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WV judge’s prison venue lacks fences but offers crafts and sunbathing

Judge Michael Thornsbury on his way to the Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse in Charleston to be sentenced. FILE PHOTO/ Charleston Daily Mail/Craig Cunningham 6/09/14

The federal prison where ex-Mingo County judge Michael Thornsbury could spend the next several years has intramural soccer, arts and crafts, Bocce ball and a sunbathing porch.

The minimum security Florida camp does not have fences.

“There’s no fence,” said Laura Shank, spokeswoman for Federal Prison Camp Pensacola.

Thornsbury reported to the facility Tuesday. He faces 50 months in prison after pleading guilty to depriving a man of his choice of attorney.

There are about 750 inmates at the prison camp, according to the facility’s website.

“Minimum security institutions, also known as Federal Prison Camps (FPCs), have dormitory housing, a relatively low staff-to-inmate ratio, and limited or no perimeter fencing,” states the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ website.

“These institutions are work- and program-oriented.”

Shank said orientation for new inmates takes about 30 days, at which point Thornsbury could be assigned a job.

“We’ll take that time to assess him and see where he fits in best,” Shank said.

A 58-page inmate orientation handbook outlines some of the expectations of prisoners and accommodations at the site, located near but not on a Navy base.

Inmates can have visitors on Fridays and weekends, wear shorts in certain circumstances, receive medical care (after a $2 co-pay) and participate in numerous activities. Pink salmon is available for $2.85 and racquet balls cost $5.85, according to the order sheet for the camp commissary.

While some activities are required — inmates are typically assigned a job that pays between 10 cents and 40 cents and hour — they can also choose to play sports, watch movies or enjoy other forms of recreation.

A camp map specifically labels a building as the “billiards and sunbathing” facility. It sits near the greenhouse and courts for volleyball and basketball.

A 2009 article in Forbes listed the Pensacola camp as the second “cushiest” prison in the country. (The federal prison camp for women in Alderson, W.Va. — nicknamed “Camp Cupcake” — topped the list.)

The magazine cites information provided by one of the camps well known former inmates. Mark Whitacre — a corporate executive turned whistleblower for the FBI eventually convicted of embezzlement and portrayed by Matt Damon in the film “The Informant!” — spent about half of his sentence at the facility, according to Forbes. In the article he mentions visits with family in a tree-filled park, likening it to “the privacy of a backyard.”

Another well-known former inmate described his experience at the camp differently.

Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy spent several months at the camp after pleading guilty to federal charges related to gambling and providing tips to other bettors on players or coaches involved in games, some of which he referred.

A 2011 story in the New York Times magazine details a physical altercation Donaghy says happened while he was incarcerated at the Florida camp.

“When he informed the warden of all the gambling that was taking place within his Pensacola prison camp, Donaghy heard ‘rumblings about physical retaliation’,” the article states.

“A few days later, he walked past an inmate who screamed, “Rat! Rat! Rat!” before whacking him on the knee with a long-handled paint roller. Eventually Donaghy needed an operation, which he had to pay for himself.”

U.S. District Attorney Booth Goodwin said it’s up to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and not his office, to decide where an inmate will serve his or her time.

“I am not familiar with the particular facility to which Mr. Thornsbury was designated but I have yet to come across a federal inmate who enjoys being incarcerated,” Goodwin said.

Thornsbury and other Mingo County elected officials schemed to get local signmaker George White to switch attorneys in an attempt to thwart an FBI investigation into alleged drug activity by since slain Sheriff Eugene Crum.

The former judge was also accused of repeated attempts to sidestep the legal process in order to frame the husband of an ex-lover. Federal investigators dropped those charges, but U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Johnston cited the allegations when he levied his sentence against Thornsbury.

Johnston’s sentence was more than suggested by federal sentencing guidelines, allowing Thornsbury to appeal the case and not violate the terms of his plea agreement.

The law firm of Jack Tinney, the attorney representing Thornsbury for his appeal, confirmed Thornsbury was required to report to the camp Tuesday. Tinney recently filed a motion in federal court asking for more time to provide additional documents in the appeal because he’s recuperating from emergency surgery to reattach a retina.

Goodwin has said he’s confident Thornsbury’s sentence won’t be overturned.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or Follow him at

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