Blankenship Settles Into ‘Club Fed’ Prison in California

  • Ex-Massey CEO assigned to privately run minimum-security camp
  • Former coal baron must serve year on conspiracy conviction

Ex-Massey Energy CEO Donald Blankenship began serving a one-year sentence on Thursday for evading mine safety laws at a federal prison dubbed a “club fed” in the foothills of the San Joaquin Valley in California.

Blankenship, 66, reported to the privately run minimum-security prison camp in Taft, California, according to U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials. He turned himself in after a federal appeals court denied his bid to stay free while he seeks to overturn his conspiracy conviction.

“You don’t even feel like you’re in prison when you’re there,” said Larry Levine, who served more than 10 years in federal prisons and now advises on how to survive time behind bars. Levine served eight months at the Taft facility. “It truly meets the stereotype of a club fed.”

The facility, 30 miles (48 kilometers) southwest of Bakersfield, California, has no fences or walls, Levine said. Inmates have access to e-mail and generous telephone privileges and can have personal contact with their visitors, he said. A February fact sheet said the facility, split into a main institution and a satellite camp, houses 2,500 inmates.

‘College Campus’

“It’s a camp for white-collar guys and I’m sure that’s how he ended up there. It looks like a junior college campus,” Levine added. 

Other Taft alumni include stock trader Jordan Belfort, whose crimes were retold in the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Belfort’s roommate for part of the time was Tommy Chong, best known as part of the duo Cheech and Chong, who was serving a nine-month sentence for selling drug paraphernalia.

William Taylor, Blankenship’s lead defense attorney, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment on his client’s assignment to the prison camp.

A federal jury in Charleston, West Virginia, last year convicted Blankenship of plotting to flout mine safety laws at the Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 workers died in a 2010 explosion. He was sentenced to a year in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Blankenship’s conviction capped a five-year effort by federal prosecutors to hold the former CEO accountable for safety violations that led to the explosion at the mine about 30 miles south of the state capital of Charleston.

Mine Safety

Blankenship’s lawyers contend in his appeal that the government didn’t prove the former CEO committed criminal acts, including intentionally violating mine safety laws, and that U.S. District Judge Irene Berger didn’t properly instruct jurors on what constituted reasonable doubt about his guilt.

Families of the dead miners won’t be happy to hear Blankenship has been assigned to a “cushy” prison camp, said Pat McGinley, a West Virginia University law professor who was part of a group that investigated the Upper Big Branch disaster. 

Still, they can take comfort in the fact that it’s still prison and Blankenship will hate it, he said.

“He’s still a criminal and he’s not the boss,” McGinley said in an interview on Friday. “That’s going to be difficult for someone who has spent most of his adult life controlling others and bending them to his will.”

The case is U.S v. Blankenship, 16-4193, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit (Richmond).

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