In the Company of a Known Felon

Vic's soon-to-be-released new book is entitled In the Company of a Known Felon. The book discusses Vic's perceptions of the federal prison system. It is gleaned from his experiences as an inmate at the Federal Prison Camp at Cumberland (MD), from January 2011 - February 2012. Along the way, Vic provides case studies of eight of his fellow inmates, obtained through personal interviews. Each man openly tells his intriguing story, as well as, shares his individual insights about the prison system ... its shortcomings and missed opportunities. The following are two excerpts:

Excerpt 1 - “I did it …”
So how did it happen? How did my American dream evolve into an American nightmare? How does a man who devoted his entire adult life to the betterment and uplifting of countless others cause the devastation and near destruction of his own life and those of the ones he holds nearest and dearest?

As cliché as it seems, I can honestly say that  I don’t know. I don’t know how it happened. I never saw it coming. For me, it was a bit like aging – one holds a certain youthful image of oneself; and then in a flash everyone’s calling you “sir” and “mister”; the infant you only yesterday cradled in your arms is graduating from high school, then college; you’re attending your own class reunion – your 40th –  consorting with a collection of grey-haired, thick-waisted, snaggle-toothed people you scarcely recognize as your classmates. I seemed to go to bed one night as a vibrant, young buck and wake up the next day as a creaky, old man. Likewise, it seemed that I went to bed a well-respected, responsible nonprofit executive and woke up as a disgraced, gambling-addicted convicted felon.

All I know is that I loved everything about casinos, in general – and about Atlantic City’s Borgata/Water Club, in particular. The grandeur of its lobbies; the splendor and comfort of its hotel rooms; the complimentary perks, like rooms, meals and shows;  the shows, themselves; the array of excellent eateries; the always congenial, accommodating staff; the lovely, scantily-clad servers, who kept the free Coronas coming; the repartee between the players and dealers at the blackjack tables; the constant buzz from the hordes of people on the playing floor; the almost hypnotic chorus of bell tones from the always busy slot machines; the disparate, and all too occasional sound of a hit jackpot and the accompanying yelps of elation by a lucky patron. It all turned me on like a light.

Before it was banned, I even got off on the sometimes overwhelming stench and cloudy haze of the cigarette and cigar smoke that permeated the casino floor. The smell met me at the elevator door and seemed to flex an alluring come-hither finger, ushering me to my seat at the playing table. It brought to mind for me the countless poker games that, as a child of the 1960s, I saw depicted on TV shows like Gunsmoke, in Miss Kitty’s Long Branch saloon. It was all so Dodge City …

It certainly wasn’t the winning that motivated me. I remember one Friday night, taking my seat at a blackjack table at about 8 o’clock. As I typically did, I bought into the game with $300, and played two hands, wagering $25 on each, for starters. By 9 o’clock, I had parlayed my way to nearly $6,000 in chips in front of me. “Black action”, the dealer yelled to the pit boss, signifying that I was now wagering the black $100 chips, on each hand. That was at 9 ...

… At 10 o’clock, I was standing in the cashier’s line, making a cash withdrawal on one or another of my credit cards. Just like that, I had lost every dime of the $6,000. And, scenes like that one must have played out a hundred times during my ill-fated gambling career. I simply cannot count the number of times. Because, I loved it …

That is, until the next mornings – when the reality of what I had done the nights before inevitably sat in. At those moments, there was a sullen sense of depression; hopelessness. Intellectually, I could certainly comprehend the sheer absurdity of it. I knew that I was consumed with it. I knew that, other than attending Baltimore Ravens football games, everything I did: every trip I took, every activity I participated in, every waking thought, and even my dreams – my whole life – revolved around gambling. I knew that I was completely ransacking my own and eventually my organization’s fiscal resources. I knew that. I knew that I couldn’t continue to sustain losses that ran literally into the thousands. I knew that given both the frequency and the abandon with which I gambled, I was never going to break even, let alone win. I was like the person with cirrhosis, who can’t stop drinking; or the one with emphysema who can’t quit smoking. I knew that what I was doing was not only destructive, but it was completely foreign to who I am, as a person. Yet, I felt utterly helpless to stop.

The emotional turning point for me occurred one night, after a particularly grueling loss. That night, I sat at the foot of my bed, quietly undressing and staring into space, when I whispered to myself … but loud enough for my wife to overhear, “… when did I become a loser?” …

Excerpt 2 - Marvis Watts


“I believe that the media represents Black people's best hope for change", he exclaimed. "In my mind, they can be our salvation."

