A Drug War Nightmare: Going from Peace-Loving Deadhead to Prisoner in a Brutal Super Max

The following is an excerpt from Letters From Marion: A Deadhead's Journey from Peace to a Super Max Prison by Joel Blaeser (Big House, 2015).

The day Talladega burned started like any other day spent inside a Federal Correctional Institution (FCI). The buzzers hummed like an electric fog horn every sixty minutes, signaling to the inmates it was time to rotate. Just part of the daily routine for inmates in federal prison, occurring once every hour from 7 a.m. until final count and lockdown at 10 p.m.        

It’s similar to class periods back in high school. Inmates know where they are supposed to be, and just like a high schooler, they better damn well have a hall pass, because in a level 4 medium security federal prison, the guards perched in their gun towers are all cracker jack marksmen, can and will shoot you dead if you are wandering through the prison grounds without clearance.

It was 6:30 pm, and my unit was the last to eat dinner. I rose from the table with a stretched and full stomach. Food in prison isn't exactly gourmet, but there is plenty of it: all you can eat vegetables, rice, beans, potatoes, legumes, juice, milk, and one portion of meat per meal. Federal prison administrators were wise to allow prisoners back to the chow line for unlimited portions of all the sides, after all a hungry convict is a angrier convict. Each federal prison also has a commissary, or prison store, which offers food items and prisoners are allowed to shop there twice a month.

As I made my way out of the chow hall, I took the hard, dark blue colored plastic cafeteria tray to the dishwashers. My tray was licked clean so no need to empty it in the large trash bin before I put it on the conveyor belt leading into the steamy hot dish room. Like most systems in prison, the dish room and kitchen were operated by convicts. Paid nearly $35 a month, dishwashers earned a relatively generous wage compared to their fellow inmates.

I made my way through the chow hall and walked outside onto the compound. The sun blazed through the barbed wire fences surrounding the prison. Though it was mid-October 1995, it felt like a warm summer day.

Akin to most medium security federal prisons, FCI Talladega is built on over fifty acres  of land dotted with various structures. Six housing units hold about 160 prisoners each, contained within fifty to sixty cells and common area. Scattered over the rolling southern landscape is a chapel, lieutenant’s office, art center, the Hole (a jail within the prison), indoor recreation center, weight pile, chow hall, law library, and barber's office. All of the buildings are connected by a series of sidewalks, between which are perfectly manicured lawns and shrubs, creating an oddly suburban effect. A federal prison compound is a mini-city with 1,000 to 4,000 residents.

I stood 75 yards from the chow hall door at the junction where the sidewalks converge from the rec yard and other housing units when I was suddenly overcome with indecisiveness as to what direction to take. I remained motionless for nearly two minutes while trying to decide where to go and what to do, a long time considering you had only six minutes to move during rotation.

A calm hung over the prison. It wasn’t right.

Two prisoners walked by silently on their way to the law library.  

I then remembered making quasi-plans to meet up with my workout buddy, Dean, out on the yard.  Dean was a pile of blonde hair stacked on a hardened and tattooed six foot one frame. He had a 20 year sentence, and a physique to match. Not only was he an ideal spotter but he also guaranteed no one would drop  a dumbbell on my head during a lift. It happened on occasion. You can’t be too careful in prison. After all this was my fifth federal prison that I lived in since losing my federal jury trial.  As a recent transfer to Talladega, compounded with over one month spent in the Hole after a conflict with the prison lieutenant over my beloved green duffel bag, I was still learning the social dynamics of this particular prison yard.

I could see my housing unit and the chow hall from where I stood, but the yard was up over the hill and not in my line of direct sight. I had already done my regular 2:00 pm workout and decided to meet Dean out on the yard during the next move. I headed back to my quarters.

As I turned, out of the corner of my eye I could see conspicuous changes on nearby buildings. Extra bars had been welded over the glass windows on the chow hall, as well as on the entry door and window to the prison commissary. New solid steel doors had been put up on the front of the lieutenant’s office that hadn’t been there when I’d arrived.         

