Crime

The Reality of Mandatory Minimums

Daniel Egipciaco’s path to prison was all too familiar. In his teens and early 20s, he dabbled in drugs, associated with some bad characters, got into trouble. As a legal journalist with years of experience observing the criminal justice process, I know his tale is so common it doesn’t even constitute “news.”
 
 His mistakes might have been the kind he could leave in the past as he transitioned into adulthood. Yes, he had one felony on his record — attempted criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third
degree — and five years of probation. But he was a smart kid with strong potential to lead a successful life. He got A’s in high school and spent a couple of semesters at Manhattan’s Baruch College. He had legitimate jobs, as well as ideas and ambitions. He had a loving family.

Then he made a fateful choice. At the age of 25, (according to the prosecutors’ version of events) he agreed to help an associate steal 10 kilograms of cocaine from a Colombian drug dealer. It was a setup run by the government, in a controversial tactic sometimes called a “stash-house sting.” The associate was an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Egipciaco was caught as soon as he arrived at the scene.
 
 Believing he was a victim of entrapment among other injustices, Egipciaco challenged the government at trial, and lost. He was sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years — 20 for the robbery attempt, and five for being a felon with a gun. 
 
 U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl lamented sentencing Egipciaco to 25 years, noting that a guidelines range would indicate only about half the amount if he were not subject to the mandatory minimums. (For comparison, the average time served by federal inmates for violent crime was a bit less than
6 years in 2012.) 
 
 Lawyers for Egipciaco “presented substantial evidence of the defendant’s continuing rehabilitation and good conduct while incarcerated,” Koeltl wrote in a 2016
order addressing a request from Egipciaco to reduce his sentence. But there was nothing the judge could do about that, he said. The ball was in the prosecutors’ court. 
 
 Mandatory minimums essentially allow prosecutors, not judges, to determine sentence length. The government could have opted not to count Egipciaco’s previous drug felony against him, substantially lowering the penalty. Koeltl indicated prosecutors could still make that choice.
 
 “The court previously and unsuccessfully urged the government not to seek a high mandatory minimum sentence in this case, which removed significant amount of sentencing discretion from the court,” Koeltl wrote. The judge again asked the government to “consider exercising its considerable discretion” to reduce the sentence.
 
 So far, it has not.
 
 Almost half of the more
than 180,000 federal inmates in the U.S. are serving mandatory minimum sentences, according to a report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Most of the crimes are drug-related. Intended to severely punish big drug traffickers, the penalties are actually used mostly against low-level dealers and their associates, and often disproportionately against people of color.
 
 There is no parole in the federal system, so a long sentence meted out under a mandatory minimum is indeed long — only about 15 percent can be shaved off for good behavior. Meanwhile, the cost of housing a federal inmate
runs about $32,000 per year. 
 
 “Excessively long sentences are not only unjust but extremely expensive and wasteful,” according to the Silver Spring, Maryland-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, which is focused on
drug enforcement policy reform. Yet mandatory minimums have persisted for decades “despite opposition by citizens and judges.”

I came across Egipciaco, who is now 38, while working on book about another inmate at the prison where he is housed, FCI Fort Dix, in New Jersey. I was impressed with Egipciaco’s sense of determination and his strikingly positive attitude despite his circumstances, which is unusual among inmates with long sentences. I decided to help him tell his story, which follows below. I asked him questions to draw out the narrative, helped him structure it, and edited it lightly for clarity. But these are his words.

When Time Breaks You Down

By Daniel Egipciaco

Drugs, violence, segregation and sexual assault are all part of prison life, but doing time in the federal system is more of a mental battle than a physical one. Sentences are longer in the federal system, and because there is no parole you spend more time behind bars than in state prisons. So the time itself can break you down.

At the age of 25, I was incarcerated for an imaginary offense. Agents caught me in a sting, and alleged I was helping to rob drug dealers. It was a ruse, though. There weren’t even any drugs to steal. I was convicted at trial and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 25 years. I’ve been in prison for 13 years so far, and if I don’t win a reprieve from the court, I’ll be here for almost another decade.

For the first eight months before my trial, I was held in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, in what was called the “Old Building,” consisting of 100+ man open dormitories, twin-sized bunk beds, and five toilets and five showers (strategically placed no more than five feet from “common area” tables where inmates eat and socialize). There were two washers, two dryers, three TV’s and four phones (the use of which was racially segregated), and one indoor “rec yard” the size of a large living room. I shared accommodations with a mixture of every race, gang and borough in New York City, with a splash of out-of-towners. The tension was thick, food horrible, and filth inescapable.

