WAYMART, Pa. (WPRI) — When Gordon Fox first arrived at a federal prison camp in western Pennsylvania in the summer of 2015, Rhode Island’s former House speaker coped with his drastic change in circumstances by walking around an outdoor track.
“He was able to walk,” said former inmate Stanley Cohen, who related the story. “Gordon walked, and walked … three separate times a day Gordon would get up and walk.”
But Cohen – whose sentence at the prison, Canaan, overlapped with Fox’s for about six months – said the once-powerful politician bucked the trend when he took to the track.
“Gordon, from day one, insisted in walking in the wrong direction,” Cohen said. “Everyone went counter-clockwise and he went clockwise.”
It’s a guess, but Cohen figured Fox simply wanted to ensure he could walk alone, particularly early on.
“I gave Gordon some air,” he said. “Eventually we became fairly close … we spent a lot of time together, we hung out, we talked.”
Fox, 55, pleaded guilty to bribery, wire fraud and tax evasion in 2015. The federal case first burst onto the public’s radar when state police, FBI agents and IRS investigators stormed Fox’s home and State House office to obtain evidence of wrongdoing in March 2014.
In the end, Fox admitted to using campaign funds for personal gain and accepting a $52,500 bribe when he was the vice chairman of the Providence Board of Licenses. He was given a three-year sentence by U.S. District Court Judge Mary Lisi.
But Justin Long, a spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), said Fox can shave 13 percent off his sentence – about 54 days a year – for good behavior. If Fox is a model inmate, Long said Fox’s official release date will be Feb. 14, 2018.
But it is likely Fox will walk out of Canaan sooner than that. Inmates are eligible for release to a halfway house up to a year before the end of their sentence. Generally speaking, most are sent to the halfway houses roughly six months before the end of their sentence. They can also be eligible for home confinement.
“I don’t know exactly what Gordon did or did not do, but I know damn sure having spent some period of time with Gordon, he’s not a threat to the community,” Cohen said in an interview from his upstate New York home. “He’s paid a terrible price, he’s had an opportunity to think about and reflect all the pain he’s caused to himself and his family and he needs to be home with his family.”
‘The food is horrible’
Google the name Stanley Cohen, and you will find a lot written about the man.
A New York attorney, Cohen has represented a long list of controversial clients, including Hamas leaders and the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. In 2014 he pleaded guilty to evading the IRS, though Cohen maintains he had been a target of the federal government for decades.
“I made a decision after years of my family being harassed, after years of my family being targeted, after years of disrupting my practice, I decided to resolve it,” he said.
He ultimately served 11 months at Canaan before being released to a halfway house. But his journey through the legal system timed out so he was at Canaan when Fox first walked through the door.
“It is a useless, mindless depository,” Cohen said. “There are no bars, no cells, no barbed wire, no guns, no locks… it’s very much a camp.”
He said some inmates had set up a makeshift nine-hole golf course they called “So Go,” which was a hybrid of softball and golf.
“It’s not a secure facility,” he said. “The bottom line is you’re stupid if you walk away because you’re turning a camp into a low- or medium-security facility.”
Fox attorney William Murphy — who was also Fox’s predecessor as speaker — said he has traveled to Pennsylvania to visit Fox.
“Former Speaker Fox accepted responsibility for his actions,” Murphy said. “He’s looking forward to finishing his sentence and to be able to come home.”
For those who think the prison camp at Canaan is “Club Fed,” Murphy said his visits there showed otherwise.
“The camp is not easy; prison is prison,” Murphy said. “But he’s making the best of it and he is looking forward to the day he is released.”
According to the BOP website, the facility currently houses 121 inmates and sits in the shadow of a high-security prison.
Cohen said when the high-security prison goes into lockdown, “which was fairly often,” inmates from Canaan would be brought up the hill to make boxed lunches and other meals for the prisoners who had to stay in their cells.