I continued down the path toward my cellblock, intending to pass the time on my bunk. Having arrived in Talladega fifty one days earlier from FCI Pekin, Illinois, I had not yet been assigned a cell due to slight overcrowding in the federal prison system. I was assigned a bunk in a common area in the cell block, and my belongings were kept in a large steel locker at the foot of the bed. prisoners in my situation often waited six to twenty weeks for a cell.

    I pulled open the heavy steel door to my cell block and I stepped into a tremendous and raging battleground. To my right, convicts wildly smashed fire extinguishers into staff office windows, and to my left enraged men were ripping water pipes out of the laundry room while other inmates  pulled exposed pipes down from the ceiling. Anything that was not welded down was ripped away from its mount. Even the vending machines in the unit were broken open and completely emptied out.

Prisoners screamed , swinging painted steel pipes and bars  at doors, chairs, and windows, anything they could, taking years of frustration out on the cold prison. The din was deafening.

I stood watching. No one took notice of me. It was like I wasn’t even there.

I was unaware of the violent racially-inspired conflicts erupting elsewhere throughout the compound or other Federal prisons rioting as well, or that somewhere, a building was burning. However, I began to catch a faint smell of fire in the air.

To my left, two behemoth tattooed black prisoners cracked a large weight bar with heavy plates on it from the rec yard into the case manager's office. Bang. Bang. Bang.  Every housing unit has a case manager whose office houses the records of every prisoner on the cell block. Each record, or “jacket”, contains original copies of court records, police transcripts, and further evidence of one’s criminal history, in addition to highly subjective, and often false notes regarding the prisoner’s behavior and activity while in prison. Like a bad shadow these jackets follow each prisoner around, throughout prison and out into the free world after.

I saw TJ trying to break the case manager's door open.  I had met him by happenstance a few days prior while watching TV in my unit.  He was a soft-spoken African American with arms the size of my legs.  

“TJ!” I exclaimed. “Is the door coming loose? Let me get in there!”  Adrenaline flowing through my veins, I stepped over to assist.  

“We’ve been at it for five straight minutes. Might take a while,” he replied.

We were taking shifts, six hands on the bar all moving left to right in sync, crashing the weight bar into the door, over and over. It swung back and forth, one end of the steel bar hitting the door so hard sparks were flying. The brown steel door became more and more dented. I could smell ozone, and the scent of whatever was burning grew stronger. All of a sudden the fire alarms went off, adding to the melee of noise and chaos. Despite the best efforts of our maniacal pounding, we could not break the door down.

“The vending machine!” TJ yelled.

We moved on, hands aching to break something. At the end of the hall was an overlooked vending machine. We smashed the glass outward by breaking open the sides. Glass and candy flew all over like a mechanical piñata. I could hear the washers and dryers being ripped out of the wall in the laundry room behind me. There was not a prison guard to be seen anywhere. The entire prison was out-of-control. We would later learn that in other units prisoners had lit stacks of six or seven mattresses on fire.  In the previously empty recreation yard madness reigned. Blood spattered as pipes cracked skulls in the ensuing racial rifts. The snitches and few remaining guards were beaten or raped.

I could see a division taking place in our unit. The housing units in Talladega are shaped in a triangle with two levels, stairs at each corner, and a common area in the center of the triangle, open to 18 foot ceilings. Cell doors ran along the edges of the triangle two tiers high, each tier or walkway about ten feet wide. A group of white inmates gathered on one side of the upper tier along the rail, armed with knives and pipes. I came up to the second tier and was handed a shank.

I ran down toward the vending machine to gather more of the candy bars that were strewn about the hallway.

“Get your ass back here,” Burl shouted after me. He was an older, southern white inmate. “We gotta stick together up here,” he said. “You can’t be tempting the rugs like that.”

He was referring to the black inmates gathering on the other side of the unit. In prison, races stick together. If there is a problem between two people of different races, both sides of the entire race are involved. Even in the midst of this riot, convict code would be upheld.