So spoke Marvis Watts at the very top of our interview. I wasn't sure whether he meant it as merely a general observation or as an admonishment to me about how I should treat his specific story. Either way, I confirmed my agreement with him, at least to the extent that I believe that the media has had a substantial hand in shaping the world's view of Black people, in general; and, of Black men, in particular -- to both positive and negative ends.

Marvis Watts, or Mar, is a 60 year-old Software Developer from suburban Washington, DC. He is mild-mannered and well-spoken. His dark brown complexion is, for lack of a better descriptor, dusty, which is only to say that Mar's is not the shiny brown tone of, say, Wesley Snipes. His is softer. More Sidney Poitier than Djimon Hounsou. His hair is mixed, but mostly silver, about 1/2 inch long and brushed neatly back to frame a face that is handsome, even behind his occasional 5 o'clock shadow. His simple, Malcolm X – style eyeglasses make him look scholarly.

Mar's comportment is distinguished; almost regal. One can easily envision his svelte 6 foot frame in a grey, pinstripe tailored suit, crisp white-on-white dress shirt, adorned with a single-toned necktie, accented with a white silk pocket square; all worn over a pair of immaculately shined black oxfords; as he settles into the seat at the head of the table, plops down his leather bound notebook, crosses his legs and calls the executive meeting to order.

Or, one might see him as the guy next door, in work clothes, piddling around the house and yard. Mar would lend an air of distinction to most any outfit he donned. Even the mismatched green khaki shirt and pants, beige cloth belt and black faux leather work boots in which he and I were both clad for his interview; that being the required attire at the Federal Prison Camp at Cumberland MD, where we were both inmates at the time ...

“In '74, I was arrested and convicted of an offense called misprision of a felony. Basically, it meant that I lied to federal investigators regarding details related to a string of bank robberies that took place over a period of several months. It meant that authorities could place my car there, as well as, a gun that was registered to me; but that they had no evidence of my active participation in any of the robberies."

He leaned back [back a bit], perhaps to let me absorb what he'd shared. His countenance softened. His fixed half-smile returned...

"So you say that they found no evidence of your active participation in the robberies. That notwithstanding, were you involved – I mean, actively?"

"I'd rather not say anymore about that. Other than that I was sentenced to serve 18 months in prison; I served 10 at Allenwood Federal Prison Camp, in Williamsport, PA. But, that was when I first came face-to-face with my willingness to, I'll say, do the wrong things for the right reasons." ...

... I must have had the word "confused" stamped on my forehead, because before I could formulate my next questions, Mar chimed in, "Yeah, this is my third conviction. I actually had another one before this. It was more of an anomaly than anything else. It never should have happened." Quickly rephrasing, he continued, "Well, none of them ever should have happened, but the second one just kind of popped up. D'ya' wanna hear about that one now or later?"

"No, so I can keep everything in sequential order, tell me about that one -- the second one."

OK, I'm tripping, now. I simply hadn't seen this coming. Mar, this gentle man I had come to know, has not one, but three convictions. Anyway, hoping that my normally demonstrative face was concealing my astonishment, at least a little bit, I leaned in to signal an unspoken, "Let 'er rip!"

"In 1998, on an otherwise ordinary day, I came home from work. I don't recall now the circumstances at work that had caused it, but I was bone tired -- drained. Physically and mentally. I wanted nothing more than to eat dinner, catch some news, and turn in for the evening. Soon, though, Michelle's and my typical pre-dinner banter was interrupted when our then 10 year-old son, Raymond, came home -- barely! He had been severely beaten by someone. Of course, I was concerned that he needed medical attention. But, when Raymond told us what happened, I was also angry. Beyond angry, I was livid!

It turned out that Raymond had been beaten to within an inch of his life by a pack of neighborhood thugs, as a part of some kind of gang initiation ritual. I wasn't clear whether Raymond was just fodder for them, or whether he was, himself, being inducted. It didn't matter. I didn't care. As a parent, all I cared about; all I wanted was retribution. I wanted a pound of flesh. I wanted revenge.

So, I went and got out my 32-caliber revolver, and went outside to confront the punks, who were brazenly still there. They all knew me. Ol' Mr. Watts. Family man. Computer man. Nerd. Even as I approached the 19 year-old that I knew was the ring leader, they were laughing and joking; confident that I represented no threat to them. That is, until I walked up to the punk, pulled out my pistol, and placed the barrel flush against his temple...