By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Prisons or prisoners are portrayed by the media and the entertainment industry as doing “hard time.” Gary Settle, sentenced to 177 years for his first offense asks the question, What is hard time? What does it mean to do hard time? Settle did not think about it. He just did the time the best he knew how.

How do we mitigate the time? Doing time can be hard time or easy time. After years, decades or forever, time is doing you. Some use the time for self-improvement and others for self-destructive behavior, such as drugs, gangs, and violence.

The most inhumane time Settle spent in prison was in the segregated housing unit, also known as the (SHU). When asked what was it like Settle says he has no common ground to compare it to. Super-Max Federal Prison in Florence, Colorado is the most severe prison in the country. Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, some of the first terrorists involved in the trade center, and other notorious prisoners have also done time there. The federal penitentiary is referred to as the Alcatraz of the Rockies.

Settle describes his time vessel as a small quarantined room about as big as a bathroom where one is truly alone. His daily routine consisted of big angry men sliding food through the slot in the door three times a day. Five times a week he was escorted to an exercise yard by burly prison guards carrying sticks. Settle had intermittent human contact. He sometimes went weeks without talking to anyone. A 15-minute phone call once a month was the communication policy for segregated inmates and it was set in stone. Settle had to practice talking to loosen-up his vocal chords for his isolated phone conversations with his family. When Settle’s dad died his 15-minutes for the month had already been taken up. He had to wait until the next month to call his mom.

As anyone would guess, the federal prison with the biggest reputation for housing some of the most dangerous offenders has very stringent rules. Trying to make it through sentencing time without making a mistake is hopeless. Settle explains the incomprehensible rules, “Three years into the program you could be shot right back to starting over. Any rule violation, even as minute as taking food, is a violation that is enforced by starting over from day one. One little violation will send the offender back to day one. Eight years of time served could be lost in a flash. This is what begins to consume your thoughts. ”

How can such a policy, one that insures failure, possibly rehabilitate?   

Settle recaps a time when he had 5 years added to his sentence while he was under investigation for a possible violation. Settle recalls the time he spent before he was cleared of the possible offense. It was the most miserable few months of his life. The dismal view from window is barb-wire fence and steel wires.

Settle describes how his time in prison has affected him. He is not comfortable in crowds, but never was.  Every inmate reacts differently to solitary incarceration. Settle is not a light sleeper or insomniac like some inmates. He says, “Some of the inmates who spend time in solitary confinement are semi-normal and some not so OK.  I am alright. I know two inmates who committed penitentiary murders and suicide. One was a prison guard. Drive people crazy? Everyone looks out for each other.”

Settle has some sound questions and suggestions for reducing violence and making prisons safer, like administrators claim they are. He proclaims there is a dire need to protect life because men who have nothing left to lose or to care about become dangerous.

Settle believes it is time for the correctional system to be reevaluated from top to bottom. Instead of spending millions on incarceration, evaluate what the real problem is. Why are so many prisoners in lock-down units?  .Why does the U.S. have around 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of its prisoners?  What are other parts of the world doing different? Countries that are practicing more effective approaches to dealing with offenders have lower crime rates and lower recidivism rates in other parts of the world.

Settle suggests using mechanisms made for attacking this problem. Victims of impact need to participate in restoring their offenders to being responsible for the harm they caused. Home confinement is another alternative to locking people up that has been shown to reduce recidivism and incarceration rates.  Tax-payer money could be saved by releasing eligible inmates. Rehabilitating inmates is going to take more than just doing time. Initiating more effective approaches than just locking criminals away would give prisoners, like Gary, more hope and help him stay out of trouble.  

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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