Lompoc Prison Loses ‘Country Club’ Status
The nation’s most famous “country club prison,” once the domain of such celebrity felons as inside trader Ivan Boesky and Watergate figure H.R. Haldeman, is shutting down.
The Lompoc Federal Prison Camp is being converted into a higher security federal prison. A prison with fences and razor wire instead of small “off-limits” signs around the property. A prison where inmates have to wear khaki uniforms instead of shorts and T-shirts. A prison where inmates can’t play tennis in the afternoon.
Lompoc received international attention during the early 1970s, when it housed former White House Chief of Staff Haldeman; Herbert W. Kalmbach, former President Richard M. Nixon’s personal lawyer, and several other Nixon aides convicted of Watergate-related offenses.
After the Watergate era, inside trader Boesky and former San Diego Chargers running back Chuck Muncie, who had been convicted of drug offenses, were among those who did their time at Lompoc.
While incarceration was a dramatic change in lifestyle for these inmates, most were thankful that they were sentenced to the peaceful environs of Lompoc.
Before the recent changes, Lompoc had no walls, fences, bars, gun towers or guns. Guards were unarmed and nattily attired in gray slacks, powder-blue shirts and ties. When not working, inmates could wander about freely and jog, play tennis or lawn bowl.
The camp was bordered by towering eucalyptus and pine trees; flower gardens filled with daisies, gladioluses and rose bushes surrounded the dormitories. The setting seemed more appropriate for a community college than a prison.
However, during the last few weeks, the trees have been cut down and replaced with fences and razor wire. Guards armed with shotguns soon will patrol the perimeter. The movement of inmates will be closely supervised. By early August, when the prison is entirely rebuilt into a low-medium security prison, most of the inmates will be transferred to other camps, and inmates with longer sentences and more violent crime histories will be brought in.
Lompoc is being shut down because the federal prison system has a greater need for medium-security prisons than camps, said Gavin O’Connor, a spokesman at Lompoc. Prisoners are doing more time, he said, because of new mandatory sentencing laws, the elimination of parole, and longer sentences for drug offenses.
“It’s quicker and cheaper to convert the camp to a prison than to build an entirely new facility,” O’Connor said.
While minimum-security institutions such as Lompoc often are 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 27 such facilities in the country, and after Lompoc closes, the federal prison camp at Boron will be the only one left in California.
Mark Commins had heard all about the gangs, the overcrowding and the violence at most prisons. When Commins arrived at Lompoc after a drug-dealing conviction, he was immediately relieved.
“People were walking around in shorts . . . it was nice and open with a lot of trees,” said Commins, 25. “The atmosphere was pretty mellow.”
Many of those at Lompoc have more education than the staff, and among the inmates are doctors, bankers and lawyers. Commins, who was a college student when convicted, said he has learned more talking to inmates than he ever learned in school.
Numerous real estate developers are at Lompoc, Commins said, and he has learned about the profit potential in California real estate. Commins has decided he wants to become a developer--after he is released in 1991--and he discusses his plans like a recent business school graduate, throwing out terms such as, “pyramiding capital,” “escalating markets” and “lot splitting.”
“I didn’t want to waste my time, so I tried to better myself and learn as much as I could,” Commins said. “There were some very intelligent people here, and I listened to everything they had to say about business . . . as long as it was legal. I don’t want to end up back in here.”
He and Ivan Boesky worked together as janitors in the visiting room, but Commins said Boesky “kept to himself and never said much.” Boesky’s resources were so vast from his insider trading deals, he was able to pay the U.S. government a $100-million fine, but at Lompoc he only made 11 cents an hour.
The public was fascinated by Boesky’s fall, and there was more news media interest in his incarceration than with perhaps any other inmate, O’Connor said. During his 18 months at Lompoc, the prison received an average of one call a day about Boesky from reporters.
Boesky, who was released last year, was unpopular with some inmates because he cooperated with authorities and identified other insider traders.
“He’s a snitch. . . . He rolled over on Milken and those other guys,” said one inmate, who requested anonymity. “There were some people here who didn’t like that.”
In higher security prisons, inmates who have a “snitch jacket” might be in danger, the inmate said, but in Lompoc, there are very few assaults. “The worst thing that’s going to happen to you here,” the inmate said smiling, “is if someone hits you over the head with their wallet.”
About 600 inmates are housed at Lompoc, and most will be transferred to other camps on the West Coast within a few weeks. Some inmates will remain because they are needed to work outside the fences at the prison dairy, cattle ranch and meat processing plant that provide food for the federal prison system. Eventually, a much smaller prison camp will be built near Lompoc to house these inmates, O’Connor said.
The prison camp opened in 1970, about a half-mile from the maximum-security federal penitentiary at Lompoc that once housed Christopher Boyce, a convicted Soviet spy from Palos Verdes. Boyce, whose crime was chronicled in the book “The Falcon and the Snowman,” escaped from Lompoc in 1980, and was captured 19 months later.
But escapes--referred to as “walkaways"--were rare at the prison camp because those who were caught faced the most severe punishment the prison could impose: They were banished from the privileged surroundings at Lompoc and sent to a traditional prison, with no cable television and no salad bar in the chow hall.
The prison camp was embroiled in controversy soon after it opened. The head of the camp and several guards were fired for accepting bribes from two inmates--a wealthy race track owner and his brother--in exchange for escorting the men to nearby motels to meet with women.
“Those are the old days. . . . The Bureau of Prisons has come a long way since then,” said Larry Taylor, warden at the Boron Federal Prison Camp. “We have internal affairs officers now, inspectors, whistle-blower numbers to call. You have to be very clean today.”
But inmates with clout still try to influence prison wardens.
“Every now and then we’d get calls from politicians asking us to give some inmates special consideration or favors,” said Robert Christensen, warden at Lompoc from 1981 to 1987. “Of course, we wouldn’t, but some would become very insistent. One politician from Nevada threatened me with all kinds of things if I didn’t give this one inmate a furlough and special visiting privileges.”
During Watergate, many were outraged that those who were convicted received comparatively short terms at a comfortable facility like Lompoc. These prisons, many argued, typified the inequality of a justice system where many racial minorities, who are convicted of street crimes, get longer sentences and are consigned to higher-security institutions than white-collar criminals or big-time drug dealers who can afford top attorneys.
Taylor, of the Boron prison, said the system is equitable. If an inmate is a low escape risk and does not have a history of violent crime, he can qualify for a camp.
“I don’t like the term country club prison. . . . I don’t even like the term camp--that implies that it’s a place for a summer vacation,” he said. “The men here do not have their freedom; they can’t leave. They have to work and are subjected to a strict routine. This is still a prison.”