When 29-year-old Shawn Lowe arrived at the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta in early March, he was feeling pretty good about the future. The prison was a frequent stop for people being transferred between U.S. Bureau of Prisons facilities, and though notoriously unpleasant, it was also a temporary stay. More than seven years into a long sentence on federal drug conspiracy charges, Lowe was finally on his way to a minimum-security prison camp closer to home.
Like many who go to prison at a young age, Lowe had spent his first few years of incarceration in and out of trouble. After a particularly low point, he decided that he wanted to be a better son and father. He became a devout Christian, read as many books as possible, and stacked up certificates for various programs. After some four and a half years aimed at self-improvement, the transfer was what he had been working toward.
But on March 13, as the country began to shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic, the BOP announced that it was stopping all movement in its tracks. Rather than continue on to his destination, Lowe was stuck in a moldy, roach-infested housing unit with no idea of when he might leave.
Lowe’s mother, Denise Johnson, had last spoken to him on the phone in late February. Although she did not know which prison he had been assigned, she knew it was one of two camp facilities in Minnesota, where she lives. Either institution would allow her son more freedom of movement, as well as job and educational programming. It would also reconnect him with his family. Johnson is raising a granddaughter while on Social Security and under treatment for a blood disorder, which makes travel almost impossible. “I haven’t seen my son in eight years,” she told me.
The next time she heard from him, it was through CorrLinks, the email system used by people incarcerated by the BOP. He was not in Minnesota, but in Atlanta — and things were bad. “None of these men are getting their food,” she remembers Lowe telling her. “They’re not getting no soap. They’re not getting no hygiene.” Johnson was scared. Lowe is young but has asthma, which she feared would make him especially vulnerable to Covid-19. She also worried that the lack of adequate food could weaken his immune system. Meals were small and often served cold, he wrote. And he did not have access to the commissary, which is critical to supplementing the paltry portions often provided to people in prison. In one of his most recent letters, Johnson told me this spring, choking back tears, Lowe said that Covid-19 had gotten into the facility and raised the possibility that he might not make it out alive.
Rather than continue on to his destination, Lowe was stuck in a moldy, roach-infested housing unit with no idea of when he might leave.
Johnson had other reasons to worry. During our first call in April, she told me about her older son, Richard Carrillo, who had just been released from a federal prison in New York and taken a multiday Greyhound journey from Manhattan to a halfway house in Fargo, North Dakota. In a subsequent story, I ended up focusing partly on Lowe but largely on Carrillo — the first in a series of articles on the risks of the coronavirus in residential reentry centers.
When I got back in touch with Johnson recently, I naively expected that Lowe had likely been transferred out of Atlanta by now. Although the coronavirus continues to spread in state and federal prisons, the BOP announced some time ago that it would begin moving thousands of recently sentenced people from detention centers into prisons. As of May 22, USA Today reported, an additional 7,000 people were awaiting transfer to their designated prisons. But in a text message in early July, Johnson said Lowe was still in Atlanta. For reasons that remain unclear, unlike his neighbors, he had not been able to make any phone calls for the whole time he had been at the facility. His mother put money on his account, but Lowe was told his account had not been activated. When she called the prison to complain, an employee suggested that maybe her son just didn’t want to speak to her. The whole situation has taken a toll. At a recent doctor’s visit to treat an earache, Lowe weighed himself. “He lost 50 pounds,” Johnson wrote in her text.
Even under ordinary circumstances, prison transfers can cause debilitating chaos and confusion for individuals in BOP custody. The process is designed to be destabilizing and opaque; transfers occur on very short notice — reportedly for security reasons — and families are not informed in real time where their loved ones are going or when. Online forums like PrisonTalk contain archives dating back years showing people unable to locate their loved ones after sentencing or during a transfer. Many people who have been in federal prison describe their time spent in transit as among the worst periods of their sentence, a punitive ordeal that is as arbitrary as it is abusive. When used as a disciplinary tactic, it even has a nickname: diesel therapy.
