Bernadette West: Time Out

After two years of incarceration at Alderson Federal Prison Camp, former Market Square entrepreneur Bernadette West returns to Knoxville with stories to tell

Early on a sunny afternoon, Bernadette Trent West is enjoying her first legal glass of wine in two years. It's Arboleda, a Spanish Cabernet, poured at the Market Square wine bar Uncorked by her father-in-law, Jim West. The mild-mannered proprietor considers it the best in the house, and it's his treat. She has, after all, spent most of the last two years in prison.

Sometimes, depending on the light, her angular facial structure, dark turbulent hair and thunderstorm-blue eyes, can make her look as if she'd be more at home in a Renaissance painting. Raised mostly in Germany, on U.S. Army bases, she studied art, a long time ago now, at the University of Tennessee; she got a masters in art education and stuck around, developing dual careers as a shopkeeper and a flight attendant.

Bernadette and her husband, Scott West, were once among downtown's liveliest developers. Bernadette was the quieter of the two. They opened the original retail shop Earth to Old City in the early '90s. Long before their arrest, they had a reputation for unpredictability: opening a gift shop with an ecology theme, showing feature films on the sides of Old City buildings. Five years ago the Wests moved their shop to Market Square, and did a lot of fixing up on the east side. They opened Preservation Pub, Oodles pasta restaurant, an associated wine bar, and the upstairs lofts known as WesTrent. The Wests were living there the Sunday morning in July 2006 when federal authorities raided their apartment looking for evidence of a major marijuana wholesaling conspiracy.

West spent 18 months in prison, followed by four months in a halfway house in Knoxville. She's now on parole, beginning 500 hours of required community service. She was accused of using $2.5 million from marijuana sales in the Wests' Market Square renovations. She was not accused of dealing marijuana directly.

The case was covered in detail in the papers, and most people have made up their minds about the rights and wrongs of the matter. Some proponents of historic renovation and downtown development have complicated feelings that go beyond the 40-year-old argument of whether marijuana should be legal. The Wests knowingly participated in a lucrative felony, and to Knoxvillians who think the Wests got what they deserved, that's the only relevant fact.

The Wests have friends, though, among them many downtown-renovation pragmatists. A decade ago, the biggest impediment to the redevelopment of Market Square was a string of dilapidated buildings in the Square's northeastern quadrant. Ashe administration officials admitted privately that the buildings were in such bad shape they should be condemned—but official condemnation would then have provoked demolitions, which would have undermined hopes for a historic Market Square renovation.

Conservative, law-abiding investors stayed away. The Wests stepped in. They talked a recalcitrant landowner into selling them his nearly ruined buildings. Then the Wests restored them, in some cases without the help of the usual historic tax credits that have aided most recent downtown renovations. The most deteriorated buildings the Wests entirely rebuilt, from the inside, with modern steel construction. The millions spent on the projects astonished observers, who heard it had come from loans, family gifts, and profits from the Wests' successful retail stores, as much of it indeed had. The full truth came out after the arrests. The Wests confessed, and cooperated with authorities in completing their investigation.

West's not here today to talk about all that. She's here to tell us what it's like to be in prison: specifically, West Virginia's Alderson Federal Prison Camp.

Her time at Alderson wasn't necessarily the worst part of her felony conviction.

The government seized their property—auctioned to several buyers, it sold for $3.36 million. She can no longer work as a flight attendant, the career she loved, and is barred from the sort of travel she used to do. At 49, with her husband still incarcerated for two more years, she has to find a way to start over.

Still, somehow, she seems happy today, and unexpectedly looks a decade younger than the ashen, middle-aged woman who was sentenced in the federal courthouse two years ago.

She has been in town since August, but has kept a low profile, partly because she was required to. She lived in a work-release situation in a halfway house on Magnolia Avenue, forbidden to do any socializing except under strict guidelines. The halfway house was in some ways worse than Alderson. "It was chaotic," she says. "I wanted to go back to prison. I thought, bring me back to prison, or let me go home."

After her arrival here in August, she was allowed a four-hour pass to go home and pick up some clothes. After 18 months of wearing only khaki prison uniforms, it was a small gesture of freedom. But when West went to the house in Fort Sanders she has owned for years, she found something that had been a rare and precious commodity at Alderson: silence.

"All I did was sit there," she said. "My time was up, and I hadn't even picked up the clothes."

