Observer: Prison People; the Prison Experience.


Glen Aaron

~ PART I ~

August 4, 2004: From the Comforts of Home to the Discomforts of Incarceration


A person passing through that first bank of cold iron prison doors suddenly realizes there is no return — at least, not at his will. It is initially disorienting and will be that way for quite a while. No matter how many times you ask people who have gone through a similar experience, even they cannot tell you for certain because what someone who “has been there” might describe applies only to that someone’s experience. Every prison, every prison guard, every experience, and every day is different.


A lot just depends on the “luck of the draw,” that is, who you draw as a guard (corrections officer) on a particular duty; what kind of mood he or she is in; what totally unrelated event occurred before you came into that person’s presence; whom you draw for a cellmate; the group dynamics in the quad you are assigned to; or what has or has not happened there recently. You, the new prisoner, are walking through this valley of incarceration, and you fear evil.


I learned quickly that all prisons are understaffed and wrestle with budget problems. As a result, staff and corrections officers are hurried. Though some are well-intended, if they have been there very long, they really don’t have patience or time for more than one question and one answer.


Such was the case on my initial intake. Just two intake officers handled the busload of thirty-plus prisoners who had just arrived from another prison. I didn’t ask questions. I could tell that, if I had, there would be no answers. Before being placed in a holding cell with other prisoners, I was put through the process for anyone coming in from the outside. In front of a guard, I was stripped naked. Big Daddy and the twins were checked to see if anything was being smuggled there. The butt cheeks were spread and the anus checked; then tongue, jaws, mouth, underarms and feet. All personal items except eyeglasses and wedding ring were inventoried and taken. Next, prison-issue clothes — resembling light-weight pajamas, and slip-on house shoes — were tossed at me with the unspoken indication that I put them on. Finally, I joined the others in the cold holding tank. Since there was no room on the concrete bench attached to the wall, I sat on the concrete floor with the others already there.


Prisoners coming in on a bus were processed and assigned cells before me. Meanwhile, I shivered as I waited in the cold cell, my head aching with pain. After each prisoner was processed, for a while, it seemed as though nothing was happening. Finally, a corrections officer opened the solid, locked iron door and took me to a small room where I was given a tuberculosis test. Apparently, there had been an outbreak at one of the prisons, and the staff was alert to anyone coming in with that particular airborne disease. I didn’t know whether this prison had been the one with the problem, but I did wonder.


A different guard led me to a third-floor quad. I was handed sheets and a thin blanket and told to make my bed, military style. Interesting. I had never been in the military. Looking at the other single bunk, I did my best to replicate the neatly-folded and tucked form.


The cell was small with just enough room for two men. At one end, a barred window faced another building a few feet away. At the other was the door to the cell, solid iron with a small slide in the middle for peeping in. At the foot of my bunk was an open toilet for use by both cellmates, and, at the head of the two bunks — in between them and under the window — was a small metal chest with two compartments, one for each cellmate, to store personal items like soap and toothbrush. I noticed that one compartment had a combination lock. I assumed it belonged to my cellmate, whoever he was, since I was alone in the cell at the time.


By now, the sunlight had vanished.


I was exhausted and my excruciating headache had not subsided. It was not yet curfew. Although I was at liberty to circulate in the quad — it housed about sixty prisoners, I later learned — I chose to lie down on my bunk and take deep breaths. I fell asleep. When I woke up, the room was dark. The heavy, solid door had been shut and locked. I could see, but not well. I saw the shape of a slight man who appeared to have long, straight hair trailing down the center of his back, somewhat like a ponytail. It would not be until the next morning that I would see that his hair was straight and gray, his skin dark, his face wrinkled. On this darkened night, my voice seemed to echo as I said “hello.”My cellmate did not answer, nor did he indicate any type of response. He just peed at the foot of my bunk and went to his own bunk.


I lay on my bunk, stared at the ceiling through the dark, wondering how my wife, Jane, and my son Cuatro were doing. I also wondered if I had made a mistake reporting my own crime, voluntarily admitting to its guilt. While I never resented doing so, several friends in both business and law told me they thought it was a mistake. Though the federal criminal justice system gives ideological lip service to “taking responsibility” for one’s own actions, the game is actually not played that way. The thought of my naivete would often return to me during my imprisonment. There was always the possibility that the FBI or the IRS would not have found out, but I didn’t want to sit around for ten years, wondering whether they would or would not. And, if they did, have to defend myself in my seventies. I did feel that the prosecuting attorney had welched on the deal we had made. He had “implied” that, in view of the fact the Department of Justice was not aware bankruptcy fraud had been committed by me until I came forth, I should get probation and he might give me a letter recommending such to the judge. “Implication” as opposed to commitment or promise by a federal prosecutor is the required procedure within the Department of Justice. Assistant U.S. Attorneys (AUSAs) are not their own boss, I knew, even though they speak with the perspicuity of authority.


