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'Prison was a humbling experience': Former federal inmates talk about their time in prison

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Chris Maselli(NEW YORK) — Chris Maselli and Jeff Smith seemed to have it all — at one point.

Maselli was an up-and-coming State Senator in Rhode Island and Jeff Smith, having gained a “cult like following”, was running to be a state senator in Missouri.

But it all came crashing down spectacularly for both of them.

For Smith, it was in 2009 when he plead guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice for lying about improper payment for campaign flyers. He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. For Maselli, it was in 2011 when he was sentenced to 27 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to eight counts of bank fraud.

Both Chris Maselli and Jeff Smith decided to write a book about their respective experience in federal prison.

Smith’s book, “Mr. Smith Goes to Prison” came out in 2015 and Maselli’s book, “A New Debtor’s Prison” was released this summer.

“Prison was a humbling experience,” Maselli, who served his time at Fort Dix in New Jersey, told ABC News in a phone interview.

Smith, who served his time at FCI Manchester, Kentucky, said he didn’t go into prison with a lot of preconceived notions even though he had visited a lot of prisons when he was a state senator.

“I had a lot of constituents that were locked up. I represented a court district in St. Louis city with a lot of high poverty areas and a lot of constituent correspondence that I got more from families of incarcerated people,” Smith said.

Smith went on to say that the biggest thing that surprised him about prison was the entrepreneurial spirit inside.

“People are just operating all the time … they got a little business, you know, a little store out of their cell, they got a little tattoo parlor, they’ve got men making books on prison basketball league, they run the poker league.”

Maselli and Smith also said their prison jobs were the opposite of what their day jobs were.

Maselli spent the first six months of his prison sentence building fences outside the minimum security camp while Smith was put to work in the warehouse.

“That was the other thing the prison was famous for, if you were a cook on the outside, they wouldn’t put you in the kitchen and make you cook meals. They’d have you cutting grass and they’d have the guy who cut grass, cook the meals,” Maselli explained. After six months, he moved to the education department where he would teach English to non-English speakers.

Smith said there was quite often an element of give and take with the prison inmates. For example, he said he was chastised early on by the warden for writing a book in prison and staff would come search his cell for his notes. Smith said that in order to keep the notes, he would give them to another inmate to hide in return for onions he would get from the warehouse where he worked.

Both men spoke about the racial divide in prison and how the television room was a place that was often divided by race and unspoken prison rules.

However, one thing that wasn’t segregated was playing sports, and for Smith particularly, it is what got him through the year he spent locked up.

“Because of the bonding, you know, the bonds are forged with with other prisoners through sport and to get a psychological escape,” he said.

Smith says that high profile inmates like former Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort, who is serving more than seven years combined over two cases, and President Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen who is serving three years in prison, may have mixed experiences.

“Definitely some people are going to want to meet Michael Cohen. And some people that are fascinated by Paul Manafort. You know, he’s been on TV every day for the last six months. Now he’s, you know, in the next cellblock — you loved it,” Smith explained. “If you are high profile then everyone knows everything about the case.”

Smith said that when President Trump called Michael Cohen a “rat” last year, it could potentially hurt him because all the details of his case were so public.

“Since white collar criminals, especially ones with fame, you know, the details of their case are so widely known often, a ‘rat is a rat is a rat’ rule can bite them,” Smith explained.

Smith talked about serving his time with Alberto Vilar, an investment manager who, among other charges, was convicted of money laundering and mail fraud. Vilar also happened to be “the largest donor to the opera,” Maselli said.

“I mean, he was living in penthouses in Manhattan. He had a difficult time dealing once in prison,” he said.

Maselli said that prison could be quite duplicitous. On one hand, people would treat him poorly because of his association and friendship with Vilar. On the other hand, however, he saw people want to be his best friend because once they got out, they hoped he’d help “take care” of them.

The former congressmen have since developed a cynical view of the criminal justice system and the tactics the government used, especially how financial pressure was placed on defendants to “squeeze” them out of money.

“If you ask me and you look at some other cases, they purposely leak information to the media so it becomes public. So now there’s this pressure on, you know, there’s this outside pressure of the media and now public opinion about, you know, and you haven’t even been charged with a crime,” Maselli said.

Maselli stressed that he never ratted anyone out and said federal prosecutors play a “physiological game” as well.

