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Low-Key Lockup : In Boron, Prison Is a Mental State

Times Staff Writer

The prison has no walls, fences, bars, gun towers or guns. Guards are nattily attired in gray slacks, powder-blue shirts, maroon ties and navy blazers. Amenities include a swimming pool and two full-time recreation directors.

Some inmates, who are allowed to leave the prison unescorted, spend their days working in nearby communities and their evenings umpiring games for the local Little League.

Incarceration at the Federal Prison Camp at Boron is more a state of mind than a state of siege. An imaginary line around the prison and a few inconspicuous “Off Limits” signs are the only boundaries separating freedom from imprisonment.

Escapes Are Rare

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But escapes are rare because those who are caught face the most severe punishment the prison can impose. They are banished from the privileged environs of Boron and sent to a traditional prison. A prison without a salad bar in the chow hall. A prison without cable television.

Minimum-security institutions such as Boron are often referred to as country club prisons or Club Fed; officially they are categorized as Security Level No. 1 institutions, the least guarded in the federal prison system. There are only seven such facilities in the country, and Boron is the only self-contained Level 1 institution in California.

Bob Rush is not the type of man you expect to see in prison. A grandfather of three, Rush, 53, has the mien and articulate manner of a business executive, which he once was. But that was before he was convicted of wire fraud totaling “several hundred thousand dollars.”

“I heard all about the rapes, gang fights and terrible conditions in prison and I was damned apprehensive,” Rush said. “But I’ve been very impressed by this place and by the type of inmates here. If you have to do time, you’re going to want to do it here.”

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New Controversy

But as prisons throughout the country face mounting problems, elite institutions such as Boron have precipitated controversy. Some criminologists and prison experts contend that the system is inequitable and say Level 1 prisons attract a disproportionate number of white-collar criminals or big-time drug dealers who can afford top attorneys. Racial minority defendants who are convicted of street crimes generally get longer sentences, they contend, and are consigned to higher-security institutions.

“The white-collar criminals are getting more of a break--they don’t fit the stereotype of the dangerous criminal,” said Jeffrey Reiman, a professor at the American University School of Justice in Washington and author of “The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison.”

“I’m not saying do away with the Level 1s. I’m saying make it more equitable who gets sent there.”

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But J. Michael Quinlan, deputy director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, argues that the current system is simple and fair. If an inmate is a low escape risk and does not have a history of violent crime, he can qualify for a Level 1 institution.

When inmates are first sent to Boron many are surprised by the architecture and ambiance of the prison. Set in a barren stretch of the high desert 75 miles north of San Bernardino, Boron resembles a sprawling community college. There are new redwood dormitories instead of cellblocks, and on a promontory above the prison a white stucco church with the quaint name “Chapel on the Hill” offers prisoners a spectacular view of the desert.

Evening Activity

During a recent weekday, the pace of the prison was sleepy, almost tranquil. Inmates were working or in class, and the grounds were nearly empty. But in the evening the prison came alive as the 420 convicted embezzlers, drug dealers, bank robbers and assorted swindlers spilled out of the chow hall and onto the grounds.

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Inmates jogged around the softball field, just inside an off-limits sign. The shuffleboard league began the evening’s competition. The racquetball court was filled, and inmates lined up behind the gym for the traditional prison activity of building up bulk at the weight room.

Visitors began to arrive, many driving Cadillacs, Lincolns or Mercedes-Benzes. Some inmates in the visiting room skipped dinner because their wives and girlfriends had packed gourmet meals and then heated them in the microwave. The drug money launderer in the corner of the visiting room enjoyed a meal of shish kebab and wild rice with his girlfriend; the embezzler by the window polished off a bowl of kiwi fruit and strawberries, and the elderly gentleman recently convicted of fraud waited while his wife heated up a plate of salmon.

Just before dark, inmate Paul Jechura finished his workout and headed back to the dormitory for a shower. He had just run three miles and then toned up with a little weight work. Jechura, 38, tanned and fit, and wearing a blue jogging suit, is a testament to life at Boron. When Jechura was first arrested in 1983 he weighed 270 pounds; now he is down to 200.

‘Never Felt Better’

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“Before I got busted, the heaviest thing I ever lifted was a suitcase full of money,” Jechura said. “But after all the exercise I do in here, well, I’ve never felt better.”

Jechura pulled out a newspaper clipping that chronicled his exploits when he was known as “Zoomer,” a flamboyant marijuana smuggler. When Jechura was arrested, the government confiscated from him almost $1 million worth of gold bars and silver certificates, two airplanes, three Porsches and a Ferrari, a $500,000 house and a 116-foot yacht. Jechura estimated that his income was about $2 million a year.

Now he makes 11 cents an hour as a clerk in the welding shop.

“I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it,” Jechura said with a shrug. “I’ve been around the world; I had the finest cars, stayed in the best hotels. But now it’s time to pay the piper.”

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But at least paying the piper at an institution like Boron, he said, is not a total waste of time. Jechura, who served the first three years of his sentence in higher-security institutions, is taking correspondence classes at a local junior college and preparing himself for the day he leaves prison. Society benefits from prisons like Boron, he said, because inmates who are not alienated by a brutal prison environment have a better chance of adjusting to the outside world.

“This is the best place I’ve seen in the whole system,” said Jechura, who is serving a 10-year sentence. “The food is great, the guards don’t bother you, the staff is competent. But I don’t go along with the country club prison description.”

