Vick has a hard cell in Kansas
A UPS van zooms along the four-lane road through the cold winter afternoon. A woman in a black jumpsuit jogs by to the soundtrack on her iPod, never even looking to her left at one of the country’s most notorious prisons.
A man in a red Dodge truck goes through Woody’s Car Wash, putting his quarters into the machine, enjoying the normalcy that’s now gone from Michael Vick’s life. From star Falcons quarterback No. 7 to prisoner No. 33765-183, stuck serving a 23-month sentence over that barbed-wire fence and 40-foot wall, past the guards, and through the gates.
He is PETA’s public enemy No. 1, by far the most-talked-about man in the NFL over the last year. He’s been transferred here to the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, 35 miles northwest of Kansas City, where they’re used to superstar convicts.
Hoping to create a sense of awe and fear in convicts, architects designed the prison to look like the U.S. Capitol. Its cells have housed a who’s who of convicts, from Machine Gun Kelly to the Birdman of Alcatraz to Leonard Peltier.
Over that fence and wall, past the guards and gates, it will probably be impossible for Vick to truly be treated like the other inmates. He will be asked for autographs and singled out for fights. He will be given first dibs on the weight bench and randomly told to get to the back of the line at supper time.
Take it from someone who knows, the only other NFL player to spend time here.
“He’s got to just stay to himself and swallow it,” says Byron “Bam” Morris, a Leavenworth prisoner during 2000-03 and a Chiefs running back in the late 1990s. “If you interact with everybody, eventually something’s going to happen.
“Because everybody wanna try the football player.”
Monte Johnson, the former Kansas athletic director, once had a friend locked up in Leavenworth for five years and four months. Johnson says he visited 192 times.
When he talks about it, the hair on his arms stand up.
“It’s the closest thing to what I imagine hell would be,” he says.
The prison Johnson and Morris remember no longer exists in some ways. To cut costs and because the design was somewhat outdated, the government downgraded Leavenworth to a medium-security joint in 2005.
Now, our country’s worst go to ADX Florence in Colorado, but Leavenworth ain’t exactly a country club, either. There are still murderers and child molesters and rapists behind those walls.
And the mystique, well, they’ll never get that out.
“It’s hard to find a major criminal who’s well-known in the federal system who at some point didn’t go through there,” says Pete Earley, author of The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison
. “They used to say you had to earn your way to Leavenworth. You started out at kiddy joints, and you worked your way up there. The reason I chose it for my book is it was as high as you could go at the time and still have an open population.”
Earley found what he calls “Leavenworth pride” in and around the prison. The county is believed to be the only one in the country with four prisons.
They put up billboards with cartoon drawings of inmates, asking you to “spend time in Leavenworth.” The director of the local conventions and visitors bureau has a convict costume she busts out for tours.
But not everyone is on board with the prison theme. You can find a lot of people in this town who want to be known for something else, anything else, other than a place to house violent men behind bars.
Leavenworth was the first incorporated city in Kansas, for instance, and there are some beautiful and well-kept Victorian homes around town. The city’s historical society is in a 16-room mansion built in the 1860s and is next door to another home of roughly the same size and age.
The town was a major stop on the trails headed out West and played a key role in “Bleeding Kansas.” But none of that draws tourists like the prisons do. There are even plans now for a prison museum.
This Vick thing just reinforces what national image this town has. Some are proud of that. Others, not so much.
“I was just talking to somebody about that,” says Joanie Soukup, a curator for the Leavenworth Historical Society. “She hates it. She says every time she goes and tells people where she’s from, they say, ‘Oh they let you out?’ ”
Morris prefers to be called Byron now, leaving the nickname in a past that includes six years in the NFL that were interrupted by his prison time.
He pleaded guilty in 2000 to federal drug trafficking and spent 30 months in Leavenworth. That was before the prison here downgraded to medium security, but Morris figures his experience was much like what Vick should expect as he serves a 23-month sentence for charges related to dogfighting.
