By Joel Freedman
Special to The LCN
In a video, former U.S. Rep. Chris Collins said, “You may know me as a former member of Congress, a former inmate at the federal prison camp in Pensacola, Florida, pardoned by President Trump on Dec. 22, now home with my family. I have a lot to share with my many years experience in the business world, the political world, and also just current affairs. So I hope you’ll tune in to my various social media platforms, and we can have a communication going forward.”
Collins was sentenced to 26 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to felony insider stock trading. He was imprisoned for only 10 weeks when he was pardoned.
What Collins experienced during those 10 weeks has prompted Collins to have a “passion” for prison reform.
Prior to his transfer to Pensacola, Collins spent three weeks at FCI Marianna where he was subjected to “confinement in a cell with four walls and a steel door with a little grate that they push the food through. I did not get outside, had no access to email, the phones, visitation and three times a week I was handcuffed and basically dragged to a shower facility … You go to the Bureau of Prisons website and they talk about treating people with respect and it’s all total BS. I saw it at Marianna and I saw it in Pensacola, which tells me it’s top to bottom in the BOP.”
Collins continues to “get letters from my friends there (Pensacola) and the prisoners tell me how dire the situation is.”
The pardon Collins received may have saved his life at a time when COVID-19 has “invaded that prison camp.”
Collins said that some corrections officers threatened him and went out of their way to harass him. Few officers wore face masks during the pandemic, during which, because of COVID-19 restrictions, educational, job skills and rehabilitation programs have been halted.
Collins also told Buffalo News and WIVB-TV, channel 4 in Buffalo, that he has written to BOP’s director to express his concerns about the maltreatment inmates are experiencing. He said he will continue to keep in touch with and help his imprisoned friends — and to continue his prison reform endeavors because the mistreatment he received and witnessed other inmates receive convinced him that “every person in America should be appalled that American citizens are being treated this way.”
When Collins was at Pensacola, the other inmates congregated in four groups: Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Blacks and whites. Collins found friends in all these groups. When Collins was released, dozens of inmates shook his hand, patted his back and chanted his name as he departed from his dormitory.
In my own life, through prison visitation and correspondence, I have learned that imprisoned people are more than the crimes they committed, that their lives matter, too, and that, in the words of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, “A decent and free society, founded in respect for the individual, ought not to run a system with a sign at the entrance for inmates saying, ‘Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.’”
One of the goals of our correctional system is for prisoners to become better people when they are released than they were when they entered.
I believe Collins became more humble, enlightened, and sensitive to cruelty and injustice as a result of his prison experiences.
I didn’t agree with Trump’s decision when Collins’ pardon was announced. However, I now feel better about this pardon. I just hope that Collins’ friendships with inmates and prison reform endeavors will remain steadfast, and that in these and other ways, he will continue to demonstrate he is worthy of the controversial pardon he received.
Joel Freedman, of Canandaigua, is an advocate for vulnerable people, animals and our environment.