Canton Repository

August 13, 2002

Time behind bars may bore Traficant 

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — For the boisterous and combative James Traficant, the next seven to eight years in a low-security prison are likely to be more boring than perilous.

The former Ohio congressman, incarcerated in Allenwood federal prison near White Deer, Pa., will be mingling with drug offenders, white-collar criminals and other nonviolent felons who make up most of its 1,382 inmates.

“It’s a mundane, boring existence,” said Herb Hoelter, the executive director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Alexandria, Va. “The jobs are generally meaningless. It’s dull and it’s routine, and there’s nothing about it that can give any excitement or glamour.”

The 61-year-old Traficant, convicted of accepting bribes and payoffs, won’t be in danger, however. The threat of violence
or prison rape, ever present in high security state prisons, is virtually non-existent at low security federal institutions.

On the other hand, if Traficant thinks he can treat the system with contempt, he has another thing coming.

He is now inmate No. 31213-060.

“If he were to engage in any breaches of procedures or rules, then there would be a tightening up in terms of punitive
responses,” said Edith Flynn, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Hoelter, whose organization consults with felons who are going to prison, wonders whether Traficant will behave.

“Just from what I saw of him in the hearings and all that, he seems to be a little volatile and that certainly won’t be put up with,” said Hoelter, who has visited the Allenwood prison.

“The advice that we give most of our clients who are going into federal prison is to kind of melt into the woodwork,” he
said. “He doesn’t seem necessarily like the kind of guy who will melt into the woodwork.”

The all-male, low security facility that is Traficant’s new home is part of a larger federal complex at Allenwood. Nearby are other facilities: a high security penitentiary, a medium security prison and a minimum security work camp that used to have the reputation for being a “country club” or a “Club Fed” are nearby.

In reality, life in a federal prison, even a low security institution, is no stroll down a fairway.

The 55-acre facility, opened 10 years ago, contains four dormitory-style housing units surrounded by a double fence.

Prisoners such as Traficant sleep in cubicles 11 feet by 12 feet in size within the larger units, said Traci Billingsley, spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Two to three inmates share a cubicle containing bunk beds, a desk or writing surface and lockers. The rooms are left open, allowing free passage within the larger building. Bathrooms are down the hall.

A day begins with lights on at 6 a.m., followed by breakfast. Dressed in prison-issued khakis, inmates work from 7:30
a.m. to 4 p.m. with a break for lunch. Dinner is served at 5 p.m.

The jobs, including food service worker, orderly, plumber, painter, warehouse worker and groundskeeper, help support the operation and maintenance of the prison.

In contrast to Traficant’s $150,000 congressional salary, prison work pays 12 cents to 40 cents an hour.

In their free time, inmates can exercise, watch television in a common area or read.

No television sets are allowed in cubicles. Nor are radios, except those with headphones. Inmates can borrow books from the library or play cards or board games in common areas.

Allenwood’s facilities and equipment include stationary bicycles, a track and basketball court.

Tennis anyone? Forget about it. A few federal prisons had tennis courts several years ago, but they were closed “because of this whole issue of we have to be tougher on corporate criminals,” Hoelter said.

Prisoners can’t receive incoming phone calls. They can make up to 300 minutes per month of outgoing phone calls, for which they are charged.

They may attend chapel, and religious programming is available.

Prisoners can subscribe to newspapers and magazines, but those who were hoping for access to the Internet will be disappointed, observers said.

Outdoor recreation areas close at dusk and inmates must retire to their cubicles from common areas by midnight.

Traficant ended up at Allenwood even though he asked to do his time at the Elkton federal prison in Ohio. Also a low security facility, the 1,824-inmate Elkton is the only federal prison in Ohio. It also happens to be in the district Traficant represented until he was expelled from Congress.

If Traficant were at Elkton, he wouldn’t have to worry about challenges to his bid for re-election to Congress, since he
clearly would be residing in Ohio.

Architectural differences aside, one low-security federal prison is pretty much the same as another, according to federal officials and independent observers.

In deciding where to place an inmate, the Bureau of Prisons takes into account a judge’s requests, but not a felon’s, officials said.

Some observers, however, suggest that Traficant’s request to go to Elkton was precisely what kept him from being put there.

“The bureau of prisons has always been very image conscious,” Flynn said. “So when a convict such as he is requesting
a type of institution, they would probably purposely not give in to that because they don’t want to send the message there’s an ex-congressman getting white-glove treatment.”