ALL SHE'D HEARD ABOUT Alderson before arriving was about Martha Stewart, and her cottage with a private shower. West's experience wasn't like that. She found herself in a cinder-block cube, arranged like an office carrel, with walls five feet six inches high, in a big room with 139 other prisoners. Most weren't violent criminals; there were a few embezzlers, and lots of prostitutes. It's a federal prison, but takes many state-level criminals from Washington, D.C.

"On the top bunk, you could see everybody. Lower bunks have a bit more privacy." But privacy's a relative thing. They were counted, and recounted. Three times a night, a guard would come in and be sure she was in her bunk. "They had to be able to see flesh, to tell that it was a human being."

That's if things go well. "Never cause any trouble, and you stay in your cube." At Alderson, the right to stay in your cube is cherished. Get a few demerits—they call them "shots"—and you might wind up in the Bus Stop, a noisy sleeping place by the bathrooms, brightly lit by fluorescent lights.

During her first weeks, she made the mistake of storing some flour, to use to make glue for an art project, in her locker. Flour, along with many foods, is considered contraband. The authorities were convinced, or pretended to be convinced, that it was drugs.

Even fruit and cheese were contraband. "Martha [Stewart] had a cottage, and would steal onions of broccoli, which is considered contraband. I never did. I was very good. You could always get food for free," in the cafeteria, "but you couldn't get any fresh vegetables.

"Some people made hooch, in coolers," she adds. "But it's nasty."

All prisoners had to work in the cafeteria for their first three months at Alderson. A painful experience on that job illustrated one unintended privation of prison life: Medical care is not a prison priority. She describes her accident dispassionately, as if it happened to somebody else. A salad-prep machine malfunctioned, kicking a piece of metal at her, snapping her arm. She says she feels "fortunate" that the accident happened on a Thursday—the only day prisoners can get X-rays. The prison doctor first told her that her ulna would probably heal by itself without being set. She could feel, though, that the bones weren't even meeting. "I said, ‘I would like a second opinion.'" It was a cocky request for a prisoner, but they sent her to a hospital on the outside, in Greenbrier County. A few hours later she was in surgery, and returned with a splint holding her bones together with four screws.

The doctor prescribed her some pills, but even routine prescriptions are problematic in prison. Prisoners are only allowed to take any sort of medication three times a day—and they have to take them in the presence of the dispenser, at the end of a long line. "There's a saying at Alderson: ‘I used to be on drugs—now I'm on medication.'"

She waited in line for her prescription, 400 mg of Motrin, only to learn she couldn't take the painkillers at bedtime, when she thought the pain would bother her most. She threw the medicine in the trash. "I found it more painful to stand in the pill line than to deal with the pain," she says.

Meanwhile, she began teaching a yoga class—at Alderson, that position doesn't require much experience—with a swollen arm. It became one of her favorite times. "The sunset, overlooking the mountains, was beautiful." She rarely saw sunrises and sunsets in Knoxville. "It looked like a college campus. There's a chain-link fence. You could walk out, but no one did when I was there. You're very remote, in the middle of the mountains. You wouldn't get very far."

MOST INMATES IN THIS medium-security camp were there for only months, or a few years, but there were harder cases. Crack pushers sometimes got as much as 18 years. "People who are in for a long time have a different personality. Long-timers like routine, and get upset with changes."

West accepted and understood the terms of her sentence. She had more difficulty with the temperaments of some fellow inmates.

"People were always arguing, yelling, throwing things," she says. "You would hear that all the time. Go to a shower and it was closed, that would be 10 minutes of yelling. A line of three people waiting to use the dryer, they'd yell. At the microwave, waiting for people to get their food out, they'd yell."

It sounds like that bothered her more than the strict rules. "Being forced to be around people all the time makes you want to be by yourself. I'd go to my cube and start knitting or crocheting." She wasn't the only one. "There's a pretty good industry of crocheting there," she says. "Maybe just 10 knitters, but 200 or 300 who crocheted."

She also read books: whatever came to hand, books by John Grisham—she remembers in particular The Brethren and King of Torts. "And a 900-page book about King Henry V. And Jodi Picoult. I read a lot of her books. But the first one I read was Crime and Punishment," by Dostoevsky.

There was a small library, and even a prison book club. "Most people hadn't had a chance to read the book, because there was only one copy."

