Commentary

Saunders: Show up early for prison? Why?

bsaunders@newsobserver.comNovember 3, 2013 

What we had here was failure to communicate.

That’s the best way to describe former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s aborted attempt to enter prison a day early.

No, really: Early.

Pulling up to the pokey late, at the last millisecond or plastered is understandable. Showing up before you’re actually due is incomprehensible.

For what may be the first time in history, though, someone – the former Illinois congressman convicted of misappropriating campaign funds – showed up at the Federal Prison in Butner a day earlier than his sentence was set to start.

Was he trying to duck the horde of media types who wanted to document his amazing fall from grace and Congress? Or did he really, as his attorney CK Hoffler said, want to get this thing over and done with?

When I asked to speak to Hoffler, based in Atlanta, her representative said she is finished speaking on the subject and that Jackson will give no interviews during his 30-month incarceration.

Darn. In an earlier interview with CNN, though, Hoffler said Jackson reported early because he figured the sooner he began to pay for his crime, the sooner he’d be able to get back to his family.

TV jumped the gun, too

In Chicago, some TV stations reported him being booked, prodded and probed into prison a day earlier than he actually showed up. One station’s legal analyst reported Jackson “was given his sheets, he was given his clothes, he was searched, and he was forced to do a body cavity search, which is the most demeaning thing that could happen to an individual.”

Naw, it isn’t. Equally demeaning is having it reported that you were body cavity-searched when you haven’t even been booked into the joint yet.

At the time this supposedly learned blow-dried talking head who didn’t know what he was yapping about was spinning his tale of horror, Jackson was chilling in a hotel room – which is where Hoffler said she took him when he called to tell her the prison hadn’t accepted him.

I talked to someone who definitely knows what life is like at Butner, my buddy Tony, who spent seven years as an involuntary guest of the government’s hospitality. He did two years at the federal pen in Morgantown, W.Va., and the last five at Butner.

“Check in early!” he exclaimed when I told him about Jackson’s attempt. “Man, I was trying to check out early.”

Tony, who was incarcerated on drug charges, is now a tax-paying, contributing member of society with a wife and three admirable children, one of whom is in college. I’d put his character up against many people who’ve never broken a law, and regard him as a walking, talking testament that rehabilitation is possible.

He remembers his first days of “going through R&D” – receiving and discharge – as being filled with paperwork, medical exams and tests. “They assign you a bunk after two or three days, then they assign you a job. I worked in the kitchen.”

True grits

Because many of the inmates come from a socially advantaged strata of society, he said, he was amused by how some initially reacted to the government grub he dished. It wasn’t “send my compliments to the chef, garcon.”

Most likely, he said, it was “Man, I ain’t eatin’ that (unappetizing swill).”

“After a couple of days,” he said, “You’re like ‘Yo, playa. Let me get some more of that.’ The food is really not as bad people say. Friday is chicken night.” He said meals also include subs, hamburgers and pork chops, and breakfast is often grits and eggs and bacon.

I could write a book about grits in lockup. It’d be a mighty thin book, like the grits served in the Rockingham jail. They were so runny you needed a straw to drink them. The ones in Atlanta were thick enough to use as weapons.

Yours truly did that

Speaking of the Rockingham jail, upon reading that Jackson had been shooed away from Butner for showing up early, my first thought was “Cool. Now I’m not the only one.”

Until the gaffe with his admission into Butner, I was the only person I knew who’d been thrown out of jail. It happened in Rockingham – where else? – when I was a poor but earnest 26-year-old newspaper publisher.

My downtown red-brick building office was across the street from the downtown red-brick building police station, and one night I staggered into the wrong building. The medical term for my condition was “lit up like a Christmas tree.”

The only officer on duty, I learned later, figured nobody could be that toasted for real and assumed that I was merely faking in order to get locked up and write on the conditions inside the city jail.

He threw me out, and I staggered into the correct red-brick building.

Unlike Jackson, I didn’t have to return the next day.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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