Jail Bait

Take a tour of the new home of Cuyahoga's corruption all-stars

As another day's newspaper hits the streets, another miscreant is shipped off to jail — snared in the Cuyahoga County corruption case that has sent more than 50 to the big house, with the likelihood of more to come.

For them and their families, it is a humiliating and expensive experience. Along with being shamed in the media, castigated by friends, and charged by lawyers to essentially plead guilty, there is a lasting stigma to it all. You might say that this part of justice is more punishing than the actual time extracted from one's life as the price of the crime.

Many area defendants have already started the procession to the federal prison at Morgantown, West Virginia. It's a minimum-security facility that's surprisingly hospitable. One former "matie," as they refer to themselves, describes his arrival at Morgantown as giving him a sense of peace after having dealt with the FBI, prosecutors, and the travail of the justice system. He speaks of the place as a cross between a junior college, a fraternity house, and a cloistered retreat, situated as it is among hundreds of acres of woodlands that resemble a nature preserve.

For the 1,300 inmates at Morgantown, time is the single constant. They are advised not to mark down the days to their release, because its focus makes the passage of time even more grueling. They avoid discussing the length of their sentences, knowing others have far more time to serve.

Morgantown's population, according to one former member, is about 70 percent white-collar. Many of the rest are riding out punishment for drug offenses; some are even farmers, convicted of growing marijuana.

Most sentences amount to less than five years, but former inmates tell of meeting some who are logging as many as 25 years, a debilitating stretch of life for any offender. Even those who return to society after as few as three years remark how much has changed in the world, how making a simple phone call no longer is all that simple.

Prisoners are processed upon arrival, issued khaki shirts and pants with a nametag, and assigned to a living unit, which one matie likens to living in a ski chalet.

At the center of prison life is a quest to find suitable employment and other ways to engage free time — the better to divert attention from the daunting calendar. There are many jobs, most of which pay a few dollars every month. New prisoners are given several days to adjust, and smart ones seek out jobs rather than waiting to be assigned one. White-collars over 45 are advised to seek the more leisurely work of the laundry department. Mess hall duty is to be avoided for its lack of opportunity to slack off.

The food is passable to all but gourmet palates. More delectable options and personal items are available at the commissary, where each matie has an account — funded by family, friends, and meager prison earnings — that can be drawn upon for once-weekly visits. The accounts are also used for telephone calls, which can be made routinely. Incoming calls are not accepted.

Possession of cell phones, cigarettes, and liquor is forbidden. Get caught with such contraband, and you'll be whisked off to the "jug," a cell inside a barbed wire compound that is the prison's highest-security detention facility.

Routine annoyances at Morgantown are plentiful, among them the head counts that are taken four times daily. While there are no obstacles to keep a prisoner from escaping, these structured counts, taken at various times in various places, keep the bosses apprised of everybody's whereabouts.

To burn time, inmates embrace social and educational opportunities. Skills like plumbing, electrical, and computer technology are offered, as well as general education degrees. One lawyer, who knew he would be barred from ever practicing law again, took up welding.

As an inmate's release date nears, a strange apprehension develops. How will I resume life as a felon? many ask. Will friends and family accept me back? Can I get a job? How has the world changed?

Of course, pre-release anxiety won't be a problem to some of Cuyahoga's top players. They'll await the day of their sentencing aware that Morgantown is the last home they will know.