By WGBH News
Nov. 30, 2011
BOSTON — Former Mass. Speaker Sal DiMasi started his new life in federal prison on Nov. 30. But what kind of life will it be? WGBH News has been looking into what could be DiMasi's home for the next eight years: the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Ky.
DiMasi is among 2,200 inmates living in a low-security, dormitory-style environment with often four to eight people in a room. There are no cells or bars and not even many guards: just one officer is assigned to every unit.
In his first days he’ll be oriented and assigned to a case manager who will choose DiMasi’s unit and find a daytime job for him, former federal prosecutor Mark Wohlander told WGBH News’ Jordan Weinstein.
All the inmates have the same routine. DiMasi’s day at his assigned job will start at 7:30 a.m., but not with a power breakfast — the meal ends before the workday starts. Work ends at about 3:30 p.m. At night, it's dinner, relaxation, recreation and perhaps a counseling or education program. Lights go out at 11:00 p.m., later on weekends and holidays.
The prison's public information officer Rose Harless said that twice a day, at 4:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., DiMasi will stand beside his bed for what's called a "stand-up count," when every inmate is counted. Officers check three more times overnight to make sure every inmate is in his bed and alive.
Although DiMasi will mix with mainly low-security inmates, his home is a medical center first and foremost and it also houses high-security inmates with medical conditions. Before becoming a prison, the facility was called the US Narcotics Farm — and it’s where stars such as Billie Holiday, Chet Baker and Zoot Sims came to get clean. The facility is profiled in a book and documentary film.
Why is he there? Wohlander didn’t have access to DiMasi’s records but said the Bureau of Prisons must have identified a medical issue, either physical or psychiatric, that could best be treated at a prison that was also a hospital.
Wohlander added, “The facility’s got a great reputation… it’s one that a lot of people seek to get to.”
In his free time, DiMasi can watch cable TV but only in a shared, central area. He'll have no cell phone or personal computer; to call or email, he must use a prison device. His mail will be screened and visitors will go through a metal detector.
Still, the prison is in the middle of horse country, and though DiMasi won’t likely be galloping through the trees, “The facility’s beautiful,” Wohlander said. “Very candidly, unless you saw the sign out front and then saw the fencing out in front of it you would never think that would be part of the Bureau of Prisons.”