“We Own You”

One of the most disgusting statements I heard when I arrived here last April was, “The  Bureau of Prisons owns you.” No prison official told me this. This message was relayed to me by other inmates. Evidently at a meeting just before I arrived, a prison official told a gathering of inmates that the B.O.P. owned them.

Strangely enough no one told me this when I pleaded guilty and accepted responsibility of Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud. I had heard that convicts lose their right to vote and some of their constitutional rights … but slavery? So for the next 46 months, this soon-to-be-64-year-old man is a “slave” of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. That’s right. What’s my punishment if I am defiant? It’s “The Hole.” A small cell with a toilet in the middle of the room. I would be taken out of this lovely prison camp and locked up in “The Hole.”

Inmates fear The Hole. Elderly inmates fear it most.

I was not aware the U.S. was involved in elderly slave trafficking. But it is. Think about it. The number of elderly inmates is on the rise.  It’s at least 35 percent of the population here at the camp. And that may be conservative. The sad part is we are all non-violent and many of use are first-time offenders. We are mostly elderly. Some of us are actually disabled or close to being disabled. That makes us easy to control through threats, coercion, and intimidation.

We are not spies, traitors, racketeers, assassins. We are not dangerous to anyone. When I was a kid in the 50s, those were were the types of criminals who went to prison. Violent crimes committed by violent people equaled long prison terms. That is not the case today.  We are just people who made a mistake, and we are paying a debt owed to society. We are non-violent offenders and definitely not traitors or terrorists.

But slaves? Some may think I am being too harsh. But what would you call someone who is owned by another? Someone who is not a relative or a spouse? The best name you could call them is indentured servant. The most accurate description is “slave.” SLAVES. That’s the way prison officials view us! Not all guards or administrators treat the inmates that way. But many of them do.

One of the things required here is that we do some type of work.  Work that hopefully is suitable for your physical condition. Many jobs are voluntary. You have to apply and be accepted by the company in order to work these positions. The pay is higher and the employer, Unicor, only wants the best workers. Other jobs like camp maintenance or landscaping are not as exacting and may be suitable for an inmate with physical disabilities. And then, there are some inmates who can not do anything because of their medical conditions.

The highest paying jobs require inmates to apply for them. Unless the company is in need of extra labor. Such is the state of one of the companies associated with the Atlanta prison. Unicor Recycling is behind on its production so it has turned to forced labor from inmates. Elderly inmates, who have no interest in being forced to work, standing long periods of time. Inmates who have not asked to work for Unicor Recycling. These elderly inmates are threatened or coerced into working for this company. Just like slaves. Why? Unicor is behind on contracts with companies like Comcast or Xfinity.  Unicor has to meet its obligations, so inmates have no rights.  They are owned by the B-O-P. They can be sent to “The Hole” if they don’t do as they are told. Unbelievable!

The population is already graying. Medical treatment is not keeping up with demand. Take my second cellmate. Imprisoned for a federal parole violation. His offense? Buying a car without informing his parole officer. What? That is an offense, and it got him six months in the Atlanta work camp. He also had heart surgery before coming here. So when he complained of chest pains or asked to see a heart doctor, that request was rejected.  He was given pills and advice on how to handle the pain. It got worse, and his legs started to swell.  More pills and more poor advice. Finally he was sent to a hospital. The doctor told him he had only 24 hours before he would have died. He needed surgery to insert stints in his blocked arteries. His condition was life threatening.

Take me, for example. I arrived with the prescriptions I was taking for hereditary high-blood pressure. Doctors immediately started informing me that I could not take many of the medicines because they were not approved or they could not get them. One of my prescriptions was Effient, a blood thinner. I had recently suffered a mild stroke. Effient had never been prescribed. I am just taking my chances and hope that a stroke, which is the number-one killer in my family, does not claim me too. I am putting my fate in God. Not the B-O-P.

I wrote to my congressman and senator but no one has been able or willing to help. No one seems to have any authority over the B-O-P.  It’s an agency that does what it wants, when it wants. It has no overseer. It can do whatever it wants with its “property.” Not the president, the courts, congress or anyone else can order them to do anything.

Younger inmates call this place “a day care for the elderly.” And the number of elderly prisoners are growing. Why? Because of archaic laws, no federal probation or home confinement, and no federal diversion. Diversion allows a convicted felon to stay home, do community service and make amends for his crime. If he completes the program, his record is expunged and his “good name” is preserved.

You may ask why you have not heard about the rising number of elderly in our prisons? Because you are busy. You have hectic lives and many times you hear about it, but don’t realize what is going on. Things are done in secret. How many people have ever been to a prison? How many of you know someone elderly who was locked up? Not many. In fact many people do not know where the nearest federal prison is. Here in Atlanta, the federal camp is about three miles from downtown. But you can’t visit or go inside a prison unless you know someone who is an inmate  You must be approved to visit a prisoner and know the inmate before his incarceration.

When things are done in secret, with no oversight, strange things happen.  The next thing we know the prisoners will wear signs that read, “WORK WILL SET YOU FREE”!  Wait a minute, isn’t that the message the Nazis posted above Auschwitz or Treblinka? But this is America. The government would not send the elderly, non-violent, first-time offenders to a place like that, would they?

It’s time we became more informed as a country. Protect our treasured assets, which are our elderly. These people built this country. They worked hard all their lives. They’ve made mistakes, like everyone else. Do they deserve to spend their golden years away from their families and their communities? Do they deserve to be locked up like rabid dogs, when there are other alternatives that are being ignored or not used? These are the questions. When does punishment under the law become cruel, inhuman and atrocious?


Bernard Addison is at the Federal Prison Camp in Atlanta.  Emails can be sent to bernardaddison@outlook.com.  Cards or letters can be sent to:

Bernard Addison/44863-074/ FPC-Atlanta; Dorm D/ PO Box 150160/ Atlanta, GA 30315


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