I am a lawyer, and I am in prison. It’s a long story.
I’m forty-three years old and halfway through a ten-year sentence handed down by a weak and sanctimonious federal judge in Washington, D.C. All of my appeals have run their course, and there is no procedure, mechanism, obscure statute, technicality, loophole, or Hail Mary left in my thoroughly depleted arsenal. I have nothing. Because I know the law, I could do what some inmates do and clog up the courts with stacks of worthless motions and writs and other junk filings, but none of this would help my cause. Nothing will help my cause. The reality is that I have no hope of getting out for five more years, save for a few lousy weeks chopped off at the end for good behavior, and my behavior has been exemplary.
I shouldn’t call myself a lawyer, because technically I am not. The Virginia State Bar swept in and yanked my license shortly after I was convicted. The language is right there in black and white-a felony conviction equals disbarment. I was stripped of my license, and my disciplinary troubles were duly reported in the Virginia Lawyer Register. Three of us were disbarred that month, which is about average.
However, in my little world, I am known as a jailhouse lawyer and as such spend several hours each day helping my fellow inmates with their legal problems. I study their appeals and file motions. I prepare simple wills and an occasional land deed. I review contracts for some of the white-collar guys. I have sued the government for legitimate complaints but never for ones I consider frivolous. And there are a lot of divorces.
Eight months and six days after I began my time, I received a thick envelope. Prisoners crave mail, but this was one package I could have done without. It was from a law firm in Fairfax, Virginia, one that represented my wife, who, surprisingly, wanted a divorce. In a matter of weeks, Dionne had gone from being a supportive wife, dug in for the long haul, to a fleeing victim who desperately wanted out. I couldn’t believe it. I read the papers in absolute shock, my knees rubbery and my eyes wet, and when I was afraid I might start crying, I hustled back to my cell for some privacy. There are a lot of tears in prison, but they are always hidden.
When I left home, Bo was six years old. He was our only child, but we were planning more. The math is easy, and I’ve done it a million times. He’ll be sixteen when I get out, a fully grown teenager, and I will have missed ten of the most precious years a father and son can have. Until they are about twelve years old, little boys worship their fathers and believe they can do no wrong. I coached Bo in T-ball and youth soccer, and he followed me around like a puppy. We fished and camped, and he sometimes went to my office with me on Saturday mornings, after a boys-only breakfast. He was my world, and trying to explain to him that I was going away for a long time broke both our hearts. Once behind bars, I refused to allow him to visit me. As much as I wanted to squeeze him, I could not stand the thought of that little boy seeing his father incarcerated.
It is virtually impossible to fight a divorce when you’re in prison and not getting out soon. Our assets, never much to begin with, were depleted after an eighteen-month pounding by the federal government. We had lost everything but our child and our commitment to each other. The child was a rock; the commitment bit the dust. Dionne made some beautiful promises about persevering and toughing it out, but once I was gone, reality set in. She felt lonely and isolated in our small town. “People see me and they whisper,” she wrote in one of her first letters. “I’m so lonely,” she whined in another. It wasn’t long before the letters became noticeably shorter and further apart. As did the visits.
Dionne grew up in Philadelphia and never warmed to life in the country. When an uncle offered her a job, she was suddenly in a hurry to go home. She remarried two years ago, and Bo, now eleven, is being coached by another father. My last twenty letters to my son went unanswered. I’m sure he never saw them.
I often wonder if I will see him again. I think I will make the effort, though I vacillate on this. How do you confront a child you love so much it hurts but who will not recognize you? We are never going to live together again as a typical father and son. Would it be fair to Bo to have his long-lost father reappear and insist on becoming part of his life?
I have far too much time to think about this.
I am inmate number 44861-127 at the Federal Prison Camp near Frostburg, Maryland. A “camp” is a low-security facility for those of us who are deemed nonviolent and sentenced to ten years or less. For reasons that were never made clear, my first twenty-two months were spent at a medium-security joint near Louisville, Kentucky. In the endless alphabet muck of bureau-speak, it is known as an FCI-Federal Correctional Institution-and it was a far different place than my camp at Frostburg. An FCI is for violent men sentenced to more than ten years. Life there is much tougher, though I survived without being physically assaulted. Being a former Marine helped immensely.
