On February 12, 2002, I was convicted of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 and about 20 other related crimes. I was sentenced to 20 years in a maximum security prison. On June 2, 2002, I was released from prison and sent on my way. I was not placed on probation or parole. Those not intimately familiar with my case might scoff at the above statements, but they are completely factual. It is the events that occurred during that four month period that are the reasons my sentence was commuted and sent home.
I arrived at the United States Medical Center For Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri on February 13, 2002 at roughly nine in the morning. The two U.S. Marshals who delivered me handed the intake officer a stack of paperwork. One of the Marshals signed a form before leaving me in the care of the Bureau of Prisons. I was 18-years-old at the time and wet behind the ears. I had a lengthy juvenile record, but this was the big leagues. A guard read through my intake form.
“Hacker huh? You a homo or something?” he asked.
“No. Of course not,” I said.
“If you’re a homo you should tell me now. Homos go to a special cell block.”
The guard proceeded to perform a cavity search and corralled me into a shower where he sprayed me with a hose. After that, I was issued a prisoner uniform, shoes, belt, hygiene supplies, a towel, blanket, and a badge with my prisoner number on it.
I was lucky. I had been assigned to C Block. C block had private rooms and a common area. My room was a 10-foot by 6-foot cell complete with a single bunk, a metallic toilet equipped with a sink basin installed next to it, and a locker that served as a nightstand and a table. There was a camera in the upper left hand corner over the three-inch thick steel door with a single tempered glass window at just about eye level.
Okay, so now that I’ve given you an idea of what kind of place I was at, Let me get down to brass tacks. This was a giant stone building where every imaginable evil was committed on a daily basis for the better part of 70 years by the time I got there. I’m not asking you to believe in ghosts, but I know for certain that that prison is haunted. Inmates reported — almost every day — hearing rustling noises outside their doors or knocking behind their cells walls. Also turned out nearly everyone on C block had a story about Old Jim.
Old Jim was a guard during the riot of 1941. Legend has it, he turned the corner onto C Block and a group of inmates tackled him to the ground and raped him to death. Other versions of the story claim they raped him and then stabbed him. The point is, he died horribly. On some nights when we were supposed to be asleep, we’d stand at our meal flaps and have conversations through the crack. Every now and then we’d hear keys jingling and footsteps in the hall. If anyone was brave enough to look up, they’d see nothing…if they were lucky.
Anyone that said they looked Old Jim in the eyes was called a liar. As the story goes, if you look Old Jim in the eyes, he’ll come to your cell and kill you. More than one inmate had been found mutilated in their cell over the years. Even with the cameras in place, there was no evidence that anyone had been in the cell aside from the victim.
We traded Old Jim sightings like campfire stories, but he was far from the only ghost roaming the halls. My cell in particular was especially terrifying. Unlike most cells, I had a grate in my ceiling. It had been bolted up with mesh wire, but that didn’t stop a previous occupant from making rope out of his sheet to hang himself. Some nights, I’d wake up and see a body dangling above me. I’d close my eyes as quickly as I could. I asked Sarge, one of the inmates I developed a bit of a friendship with, about the cell. He said that it was a white supremacist pro-Nazi guy that committed suicide in my cell back in the 50s.
A nasty storm rolled in one afternoon and knocked the power out. By that evening, the backup generators went out. C Block was on lockdown. The guard-in-charge sat in his office smoking as the rest of us were forced to do without. We could smoke on an enclosed stoop four times a day, but the electric lighter on the wall was about useless that day.
The snoring from the end of the hall meant the guard was asleep. Larry was a good guy and none of us had a problem with him. He had a bad habit of falling asleep and most nights that wouldn’t have been a problem, but after the storm, the magnetic doors weren’t working. The main door to the cell block still used a key, but all the interior doors were upgraded to use magnetic doors. Larry was asleep in the unlocked office, which also contained contraband on a cell block that housed two serial killers, a marine that went on a rampage, about a dozen killers, four terrorists, and a hacker. It did not end well for Larry.
Tyrell was a gangbanger from Chicago convicted of killing a DEA agent. Larry had busted Tyrell several times for trying to gain entry to the hygiene cabinet in the guard office. Tyrell snuck into the office and killed Larry. Larry didn’t even have a chance to scream — I doubt he even woke up. Tyrell grabbed Larry’s night stick and his keys. As he went for the main door, we all heard a jingling noise that sent all of us scrambling back to our cells.
I didn’t watch, but what I heard was bad enough. Tyrell screamed and then I heard him being dragged across the floor and down the hall. His hands made wet slaps against the smooth concrete as he tried to pull himself from Old Jim’s grip. We heard the shower come on and one final scream before the keys began jingling down the hall again. I looked up from my position crouching inside the door and saw the Nazi hanging below the grate.
