My Journey to Hell on Earth
Updated: Jul 19
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on May 3, 2020
On April 26, 2020, I published an article titled, "Did COVID-19 Start at the Talladega Federal Prison Camp?" The article disclosed an outbreak of a mysterious flu-like illness at the Camp in December from a novel virus that affected about 10 inmates who had to be quarantined for 2 weeks. One of those inmates was Mack Smith (Reg. No. 59923-019), a 69-year-old white inmate who was serving time on a tax-related charge. Smith died in the Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) custody on April 24, 2020. Mack never fully recovered from the December outbreak of the novel flu-like virus. His non-productive coughing, co-morbidities, and weakened physical condition continued on a downward spiral until his death.
I knew at the time the article was published that I might be singled out for punishment at the Camp. I introduced America to Mack's story in the hopes that the amalgamation of conditions that led to his tragic death in the BOP's custody would never happen to another inmate.
On April 27th, I prepared another article on Mack Smith that was scheduled for publication on April 28th. This article details the pain and suffering that preceded Mack's death. It also highlights the valiant efforts by one inmate who desperately tried to get Mack the medical care he needed. Within minutes of finishing the article, I was called up front to Camp Control. I told my roommate, George Dunn, Jr. (Reg. No. 61181-019), that "they" have come to get me and I might not be coming back.
Special Investigative Services
Sure enough, "they" were waiting for me at Camp Control -- a lieutenant and another officer from the BOP's infamous Special Investigative Services (SIS). They told me to come with them, which I did. They drove me in a police van from the Camp to the Federal Correctional Prison that houses medium risk and violent criminals. Neither man told me what I had done.
Several days earlier, I had received a risk assessment of -13 for general risk and -5 for risk of violence. I had a risk classification of "Minimum," which is the lowest classification in the Bureau's system. On April 14, 2020, a Camp executive and I signed an agreement to place me in "community custody" and transfer me to home confinement. My transfer was scheduled for April 30, 2020. This agreement was rescinded on April 22nd after the Bureau issued new guidelines requiring that the released inmates must have served 50% or more of their time or have 18 months or less on their sentences and have served 25% or more of their sentence. Other factors were involved, as well. Those factors will be disclosed in a future article.
When we arrived at the medium security prison, I was escorted to the Detention Unit for inmates and Campers under administrative punishment. The Bureau calls the facility its "Special Housing Unit;" inmates call it the "Hole." In reality, it is "Hell on Earth." It is what Americans would expect to see in third world countries where pro-democracy dissidents are severely punished.
My Unexplained "POW" Status
When we reached the entrance to the Hole, the SIS lieutenant told the intake officer that I was a "POW." I didn't realize that SIS viewed me as a prisoner of war. But, what kind of war was the lieutenant referring to? It could not have been the war on drugs, or the war on terrorism because I had never been charged with these crimes.
Was it the war on fraud and other white collar crimes? After all, I was indicted, tried, and convicted on trumped up mail, wire, and bank fraud charges that career federal prosecutors in New Jersey declined to indict me on following a six-month grand jury investigation that considered the same body of evidence in 2015 and 2016.
Then, I quickly realized that there is no war on fraud at the federal level. Wells Fargo, for example, publicly admitted in February to creating 2 million fake bank accounts to bilk hundreds of thousands of victims out of tens of millions of dollars in banking fees. Yet, not one bank executive has been prosecuted on any kind of state or federal fraud charges. The company, itself, only paid a $3 billion fine for its 4-year mail fraud, wire fraud, and bank fraud crime spree from 2012-2016. What is worse, Well Fargo was back to fleecing the public again in April when it joined 3 other big Wall Street banks in looting $880 million from the $350 billion loan fund Congress established in March to rescue genuine small businesses that were collapsing during the coronavirus crisis. The money taken by these bank raiders was distributed to more than 235 large publicly traded companies. To date, no bank executive or official involved in this looting scheme has been charged with fraud.
The last category had to be POWs from the federal government's war on COINTELPRO targets. Led by the FBI and Department of Justice, this war was first described in a 1976 Congressional Oversight Committee report. COINTELPRO was a formal centralized program directed from Washington during the 1956 to 1971 time period that targeted civil rights activists who challenged the status quo in an effective and persistent way. Targets of this war generally included black, white, Asian, and Hispanic activists who sought equal opportunities for all, voting rights, and the fair administration of justice. This war cast Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as the "most dangerous Negro" in America, while the FBI called him an "evil, filthy beast." Even though the centralized COINTELPRO program ended in 1976, many FBI field offices and U.S. Attorneys in the South have continued a more discreet version of the COINTELPRO program, unabated.
Entering the Gates of Hell
Once I entered the Detention Unit, I was cuffed and taken to a holding cell where I was required to strip naked. I was given orange prison clothes to wear. Then, I was taken to cell 212 C, which was a small irregular trapezoid-shaped cell with a metal door, a toilet, bunk beds, a tiny table, and one small window with a partial view of the yard.
