, who works full time as the butcher for all the meat the inmates each in the Chow Hall, 200 hours a month, gets $55 to $120 a month.
I’m a clerk in the rec area, I work 3 hours a week, 12 hours a month, and get $20 a month.
We get locked in at 9.40, which is what that is now, so I have to get back to my cell. Its an infraction not be inside when the C.O. (correctional officer) comes by to lock us in.
* * *
“Shots” are when an inmate gets charged with an infraction. There are four levels of shots.
100- level shots are the most serious. Violence, murder, assault, attacking a guard, riots, etc., these will result in being put in solitary confinement for a long time and additional federal charges, a loss of goodtime, elimination of phone, email, commissary, privileges. There is no email, phone or commissary to any in solitary confinement
Additional 100 shot charges include having illegal drugs, smuggling in illegal drugs, having a cell phone, making alcohol or being in possession of alcohol, failing a urine test, destruction of federal property. These will all result in loss of 47 days good conduct credit, solitary confinement, elimination of privileges after return from solitary confinement. Smuggling in illegal drugs or possessing illegal drugs will result in additional federal charges and additional prison time as well as loss of good conduct time.
Needless to say, escape is a 100-level shot. Perimeter guards are allowed (and will) shoot to kill an inmate during an escape attempt.
200-level shots are being drunk, refusing a direct order, possessing pornography, theft, an inmate fight without any injury, etc. and will result in solitary confinement for 14-90 days, and a loss of privileges for 30-90 days
300-level shots are possessing contraband, not being at a place you are supposed to be, being out of bounds, phone abuse, gambling, running a store, having your cell in improper order, an unsanitary cell, suggestive remarks to a female C.O. . These shots are more interpretative and will not result in solitary, but may net a 30-60 suspension of one or two privileges. An inmate may be able to ‘beat’ a 300-level charge.
400-level shots are very minor but exist ‘just in case’ some inmate is seen to being a smart-ass.
In my time I have received two 300-level shots, once for giving an inmate $75 (you actually aren’t allowed to give or loan anything to another inmate but this is rarely enforced). I for example, give away and loan books and magazines daily, and this is not considered worthy of a shot but according to the written rules, its not permitted. I have also received a 300-level shot when, 4 years ago, Jodie recorded a phone call for rebroadcast, and this also technically not permitted, but is rarely enforced also. In the case of the phone recording, I was put in solitary for 21 days for ‘investigation’, which was made more complex when Seattle supporters came to the prison and held a demonstration in the front lobby of the prison, freaking out prison officials and keeping me in solitary longer. On my return to general population, I lost phone privileges and commissary privileges for 30 days. When I was given a shot for giving my cellmate $75, I had my commissary privileges suspended for 60 days.
Inmates who work in the chow hall have shifts from 4 am to noon, or 11 am to 6 pm. For 20 days a month, they receive $45-$75 a month! That is the earliest shift of the day, about 200 guys work in the kitchen/chow hall. Then comes those who work in laundry, commissary, and unit orderlies, who start at 6.30 am. Then the Unicor factory has work call at 7.40 am for 350 guys. Then education and library workers are called at 8 am. Morning rec orderlies are called at 8 am and more than 20 people are mowing the lawns here virtually all the time. Inmates do every aspect of maintenance of the facility, staff supervise.
Because I was seen to be a former businessman, three years ago I was put in charge of keeping track of who was working on the rec yard, and tracking those workers who are on the roster or off the roster. This became a very simple and quick job, so I’ve been lucky. I try to be outside as often as possible, and I spend my day reading books and magazines (I have subscriptions to 25 magazines, a daily subscription to the New York Times, and receive 3-5 books a week) and practicing songs on a bass guitar.
I find it amazing to believe this is my 5th year in prison on this conviction for selling seeds in the mail to Americans! I can’t believe I’ve nearly made it!
Yet through it all, I’ve rarely ever heard an unkind word spoken to me by inmates, who have been universally polite and respectful to me. Mind you, I’m a very useful guy, and knowledgeable, and always positive and optimistic.
The only things from the outside an inmate can get are letters and printed materials, thats it. So I get lots of books, magazines, newspapers and they are in constant circulation. I have educated myself substantially while I’ve been here, in the last month I have read Pillars of The Earth and World Without End by Ken Follett; Bonk, The Science of Sex; Rubbish;The Archaeology of Garbage; The History of the World in 6 Glasses; As The Crow Flies by Jeffrey Archer; Rising Tide, The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927; The Ghost Map, The Great Cholera epidemic in London in 1854; The Great Influenza of 1918-1919.
