In Pennsylvania, prisoners stand to be counted four times every day, work jobs for as little as 19 cents an hour, face strict wake-up calls and bedtimes, wear cocoa-brown uniforms, and go by inmate numbers, rather than their names.
That’s what’s in store for Bill Cosby, if he’s convicted and sentenced to prison in his sexual assault trial.
“Anybody who faces incarceration, whether it’s state time or county jail time, the main punishment is the lack of freedom and having everything in your life being controlled — from when the lights go out, to when you eat, to when you can have visitors, to what you can purchase through the commissary,” said Ann Schwartzman, adviser and policy director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. “There are even limitations on postage, in terms of how many letters you can send. Anything and everything you can think of, there are limitations that control that. It can be very difficult for people.”
Cosby, a television titan who became known as “America’s Dad,” wouldn’t even be able to control the TV remote in prison.
“There’s no private living room where you can sit down and stretch out,” Schwartzman said. “There’s just a multipurpose room, where watching television becomes a group experience. What you watch is usually the choice of the majority.”
Of course, imprisonment would be a worst-case scenario for Cosby and those who support him.
Possibility of house arrest
The elderly entertainer, who faces years in prison if convicted, could also be sentenced to house arrest or probation.
But even those lesser penalties carry burdens that could seem unbearable for a once-beloved, powerful man whose net worth was estimated, not so long ago, at $400 million.
A conviction would require him to register as a sex offender, because the crimes he’s charged with are Megan’s Law offenses, according to Kate Delano, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County district attorney’s office.
That means the judge could order restrictions on everything from whom Cosby can interact with to what rehabilitation programs he must complete, with incarceration a possible penalty for violations.
“You don’t even realize the freedoms that you have until you don’t have them,” Schwartzman said.
A sentence of house arrest, for example, might require Cosby to wear an electronic bracelet so authorities can be sure of his whereabouts. Parole agents could drop by at any time to check on him.
“Even though you’re in your house, knowing that you can only be in your garden or walk in your yard or go onto your porch — that you don’t have the freedom you would have as a regular person — really does become difficult for people,” Schwartzman said.
Typically in Pennsylvania, convicted defendants sentenced to less than two years behind bars would serve that at a county lockup. Sentences longer than two years would be served in state prisons.
If he ends up in the state prison system, Cosby first would go to the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill for classification. That’s where prison staff assess everything from his health care and psychological needs to his security risk.
Then the 79-year-old, who has said he is completely blind, might be sent to the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands in Somerset County, which has services for geriatric inmates or those with medical problems.
Still, “all of the prisons accommodate the elderly inmates,” said Amy Worden, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, which spends, on average, $116 a day per inmate.
Some state prisons also have Gray Panthers chapters, which address the needs of incarcerated seniors.
Rigid scheduling at Pa. prisons
His day would be very regimented.
“Pennsylvania’s 25 state prisons operates under tight schedules,” Worden said. “There are four inmate ‘counts’ per day [communicated over loudspeakers]. That means the prison is locked down, and inmates have to stand in their cells to be counted.
“The first count is at 6 a.m. There is no sleeping in. Inmates are typically locked in between 9 and 10 p.m. There are prescribed schedules for breakfast, lunch and dinner served in the ‘chow’ hall,” she said. “In between, there are yard times (exercise outside or in a gym, depending on weather), work assignments for those who work, and programming, both behavioral and educational [high school GEDs, vocational training or college degrees].”
If Cosby ends up in county jail, one trial observer expects he’ll have an easier time.
“He is a celebrity, so I think he’ll do fine if he does go,” said Allen Yates, 50, a retired prison guard from Norristown, who has stopped by the courthouse every morning since the trial started to gaze at the spectacle of it all.
“I think he may get some type of favoritism, because he is Bill Cosby,” Yates said. “I don’t think they’ll do him any kind of wrong. He’s going to have his head hung low for a minute, but once he gets himself set in place, things will turn for the better.”
Prison administrators typically separate high-profile inmates from the general population — not necessarily for their comfort, but more for their safety.
“He’ll be in a segregated area, because [other inmates] may try to harm you there,” Yates said.
That means he could get a cell to himself, at minimum, with guards keeping a closer eye, he added.