During my three-week trial, I was transferred to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan where I was housed in solitary confinement, which felt like a strategic ploy to break my spirit. The trial process in the federal system is a nerve-wracking one, especially for someone as young as 25. I was told by my lawyers that entrapment was an impossible defense, and that the “FEDS can indict a ham sandwich.”

Being dragged into court every morning, shackled from waist to ankles, seeing the heart-broken expressions on your family’s faces, not knowing anything about the legal tactics being used to ultimately bury you, to then be taken back to solitary, only to repeat the same process again the next day can place you in a very dark place mentally. They let me out of solitary, and sent me back to the MDC in Brooklyn to await sentencing immediately after I was convicted.

I didn’t get sentenced till more than a year after trial. Though it seemed like the longest year I lived yet, it gave me time to absorb the devastation of losing, which left me numb, and prepare myself mentally for the next hardship I was about to experience.

By this time I had studied up a bit in the law library and realized that the judge’s hands were tied because of mandatory minimums. I knew I was about to be sentenced to no less than 25 years. Life felt as if it was over, while my incarceration was only just beginning.

After being sentenced, I was shipped off to my first real prison. F.C.I Otisville is a Medium-High security prison located atop a mountain in nearby upstate N.Y. Surprisingly enough, the layout appeared like a college campus. But what goes on behind them fences, inside them cell blocks, is far from what any parent would want their child to experience. I spent 6.5 years there in the same 6×9-foot, two-man cell and lived through race riots, gang wars, hunger strikes and lock-downs. One winter there was no hot water, just cold showers. From there I came to F.C.I Fort Dix, a low security prison on an army base in New Jersey.

The monotony of prison life can have a serious affect on your brain. Every day is more or less repetitive, and if you don’t create a routine for yourself the days become long and dull. You start to get caught up on the politics and small daily miseries. You focus less on preparing for your inevitable release and more on just day-to-day survival.

You hear about guys who spend so much time incarcerated that they take their “jail habits” home, like wearing showers shoes in the shower to avoid foot fungus, and carrying a spray bottle to the toilet to disinfect it from God knows what. Their internal clocks automatically wake them for “count time” hours — 12 am, 3 am, 5 am for regular counts and 4 pm and 10 pm for stand-up counts. I’ve avoided the feeling of institutionalization for the most part thus far by keeping my priorities in order as much as I can. I focus on bettering myself mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally so that upon my release I will leave a better person than I came in. My daily routine consist of working out, eating properly, reading AND studying my craft, maintaining strong communication with my loved ones, corresponding with my legal team to keep fighting for my freedom, taking what few programs are available that have potential to help my transition back to society an easier one, and maintaining my faith.

There comes a point during incarceration that a transition becomes necessary (though some never make it). To sit back and dwell on the amount of time you received, how bad the conditions are, how much you miss your freedom, who turned their back on you, etc.., will only fill you with misery and resentment, and make your days a living hell. But once you accept the worse case scenario, and accept responsibility for the actions you took to be where you are, then you can begin to make that transition.

For me that transition began during my first year in prison after being sentenced. I knew deep down inside that I didn’t deserve the time I got, but figured God must have a bigger plan for me and this here must be the turning point. I accepted the worse case scenario being that I was going to have to do every day of the 25 years I was sentenced to, but was determined to fight everyday to regain my freedom and prepare myself in the meantime for my inevitable release.

I became proactive in my legal battle by studying law and researching cases, because no one knows your case better than you and no one is going to fight for your freedom harder than you. I created a website to inform people about my case and for others facing similar cases. I also signed up for the only program at the time that made sense to me, Young Men Incorporated, a Leadership Training Academy, designed to educate, motivate, and cultivate “at risk” youth. That was the game changer for me. I worked my way up the ranks to become president of this Inmate Organization, and now facilitate classes, train others to help facilitate, and mentor members.

Now of course, there are setbacks, sometimes more than you feel you can handle. Every time an appeal for your sentence to be overturned is denied you feel like quitting. Every time someone you love losses communication, forgets to put money on your books, misses a visit, or stops being supportive you feel more and more lonely. God forbid you lose a loved one while you’re incarcerated. That sense of helplessness and guilt for not being there can eat you up.

The struggle is real, and the odds are stacked against you. But out of the wreck you shall rise. You have to pick yourself back up every time and keep fighting, stay focused and determined, and know that it can always be worse. I’ve been fortunate to have a loving and supportive family holding me down through my incarceration, and have made some life long friendships with individuals on the inside. So there’s lessons to be learned in every trial and tribulation, and a blessing in every experience and struggle.
 
 
To learn more about Egipciaco’s case and others like it, visit https://reversesting.org/.

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