All fascinating subjects and stories. I’m going to miss all the time I have had for quiet contemplation of books, magazines and newspapers when I get back to civilization. Prisons are described as noisy, for example, while I write you now, it is very noisy in the unit, being made of concrete and steel (everything), sound bounces back and it is always a cacophony, but I tend not to notice it except when I am trying to make a phone call. Prisoners tend to speak very loudly unnecessarily but alot of that is rooted in poor self-esteem. They shout at each other alot, though not necessarily in hostility.
But outside the sound of the birds singing and trilling, the sounds of the breezes, the sweet smell of the clover in the humid Mississippi air, the Yazoo river in the distance, the green of the grass, these simple things are soothing and when I am reading, I am allowed to have my mind out of prison and into the world of ideas, history, politics.
When I am in the rehearsal room on Thursday nights playing songs like Blue on Black (Kenny Wayne Shepherd), or No Excuses (Alice in Chains) or Knockin on Heaven’s Door (Dylan), or Every Rose Has Its Thorn (Poison), and we play it just as its recorded, I feel terrific, almost high. I had never picked up a musical instrument in my life, and I am still so excited to know I can play these songs and be in a band where everyone knows their part and it comes together beautifully. I have done 14 outdoor concerts (under a roof) in the freezing cold, thunderstorms, 100-degree hot days, every kind of weather. I’ve played 5 country songs, 60 classic rock songs, 5 reggae songs, numerous Blues songs, a dozen 90′s rock songs, 10 R&B songs, every kind of music, and I have enjoyed immensely even playing songs I thought I would never even listen to listen like ‘Way Out Here’ by Josh Thompson (The song starts out: “Our house is protected by the Good Lord and a gun, and you might meet ‘em both if you ever show up here unwelcome, son. Our necks are burned, our trucks ain’t clean, we smoke, we fry, we chew everything, out here…..way out here. We won’t take a dime if we ain’t earned. When it comes to weight, brother we pull our own. If our backwoods way of living concerns you, then you can leave us alone, cuz’ we’re about John Wayne, Johnny Cash and John Deere….way out here.) I even sing this song as well as play the bass on it. Me, from Vancouver, BC, as far from ‘Way out Here’ as you can get. I love that song, plus a lot of the white boys are from ‘Way Out (T)Here’ and they love that song when we play it.
This prison is much better than most, no doubt of that. It has far less violence than virtually any other prison, and the staff are laid-back, don’t disobey them or mess with them, and they will be OK with you. Most inmates know this place is a far easier regimentation that any other federal prison. Most other prisons everyone here has been to are way worse, with more violence, lockdowns, mean-spirited guards, more trouble. Here, everyone, from guards to inmates, seems to be on the same page -everybody just go about your business properly and we’ll get our time done as best we can. Inmates are reluctant to cause trouble, it could be way worse, and anywhere else, it is.
I get a visit from Jodie every month, but this is far away, it takes 14 hours to get here from Vancouver, and 14 hours to get home. So she spends all of Friday travelling here, visits me on Saturday & Sunday, then spends all day Monday travelling home. When I was in Seattle, Jodie would visit every weekend, when I was at D. Ray James in Georgia near Jacksonville, which is about as far apart as I could be in North America from Jodie, she saw me every second or third weekend, and now its every third or fourth or fifth weekend, because over 4 years, I have cost her $70,000 in my email, phone, commissary, postage, newspapers, magazines, and fresh food expenses, she has visited me 78 times in 4 years, and that has cost $120,000, so you’re looking at $190,000 in expenses to visit me and keep me in food, email, clothing, postage, phone calls. That’s staggering. Fortunately we have received $70,000 in donations, but that still leaves $120,000 Jodie has had to produce in 4 years, and its been a hardship. But I have it better than any other inmate. And that didn’t include all the books that my friend Dana Larsen has sent me over 4 years, he has sent me well over 500 books!
I already have my daily routine for when I get home:
7.00-7.30 am, shower & clean.
7.30-9.00 peruse newspapers Globe, Nat post, Province, Sun, NY times
9.00-9.30 check Twitter account
9.30 – 10 check/update Facebook accounts
10.-10.30 check Cannabis Culture websites & forums
Breakfast with Jodie
Noon to 5 pm, Tuesday to Saturday, work at Cannabis Culture store
5 pm-7 pm – office & lounge upstairs
7-8.30 dinner with Jodie
Evening watch TV, read books, give Jodie footrubs/massage, hang out with her till midnight, when she goes to sleep, I practice bass guitar (with headphones so Jodie can sleep) till 2 am. Go to bed.
Sundays – day off with Jodie
Monday – day off for household errands, etc.