“Lawyers aren’t cheap especially when it comes to cases like that. And and then, you know, it was almost when I did get indicted, it was almost like something was lifted off my shoulders. It wasn’t like not knowing sometimes what’s going to happen is worse than knowing ,you know, what is what the not knowing is worse than anything else.”

In his new book, Maselli writes about how the criminal justice system disenfranchises and discriminates against people who can’t afford to go through it, and is now an advocate, much like Jeff Smith, for a better criminal justice system.

“I want the public to understand just how disproportionate our country is relative to every other industrialized country in the world in terms of the number of people we lock up. And in terms of the lack of rehabilitated opportunities in prisons. And in terms of the obstacles that hinder the ability of formerly incarcerated people to succeed in all of those respects, you know, we are way, way, way behind almost every country in Europe,” Smith lamented.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Texas animal cruelty raids net man with 230 pets living in 'deplorable conditions'

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iStock(HARRIS COUNTY, Texas) — Almost 50 police officers went on an early morning raid targeting animal abusers throughout Harris County, Texas, on Saturday morning, including one man who had over 200 animals.

Operation “Don’t Be Cruel” aimed to arrest people with outstanding warrants who had committed crimes against animals and was carried out by the Precinct One Constable’s Office animal cruelty unit and the Houston SPCA.

Some of the cases were incredibly alarming.

In a press conference announcing 13 arrests and 25 cleared warrants, the case of Edmond Megdal stood out above the rest.

“We discovered 230-plus animals living in his residence from birds to turtles, to mice to rabbits, bearded dragons, and they were living in deplorable conditions. No water … so he had an animal cruelty warrant for his arrest and he was one of those that we arrested this morning,” Constable Alan Rosen said during the police press conference after the raids.

In another case, police arrested Tony Carodine, 25, after viewing videos in which he is allegedly seen slamming a dog to the ground so hard that the animal was left with fractured legs after the incident.

Rosen’s concern was that the individuals who were arrested in Operation “Don’t Be Cruel” are “the kind of people that we start watching for that may transition away from animals to humans.”

“The only way we are going to be able to solve this problem is by getting everyday citizens to be involved in recording animal cruelty cases,” Rosen said.

The constable sounded resolute when discussing the efficacy of the early morning roundup.

“We want those that are going to hurt animals to know that you are not going to get away with it. We are going to come out and we are going to arrest you. Don’t think you are going to get away with it,” Rosen said.

In Texas, animal cruelty is a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and a $4,000 fine.

“Animals don’t have a voice, so you have to be one for them,” said Rosen.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Florida white supremacist arrested for threatening shooting at Walmart, police say

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Orange County Jail(WINTER PARK, Fla.) — A Florida white supremacist has been arrested for threatening a shooting at a Walmart just days after 22 people were killed at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in one of the worst mass shootings in the country’s modern history.

Richard Clayton, 26, was arrested by Florida Department of Law Enforcement authorities on Friday in Winter Park after making an online threat last week, according to police.

On Aug. 6, Clayton allegedly posted on Facebook, “3 more days of probation left then I get my AR-15 back. Don’t go to Walmart next week.”

The threat echoes the shooting allegedly carried out by Patrick Crusius in El Paso on Aug. 3. The suspect entered the Walmart and opened fire with an AR-15 assault rifle. Nearly 50 people were hit by the gunfire before the suspect exited the store and was later arrested a short distance away.

Police said Crusius, a native of McAllen, Texas, some 10 hours away, admitted to the crime and said he was trying to kill as many Mexicans as he could. He also posted a “manifesto” online espousing white supremacist and anti-immigrant sentiments.

Florida authorities said Clayton holds some of the same beliefs.

“Clayton appears to believe in the white supremacist ideology and has a history of posting threats on Facebook using fictitious accounts,” Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials said.

Clayton was charged with intimidation through a written threat and is being held at Orange County Jail on $15,000 bond.

The arrest was among a number of recent cases of police departments nationwide targeting white supremacist threats.

Conor Climo, a 23-year-old from Las Vegas, was arrested on Thursday for allegedly possessing bomb-making materials and espousing neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology with an undercover FBI agent online. He was allegedly planning on fire-bombing a synagogue in Las Vegas and hoped to stage a mass shooting at a gay nightclub as well.

A “significant portion,” about one-third, of all domestic terrorism cases involve white supremacist ideology, according to the FBI. Director Christopher Wray testified about the issue in a lengthy hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 23, but said the bureau’s “focus is on the violence.”

“We don’t investigate ideology, no matter how repugnant,” Wray said.

 

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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