Billy Cottrell a brilliant theoretical physics student at California Institute of Technology, is serving an 8.5-year-sentence at Lompoc Federal Penitentiary for destroying $5 million worth of Hummers. Judith Lewis of the LA Weekly wrote a long, fascinating article about his life in prison.
Because Cottrell is autistic, he has a hard time playing by the unspoken rules of prison life. The guards have taken a special dislike to him.
In his letters to the Weekly, [Cottrell] says one prison official took away his physics papers, telling him that the science he was studying conflicted with the teachings of Jesus. Another forbade his Chinese studies, even after he had learned Mandarin so well that, he says, he served as a translator between guards and a Chinese-speaking prisoner.
But his worst months in prison came late last year. Shortly after the Bureau of Prisons Office of Inspector General released a report suggesting that federal prisons — including Lompoc — were not dealing harshly enough with convicted international terrorists inside the prisons, Cottrell was told he would have to serve as a witness in a bizarre “investigation.”
The probe focused on Lompoc’s Department of Corrections education coordinator, who procured the Chinese-language study materials for Cottrell. Cottrell says that when he refused to testify against the education coordinator, he was thrown into the Hole at Lompoc, and denied visitors and phone calls.
Cottrell says he was not given a clear explanation for his detention. “I haven’t been given any formal sanctions, no lock-up order from the Captain [of the prison guards], no rationale, no date of release, no anything,” wrote Cottrell in a December 18 letter to the Weekly. “They’ve taken every single physics text, Chinese story and piece of literature I’ve accumulated . . . and told me it’s all going to be burned.
“As far as I know,” he concluded, “I’m in the Hole for studying Chinese.”
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