Ignoring his warning, I ran quickly across the lower tier towards the vending machine. I passed a black inmate, swinging a heavy metal mop wringer into a steel table bolted to the cement floor. His  eyes followed me down the length of the tier. I reached the spilled candy, scooped up four or five candy bars, and ran back fast and steady. Two prisoners ran in from the front door of the unit.

“They’re coming in with guns! Get down! Get down!” someone yelled.

It was now 10:00 pm, and dark outside. I scrambled up the steps to the upper tier and dove into a cell with Burl and his celly, Beaux. The cells in Talladega had steel self-locking doors, and we slammed it shut, locking ourselves in.

“Holy shit!  What’s going on?  What just happened?  Everything was fine in the chow hall and quiet on the upper compound.  Why is this happening Burl?”  

Facing me, he explained, “They’re going off because of the crack law.  Congress shot them down.  You’re damn lucky you did not go into the rec yard Joel,” he paused. “I barely made it off the yard alive.”

The alarm that went off through the loudspeakers was even louder than the fire alarm. Screeching sirens only added to the raucous cacophony. Hours passed and complete darkness set in. Burl and Beaux were sitting on the beds while I watched the activity outside the cell window. Armored vehicles with large racks of lights were starting to surround the entire prison. I heard a prisoner climbing the fence. Gunshots echoed outside, sending bullets whizzing by the cell window. Hot flashes from the tips of shotguns flashed just beyond the perimeter fence on the prison yard. I heard a prisoner scream off in the distance. “What the fuck!” Burl yelled. “This place is going to burn!”

The vehicles outside looked camouflaged, and were not anything like the normal security pickup trucks that rode around outside the prison fence. I heard a helicopter thunder above us. I knew the Bureau of Prisons did not own security helicopters. The presence of that chopper meant someone must have declared Posse Comitatus, allowing the federal government to utilize military weaponry against its own citizens.

Now that the military or national guard had arrived, the prison staff burst into the units. Guards in federal prisons never carry firearms outside of the gun towers or perimeter vehicle; it's not worth the risk of potentially being overcome by an inmate and placing a weapon in the hands of a prisoner. That didn't stop them from bringing in tear gas guns. They look like 12 gauge pump shotguns, but with a holster at the end the size of a 12 oz can of soda to shoot out the canisters. Prison guards were screaming “Lie down! Lie down!” as they came into our unit.

Prisoners scattered to nearby cells in response, or hit the deck if they were trapped in the middle of the common area. We were familiar with the command, as it's what the prison guards yell during a fight in order to gain control. Prisoners either compiled or were beaten and brought to the Hole. The guards were dressed in combat gear- Ninja Turtles as we referred to it, with full masks, padded dark blue jackets with shock plates, high-laced steel-toed black leather boots, oversized shin pads, black lead lined billy clubs and dark blue helmets. Ninja Turtles were reserved for extreme situations when a guard’s safety was known to be compromised. In contrast to their normally authoritative and loud commands, the guards now seemed to tremble as they yelled, their words laced with trepidation and fear. This was a medium security federal prison, this was not supposed to happen here.

Outside the window you could now hear the snap-crackle of burning buildings and see  the heavy smoke wafting around the prison yard. I watched through the window at the top of the solid steel cell door as guards fired the tear gas down the hallways while convicts lay motionless on the ground. The canisters were not designed to be shot at humans, but the guards used the opportunity to aim at prisoners lying on the ground. Bones shattered as one prisoner was shot in the leg. He screamed and rolled away in agony.

In spite of our attempts to stick a towel in the bottom of the cell door, tear gas began to seep through the seams. I started to viciously choke alongside Burl and Beaux.

Once the guards had everyone down in our unit, they dragged the remaining convicts into their respective cells, one by one, injured or not. After we were all caged, they stormed through, and yanked us out of our cells individually for final count.

"Name and number!" the guard spat as he pulled me out of the cell by my collar and slammed me up against the cement cell block wall. “Blaeser 0****-089.”

