UPDATE 1/19/17: A Federal appeals court has ruled that Don Blankenship must serve his full one-year sentence and will not be released early.
It sounds somewhat obvious, but former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is no longer in charge.
Gone are the days of him cryptically leaving cans of Dad’s root beer as a subtle reminder to unsatisfactory employees. Back then, court documents show, the message was about power and the Dad’s label was company code for “Do as Don Says.”
Now instead of bossing others, he’s faced with being told what to do—and when—since being incarcerated at California’s Taft Correctional Institute last spring.
Blankenship arrived May 12 under a virtual veil of required secrecy. Prison officials would only confirm his arrival at the privately-run minimum-security camp located about 30 miles southwest of Bakersfield, California.
Neither Blankenship nor his attorney responded to an interview request for this story.
The mountains of his native southern West Virginia are long gone. They’ve been replaced by the southwest portion of the San Joaquin Valley and its desert environment.
Blankenship received a one-year sentence and a $250,000 fine after having been found guilty last December by a federal jury of a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to willfully commit mine safety violations.
The verdict came about five and a half years after a coal dust explosion at his company’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, near the border between Raleigh and Boone counties.
Twenty nine miners died in the April 5, 2010, methane explosion which spread through more than two miles of tunnels due to illegally high coal dust levels. Federal officials have declared it the nation’s worst mine disaster in 40 years.
Welcome to “Club Fed”
Taft Correctional Institute has been dubbed “club fed” by former inmates, some of whom say it offers a relaxed environment that allows inmates plenty of personal freedom and time.
While in prison, Blankenship has penned a 67-page personal manifesto declaring himself an “American Political Prisoner,” adding that “politicians put me in prison for political and self-serving reasons.”
Despite being confined, Blankenship’s most recent press release illustrates one way he’s still in control. Thanks to federal regulations, almost nothing can be obtained from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons without his consent.
His arrival at Taft was strictly hush-hush as per federal regulations. It was even necessary to have his inmate registration number before the facility would even acknowledge his status to WeHeart West Virginia.
Even with that, BOP spokesman Justin Long said no inmate specifics are available.
Taft spokesman Dale Patrick said all inmates are treated the same, and that means having to abide by communal rules that include having set meal times and receiving job assignments.
“All meals are offered at the same time, and they have two choices: Get up and eat, or don’t get up and eat. It’s not like a cafeteria where someone can get what they want if they oversleep. If you miss it, you miss it,” he said.
“It’s very regimented, there’s a schedule and everything is done at a certain time. And everyone is supposed to get a job, too. Every able-bodied inmate has to either work or go to school,” he said, adding that the facility has its own medical, education, maintenance and food service departments.
He disagreed with the club fed label, saying, “There is no golf course or swimming pool here, but we do have a variety of recreational and educational facilities.”
The experiences of a former inmate
Former Taft inmate Michael Santos doesn’t mind sharing his experiences about any of the 19 federal prisons where he spent his 26 years of a 45-year sentence for trafficking cocaine. He was officially set free in August 2013.
Today he’s a prison consultant, helping individuals preparing for prison time and a successful life after they’ve been released. He’s also a professor of criminal justice, motivational speaker, life coach and advocate for reforming the nation’s criminal justice system.
First convicted in 1987, Santos spent five years at Taft “because I was an author. I had written a number of books while I was in prison, and the Bureau of Prisons thought it would be a better place for me since it was a privately run facility.”
He was assigned to the facility’s minimum security camp, as opposed to the main low-security complex. Santos believes that’s probably where Blankenship is spending his time – although no one associated with the prison would confirm this.
“There is no fence, and you’re basically on the honor system. So if you have earned trust, or don’t have a history of violence in your record or a history of escape, and your sentence is lower than 10 years, then you may be able to serve your sentence in a camp. And that certainly would be the case for a CEO, especially one who’s there for a misdemeanor on a one-year sentence,” he said.
“I ended up making a lot of good friends there.”
Approximately 35 percent of the inmates during his stay had committed white collar or business-related crimes, Santos told us.
“There were a lot of CEOs when I was there, and I actually made a lot of good business contacts. I met CEOs of publicly-traded companies as well as CEOs of privately-held companies. I ended up making a lot of very good friends there,” Santos said.
Blankenship isn’t the facility’s first infamous inmate, nor the only one who used their incarceration to get a jump start on the future.
Taft has a history of housing well-known individuals and celebrities, long before he came along. In 2004, Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong fame) spent nine months there for selling drug paraphernalia.
Chong served his time alongside roommate Jeff Belfort, whose “Wolf of Wall Street” memoir was turned into a 2013 blockbuster movie that starred Leonardo DiCaprio. Belfort served 22 months there for fraud and money laundering.
Former PGA Tour caddie Eric Lawson was also jailed there on a federal drug charge at the same time.
Blankenship’s lawyers are appealing the decision, and the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, will hear oral arguments in the case Wednesday at 9:30 a.m.
They are seeking to have his conviction reversed, and maintain there was no proof Blankenship willfully disregarded federal mine safety regulations.
As things currently stand his anticipated release date is May 10, 2017.