As far as prisons go, a camp is a resort. There are no walls, fences, razor wire, or lookout towers and only a few guards with guns. Frostburg is relatively new, and its facilities are nicer than most public high schools. And why not? In the United States we spend $40,000 a year to incarcerate each prison inmate and $8,000 to educate each elementary school student. Here we have counselors, managers, caseworkers, nurses, secretaries, assistants of many varieties, and dozens of administrators who would be hard-pressed to truthfully explain how they fill their eight hours each day. It is, after all, the federal government. The employee parking lot near the front entrance is packed with nice cars and trucks.
There are six hundred inmates here at Frostburg, and, with a few exceptions, we are a well-behaved group of men. Those with violent pasts have learned their lessons and appreciate their civilized surroundings. Those who’ve spent their lives in prison have finally found the best home. Many of these career boys do not want to leave. They are thoroughly institutionalized and cannot function on the outside. A warm bed, three meals a day, health care-how could they possibly top this out there on the streets?
I’m not implying this is a pleasant place. It is not. There are many men like me who never dreamed they would one day fall so hard. Men with professions, careers, businesses; men with assets and nice families and country-club memberships. In my White Gang there is Carl, an optometrist who tinkered too much with his Medicare billings; and Kermit, a land speculator who double and triple pledged the same properties to various banks; and Wesley, a former Pennsylvania state senator who took a bribe; and Mark, a small-town mortgage lender who cut some corners.
Carl, Kermit, Wesley, and Mark. All white, average age of fifty-one. All admit their guilt.
Then there’s me. Malcolm Bannister, black, aged forty-three, convicted of a crime I had no knowledge of committing.
At this moment, at Frostburg, I happen to be the only black guy serving time for a white-collar crime. Some distinction.
In my Black Gang, the membership is not so clearly defined. Most are kids from the streets of D.C. and Baltimore who were busted for drug-related crimes, and when they are paroled, they will return to the streets with a 20 percent chance of avoiding another conviction. With no education, no skills, and a criminal record, how are they supposed to succeed?
In reality, there are no gangs in a federal camp and no violence. If you fight or threaten someone, they’ll yank you out of here and send you to a place that’s far worse. There is a lot of bickering, mainly over the television, but I have yet to see someone throw a punch. Some of these guys have served time in state prisons, and the stories they tell are horrifying. No one wants to trade this place for another joint.
So we behave as we count the days. For the white-collar guys, the punishment is humiliation and the loss of status, standing, a lifestyle. For the black guys, life in a camp is safer than where they came from and where they’re going. Their punishment is another notch on their criminal records, another step in becoming career felons.
Because of this, I feel more white than black.
There are two other ex-lawyers here at Frostburg. Ron Napoli was a flamboyant criminal lawyer in Philadelphia for many years, until cocaine ruined him. He specialized in drug law and represented many of the top dealers and traffickers in the mid-Atlantic region, from New Jersey to the Carolinas. He preferred to get paid in cash and coke and eventually lost everything. The IRS nailed him for tax evasion, and he’s about halfway through a nine-year sentence. Ron’s not doing too well these days. He seems depressed and will not, under any circumstances, exercise and try to take care of himself. He’s getting heavier, slower, crankier, and sicker. He used to tell fascinating stories about his clients and their adventures in narco-trafficking, but now he just sits in the yard, eating bag after bag of Fritos and looking lost. Someone is sending him money, and he spends most of it on junk food.
The third ex-lawyer is a Washington shark named Amos Kapp, a longtime insider and shifty operator who spent a career slinking around the edges of every major political scandal. Kapp and I were tried together, convicted together, and sentenced ten years apiece by the same judge. There were eight defendants-seven from Washington and me. Kapp has always been guilty of something, and he was certainly guilty in the eyes of our jurors. Kapp, though, knew then and knows now that I had nothing to do with the conspiracy, but he was too much of a coward and a crook to say anything. Violence is strictly prohibited at Frostburg, but give me five minutes with Amos Kapp and his neck would be broken. He knows this, and I suspect he told the warden a long time ago. They keep him on the west campus, as far away from my pod as possible.