Two other guards stood on either side of me with what appeared to be stun guns poised and ready. I stated my number as calmly as I had every time it had been requested over the past thirty-six months. I was thrown violently back into the cell, landing on the floor. Burl and Beaux remained outside, explaining why I was in their cell. They were shoved in a little more gently. They were southern boys and had lived in this prison for their whole bit. I was new, and a “Northerner” because I was born in Chicago. The prison guard looked in and addressed me, “Blaeser, you can stay here for the time being," then slammed shut the steel door.

Six hours later, I was still awake, the prison was quiet. The searing smoke from the fires across the compound crept into our cell as the wind shifted, forcing us to shut our window. It was close to 4:00 am, but sleep wasn't coming easy for any of us, so Burl, Beaux, and I talked a lot about ourselves. I discovered they were also in prison for drug trafficking and were brothers who had been busted during the same sting. They fortunately wound up in the same prison, and petitioned to be cellmates, figuring it wouldn't be much different than the room they'd shared as boys.

It was just barely dawn and on an AM radio station, Paul Harvey mentioned something about Federal Correctional Institutions in Tennessee and Talladega. It sounded very innocuous, and was only a ten or fifteen second sound bite. However, by 6:00 am, the story had grown bigger. There was an interview by a young boy who said his father, an inmate named Langston Hughes, had started the riot in Talladega because of Congress's decision regarding the crack law. The story picked up momentum for a little while and then, within an hour and a half it was dropped altogether- not a peep about it on any radio station- as if it had never occurred. Right before the story’s disappearance, one reference cited it as a “minor uprising.”

“Minor my ass!” Beaux exclaimed.

Following the riot, all of Talladega was put on an official lockdown status, meaning that the inmates were to be locked up twenty-four hours a day and revoked of any rights previously held. All staff would receive triple time pay, the only time they could ever receive such a benefit. Our meals were cut down to only twice a day, the dreaded brown bag lunches consisting of two bologna and cheese sandwiches on dry white bread and an apple—a far cry from the chow hall food. We were not going anywhere: no shower, no recreation, no work, no phones, no chow hall, no commissary, no nothin’. For the next five days, I stayed locked in this eight by ten cement room with two beds, a toilet, sink, and a window. Still, this was a corner cell on the 2nd floor, the biggest one in the cell block. Burl, Beaux and I passed the time by playing cards, doing push-ups, and sitting around speculating about the damage to the prison.

Prison riots are rare. History demonstrates that mass prison riots, like the one started  in Talladega, happen almost nowhere else in history. One cause of a riots scarcity is that the social structure within the walls of a prison function by spreading discord between prisoners. Different gangs flock to each other, races are divided, the religious find like-minded prisons. Essentially it’s a divide and conquer tactic and a full-scale prison-wide riot requires all prisoners to overcome their differences and rise against their captors and  join forces to overcome the racial chains that bind them. In order for prisoners to abandon their prejudices against each other and ignore the consequences like any oppressed people, there must be a strong incentive. This is evident by the few prison riots that have made history: New York state’s Attica rebellion of 1971 is well known as the granddaddy of all prison riots and occurred as retaliation for the racism, physical brutality and horrendous living conditions the inmates were subject to. Or the notorious Atlanta prison riot, an eleven-day long uprising initiated by Cuban detainees who were protesting repatriation to Cuba in the 1980’s.

Both of these riots were born from a sense of outrage that stems from the core of our humanity: a need to be acknowledged as human beings with basic needs, the sense of powerlessness that accompanies the loss of autonomy and the frustration of being voiceless while your lives and fate are determined by others. So although the catalyst for our rage felt justified amongst us prisoners, the lack of news coverage seemed to invalidate our cause. I don’t mean just the inmates of Talladega, but rather every inmate who rebelled in all of the 13 prisons across the United States that rioted simultaneously that day. You would think considering the news coverage of Attica, Atlanta and the like, that 13 prisons rioting at once would be newsworthy. Yet, the general public did not know about our outrage, much less the source of it.

