Sunday, January 22, 2006

Duke's New Home

Today's North County Times profiles former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham's likely new home - the federal minimum security prison at Lompoc. The article by William Finn Bennett, takes at look at what life is like at the facility and what kind of reception Duke is likely to receive by his fellow inmates.

"As Randy "Duke" Cunningham puts his affairs in order for his scheduled Feb. 27 sentencing hearing and what could be a 10-year prison stint... the disgraced former congressman had best get ready for the rocky road that lies ahead.

Before his fall from grace, Cunningham lived a life of luxury in an 8,000-square-foot Rancho Santa Fe mansion and enjoyed private jet travel, the finest restaurants and five-star hotels, while earning a $162,100 a year salary ---- plus perks. He was recently convicted of bribery charges for taking additional money, a Rolls-Royce, antiques and other illicit gifts from contractors who wanted congressional favors.

Now, he faces the distinct possibility of a very different lifestyle: sleeping in a barracks with other inmates, tasting prison food and earning pennies an hour for what could well be a job painting walls, mopping floors or cleaning bathrooms.

...minimum security camps may have no fences or armed guard towers, and inmates may have access to libraries, newspapers and magazines, organized sports and television. But offenders are still incarcerated and every phase of each inmate's life is controlled.

"They are told where to be 24 hours a day, they have to work and live in a barracks-style (building) with little privacy," prison spokesman Erwin Meinberg said in a Wednesday phone interview. "It's still a prison, not a free ride, not a vacation."

Inmates work at a variety of jobs, many involving manual labor, 7 1/2 hours a day, five days a week, Meinberg said. For their toil, prisoners are paid 12 cents to 45 cents an hour, he added."

Cunningham's stay at Lompoc or an equivalent federal facility is going to be further aggravated by his cooperation with investigators. Cunningham will enter the facility with the title "snitch" already appended to his name.

"Regardless of where Cunningham serves his time, the biggest problem he could face may come from his plea agreement to fully cooperate with federal prosecutors ---- an agreement that could mean he'll be perceived as a snitch, said former [Lompoc] inmate Mike Morze [a convicted white collar criminal from San Diego].

Morze said those reports and the court records showing that Cunningham agreed to help the government build a case against others means that he will be tagged as a snitch when he enters the federal penal system. And that stands to make his prison life less pleasant, Morze added.

"I feel badly for Cunningham because he is in for a real rough time with fellow inmates," Morze said. "I don't mean physically harmed, but he will be shunned. You eat alone, play alone, do everything alone, because everybody hates you."

Corrections expert Alvin W. Cohn suggests that his fellow inmates' reaction to him will be based on how Cunningham relates to them. Cunningham has a reputation for bluster and as a bully. Those traits are not likely to endear him to drug dealers and while collar criminals who will surround him at Lompoc.

"Somebody who is abrasive or arrogant is likely to get some form of come-uppance," Cohn said.

Judging by some of Cunningham's actions over the 15 years he spent in Congress ----- making a crude comment about an openly gay congressman, challenging another member to a fist fight, saying that Democratic congressional leaders should be "lined up and shot" ----- showing his kinder, gentler side may prove a challenge."

Randy Cunningham used his position of power and public trust to steal $2.4 million. He repeated lied about his involvement in criminal activities and he consistently told his constituents, associates and friends that he was innocent of any wrong doing, right up to the moment he plead guilty.

It is a tragedy that his life has come to this, but it is a tragedy based upon flaws in Cunningham's own character. It is hard to have sympathy for him. His choices were clear and conscious. No one held a gun to his head. His family was not starving. Cunningham chose his own path. Now he must pay for his choices.