Of the three lawyers, I’m the only one willing to help other inmates with their legal problems. I enjoy the work. It’s challenging and keeps me busy. It also keeps my legal skills sharp, though I doubt if I have much of a future as a lawyer. I can apply for reinstatement to the bar when I’m out, but that can be an arduous procedure. The truth is I never made any money as a lawyer. I was a small-town practitioner, black on top of that, and few clients could pay a decent fee. There were dozens of other lawyers packed along Braddock Street scrambling for the same clients; the competition was rough. I’m not sure what I’ll do when this is over, but I have serious doubts about resuming a legal career.
I’ll be forty-eight, single, and in good health, hopefully.
Five years is an eternity. Every day I take a long walk, alone, on a dirt jogging trail that skirts the edges of the camp and follows the boundary, or the “line,” as it is known. Step over the line, and you’re considered an escapee. In spite of being the site of a prison, this is beautiful country with spectacular views. As I walk and gaze at the rolling hills in the distance, I fight the urge to just keep walking, to step over the line. There is no fence to stop me, no guard to yell my name. I could disappear into the dense woods, then disappear forever.
I wish there was a wall, one ten feet tall, made of solid brick, with coils of glistening razor wire along its top, one that would keep me from gazing at the hills and dreaming of freedom. This is a prison, damn it! We can’t leave. Put up a wall and stop tempting us.
The temptation is always there, and, as much as I fight it, I swear it’s getting stronger by the day.
Frostburg is a few miles west of the town of Cumberland, Maryland, in the middle of a sliver of land that is dwarfed by Pennsylvania to the north and West Virginia to the west and south. Looking at a map, it is obvious this exiled part of the state was the result of a bad survey and shouldn’t belong to Maryland at all, though it’s not clear who should have ownership. I work in the library, and on the wall above my little desk is a large map of America. I spend too much time gazing at it, daydreaming, wondering how I came to be a federal prisoner in a remote part of far-western Maryland.
Sixty miles south of here is the town of Winchester, Virginia, population twenty-five thousand, the place of my birth, childhood, education, career, and, eventually, The Fall. I am told that little has changed there since I left. The law firm of Copeland amp; Reed is still doing business in the same storefront shop where I once worked. It’s on Braddock Street, in the Old Town, next door to a diner. The name, painted in black on the window, was once Copeland, Reed amp; Bannister, and it was the only all-black law firm within a hundred miles. I’m told that Mr. Copeland and Mr. Reed are doing well, certainly not prospering or getting rich, but generating enough business to pay their two secretaries and the rent. That’s about all we did when I was a partner there-just manage to scrape by. At the time of The Fall, I was having serious second thoughts about surviving in such a small town.
I am told that Mr. Copeland and Mr. Reed refuse to discuss me and my problems. They came within an inch of being indicted too, and their reputations were tarnished. The U.S. Attorney who nailed me was blasting buckshot at anyone remotely connected to his grand conspiracy, and he almost wiped out the entire firm. My crime was picking the wrong client. My two former partners have never committed a crime. On so many levels I regret what has happened, but the slander of their good names still keeps me awake. They are both in their late sixties, and in their younger days as lawyers they struggled not only with the challenge of keeping a small-town general practice afloat but also fought some of the last battles of the Jim Crow era. Judges sometimes ignored them in court and ruled against them for no sound legal reason. Other lawyers were often rude and unprofessional. The county bar association did not invite them to join. Clerks sometimes lost their filings. All-white juries did not believe them. Worst of all, clients did not hire them. Black clients. No white client would hire a black lawyer in the 1970s, in the South anyway, and this still hasn’t changed much. But Copeland amp; Reed nearly went under in its infancy because black folks thought the white lawyers were better. Hard work and a commitment to professionalism changed this, but slowly.