With the coronavirus crisis magnifying long-entrenched problems at the heart of the American prison system — from medical neglect to lack of accountability for deaths in custody — Lowe is one of numerous people who fear they have fallen through the cracks during the pandemic. Although the threat of the virus continues to loom, the endless uncertainty and grim conditions of confinement are increasingly intolerable. Even before the pandemic, there was no telling how long a transfer would take, or how many stops a person in custody would make along the way. The virus has managed to make it even worse.
Lowe and his mother are not the only ones who say the holdover unit in Atlanta is a particularly dismal place to be. “Horrible. Unlivable,” was how one man, who spoke to me anonymously to avoid retaliation, described it. “I remember sitting there eating my dinner in my cell, and here come the roaches,” he said. The concrete building is old and rundown, with rust covering the showers. “You’re standing there in an unsanitary area trying to clean yourself. And it just doesn’t happen.”
In a letter written more than a month after his arrival in Atlanta, Lowe said there were some 130 people in his unit. There was black mold in the cells, he said, and roaches came out at night. “Our unit has 8 showers, but only 3 of the 8 work,” he wrote. He had only received one bar of soap, “delivered in two separate halves,” he added. “Many of the men here are all out. But they tell us to keep our hands clean.”
Things got even worse after the BOP announced new restrictions systemwide beginning April 1. Lowe and his neighbors were confined to their cells practically around the clock, while staff was unresponsive even to sick calls. “I heard an inmate complain that he was having trouble breathing and the CO told him, ‘Good motherfucker, take short breaths,’” Lowe wrote. “I do not know the circumstances entirely, the inmate could have possibly been full of crap … but still this illustrates the conduct of the staff at this prison.”
“This is not our first encounter with spoiled food. My cellmate chose to choke his down rather than be hungry.”
But perhaps the worst part was the food. “Just today we were served spoiled green beans with our lunch,” he wrote. “This is not our first encounter with spoiled food. My cellmate chose to choke his down rather than be hungry.”
The BOP did not answer specific questions about people stuck in transit between prisons. “With respect to inmate movement generally, the BOP’s inmate movement nationwide is down 94 percent from this time last year, and this is directly a result of steps the BOP has taken as we have implemented our Covid-19 pandemic plan,” spokesperson Justin Long said. He provided links to parts of the plan, which has been rolled out in phases over the past few months. The tightened restrictions on April 1 placed prisons on “enhanced modified operations” — “not a lockdown,” as it has been widely described, he emphasized, “but rather a means to minimize inmate movement, to minimize congregate gathering, and maximize social distancing among the inmate population.”
However the situation is described by the BOP, Lowe fears that after more than four months in Atlanta, he will be stuck in transit indefinitely. “Well, I learned that we will be here for sure until sometime in July,” Lowe wrote in a letter Johnson received on June 5. “But don’t hold your breath we may be here till next year maybe next summer. I really wish I could call you mom. I really do miss talking to you.”
USP Atlanta is one of a handful of transfer hubs commonly used by the BOP to temporarily house people in transit. Originally completed in 1902, the prison precedes the BOP itself by nearly three decades. By comparison, the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City, which opened in 1995, has been described as clean and modern, although that has not prevented the coronavirus from spreading. The BOP counts 105 total cases of Covid-19 at the FTC, including one death.
At USP Atlanta, the official tally is 32 cases. But many say this is an undercount, pointing to a 39-year-old BOP employee named Robin Grubbs who died and later tested positive for Covid-19. Her death has not been counted by the BOP, which has said that “there is no evidence or information relating to a cause of death.” But the prison’s union president told the Marshall Project that the BOP was merely trying to avoid paying benefits to Grubbs’s family. “The bureau thinks about the long-term effect of admitting something like that has happened,” he said. “They try to downplay it as much as possible.”