No reason was given for my detention. The Detention Order stated that "It is this Correctional Supervisor's decision based on all the circumstances that the above named inmate's continued presence in the general population poses a serious threat to life, property, self, staff, other inmates, or to the security or orderly running of the institution because [of a] pending SIS investigation. Therefore, the above inmate is to be placed in Administrative Detention until further notice." The Order was not signed or dated, as required by BOP regulations. The Supervisor who issued the Order was also required to perform a "24 hour review of the placement," which did not occur. The Supervisor in my case was the SIS lieutenant who picked me up at the Camp.
My cellmate in the Hole was Keith Barnhart (Reg. No. 52251-060), who resided in my dorm until January. Keith, who is 55-years-old, was in the Hole because a cell phone was found in his dorm cubicle. Cell phones are classified as a contraband item in prison.
Fortunately, my 2012 visit to the prison cell on Robben Island in South Africa where Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years in solitary confinement prepared me somewhat for my imprisonment in the Hole. Mandela's autobiography was the first book I read in the Camp. It also contributed to my ability to understand what a "political prisoner" must do in order to survive Hell on Earth. All of the inmates at the Camp and a handful of staff members from Alabama know my background and view me as a "political prisoner."
I was also blessed to be in the cell with Keith. He was a decorated soldier who worked in Army Intelligence on highly classified missions. Keith's Army Intelligence training taught him how to survive in captivity, how to handle mental and physical abuse, and how to manage total isolation when a soldier is captured behind enemy lines. Keith shared all of these lessons with me.
Keith was worldly, highly intelligent, mentally tough, compassionate, and he definitely did not belong in prison, particularly in light of all the dangerous missions he carried out in service to his nation.
Each day, we took mental flights back in time to the many places we had visited around the world. We also shared stories about the dangerous national security work we had undertaken for our country. Keith was particularly fascinated by my work with the U.S. State Department in Namibia in 2012 to block the Iranians from obtaining a uranium mining concession from Epangelo (Namibia's state-owned mining company) to support its nuclear weapons program. I had also given the State Department an eye-witness account of the Iranians loading duffle bags of diamonds onto their country's version of Air Force One and flying them out of Freetown, Sierra Leone shortly after Iran was kicked off the Swift international banking system as part of American sanctions against the country.
I also passed time in the Hole, exercising, reading, and writing about my journey to Hell on Earth. I was only allowed to shower one time and changed clothes once. I did not have access to a prison phone or my email account. I limited my consumption of water from the sink located above the toilet because it had the taste of lead in it, and I kept thinking about the lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan's residents several years ago. Guards in the Hole had to flush the toilet by pressing a button outside of our cell.
No inmate Orderly cleaned our cell while I was there. We did not have disinfectants or cleaning supplies for our cell even though the nation is in the midst of the coronavirus public health crisis that has already infected 1,160,774 Americans, 67,444 of whom have died from the virus (as of Saturday).
The prison at Talladega was opened in 1979. No living American President from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama should ever lecture any foreign power about the mistreatment of its inmates or the conditions of their prisons. Each one of these presidents had eight years in office to eliminate the barbaric conditions in America's federal prisons, and each one of them failed to do so.
The Day of My Release
On April 30, 2020, the fourth day of my detention in the Hole, Warden Cheron Y. Nash stopped by my cell. She was accompanied by the SIS lieutenant who ordered my detention as well as other members of her executive staff. When I asked her why I was being held in detention, Ms. Nash turned to the lieutenant and questioned him about my detention. This supervisor didn't know why I was locked up even though he issued the Detention Order that said I was a threat to the general prison population and the orderly running of the prison. Ms. Nash appeared to be visibly stunned and immediately questioned the lieutenant about the 24-hour Supervisor's review, which had not been done. She also noted that the Detention Order was not signed.
Several hours later, an officer in the SHU came to my cell and informed me that I was being released. I had a couple of hours to say goodbye to Keith. It was hard for me to leave him behind.
As I was walked from the holding cell where I changed back into my Camp clothes, several SHU officers trailed me chanting, "Dead man walking, Dead man walking, Dead man walking." I ignored the chanting, which stopped when the guards got to the entrance of the SHU where a black lieutenant was waiting. I walked into the sunshine at 3 p.m. Thursday for the first time in four days.
Throughout my entire time in the Hole, I felt the spirit of my ancestors who came to America from Africa in the hell holes of slave ships. I also felt the presence of my parents and deceased siblings, as well as the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Fannie Lou Hamer, and thousands of other brave men and women who risked it all for me to be able to stand up for a defenseless and vulnerable human being like Mack Smith. Even when I was confined to a dingy dungeon during the middle of the deadly coronavirus public health crisis, I never doubted that God would see me through to the other side of midnight.
I did not ask God to free me. Instead, I asked God to give me the strength and courage he had given my African ancestors, parents, deceased siblings, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the millions of others who survived unbearable conditions in slave ships, slavery in America, Jim Crow laws, wrongful imprisonment, and endless acts of domestic terrorism. All of them were willing to die on their feet in the quest for human dignity rather than live on their knees in a permanent state of subservience.
The Angels gathered above me for four 4 days, not to welcome me to Heaven, but to protect me in Hell.
Like my dear friend Dr. Maya Angelou (deceased), I know why the caged bird sings.