Winchester was not my first choice of places to have a career. I went to law school at George Mason, in the D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia. The summer after my second year, I got lucky and landed a clerkship with a giant firm on Pennsylvania Avenue, near Capitol Hill. It was one of those firms with a thousand lawyers, offices around the world, former senators on the letterhead, blue-chip clients, and a frenetic pace that I thoroughly enjoyed. The highlight was playing gofer in the trial of a former congressman (our client) who was accused of conspiring with his felonious brother to take kickbacks from a defense contractor. The trial was a circus, and I was thrilled to be so close to the center ring.
Eleven years later, I walked into the same courtroom in the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse, in downtown Washington, and suffered through a trial of my own.
I was one of seventeen clerks that summer. The other sixteen, all from top-ten law schools, received job offers. Since I had put all my eggs in one basket, I spent my third year of law school scrambling around D.C., knocking on doors, finding none that were open. At any given moment, there must be several thousand unemployed lawyers pounding the pavement in D.C., and it’s easy to get lost in the desperation. I eventually fanned out through the suburbs where the firms are much smaller and the jobs even scarcer.
Finally, I went home in defeat. My dreams of big-league glory were smashed. Mr. Copeland and Mr. Reed did not have enough business and certainly could not afford a new associate, but they had pity on me and cleared out an old storage room upstairs. I worked as hard as possible, though it was often a challenge to put in long hours with so few clients. We got along smoothly, and after five years they generously added my name to the partnership. My income barely rose.
During my prosecution, it was painful watching their good names get dragged through the mud, and it was so senseless. When I was on the ropes, the lead FBI agent informed me that Mr. Copeland and Mr. Reed were going to be indicted if I didn’t plead guilty and cooperate with the U.S. Attorney. I thought it was a bluff, but I had no way of knowing for sure. I told him to go to hell.
Luckily, he was bluffing.
I’ve written them letters, long weepy letters of apology and all that, but they have not replied. I’ve asked them to come visit so we can talk face-to-face, but they have not responded. Though my hometown is just sixty miles away, I have only one regular visitor.
My father was one of the first black state troopers hired by the Commonwealth of Virginia. For thirty years, Henry patrolled the roads and highways around Winchester, and he loved every minute of his job. He loved the work itself, the sense of authority and history, the power to enforce the law, and the compassion to help those in need. He loved the uniform, the patrol car, everything but the pistol on his belt. He was forced to remove it a few times, but he never fired it. He expected white folks to be resentful and he expected black folks to want leniency, and he was determined to show complete fairness. He was a tough cop who saw no gray areas in the law. If an act wasn’t legal, then it was certainly illegal, with no wiggle room and no time for technicalities.
From the moment I was indicted, my father believed I was guilty, of something. Forget the presumption of innocence. Forget my rants about being innocent. As a proud career man, he was thoroughly brainwashed by a lifetime of chasing those who broke the law, and if the Feds, with their resources and great wisdom, deemed me worthy of a one-hundred-page indictment, then they were right and I was wrong. I’m sure he felt sympathy, and I’m sure he prayed I would somehow get out of my mess, but he had a difficult time conveying those feelings to me. He was humiliated, and he let me know it. How could his lawyer son get himself so entangled with such a slimy bunch of crooks?
I have asked myself the same question a thousand times. There is no good answer.
Henry Bannister barely finished high school and, after a few minor scrapes with the law, joined the Marine Corps at the age of nineteen. The Marines quickly turned him into a man, a soldier who craved the discipline and took great pride in the uniform. He did three tours in Vietnam, where he got shot and burned and briefly captured. His medals are on the wall of his study in the small home where I was raised. He lives there alone. My mother was killed by a drunk driver two years before I was indicted.
Henry travels to Frostburg once a month for a one-hour visit. He is retired with little to do, and he could visit once a week if he wanted. But he does not.
