We federal inmates had been on the privately operated prison bus for more than three hours as it wound its way through Alabama, all of our hands and feet shackled together. There was no water or air conditioning, and the Southern summer heat was sweltering. The vehicle’s toilet had overflowed, spilling its contents onto the floor; we had no choice but to rest our feet in the refuse.
And we had no idea where our next stop might be. “Just get in the bus and shut up, inmate,” was the response I got when I was picked up in Montgomery, Alabama, and asked a question about our destination.
When we finally arrived in Lovejoy, Georgia, I was terrified. I had never been in a “real” jail before—FPC Montgomery, where I had been before, is a “camp” for white-collar and low-level drug offenders, with no bars, no cells and no violence.
But this place had barbed wire and a guard tower. Inside, they kept about 30 of us in a holding pen for hours. And they showed us a video on prison rape. “That’s just great,” I thought.
Then I was sent to solitary confinement. I heard the screams of the desperate men who had been there much longer than me. The guy in the cell next to me passed me a note reading, “Please give me whatever food you won’t eat, I’m starving.”
All I kept thinking about was that my wife and kids were supposed to visit me in Montgomery that weekend, and I couldn’t even tell them where I was. I still had no idea why I was in transit.
After a week, the call came to “pack my shit.” But my hopes of returning to the camp died when we got back on the transport bus, which this time took me to a remote part of the Atlanta airport. There I saw more than 100 inmates, shackled, out on the tarmac—and U.S. Marshals with rifles. We were placed onto “Con Air,” the first of my 12 plane trips over the next 73 days.
Welcome to the hell that is the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System, known to many of us as “Diesel Therapy.”
Like so many people in federal prison, I got there because of a stupid decision I made. My fault. I was lucky to be sentenced to FPC Montgomery, the camp on Maxwell Air Force Base less than two hours’ drive from my home in Birmingham. I resigned myself to getting there, keeping my head down, serving my time and coming home.
If only it was that simple.
FPC Montgomery is sometimes referred to as the “crown jewel” of the prison system. I shared a cubicle with a very amiable master thief from South Carolina. We watched Blu-ray movies each night. There were basketball and softball leagues, a great library and an idyllic walking track next to a river. Several prisoners played music in a band; others painted and made leather crafts. I never saw a single fight the entire time I was there, and people said “excuse me” if they bumped into you.
Whether such a system is a good idea or a complete and total waste of American taxpayer dollars, since no one there was a real public-safety risk, is a topic for another day. I felt fortunate, considering the way American prisons usually run.
I became friendly with several people. It was surreal to stand in line for the email system next to a former Congressman next to a famous published author next to a CEO of a once-great company.
One of them I particularly enjoyed spending time with, because of his sarcasm and jovial nature. We used to spend hours walking the track, talking about life and how we got here and what we would do when we went home.
But one day, that friend simply walked away from the camp. Remember, it was not surrounded by guards or a fence or a tower. He simply wasn’t there one afternoon when the officers did their daily count.
I thought it strange that someone would just leave a pretty good place and risk almost certain capture and new charges. But whatever, this wasn’t my life, and it did not concern me.
But the entire camp administration freaked out. The warden called in the U.S. Marshals. They questioned everyone who’d ever had any contact with this person, and that included me. And they were not satisfied when I told them I had no knowledge of any of this, that I was just a simple guy trying to do his time and go home.
They shackled me to a chair. They threatened to ship me out to the holding facility in Atlanta, a notorious, violent place, if I didn’t tell them what they wanted to know. They even staged what I believed to be a phony phone call to the “U.S. Attorney” to threaten me with new charges.
Finally, I’d had enough. I told them they could either charge me or let me go—I was calling their bluff, I thought, on their ability to ship me to another prison. I even called them, “nothing but a glorified taxi service.” Not my best move.
A few days later, I was summoned to the front of the camp and told that I was going on “a little trip.” They refused to tell me where and why. I was sure it was retribution for the escape.
And just like that, I was gone—snatched away into transit.
From Lovejoy we landed in Oklahoma City, a hub for federal prisoner transit. There is an entire holding facility right near the airport there.
“Rothenberg, you are going to Grady County Jail—good luck,” a U.S. Marshal laughed. Another intolerable bus ride with shackles.
Grady County Jail is a very small place in Chickasha, Oklahoma. The Marshals contract with local facilities to hold federal inmates, sometimes for weeks at a time. It was dirty and hot. They placed 36 men in one small pod, and we were stacked in bunk beds three high. A gang leader told us where we could sit.
On the next transport day, the hapless guards placed two gangs in very close proximity on the bus. One guy slipped his handcuffs somehow and brutally beat the other inmate. I later heard he died.
Three weeks passed before I was on Con Air again, headed to another unknown destination.
On the way to what turned out to be South Dakota, an inmate said he needed to use the bathroom.
“Tough shit,” said the Marshal, “you had your chance.”
“Yo, seriously I am going to piss myself if I don’t go.”
“If you piss yourself on my plane I’m gonna tase you.”
“Well if you tase me I’m gonna piss myself.” Classic Catch-22.
The inmate pissed himself. Then he was tased.
On and on it went like this—from Oklahoma to South Dakota, then to Pahrump, Nevada, and a nice-looking private prison run by CoreCivic. There, I passed pods and pods full of ICE immigrant detainees. Violent federal inmates were mixed in with the crowd.
I am an observant Jew, and it is pretty obvious. My request for Kosher food was fulfilled by feeding me celery and rice every meal of the day for two weeks. I lost 37 pounds on my “trip.”
From Nevada I was sent to Utah. There I met—and was shackled to—a neo-Nazi.
He was 20 years old, with a White Power tattoo on his hands. He talked openly about having committed a hate crime against Jews. I tried to alert the jail staff, but they couldn’t care less.
Of everything that had happened, this was the prison nightmare I feared most.
The Nazi began to talk to me. He told me that he was okay with observant Jews, just not the ones who ran the banking system in America. Great.
We remained stuck together for the next two weeks. Over that time he told me his story—how he dropped out of school and followed in the footsteps of his older brother, whom he idolized and who was serving time for a hate crime as well. His father had left them. He was not able to afford his mental-health medication. He took a gun and went to the local synagogue. It was empty; he was intending to kill himself. At the last minute, he decided he couldn’t go through with it and emptied his clip into the empty synagogue instead.
He asked me for forgiveness for what he did. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
Later, my Mom called the U.S. Marshals and demanded to know how such a situation could happen, and why I was being given “diesel therapy” in the first place.
“Diesel therapy? Never heard of it,” she said they said. “There is no such thing.”
Michael Rothenberg, 41, is now an ordained rabbi and a consultant to those facing time in federal prison.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations made in this essay.