Last month, the Marshall Project exposed how the BOP’s actions exacerbated the risks of the pandemic, including at holdover facilities. “In February and early March, while the outbreak was gaining steam,” they wrote, “records show over 10,000 people flying through the federal transfer center in Oklahoma City, a main transit hub, on the way to other prisons.” In addition, despite the BOP’s claim on March 13 that all transfers would be stopped, people in custody continued to arrive at hot spots like FCI Elkton, spreading the virus.
Lowe arrived in Atlanta on March 3. Like all those awaiting trial or transfer, he was assigned to the detention center, as opposed to general population or the penitentiary’s satellite camp, which have nowhere near the strict limits on phones calls, mail, commissary, and even medical services. Although there is no available guidebook specific to holdovers at the penitentiary, the Length of Stay section of the BOP Handbook for the Oklahoma City holdover unit says that case and unit managers “begin tracking inmates to ensure they are not unnecessarily delayed once they are at the FTC for more than 30 days.” The handbook describes the average stay as lasting four to six weeks. “Inmates are not housed at the FTC any longer than necessary. … For security reasons, staff WILL NOT tell you when you are leaving.”
Holdovers are not limited to places like Atlanta or Oklahoma City. Kimberly Wegmann first wrote to me in late April, saying that her husband, Shawn Wegmann, was stuck in a holding cell at USP Canaan, a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania. Like Lowe, Shawn was being transferred to a minimum-security camp when movement stopped in mid-March.
A few days after Kimberly’s email, Forbes reported that Canaan was one of a handful of federal prisons that were moving people who were designated for camps into higher-security facilities. Although there is a satellite prison camp on the grounds at USP Canaan, her husband was not allowed to be housed there because he was in transit. One man told Forbes that the transportation holdover area was especially harsh. “It is cold and there was no access to phones or email,” said the man, who spent two weeks there in quarantine before being sent to home confinement. “I saw older guys in their 50s who had been there for six weeks. I don’t know how they could hold up.”
“My husband may be a federal inmate but he is still a human being with rights and he is not being treated as such. … I KNOW he is not the only one.”
Kimberly’s husband had been there for nearly seven weeks when she first wrote. Serving a 12-year sentence on federal gun charges, he had spent the past few years striving to get to a lower-security prison. “He has worked very hard for camp status just to be forced to be held at a USP which is max security and he is not even being given supplies or access to commissary,” she wrote on April 27. Shawn told her that he was being housed in an area that was also being used to quarantine people with Covid-19. If he could have access to the commissary, he could buy vitamins to help keep his immune system healthy, Kimberly said. “My husband may be a federal inmate but he is still a human being with rights and he is not being treated as such. … I KNOW he is not the only one.”
Kimberly said her husband’s ordeal had started with good news: After almost five years incarcerated in federal prisons hundreds of miles away, Shawn was finally going to be transferred closer to home, to the minimum-security camp at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. “I live in Frankfort, 45 minutes north of Indianapolis,” she said. News of the transfer was what he had been waiting for. “He’s been doing great. … He’s been programming, doing everything he can. And working really hard to get camp status.”
About a week and a half later, she got a phone call from her husband. “He said, ‘I can’t talk long … but I want to let you know I am in USP Canaan. They’ve brought us here because of the lockdown.’” The conditions in his unit were horrible, he told her, adding that there were some 75 guys with him with convictions that were far more serious than his. “I can hear the fear in his voice,” she said.
Kimberly said she’d never heard her husband sound so vulnerable and on edge. At one point, he almost got thrown into solitary confinement for getting into a fight while trying to get to the phone, she said, which was not like him. Although one of the only silver linings of the pandemic was that free phone calls were now available, at his unit, this had caused chaos. With the lockdown in place, “they get one hour to get out and they have to either take a shower, use the phone … and that is it. So if he stays in line to talk to me, he doesn’t get a shower.”