There are so many cruel twists in a long prison term. One is the feeling of being slowly forgotten by the world and by those you love and need. The mail, which arrived in bundles during the early months, gradually trickled down to one or two letters a week. Friends and family members who once seemed eager to visit have not been seen in years. My older brother, Marcus, drops in twice a year to kill an hour updating me on his latest problems. He has three teenagers, all at various stages of juvenile delinquency, plus a wife who’s crazy. I guess I have no problems after all. In spite of his chaotic life, I enjoy the visits. Marcus has been mimicking Richard Pryor his entire life, and every word he utters is funny. We usually laugh the entire hour as he rails against his children. My younger sister, Ruby, lives on the West Coast, and I see her once a year. She dutifully writes me a letter every week, and I treasure these. I have a distant cousin who served seven years for armed robbery-I was his lawyer-and he comes to see me twice a year because I visited him when he was in prison.
After three years here, I often go months without a visitor, except for my father. The Bureau of Prisons tries to place its inmates within five hundred miles of home. I’m lucky in that Winchester is so close, but it might as well be a thousand miles away. I have several childhood friends who’ve never made the drive and a few others whom I haven’t heard from in two years. Most of my former lawyer friends are too busy. My running buddy in law school writes once every other month but can’t quite squeeze in a visit. He lives in Washington, a hundred fifty miles to the east, where he claims to work seven days a week in a big law firm. My best pal from the Marine Corps lives in Pittsburgh, two hours away, and he’s been to Frostburg exactly once.
I suppose I should be thankful that my father makes the effort.
As always, he’s sitting alone in the small visiting room with a brown paper sack on the table in front of him. It’s either cookies or brownies from my Aunt Racine, his sister. We shake hands but do not embrace-Henry Bannister has never hugged another man in his life. He looks me over to make sure I have not gained weight and, as always, quizzes me about my daily routine. He has not gained a pound in forty years and can still fit into his Marine uniform. He’s convinced that eating less means living longer, and Henry’s afraid of dying young. His father and grandfather dropped dead in their late fifties. He walks five miles a day and thinks I should do the same. I have accepted the fact that he will never stop telling me how to live my life, incarcerated or not.
He taps the brown bag and says, “Racine sent these.”
“Please tell her I said thanks,” I say. If he’s so worried about my waistline, why does he bring me a bag of fatty desserts every time he visits? I’ll eat two or three and give the rest away.
“You talked to Marcus lately?” he asks.
“No, not in the past month. Why?”
“Big trouble. Delmon’s got a girl pregnant. He’s fifteen, she’s fourteen.” He shakes his head and frowns. Delmon was an outlaw by the age of ten, and the family has always expected him to pursue a life of crime.
“Your first great-grandchild,” I say, trying to be funny.
“Ain’t I proud? A fourteen-year-old white girl knocked up by a fifteen-year-old idiot who happens to be named Bannister.”
We both dwell on this for some time. Our visits are often defined not by what is said but by what is kept deep inside. My father is now sixty-nine, and instead of savoring his golden years, he spends most of his time licking his wounds and feeling sorry for himself. Not that I blame him. His dear wife of forty-two years was taken away in a split second. While he was lost in his grief, we found out the FBI had an interest in me, and its investigation soon snowballed. My trial lasted for three weeks and my father was in the courtroom every day. Watching me stand before a judge and get sentenced to ten years in prison was heartbreaking. Then Bo was taken away, from both of us. Now Marcus’s children are old enough to inflict serious pain on their parents and extended family.
Our family is due some good luck, but that doesn’t appear likely.
“I talked to Ruby last night,” he says. “She’s doing well, says hello, says your last letter was quite funny.”
“Please tell her the letters mean so much. She has not missed a week in five years.” Ruby is such a bright spot in our crumbling family. She’s a marriage counselor, and her husband is a pediatrician. They have three perfect kids who are kept away from their infamous Uncle Mal.
After a long pause, I say, “Thanks for the check, as always.”
He shrugs and says, “Happy to help.”
He sends $100 every month, and it is much appreciated. It goes into my account and allows me to buy such necessities as pens, writing tablets, paperbacks, and decent food. Most of those in my White Gang get checks from home and virtually no one in my Black Gang gets a penny. In prison, you always know who’s getting money.
“You’re almost halfway through,” he says.
“I’m two weeks shy of five years,” I say.
“I guess it flies by.”