The incentive that caused entire prisons full of men to decide they were done being unheard, was a decision made by the United States’ Congress.

In 1995 the United States’ African-American population was approximately 31 million people and total Caucasian population was approximately 210 million people. Of that population, 501,672 blacks were incarcerated in state and federal prison in comparison to 464,167 whites. That’s only about 35,000 more prisoners, a number many used to dismiss the disparity, but when considered as a percentage of the population, it means the number of black Americans are incarcerated at a rate seven times that of whites.

According to the Bureau of Justice 106,536 people were incarcerated in federal prison at the time of our riot in 1995. Of those, 55,172, or 53%, were incarcerated for drugs. As of 2013, there are approximately 216,000 people in federal prison, and over 2.4 million total in federal, state and privately run prisons of which 51% are locked up for drug related offenses. Then and now, African Americans comprise almost 37% of the sentenced federal prison population.

  Between 1991 and 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission had reviewed discrepancies in drug laws that federal defendants were sentenced under and recommended certain changes to Congress. The changes implemented resulted in more uniform sentence guidelines for the laws pertaining to LSD, marijuana, and L versus M  methamphetamine.

At the very same time that the sentencing commission was created Congress also created statutory mandatory minimum sentences, a guideline for sentencing that formalized the relationship between the amount and type of drug and the length of a sentence.  

For example, one of the proposed changes addresses that of marijuana cultivation. If arrested for 49 marijuana plants or less, the plants were simply weighed with the dirt removed from the roots. If arrested for cultivating fifty plants or more, even if the marijuana plants were two inch seedlings, each plant is calculated as one kilogram (or 2.2 pounds). The penalty for that one extra plant can be as much as eight to twenty extra years in prison. Each weight corresponds to a number or level in the federal sentencing guideline manual which is referred to in order to determine the length of a sentence. In the eyes of many, the revisions to marijuana, LSD** and methamphetamines L & M, made the law more lenient, a much needed change made obvious by egregious discrepancies in sentencing such as the one mentioned above.

Once the Sentencing Commission votes on a change Congress can act to override the change. If they choose not to vote on the change the changes become law. These three changes mandated and approved by congress (LSD, L versus M methamphetamine, and marijuana cultivation) primarily affected white defendants. 93% of federal LSD defendants are white, whereas only 6.2% of federal marijuana offenders were black, and only 1.3% of federal methamphetamine offenders were black. Then in 1995 the Sentencing Commission proposed a reform for the powder cocaine and crack cocaine sentencing discrepancy.

Federal crack sentences at the time ranged from six years to 75 years. Bear in mind, these are non-violent consensual crimes, as opposed to violent and/or non-consensual crimes like rape, murder, bank robbery, or terrorism. The average crack sentence was 125 months, whereas average powder cocaine sentence was 82 months.

For years the mainstream media portrayed crack as a drug that contributes more violence against society. In reality and science they are the same drug. Crack is simply powder cocaine cooked down with water and baking powder. Same drug same addiction same crime against society, and yet vastly different sentencing guidelines. On average crack cocaine offenders receive five to eight times the amount of time as powder cocaine offenders for the very same weight of drugs.

After careful review the U.S. Sentencing Commission recommended that offenders convicted of crack cocaine charges receive the same mandatory minimum sentences as powder cocaine defendants. After all, the difference primarily lies not in the drug but in the drug dealer and user; powder cocaine impacts predominately white upper-middle class communities and crack cocaine impacts poor black communities. In 1997, 3,901 blacks were prosecuted under the crack law, which accounted for 84.4% of all federal crack prosecutions. This is mainly due to the socio-economic status of the user. Crack is much cheaper than its powder counterpart and African-Americans on average earn less than whites. 

Reprinted from Letters From Marion: A Deadhead's Journey from Peace to a Super Max Prison with permission from the author, all rights reserved (c 2015).
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