After her three-month food-service requirement, West was put in charge of the prison art department, with access to a small studio. Most of what she made was practical art, 18-foot banners for graduations of the prison's mandatory nine-month drug-education courses, backdrops for prison plays and talent shows. She painted a mother and baby elephant for a Mother's Day show.

The shows were rarely any good. Many prisoners avoided them. West enjoyed even the bad ones, like that of a pathetic magician from the outside whose tricks didn't work.

"For some, it was a chance to wear a costume, and dress like a normal person. If you're locked up for a long time, wearing regular clothes is a big deal! And there were some women that looked like men, and they would play that up in the show. Some even had beards. In your mind, they were male." She laughs. "And they were very popular."

Of the guards, she says, "They like to show you who's in charge. And they are. You have to do what they say. Even if it's the dumbest thing in the world."

She took some crocheting out into the prison yard, then took a break, putting the yarn under her head as a pillow. "But there's a rule you can only have crocheting materials outside if you're crocheting." A guard told her she forfeited her privilege to crochet when she took a break. "Take it back inside," he said.

"You just gotta deal with it," she says. "For a certain time period, you can deal with it. It feels very weird when you first get there. But after three months, it seemed like I'd been in there for a year. Then it becomes very, very routine, and it goes very fast."

She played sports: basketball, volleyball, softball. She even started an Alderson soccer league. She learned to watercolor, and paint with acrylics. She made a tomato garden in a community garden plot.

"I never had a green thumb until I was in prison. I brought up an umbrella plant, and brought it home. This year I had 58 tomato plants."

Gardening was often frustrating. "The first year, I just had three tomato plants. One woman asked me, ‘Can I have some tomatoes?' I said, ‘No, sorry, I was thinking about eating these myself.'" The inmate responded, "I didn't have to ask you."

She was, in most regards, a model prisoner. Just 10 days before she got out, she committed an infraction that almost scotched her release date. On a Friday night this past summer, after she'd been working in the art studio, she got her tray in the cafeteria, and a guard challenged her to turn around.

"Paintbrushes!" one said. She'd forgotten to take them out of her back pocket. Paintbrushes were considered contraband in the cafeteria. "My mind was already out the door," she says, trying to recall why she responded as she did:

"Oh," said West. "I thought you were looking at my ass."

"They didn't think it was quite as funny as I did. I was kidding. See, I don't even have an ass." She was called to explain herself to a lieutenant, who was not much amused. He demanded that she explain herself.

"You wouldn't say that on the outside, would you?"

"Yeah," West replied. "I used to work in a bar."

"IT WAS ACTUALLY very relaxing," she says of Alderson, as if it's something no one will believe. "For the first time in my life I got to do all the things I wanted to do, but never had time: play soccer, crochet, knit, read, write letters, make art. I don't see prison as being a bad thing. When you're forced to do stuff, you learn more about yourself. Once you get over the initial shock of it....

"In Knoxville, burning the candle at both ends, I got burnt out. In prison, I didn't have to be doing five things at once. You slow down and appreciate that your health is what's important." She has learned to live simply. "Living out of a three-by-two locker for two years, you realize all this stuff you have you don't need.

"I saw at least 60 sunrises at Alderson that were just breathtaking. I don't ever see sunrises in Knoxville.

"The air was so fresh and clean, I was apprehensive about coming back to Knoxville." The former flight attendant still considers Knoxville "one of the most beautiful places to fly into in the world," but she considered quitting the city where she has lived for more than 30 years. Maybe moving to New Zealand, subject of some of her photographs.

Such travel's off limits for a while, though, and for now, she's staying. "I'm proud of how Knoxville's developed, become a nice city," she says. "It was such a ghost town here for the longest time. Now, there's always something happening on the Square. Growing up in Germany, I knew the importance of the town square. Even the smallest town in Germany has a central area like this. I knew it was just a matter of time." She's proud of her and her husband's contributions to Market Square, first mentioning Preservation Pub, the popular nightclub they founded, five years and a lifetime ago. "The Pub, I think the Pub is doing real good. Earth to Old City and Oodles, they're doing well."

Whether we'd have Market Square as it is today without their transgressions isn't certain, but the law offers no excuses for civic improvements.

"I'm very proud of what we did," she says. "Maybe we tried to do it too fast."

Full disclosure: Jack Neely, who has known Bernadette Trent West for many years and interviewed her for stories considering downtown development, was one of more than 100 Knoxvillians who wrote letters in support of leniency in 2006.

Latest Blog Posts