Poor Vince Fumo. Prison’s Rough, Huh?

Perhaps our former state senator will become a prisoner advocate when he is set free

If you’re a lifelong Philadelphian, you know there are five things you can count on:

1. You’ll be able to find delicious cannoli in South Philly.
2. There will be at least one sports team breaking our hearts at any given time.
3. Some union somewhere is busting someone’s balls.
4. Machine pols will grease each other’s palms until one of them gets caught, at which point …
5. He’ll whine like a little baby because, despite being deeply in touch with the common man, he has NO IDEA AT ALL what life is really like for the common man.

Exhibit A: Vince Fumo. The Inquirer’s Craig McCoy reported yesterday that Fumo’s lawyers are concerned about their client and are fighting to get certain exceptions made for him. One of the lawyers, Dennis J. Cogan, painted a bleak portrait of his client in prison. From McCoy’s piece:

Vincent J. Fumo has long hair and a beard. He’s gained weight. And he’s very depressed. … There have been other travails behind bars for the once-powerful Philadelphia Democrat.

After a federal appeals court last month ordered Fumo to be resentenced, what Cogan called overzealous prison authorities—somehow thinking he posed a new threat—threw him into the Hole for two days at the prison in Ashland, Ky.

At first, I thought this was a joke. His hair is long? He gained weight? He’s depressed? People who go to prison—even federal prison, which is a cakewalk compared to state—do get blue, yes. Their physical appearance changes. Sometimes they are put in solitary for no apparent reason; the guards don’t need a reason because they hold the power. This is what prison is. It’s unpleasant. It’s prison! The best way to avoid being treated as other prisoners are treated is to behave with integrity in one’s political and business dealings. Ah. Too late.

Fumo is now having the same prison experience thousands of others do. It’s not fun. It is, however, what our society has decided punishment should look like. Should we reevaluate our system? I’m guessing that when Vince Fumo emerges from cushy federal prison, he’ll say yes.

Incidentally, the state of Georgia recently put a man to death who was very likely innocent. And Vince Fumo has grown a beard.

Again, McCoy (emphases mine):

Fumo, 68, got another dose of unwanted news at the hearing Monday. U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter rejected his request to take part in the resentencing via a video hookup from the prison camp.

Like most inmates, the judge ruled, Fumo will have to appear in person, after a possibly rigorous trip to Philadelphia via prison transport.

At Monday’s hearing, another of Fumo’s attorneys, Peter Goldberger, said Fumo wanted to appear via closed-circuit television to avoid the arduous and demeaning travel itinerary often used by the U.S. marshals to transport prisoners.

Known even by U.S. marshals as “Con Air,” the air service and subsequent bus trips are loathed by many inmates. Conceivably, Goldberger said, the marshals might fly Fumo from Kentucky to Oklahoma, and then to Brooklyn, N.Y. From there, Goldberger said, Fumo might have to ride a prison bus to Philadelphia.

“It’s a terrible experience,” Goldberger said. Cogan said later that cons call it “diesel therapy.” ….

Had the judge let him stay in Kentucky, Fumo would be spared the embarrassment of entering the courtroom in handcuffs.

Fumo’s lawyers seem to feel that the former senator should be spared an experience that is apparently good enough (or, in this case, crappy enough) for most prisoners. I have a feeling that prior to this experience, if Fumo had been told that an inmate “loathed” Con Air, he’d have suggested that inmate “suck it up.”

McCoy writes:

While other federal inmates from the Philadelphia region are imprisoned in Pennsylvania or South Jersey facilities, Fumo was sent to a prison 500 miles away, Cogan said.

Fumo’s fiancee, Carolyn Zinni, has been driving round-trip every other weekend, but the distance has meant Fumo has had few other visitors, Cogan said.

It’s a shame that Fumo’s fiancee has to drive a long distance to see him, but she should meet the dozens of women and children who get on buses in the middle of the night and ride for hours in arduous, demeaning and terrible fashion to see their fiances and husbands. Some of them can’t even do that, and only see them on a video screen from time to time.

The rest of McCoy’s article can be read here. Fumo has faced a host of other problems, some of them run-of-the-mill (prison food is too carb-heavy) and some of them quite serious (being abruptly denied medications). But none of the problems are unique. They are, sadly, all too common.

Politicians have no idea what it means to be incarcerated in America. They find out only when they are put in prison, and suddenly they’re outraged.

Fortunately, there’s a sixth thing you can count on in Philly: You always get a second act. Just ask Buddy Cianfrani or Jimmy Tayoun. So if anything good comes from the whole Fumo mess, it’ll be a man who emerges from prison fighting for the common man—a man he actually understands.