Kimberly was emotional as she recounted her husband’s experience on a phone call in May. On the day we spoke, right before her eight-year wedding anniversary, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had been granted home confinement, a fact that made her voice rise in anger and indignation. Manafort had been incarcerated at FCI Loretto, the same facility as her husband. During her last visit with her husband, almost a year before, she had seen Manafort in the visitation area.
Her voice relaxed as she described that visit. “You get a hug when you come in,” she said. “That was the best part … just be able to hug him.” She bought Shawn a cherry Pepsi from the vending machine, his favorite. As soon as he would finish one, she’d get him another. Since visits are so precious, they avoided any difficult conversations. “If there’s things we need to hash out or argue about, we do that on the phone,” she said. That weekend, they talked about his daughter being pregnant. “That was a big topic of conversation because he was gonna be a grandfather for the first time.”
“The things that he described, the condition that those guys were in — it’s awful.”
As with Lowe, I expected that Shawn Wegmann’s status would have changed in the intervening months. But during a phone call in June, Kimberly sounded deeply demoralized. Nothing had changed. She had just gotten off the phone with her husband, and he sounded as low as she’d ever heard him. Meanwhile, the state of Indiana had just reopened bars and restaurants, and Kimberly had gone back to her position as a bartender. “We’ve been really busy,” she said. “I think people are just so tired of being home.”
It felt good to go back to work, she said. But she feared being exposed to the virus and bringing it home to her father, who is in his 70s. “I have a camper that’s parked in the yard beside the barn. … So when I come home from work, I go to the camper and strip everything off and change my clothes and wash up in the camper before I come in the house.”
But maybe the hardest part was feeling like she was living a different reality than other people. It had always been painful to see couples out together at the bar, making plans to go on future dates or vacations. “I miss those things. I want those things so bad.” Now she felt like the world was moving on and leaving her husband behind — and her along with him.
A few weeks after I first spoke to Denise Johnson, two other men sent letters from USP Atlanta. They had arrived around the same time as Lowe. Both echoed what Lowe described. One man said he did not have a mattress to sleep on for the first couple of nights he was there. He also said he had worn the same clothes for weeks. Food was being served in half-portions, including produce that was sometimes spoiled, he said. Unlike Lowe, that man said his transfer was involuntary, the result of fabricated evidence that had sent him to solitary confinement for months. “I haven’t been able to see my 4 children, wife since September,” he wrote.
The second letter contained similar descriptions. When he first arrived at Atlanta, “no beds were available and no mattress or blanket,” the man said. “It took 2 1/2 weeks to get a towel, wash rag and soap.” He put in several requests for medical attention but received no response. Meanwhile, the guards and trustees working in the unit were not wearing masks.
I attempted to send mail back to both men, but my letters were rejected with no explanation. Although one of the men remains in Atlanta, the man who said he had not seen his family since the fall has since been moved. In a phone call in early July, his wife said he’d been able to hire a lawyer who helped correct the error that had gotten him wrongly disciplined in the first place. Although his sentence is relatively brief, his journey through the system had been a nightmare even before he got stuck in Atlanta. “The things that he described, the condition that those guys were in — it’s awful,” she said.
In one of Lowe’s last emails to his mother, he told her that men were finally starting to be moved out of the prison. “One bus left last week and one left this week,” he wrote a few weeks back. The men were being tested before they were allowed to travel, he said. But Lowe had not been tested. “I heard yesterday that because I’m going to a different region I will be stuck here til October at minimum.” He asked her to see if she might help him get transferred to a prison in the mid-Atlantic region. “It is bad here mom the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
In my last phone call with Kimberly Wegmann, on July 16, she said she had not heard from her husband all week. In his last letter he mentioned that some men had been placed in quarantine to prepare them for transfer. “If I drop off the face of the earth,” he wrote, “let’s hope I’m being transferred.” She was hopeful that things were finally up and running, she said. But between the time he will spend in quarantine before his trip, to his stop in Oklahoma City, to his arrival and quarantine in Terre Haute, “it could be a couple of months before I hear from him again.”