Patrick Cannon’s new prison home can be found in the mountains on the edge of a West Virginia college town. The first winner of “Survivor” served a three-year sentence there. The showers have curtains, and the black market currency is packets of Chicken of the Sea tuna and mackerel.
Welcome to FCI Morgantown.
The warden is Anne Mary Carter. Her 45-year-old minimum security prison holds about 1,200 male inmates, ranging from financial criminals to prescription drug dealers, to corrupt public officials.
On Nov. 18, she’ll add inmate 29396-058, Charlotte’s former mayor.
Prison officials say the facility, which has received a number of Charlotte referrals over the years, has been bombarded with requests for interviews and tours since court officials announced Thursday that Cannon had been assigned a bed. Officials did not answer questions or grant interview requests on Friday.
Ten days from now, the 47-year-old Democrat will ride down Greenbag Road, walk through the prison’s front door, and begin serving a 44-month sentence.
The prison is about 15 miles from the campus of West Virginia University. It is 393 miles from Cannon’s Ballantyne home.
Inmate Cannon will be allowed to wear a wedding ring and one religious medallion – as long as they don’t cost more than $100. Cellphones are forbidden. Emails and phone time are bought and available only to prisoners who follow the rules.
But make no mistake: Cannon, who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes as both a City Council member and mayor, could have been sent to a far worse place.
CNBC and lawyer/author Alan Ellis rank the Morgantown prison as one of “The Best Places to Go to Prison.”
According to prison documents, online forums and published reports, inmates have access to libraries, recreational facilities, intensive drug and alcohol treatment programs as well as vocational training in subjects from computer literacy to graphic arts. There’s a movie theater, a basketball league and other planned activities. Even the food is decent. The prison handbook describes the meals as “nutritious and appealing.”
“You know it’s not fancy here, but it’s probably fancier than the average American taxpayer would like it to be,” Wall Street felon Matthew Kluger says in the July issue of Fortune magazine. “I would say everything is probably slightly better than the average American taxpayer would like it to be.”
But a prison, by any other name, is just as confining. Cannon will be a six-hour drive from his wife, children and hometown friends. Visitors are limited to Friday afternoons and weekends. Breaking the rules can send inmates to solitary cells where the food tray is slid beneath the door. Former prisoners describe the guards as no-nonsense and invasive.
Prisoners are expected to work. The jobs – from cooking or cleaning in the kitchen, to pushing a mop, tutoring or working on the prison grounds – pay between 12 and 40 cents an hour, says Chris Burke, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
For Cannon, the biggest challenge may play to one of his biggest strengths – his ability as a politician to relate to all kinds of people. For others the transition is more difficult.
“If it were filled with 1,100 people that you want to hang out with, this would be a fine place to be. Unfortunately it’s not,” Kluger says in Fortune. He is currently serving a 12-year sentence, the longest ever handed down against a Wall Street inside trader.
“The biggest problem is other people. It’s being with this diverse crowd ... who are generally angry, somewhat antisocial, not the kinds of people that you want to spend your time with in the outside world, so that makes it hard.”
Past and current Morgantown inmates include:
• Richard Hatch, who served three years for tax evasion, in part for not reporting the $1 million he won on the first season of “Survivor.”
• Former U.S. Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, who was released in 2008 after serving 11 months on corruption charges.
• Insurance broker Kevin Dunn, convicted of stealing $250,000 from the settlement received by the widow of a New York police officer killed during the 9/11 attacks.
• And Kluger, who made $37 million on stock trades using stolen corporate-merger tips. He’s scheduled to be released in 2023.
Still, former Morgantown inmates who discuss their experiences on PRISONTALK and other online forums describe an atmosphere of little violence or sexual assault – “Here, no one is big and tough. This is Camp Cupcake,” Kluger told Fortune.
A commissary serves as one of the centers of activity, with everything from jalapeno peppers ($1.75) to handball glasses ($10.40) and Head & Shoulders shampoo ($7.55) available for a price.
Upon arrival, Cannon will be handed a 50-page inmate handbook. He will be issued prison clothing – no saggy or baggy pants permitted, and hats cannot be worn inside. During orientation, he can only speak after he raises his hand and is recognized by the speaker.
Cannon, at first, will likely live in a dormitory, but he could be moved to a room in time. The day starts at 6:15 a.m. “Work call” is at 7:30. Guards take an inmate count five times a day – the last at midnight. Inmate rooms can be searched at any time.
Cannon has requested drug and alcohol treatment, and Morgantown offers several, including an intensive, nine-month program. Completion can carve significant time off a sentence.
But Burke says Cannon will undergo a rigorous assessment to see whether he actually needs the help or is looking for a way to shorten his stay.
Kluger and other inmates say prison life can be simple: Learn the rules, mind your own business, and do anything you can to make the time go by.
“The daily life is not that bad. There are frustrations, but I think for white-collar people, there’s also an absence of frustrations,” Kluger told Fortune. “It’s a bad thing to say that it’s kind of a spa experience, but in some ways it is.
“It’s just lasting a lot longer than I would like it to last.”