When James was 19, he was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison.
Most young people are just starting to try and figure out what they are going to major in in college, which technical school to go to, or in some cases, which branch of the military to join. Unlike them, James learned how to survive with the country’s most intelligent and vicious criminals inside a federal prison.
For those out there who don’t know, the difference between state and federal prisons is more than just one or two things. The main difference is that people who go to state prison have violated a law in the state. People that go to federal prison have violated a law of the United States. There are over 2.3 million people locked up in this country. The majority, about 1.2 million, are in state prisons. The other massive number, a bit north of half a million, is in local jails, and only about 166,000 or so are in federal prisons. (Initiative and Peter Wagner’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020) The minority are federal prisoners. Most people in the Feds had fiscal motives in mind.
I know that facts and figures mean little unless we can understand the people behind them. Our goal with this article is to explain one man’s story. His full name is James Nathan Kellum. James was given 27 years at the young age of 19. What did he do to get such a long sentence?
The Murder-Or Not…
In Alabama, you can get 10–99 years in prison for murder with a minimum of 15. In California, you will get 25 years to life for murder. My point? Most states consider 25 years a life sentence.
Who did James kill? Well, he did not. James stole money. He robbed three men. He tried to get them to give him $200. When they could not, he realized it. He took things like their wallets and pagers. Although, he did have a gun on him when he did it. He also had an apartment. This account’s name was Reinert. Later, Reinert would turn on James to get out of prison time. James had tried to talk sense to Reinert about him testifying and, to no shock, the United States Attorney at the time hit James with an additional obstruction of justice charge by threatening a witness. James did not know any better because he was a scared 19-year-old kid who had never been in trouble with the law before.
As a result, James was sentenced to 27 years. He tried to scare these men into giving him money. He did not pistol whip them, beat them, threaten their families, or kill anyone. U.S. District Judge Sven Erik Homes did not care, though. He still sentenced James to 27 years on January 14, 1999. The indictment was for carjacking, armed robbery, attempted armed robbery, and three counts of using a firearm during a crime of violence. Even though he did not beat anyone,
Are you the same person you were five years ago? Most likely, the answer to that question is no. How about 20 years ago? Did you laugh at the ridiculousness of the question? No one is the same person they were 20 years ago, James included. This was his first offense. I think it’s safe to say that we all make mistakes when we are teenagers. James is no exception to that rule.
Throughout his 20+ years of incarceration, James had never been in trouble for a violent offense, which shows that his “act of violence” that the court cited was a one-time outburst from a dumb teenager rather than a personality trait. He has spent what many states would consider a life sentence in the Feds for a crime that involved no one getting hurt, maimed, or crippled.
Along with staying out of trouble, James has educated himself as best as he can with the BOP’s limited options. His only disciplinary shot (or ticket) was having a cellphone, which is a fairly common thing in any institution. Much of the time, this is because inmates are not allowed to communicate with family via video calls, and phone calls are limited to a particular number of minutes a month (what is this 1995 with minute plans?). Getting a ticket or shot to talk to his family is one thing. It’s the cost of how it goes.
Excessive Punishment V2
There are punishments for breaking the rules of both society and prison rules. Unfortunately, when punishment is doled out by either a federal court or the BOP, it always seems to get the maximum. A disparity in the allocation of the sentence, either by the federal court or by the BOP, is illegal. Think of it this way: if one inmate gets 10 days of good time taken, it should be fair across the board that all inmates that commit XYZ offense, for example, all get 10 days of good time taken.
When James got his phone taken, he was given SHU time (aka solitary), which is normal and a loss of good time. In 2010, James lost 40 days of his vested or earned good time and 540 days of his “nonvested” good time when he was sanctioned. The total was about 19 months of a lost good time for his first offense in the BOP (after about 11 years). A decision that was based on circumstantial evidence
That being said, a person with a 3-year sentence loses less good time than someone with a 30-year sentence. This is because the person with the 30-year sentence will earn more good time as they have more time to do it. The DHO, or discipline hearings officer, sees that the person with the 30-year sentence has more time they can take, and they (the DHO) take it. This means that the person with the longer sentence is punished far more harshly than the person with the shorter sentence.
This is the very definition of a disparity in a disciplinary hearing.
This is also what happened to James. He lost 539 days of a good time, while the other involved guy lost a fraction of that. Much like his original charge, James seems always to get the bad end of the deal when it comes time to have a sentence passed on. As you see us cover the BOP’s corruption in almost every other article posted here, this should not come as a shock. That said, I wanted to look closer at James’s case to show a personalized example of one individual being brutalized through our supposed “justice” system and show that there is no justice in it.
The one thing James is lucky for is having a supporting family, something many other prisoners lack. His mother, Kim, has been by his side this entire time advocating for her son, pointing out to the public the hypocrisy that exists in the system and the injustices that are perpetuated by the system. Kim was instrumental in providing me with the much-needed photos for this article after advocating a comment about the BOP in this blog. Despite James killing nobody, he has been stripped of over two decades of his life. He is no longer the same person he was when he was 19, as none of us are.
In this country, we need to stop throwing people in a box for decades at a time with no accountability or system in existence that can check if these people are better than they were decades ago. This is not rehabilitation. It’s the thievery of a life. James killed nobody. He stole money and had a gun at the time. Is his crime so monstrous as to merit the taking of his entire life? This author does not think so. Unfortunately, James’s case is not an uncommon occurrence but rather the norm for our so-called “justice system”. James is now in his 40’s, and when he is released, he will have to learn about the changes in society and expect to be a productive citizen, even though the BOP never gave him these tools to cope and adjust. He had to figure it out on his own. He had to rehabilitate himself and learn on his own.
Again, those stories mirror millions of others in terms of cruel punishment blown way out of proportion, not only in the federal courts but also inside the federal BOP.
Prison has become a business, slavery by the backdoor, where people are bought and sold, but we have allowed this to be given a sanitized image of “rehabilitation”.
Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.
No one, especially the prison system, will help you if you want to change. You have to do it yourself.
The prison system will do everything it can, in turn, to oppose you and make you come back because it ensures that they have a job tomorrow.