The days are long, best filled with reading or writing or, if you’re lucky, having visitors. Morris remembers cellmates barking in the yard, loud enough for him to hear, about the stupid NFL player who threw away all the money and opportunity for drugs.
Every night at 10 p.m., when the cell bars locked and the lights went out, Morris got on his knees, put his palms together and thanked God that another day of the worst three years of his life was over. It’s the closest thing to a best part of the day Morris ever had.
There is a code among some prisoners that they don’t talk about their cases. Problem was, everybody knew about Morris’ case because it was all over the newspaper, all over the television. Multiply that by a million, and you’re in Vick’s neighborhood.
“The guards tell you from the jump, because you’re a football player, you’re not getting preferential,” Morris says. “It seems like it’s the opposite. It seems like you get treated worse because you’re an athlete. They look at an ex-football player coming in, millions of dollars, and the first thing they can say, ‘He’s dumb, that was stupid, him doing that.’
“The guard doesn’t understand how in the hell can you be caught up in certain situations when you have all this money and they have to work for theirs. There’s jealousy from that standpoint, and you will automatically find out which guards don’t like you and you’ll stay away from them.”
Morris also stayed away from the TV room. Part of that was lying low, he says, but most of it was trying to stay away from football. You think a sports bar is filled with armchair quarterbacks? Try a prison.
Morris quit watching football completely in prison — college or pro. Says it depressed him, knowing what he was missing. Still, guys approached him on all things football. Wanted to hear stories about his old teammates, his old games. Wanted to tell him he lost them money in the Super Bowl.
Even wanted an autograph.
“I always told them the same thing,” Morris says. “I said, ‘Look, bruh. I’m in prison just like you. I got a number just like you. I don’t want to talk football. When I get out, you send me your address, I’ll send a card to your son or something. But I’m not trying to sign autographs. I’m not trying to make any friends here.’
“I’m pretty sure Mike will see the same thing.”
The snow is beginning to fall and temperatures are sliding down into the 20s as Arthur Hawkins, a retired ironworker, answers the door with no shirt on. Just white chest hair.
He lives at 1327 Metropolitan St., which just happens to be across the four-lane road from federal prison. Hawkins remembers watching Vick quarterback the Falcons like everyone else, but he’s not among the locals giddy about the star’s arrival.
He’s always thought all pro athletes were overpaid.
“Vick,” he says, pointing east, “they’ll probably put him way down on that end. That’s the luxury end.”
Prison officials are tight-lipped about Vick’s status, as they are with all inmates. But the NFL’s most-talked-about story in the last year took a bizarre twist in recent days when news broke that Leavenworth may be something of a fast track to freedom for Vick.
The transfer to Leavenworth was made for Vick specifically so he could enroll in the drug treatment program known as the 500-hour Comprehensive RDAP offered here. He tested positive for marijuana while on supervised release last fall after pleading guilty.
The program is held away from the general prison population — the “luxury end” Hawkins talks about — and takes at least 500 hours over at least six months.
If Vick makes his way through, he could be eligible for up to a year of early release. His records and behavior would be reviewed by staff members to decide on his release.
The place that was once a life sentence for our country’s worst criminals is now Vick’s ticket to early freedom.
“Mr. Vick looks forward to being united with his family upon completion of his sentence,” his lawyers said in a prepared statement. “He is hopeful that following his release, he will have the opportunity to resume his career as a professional football player.”
Early release or not, Morris says there are two kinds of ex-cons. The ones who come out changed and the ones who come out the same.
Morris is proud to say he’s been drug- and alcohol-free going on eight years now. He says he stopped going to bars, cut ties with the influences and enablers he had before. Today is his 36th birthday, the first he’s celebrated since giving up football.
He speaks to kids, laying out the ways he got in trouble, the mistakes he made and the things he wished he’d have done to avoid it all.
Marijuana is replaced by family time. Drug dealing is out, catching catfish in the lake near his Texas home in. He says it’s a good life, even with the regrets.