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Michael Santos

Michael Santos

Posted: April 30, 2010 03:57 PM

What Happens to Cameron Douglas?

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Cameron Douglas involuntarily joined our growing family of federal prisoners on Tuesday, 20 April 2010. Responding to pleas for compassion from Douglas' movie-star family and friends, Judge Richard Berman of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York imposed a term of five years for Douglas' guilty plea for dealing quantities of methamphetamine and cocaine. The judge then remanded Douglas to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York where he will await "designation" by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

As a consequence of my having been a prisoner for my entire adult life (since 1987) on similar charges (non-violent drug trafficking), I'm intimately familiar with the designation process. Administrators will evaluate Cameron Douglas' criminal history and his initial adjustment in accordance with criteria that the BOP promulgates in its Custody and Classification Manual. Based on that assessment, the administrators will assign Douglas an objective custody and security score. The security score will determine the security level of institution where Douglas will serve his sentence.

Since the judge imposed a term of "only" five years, and since Douglas has no history of firearm convictions or gang affiliation, BOP administrators will probably assign him to a minimum-security camp. Ordinarily, administrators in the BOP make an effort to designate prisoners to institutions located within 500 miles of their release address. But the BOP is overcrowded and sometimes glitches in the system result in the offender being imprisoned much farther from home. Despite my being from the West Coast, for example, I served the first 16 years of my term in federal prisons on the East Coast.

Because of Douglas's family and connections in Southern California, the odds are very good that administrators will designate him to serve his time at the minimum-security federal prison camp in Taft (west of Bakersfield) or in Lompoc (north of Santa Barbara). I served two years in Lompoc Camp, and I've been confined in Taft Camp for the past three years.

The designation process usually takes place within 30 days from the sentencing date. Once administrators assign Douglas to a prison, the U.S. Marshals will transport him. If Judge Berman were to authorize Douglas to self-surrender to the prison he would begin serving his term with much less stress. I've traveled cross country with the U.S. Marshals several times. Although I'm accustomed to the indignities of living as a prisoner, new prisoners always find traveling in chains traumatic. With layovers that will likely include a lengthy stay at the Federal Transit Center in Oklahoma, the marshals may require a month or longer to transport an offender from New York to California.

Of the five years Douglas will serve in the prison system, the next few months will be the worst. The most difficult aspect of entanglements with the criminal justice system is the unknown, especially that time between arrest and imprisonment. Interactions with the legal system and defense attorneys exhaust a person, and the anxieties suffocate. Offenders leave each meeting or hearing with barely enough energy to stand. When a judge finally imposes the sentence and the offender begins adjusting to confinement, he can settle into a productive routine and begin to work toward a better life. The relative permanence and stability of 'serving time'--as opposed to 'waiting time' in the transit system with its high security and volatile social atmosphere--can be comforting.

In 1987, I was in Cameron Douglas's position. A stupid kid convicted of a first-offense, non-violent crime on a similar scale. I received a 45 year sentence. With the assistance of Hollywood stars and a much finer legal team, Douglas had his sentenced reduced to half the mandatory minimum for his offense. And yet, at this moment, I know that five years may seem like a lifetime to Douglas and those who love him. Remembering the first months of my incarceration in USP Atlanta -- the uncertainty of my initial interactions with other prisoners, my own guilt, and the crushing weight of the future -- I sympathize with the Douglas family.

Because I and many others have made it through this difficult time, I know that Douglas can find value in the time he serves. With discipline, Douglas may create new meaning in his life and emerge from the experience much stronger than he can envision right now. I have mastered this lesson on growing through confinement over the past 23 years, and I share what I've learned with all the prisoners I meet.

Douglas will grow behind bars -- no doubt about it. It's his choice to make his prison sojourn a positive or negative experience. I can warn him that on the face of it, "positive" is harder. The corrections system doesn't easily reward good behavior. But if he takes responsibility for his actions and refuses to blame anyone else for them, if he exercises mind and body daily, if he actively searches for good and intelligent people to mentor him and for books to guide him, he'll be on his way to using "the system" to help him become a better man than when he entered. I wish him well.