EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — Deep in the aromatic pine woods of the Florida Panhandle is a small place where some of the best known and wealthiest of men come to spend time.
Occasionally, the locals say, the swells arrive in fancy cars driven by uniformed chauffeurs. Among the recent visitors were the head of a famous fashion house, a federal judge and a former congressman.
Even top sports figures, such as LaMarr Hoyt, the Cy Young Award-winning pitcher, sometimes show up.
Here these big shots may try Italian lawn-bowling or indulge themselves on the tennis courts, play a game of racquetball or take a turn on the foot trail that winds through the landscaped grounds and past a lake.
In the evening guests can catch a movie on cable TV or, if they have money, visit the commissary for a cup of cappuccino and some Haagen-Dazs Macadamia Brittle, one of several flavors.
There are drawbacks.
No Pool, Low Wages
There is no swimming pool. And, since this exclusive little facility is a federal prison camp, everyone must sleep in a dormitory and work eight hours a day, at a beginning pay rate of 11 cents an hour.
Welcome to "Club Fed," as the Eglin Federal Prison Camp is sometimes called. It is one of 27 federal work camps where the U.S. Bureau of Prisons houses its least dangerous felons.
Sometimes called the country-club prison, Eglin houses a population that is 66% white, 12% black and 22% Latino. (In the more security-oriented federal prisons, blacks and whites are about equal in number.)
Two-thirds of the Eglin inmates are in prison for the first time.
"These are nonviolent people from a variety of backgrounds; not all of them are big shots, by any means," said Willie Scott, superintendent of the 28-acre compound. "Most of them are serving short sentences. And, since they aren't dangerous and we are on a military base, we don't even need to have a fence around the place."
As to whether Eglin is a prison for rich white people, Scott said: "Definitely not." He explained the racial makeup by saying that blacks tend to live in poorer areas where there is more likelihood of violent crime, while whites have more opportunity to commit so-called white-collar crimes.
Few Try to Leave
Even without a fence, escapes are relatively rare among the 830 white-collar tax cheats, embezzlers, Medicaid-chiseling doctors, shyster lawyers, crooked politicians and low-level drug dealers serving time at the camp.
"We have about a half-dozen walkaways each year," Scott said, "but anybody who walks knows he won't be coming back here. He'll be going to a higher-security prison where the inmates are more violent and there's less freedom."
Inmates say the camp is more hell than heaven, however.
"This is no country club. At a country club you get to go home when you want to," said Stephen Gray, a Californian serving time for bank fraud.
"The only thing this place is good for is to cause divorces and put children on the street without a father."
Gray called the prison camp a waste of taxpayers' money. "If we're not dangerous, what are we doing here?" he said.
It costs the government almost $11,000 a year to keep each of the nearly 12,000 inmates currently in prison camps. That's $132 million annually, said Greg Bogdan of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Cheaper Than a Prison
Scott added that "$11,000 a year is a lot of money, but it's still relatively cheap when you think that it costs about $18,000 a year to keep a man behind a fence." He is a 17-year veteran of the federal penal system who came to Eglin from the maximum-security prison at Marion, Ill.
Scott disagreed with critics who say this type of prison is little more than a white-collar gulag . "If the idea is to deter crime, there's no deterrent like incarceration," he said.
Some prisons have been called schools for crime, but Scott said that Eglin is just the opposite because inmates can benefit from contact with the educated professionals in their midst.
A recent inmate was Aldo Gucci, 81-year-old head of the Gucci fashion empire, who served one year for tax evasion.
U.S. District Judge Walter Nixon Jr., convicted of perjury, and former congressman Richard Kelly, snared in an FBI "sting," also have served time at Eglin.
One inmate, Greg Bell, remembered Gucci as a man of immense presence.
"I was working in food services when he was here," said Bell, a Melbourne, Fla., contractor doing 37 months for a drug deal. "I used to really get a kick out of serving him breakfast. I'd say, 'And how would you like your eggs today, Mr. Gucci?' "
Gucci had a job in the prison's tailor shop, doing alterations.
While some inmates deride the camp's educational and industrial training programs, Bell said he learned a great deal from a stock options course taught by an inmate who used to be a commodities broker.
There is a waiting list of the names of inmates at other prisons whose good behavior qualifies them for transfer to Eglin.
"We're already doubled up here," Scott said. "There's no more room. At this time, the federal prison system is 154% overcrowded and will become even more so, what with the new sentencing guidelines that mandate stiffer sentences and more time served."