Whether a man is confronted with a 20-foot wall and a guard tower or an imaginary line in the desert, Jechura said, he still is separated from his family. He still is a prisoner.

Attention was focused on Level 1 institutions after most of the Watergate defendants received comparatively short terms at minimum-security institutions, typifying inequalities in the justice system, said John Irwin, a professor of sociology at San Francisco State University and author of “Managing the Underclass in American Society.”

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“Many politicians say our country is suffering from a moral disease because we are not tough enough on crime,” said Irwin, a criminologist who once served five years in Soledad State Prison for robbery. “But I think part of the problem is that this society doesn’t take seriously lawbreaking done by powerful people.”

The sentencing system favors the white-collar criminal, said Reiman of American University. While the average sentence for robbery in the federal prison system is 137 months, the average sentence for fraud is 23 months, according to federal statistics. The average sentence for embezzlement is 22 months, but the average sentence for burglary is 47 months.

“If you use a gun, or you’re a repeat offender, there is some justification for getting a longer prison term and being sent to a medium or maximum-security institution,” Reiman said. “But many in those prisons are in for property crimes, not crimes of violence, and could easily serve time in minimum-security prisons.

Is It Fair?

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“You’ll often find the higher the income, the lower the security institution. The embezzler may take $100,000, and the burglar may take $100. But the burglar breaks into someone’s home, and people get terrified. Is it fair to sentence the burglar as if he were a worse criminal than the white-collar criminal?”

But, said Quinlan of the Bureau of Prisons, if people who are convicted of street crimes prove they are not escape risks and have no history of violence, they can qualify for Level 1 institutions. And it is a waste of federal funds to place many white-collar criminals in high-security institutions, Quinlan said. There is no need to surround them with expensive security measures.

“We feel the system is equitable, and our judgment has usually been proven correct,” Quinlan said. “Very few of those we have placed in minimum-security institutions have turned out to be escape risks.”

The overcrowding that has plagued the state and federal prison systems has filtered down to Level 1 institutions. During the last five years the inmate population at federal prisons, including Level 1s, has increased by about 50%. In 1981 there were 250 inmates at Boron; now there are 420.

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Criminal Push

Part of the reason is the Reagan Administration’s influence on the court system, Quinlan said. More conservative judges have been appointed, the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration has been given greater resources, and one result is longer and more frequent prison sentences.

“A lot of the people sent here are just wasting the taxpayer’s money,” complained inmate Monte Berrett, a contractor from Las Vegas who is serving a conspiracy sentence. “They’re not dangerous; they’re not going anywhere. Why not put them under house arrest, make them do community service and make room for other prisoners who want to serve their time here? But they’re throwing everyone in prison now to make a point.”

After voicing a series of complaints about Boron, which included overcrowding, Berrett found an unoccupied bench and began reading a magazine called “The Robb Report,” which probably has few prisoners among its subscribers. It is a self-proclaimed “magazine for connoisseurs,” and articles include “The Limousine Scene” and “Where in the World Should You Retire?”

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Many of the inmates at Boron have more education than the staff members. There are doctors, bankers and more than 25 lawyers, said Miguel Hijar, the prison superintendent. The largest percentage of inmates at Boron--about 45%--were convicted of drug offenses. Almost 20% of the inmates are serving time for fraud and the rest were convicted of income tax violations, bank robbery and assorted other crimes.

Although the atmosphere at Boron is low-key, Hijar said, all prisoners are assigned a job. About 40 inmates are maintenance workers at nearby Edwards Air Force Base, and a few are renovating the Boron community museum. Inmates also operate the prison’s fire department, which serves remote areas of Kern and San Bernardino counties, and repair motors and generators in the prison shop.

Lompoc Was First

The first Level 1 prison camp in California was established at Lompoc in 1970, as a satellite institution to the higher-security federal prison there. In 1979, the Air Force deeded its 12-acre radar base near Boron, which includes a swimming pool, to the Bureau of Prisons.

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Before the prison was founded, the town of Boron (population 4,500) just southwest of the prison was known primarily as headquarters for U.S. Borax and its logo of the Twenty-Mule Team.

“These inmates have been a great help to our little town,” said F. O. Roe, president of the Boron Chamber of Commerce. “They’ve cleaned up streets, weeded vacant lots and done a lot of landscaping. And I’d trust them with anything I’ve got--they’re the cream of the crop from the prison system. It’s like when I asked the warden after the prison opened if he was going to put a fence in. He told me: ‘Not unless people start trying to break in.’ ”

At a recent Little League game in Boron, parents said the prisoners, who volunteer their services, have been excellent umpires. The Little League saves money, parent Mike Duffy said, and nobody has complained that the umpires might be poor role models. The inmates, one parent noted, behave better than one former umpire who used to have a few shots of whiskey before the games.

Hot Dogs and Fun

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The inmates, who attend the games unescorted, gain more from the program than the Little League, said third base umpire Cary Cantonwine. They appreciate having the opportunity to leave the prison at night and to work in the community.

After the game, Cantonwine, two other umpires and the inmate announcer were given free hot dogs, popcorn and soda by grateful Little League parents. They leaned against the grandstand, turned their backs to the hard desert wind and finished their dinner.

Cantonwine, who was convicted on drug charges, had worked all day cleaning the golf course at Edwards Air Force Base and then lifted weights and jogged a few miles before driving out to the ballpark. By the time he finished his hot dog and headed back toward Boron with the other inmates, it was after 8 p.m., the end of a another long day in prison.


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