Monday, November 20, 2017
Human Interest

Gyrocopter pilot reports to Miami prison to do time for protest in Washington (w/video)

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TAMPA – He'll miss Father's Day and the Fourth of July. He'll miss those once-in-a-while mornings when his wife brings him Folgers in bed. He'll miss his daughter, and the newspaper, and 120 days of freedom.

For his brash act of telling the United States government that it has been corrupted by the influence of big money in elections, albeit by landing his gyrocopter on the green grass in front of the U.S. Capitol building, Doug Hughes turned himself in Tuesday to the Federal Detention Center in Miami, where he'll serve four months of hard time.

The former letter carrier from Ruskin maintained that he was worried about life in prison, but endured zero regrets.

"I was prepared to die in the flight," he said, "so I've already skipped the death sentence."

After pleading guilty to operating an aircraft without a pilot's license, he expected to serve his time in a low-security joint. But the prison in Miami is categorized as "administrative," and according to the bureau of prisons, such facilities are for "the detention of pretrial offenders; the treatment of inmates with serious or chronic medical problems; or the containment of extremely dangerous, violent, or escape-prone inmates."

It's that last part that worries Hughes, 62.

"I don't feel that the judge was unfair," he said. "I do feel that the Bureau of Prisons sent me to the harshest prison they could send me to."

A typical day, according to the inmate handbook with which Hughes has familiarized himself, includes a wakeup call and breakfast at 6 a.m., room inspection at 7:30, morning count at 8, lunch at 11, afternoon count at 1 p.m., mail call at 3, standup count at 4, dinner at 5, cells locked at 9:45 and last count at 10.

He'll be expected to wear institutional clothing, maintain good hygiene and not visit the common areas in his underwear. Phone calls are limited to 15 minutes.

Hughes, a slender, balding man who wears glasses and hearing aids, said he doesn't plan to put on a tough-guy facade. The man who has learned the definitions of shiv and shank is also not looking to develop any interpersonal relationships with other inmates. He plans to keep his head down and work on writing a book, in longhand, about his flight and what has happened since.

"I'm not going to hide the fact that I'm afraid of going to prison," he said. "I get to pal around with some not-nice people."

Was it worth it?

Yes, he said.

"The actual change is going to happen when enough groups get together and demand change," he said. "My flight was very, very minor and insignificant when you look at the whole movement. But I am convinced that before I die, there will be significant change regarding money in politics."

He helped bring national media attention to a topic many find boring, and he expects the grass roots movement to continue while he's gone.

In fact, he visited U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D–Tampa, a few weeks ago, and she signed a pledge to support complementary legislation.

Castor remembers being in a committee meeting April 15, 2015, when Hughes came flying through protected airspace, past the Washington Monument and down the National Mall, and landed on the lawn to deliver letters to 535 members of the House, demanding they reform campaign financing.

She was surprised to learn the man being arrested outside was from the Tampa Bay area.

"You've been very brave in calling for action, Doug," Castor told Hughes in her office. "I don't condone your tactics, but you've brought attention to an important issue."

She asked him to continue to speak out, sans gyrocopter. He promised to keep up his activism in every way possible, but especially via snail mail.

He has organized a network of friends to help care for his wife and daughter, who both remain proud. He said he plans to start a countdown at 120 days, and hope for the best.

"On the merits of it, I should be completely safe," he said. "If I don't come out alive, the fix was in from the get-go."

Standing outside the detention center in downtown Miami in the soupy heat, he didn't seem nervous. He could hear inmates hollering and shoes squeaking behind the walls. His daughter joked that he'd better learn to play basketball if he wants to fit in.

When it was time to go, Hughes said goodbye to his friend Mike Shanahan and handed his belt to his wife, Alena. Then he kissed her on the cheek. He embraced daughter, Kathy, 12, and told her to take care of her mother.

Then a big metal gate rolled open and federal inmate No. 62746-007 walked into the mouth of the giant prison wearing a T-shirt. On the front was the American flag, just over his heart.

Times photographer James Borchuck contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or 727-893-8650. Follow @gangrey.

 
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