“Gott ist todd,” I heard him say.
Bernie, a former dentist and convicted serial killer lived in the cell across the hall from me. I heard Bernie shout, but I was paralyzed with fear. It was only when I saw the Nazi clawing at his noose, I moved out of the door with my eyes to the floor and headed for the common room. By this point, everyone was screaming, everyone that is, except Sarge.
Sarge reached out of his door and grabbed my shoulder. I almost suffered a heart attack on the spot. Sarge pulled me in and told me to be quiet. Sarge wasn’t innocent. He openly admitted to his crimes — something that was rare in a prison. While he was deployed in Iraq during Desert Storm, two men broke into his house and kidnapped his daughter. He received the news after returning from a mission. At that very moment he went AWOL, found his way back to the states and tracked those men down. By the time he was finished, you could have fit their remains in a shoe box. He turned himself in the next day.
“I think you’ll be fine kid, but I’m fucked,” Sarge whispered.
“What? What do you mean?” I asked.
“All of us are lifers who deserve to be here. You fiddled with a computer, big whoop,” he whispered. “Look kid. My grandmother was a medicine woman and told me restless spirits can only hurt the damned. I don’t think you’re damned.”
“B-but I’m an Atheist,” I said.
Sarge laughed to himself and shook his head.
“Does this look like a situation where it makes sense to be an Atheist?” he asked.
The jingling sound was getting closer. By this point, lights were flickering, but weren’t fully back on. I looked up just as the lights flickered and when it went dark again, I found myself staring Old Jim directly in the eyes. Sarge shouted at the apparition.
“Hey ugly! I heard you went out like a bitch!”
Old Jim turned his head towards Sarge and knocked him to the ground. He reached down and grabbed Sarge by the leg. Sarge looked back at me shouting.
“Get somewhere safe and don’t open your eyes until the guards pull you out!”
Old Jim dragged Sarge outside of the room and I heard Sarge struggle to get free. I closed my eyes as I heard bones crunching and Sarge screaming. Unable to hear any more of it, I ran for the main door. The key was still in the lock. I turned it and ran to the smoking stoop. I sat there with my eyes closed for the next several hours.
The sun came up and with it came several guards. They pulled me off of the smoking stoop. I didn’t respond. I was all but catatonic at that point. I had seen things no one should ever live to see. I was moved to solitary for the better part of a week. Even after my stint in the SHU, I didn’t respond when questioned. It was only when I was finally brought to the warden, I started showing any sign of being mentally present.
The warden brought me to his office. He offered me some soda, but I didn’t respond. He clasped his hands behind his back and walked over to his desk.
“This happened back in ’44 and again in ’59. Before my time mind you, but I read the reports,” the warden admitted. “Never had a survivor before. Honestly, we don’t know what to do with you.”
I looked up at him. He smiled.
“I talked to a friend of mine with the federal prosecutor’s office and he said you’re a non-violent offender that broke a computer or something and made some threats. He and I had a talk with an appellate judge we know and he ruled that certain evidence in your trial should have been ruled inadmissible.”
I relaxed and bit more and sat back in the chair as a slight grin came to my face.
The warden offered me soda. I accepted.
“I believe prison should be about rehabilitation more than incarceration,” the warden said. “A lot of the sociopaths need to be locked away, but the ones that can be reformed should be reformed. Do you understand what I’m getting at?”
“I can’t speak to whether or not you are a sociopath. That’s a job for a psychiatrist,” he said. “But you survived something that has on more than one occasion killed every last inmate on that block. Someone or something decided that you should live. Who am I to argue with a higher power?”
He got up and turned toward the window.
“Tomorrow morning a pair of Marshals will drive you to an airport in St. Louis where you will be flown to Nashville, Tennessee and released into your own custody. Your sentence has been commuted to time served without probation or parole.”
“Thank you, sir,” I stuttered. After all, I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
The warden turned around with an expression that looked like an equal mix of fear and sadness.
“I try not to think about the kinds of spirit that might inhabit this place, but you saw them firsthand. The official policy when an event like this happens in a government facility is to purge the records and deny any occurrence of supernatural activity. Now I can’t stop you from telling your story, but do me a favor and wait until I’m dead. I’d rather be safe in the Lord’s arms when you reveal what really happened that night,” he said.
I was led back to solitary confinement and released the next morning.
I’ve kept this story to myself for the better part of 13 years now. To this day, I jump when I hear keys jingling at night. I’ve gotten by so far by trying to rationalize what I saw or why I saw it, but I don’t have any answers that even begin to make sense.
I kept my promise though. Warden Michaels died last week at the age of 57.