My prosecutor, however, seemed to empathize with the fix I was in. What had been legal one day — administering the blind trust — was illegal the next, when a state judge abolished the trust. Since we were dealing with forty-million dollars in cash and assets acquired over a five-year period, the magnitude of the illegality was severe. The state judge’s ruling had the effect of making the distributions — from what was called the Bancroft Trust, heirship of The Wall Street Journal and the heiress wife of my client to his blind trust — illegal since he was in federal bankruptcy. Without the protection of the trust, every distribution over the five-year period became, by definition of law, a fraud upon creditors, thus violating the money laundering statute. Since I had designed, administered distribution and managed that trust, I chose to be upfront about it, thus I called for a meeting with the AUSA.


For a while, the AUSA and I seemed to be working through the technicalities of the case. Even though I would not escape censure in some manner, I surely wouldn’t be facing prison. Lawyers who often deal with the feds say, “Don’t rely on what you think you hear them saying. There is often a slip between the spoon and the lip.” So it was for me. The FBI became interested in the manner and means of how I had secreted the blind trust money offshore for my client. Ronnie Lee Morgan, who had a propensity for accumulating judgment creditors, knew that, when Jackie died, other Bancroft heirs would attack him and her distributions to him. In anticipation, he charged me with assuring that they couldn’t get his trust assets. I knew how to provide asset protection, having done so for numerous families through the years. Unfortunately, it was that aspect of the case that whetted the FBI’s appetite to know more.


One cold morning, I received a call from the AUSA and asked if I would mind coming down to the FBI office; he had some questions about my case. It seemed innocent enough. At this time, I was still representing myself and trying to be cooperative in every way.


I arrived at the FBI office in downtown Midland about mid-morning. This rather large system of offices, some with various types of monitoring devices, and numerous agents, is primarily a drug interdiction and administration office overseeing the Mexican border from El Paso down the Rio Grande South. I registered with the lady sitting behind the bullet-resistant glass.


Shortly, the AUSA arrived in the reception room and took me to a large conference room with a lot of file boxes stacked along the walls, many of the boxes mine. Only three of us sat at this round conference table with its dozen large leather chairs. I was seated across the vast divide from the other two men. The FBI agent, a large man who happened to be the senior agent-in-charge at that office, shot me a serious look. Their previously friendly demeanor had changed; they were now a bit aloof, intimidating.


“Glen, we know you have more files,” the agent began.


“I think I have given you everything covering the trust and the Lubbock judge’s ruling on the trust,” I answered.


“No. That’s not what we mean, Glen. We have studied this trust’s investments. You are very sophisticated in how you hide money,” the AUSA said.


“I don’t understand what you’re asking,” I responded.


“You couldn’t have done this just this one time. This takes experience and know-how,” the agent said.


“Yes?” I asked. I didn’t know where this was going.


“We want to know every person you ever did this for, and how you did it,” the AUSA said.


I could see that these two had had lengthy discussions about offshore accounts and businesses of the trust but didn’t fully understand the subtleties. I hadn’t expected this. I tried to recoup, recapture the earlier friendly atmosphere.


“Look, guys. There’s no way. I’ve been practicing for forty years,” I said. “How could I do what you ask?”


“You can. Deliver every file, Glen,” the agent said.


“Sorry. This case is about me, my representation of Ronnie Lee Morgan and Jackie Bancroft Spencer Morgan, a blind trust, and a Lubbock judge’s ruling. Nothing more. I won’t do it.”


“You will or you won’t get that letter for probation,” the AUSA said.


“So be it!” I said. Flushed, hands shaking, I got up and left the room and the FBI office.


The FBI had been insistent that I disclose all of my clients, the families, the truly legal people for whom I had secreted money offshore for any number of legitimate reasons through the years. I would not give them up. I wasn’t going to get their names on some FBI watch list. By refusing, I knew the AUSA would be true to his word. The recommendation for probation was now off the table, and, in the end, I was sentenced to two years in prison.


As I lay on my bunk staring into the blackness, I could not help but reflect on that seminal event, that meeting, my decision to not cooperate in the manner demanded, and how it had led to my first night in prison. It wasn’t easy to disperse the thought that I had reported my own crime. I had never given such advice to a client. I wouldn’t have. Had I been naïve? a complete fool? I finally convinced myself that my rumination was akin to buyer’s remorse.


There was nothing I could do about it now. For weeks, I had had the nagging feeling of failure. I’d wondered how, through the years, I had fought so hard for my clients, and yet, when it came to defending myself, I had done such an ineffective job. By daylight, I had convinced myself to accept the reality of where I was. I determined to find what I could best do to be creative, positive, or giving during this period, while walking with great caution and a certain amount of introversion.


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