If there's one thing that's clear right off about visiting a federal prison, it's how utterly depressing it is. The employees, the inmates, the visitors -- they all seem to be shuffling through the painful process of completing their day.
And that's partly why Elroy "Eighty-Six" Phillips, the subject of this week's cover story in New Times, hasn't taken a visitor in four years. He has told his mom and five kids that they shouldn't bother going to Kentucky, where he's housed at the Federal Medical Center in Lexington. He knows he'll be putting them through something he doesn't want to witness.
"My family comes, and they cry," Phillips told me in the visitors' room during an interview
July 14. "It's just not good for me. I know they're going to cry, and all of us will just go on feeling worse for what happened to me."
Phillips is serving a 24-year sentence for allegedly selling an undercover cop $50 of crack. Phillips and legal experts say he has collected enough evidence to possibly prove his innocence. He's waiting for a federal judge to rule on his request for a hearing to present the facts that he has dug up in the ten years since he was convicted.
In that time, Phillips has bounced around to several prisons across the eastern United States. He's one of about 2,000 inmates at the Federal Medical Center, which houses prisoners with medical issues and then others, like Phillips, who are there to help run the place. The prison is a massive brick and stone building with art deco flourishes. It sits in the sprawling green hills north of Lexington and is surrounded by two layers of razor wire.
"In this place, everybody is hopeless," Phillips said as visitors began filing in to the sprawling visitation room. "From the time I was sentenced, I was going to fight. I've never been hopeless."
Phillips says he hasn't had a visitor since his son came to see him in Miami in 2007. His son, 22-year-old Elroy Phillips Jr., says that's hard on him. He's currently a student at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and working as a graphic designer. He was in elementary school when his father went to prison. The last time he saw him, they spoke by phone through a glass partition at a federal prisoner holding facility.
"I wasn't even able to touch him. I had to speak to him through a window, and now it's been eight or nine years since I've even given my dad a hug," he says. "It's hard to think about that, you know. And then you realize it might be that long again."
They still talk on the phone weekly, though. Phillips, who earned a paralegal degree in prison, even walked his son through how to set up a business when he became a graphic designer. "He keeps me on the straight and narrow," the younger Phillips says, "even from prison."
Four out of five of Phillips' kids are either in college or already have degrees, something he says happened because he kept after his kids during those weekly phone calls. He has a daughter in law school. "One of her motivations to be a lawyer was to get her dad out of prison," Phillips says.
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When he talks to his kids, Phillips says he rarely talks about his appeals and requests for a new hearing. And he never speaks of prison. He wants to hear about what they're doing and just continues to tell them he'll fight the court system for his freedom -- eventually.
Elroy Phillips Jr. says he shares his father's confidence, even though he has so far been unable to convince a judge to hold the hearing. "I know he's going to get out," Elroy Jr. said. "It's gonna happen. I know it."