“For the vast majority of people that are in camps or low-security facilities, they do not need to be there,” Cohen argued. “All you’re doing is destroying families, disrupting integration and costing taxpayers billions of dollars.”
The camp where Fox is detained is a warehouse-like building with an attached track and softball diamond. The prison’s administration denied a request to allow Target 12 cameras on the Canaan campus.
“There were rows of double-metal bunk beds,” Cohen said. “You’re assigned bunks based upon your health and your age: you get a higher bunk [or] you get a lower bunk.”
He described the camp as “filthy” and “overcrowded.”
“Canaan is a very – despite hard work from a lot of campers to keep it clean, to keep it healthy – it’s an incubator,” Cohen said. “You had freezing cold in the winter when you shouldn’t, you had boiling hot in the summer when you shouldn’t.”
“When one person got sick, 50 people got sick,” he added.
And Cohen confirmed that Canaan is no Federal Hill.
“The food is horrible,” he said. “It’s heavy starch, heavy fats, lots of salt, spiced up to make it palatable.”
‘He’s been humiliated’
Cohen said he taught law classes while at the prison, and Fox – who was disbarred following the scandal in Rhode Island – took some of them. Among the classes were constitutional and international law and a course on Israel and Palestine, where Cohen has spent time.
The BOP would not release any information about Fox’s life inside Canaan.
“Gordon was a prolific reader,” Cohen said. “He would come to my class with six books and they had nothing to do with the class that I was teaching.”
Prisoners work odd jobs on the inside, and the pay – according to Cohen – was a far cry from the hourly rate Gordon Fox charged as attorney: 12 cents an hour.
“He was working in the warden’s suite of offices that the warden has and deputy warden has, cleaning up and mopping and taking care of things,” Cohen said. “I think Gordon was in the process, when I left, of shifting to the educational department because I had urged him to do it.”
Besides Murphy, Cohen said he saw Fox meet with his husband, Marcus LaFond, as well as others, though he wasn’t sure who they were. He said visits can be emotionally draining.
“When you have visits it’s a mixed blessing,” Cohen said. “There are inmates – campers – that are telling their loved ones that everything is wonderful, ‘oh it’s just fabulous,’ and they are crying their eyes out while they are saying it.”
He said Gordon would double or triple his walks after he received a visitor.
It’s unclear what Fox’s plans are when he is released. If he wants to return to the practice of law, he would have to petition the Rhode Island Supreme Court to have his law license reinstated five years from the date he was disbarred, which is April 2, 2020.
Cohen said while the two didn’t get into details about the case that put Fox in prison, the former House speaker did express remorse “that he had let the people of Rhode Island down, that he had let his family down, most important that he let himself down.”
Murphy wouldn’t say what type of employment Fox is considering once he gets out, but most inmates who are released to a halfway house or home confinement need to secure work before they leave prison.
“He’s got to find a job,” Murphy said.
The prosecution of Fox not only toppled the most powerful politician in Rhode Island, it once again cast a shadow over Smith Hill, in a state that has been repeatedly shaken by public corruption scandals.
When Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha announced the charges – and plea deal – in the Fox case, he called the scandal a “particularly pernicious type of fraud, and one that should concern all Rhode Islanders.”
Neronha said public officials who commit such crimes should be precluded from running for office again.
“As Rhode Islanders, we need to lose our political corruption amnesia,” Neronha said at a news conference at the time. “In general I believe in rehabilitation and second chances. But I do not believe that those who have sworn to uphold the public trust and violated it, and been given the enormous opportunity to serve the public and abuse it, should ever be given that opportunity again.”
Cohen argued Fox paid a price heavier than a prison sentence because “he’s been disbarred, he’s been humiliated.”
“People need to find some goodness and some love and some kindness in their heart for Gordon, who’s paid a lot,” Cohen said. “Maybe there are some who feel he hasn’t paid enough, but until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, you really don’t know.”
Ted Nesi contributed to this report.