Back home in Buncombe County after spending 27 months in either federal or county lockups, former County Manager Wanda Greene says the experience was life-changing, and she was also deeply touched by the kindness of her fellow inmates.
In a 90-minute exclusive interview with Asheville Watchdog, Greene spoke extensively about her odyssey through the prison system, her health and two cancer scares, how she was able to leave prison nearly five years ahead of schedule — and what it feels like to be shackled at the waist and ankles.
[Coming next in The Watchdog: Wanda Green prepares for another battle in court.]
Sipping coffee in a South Asheville cafe and laughing easily, Greene seemed upbeat about her life now, although she has obvious irritation with a recent Buncombe County lawsuit against her seeking more than $419,000 in restitution for spending Greene engineered on high-end equestrian sponsorships and advertising.
Greene was sentenced in August 2019 to 84 months in prison, plus one year of supervised release, and she was ordered to pay a $100,000 fine, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
In pleading guilty, Greene admitted to years-long schemes that included using county purchasing cards for personal benefit at retailers such as Target and Amazon; for buying county-funded life insurance policies for herself and other employees — Greene later cashed hers in for nearly $400,000 — and for taking trips, meals, and entertainment from a contractor with the understanding his companies would receive county contracts.
Officially, Greene pleaded guilty to:
- Embezzling public funds and aiding and abetting such embezzlement.
- Federal program fraud.
- Making a false federal tax return.
- Receipt of bribes and kickbacks and aiding and abetting.
Through a January 2019 settlement agreement Greene repaid Buncombe County $750,000, selling her house and tapping retirement accounts to come up with the cash, she said. In all, to settle with the county, the IRS, and to pay legal fees, Greene said she’s paid out close to $1.5 million.
“Frankly, it’s taken just about everything I’d saved,” Greene said.
The case also resulted in Greene’s son, former county employee Michael Greene, receiving a six-month federal sentence. Former Buncombe County Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton, former assistant and then County Manager Mandy Stone, and a county contractor, Joe Wiseman, also pleaded guilty as part of the scheme and received federal time.
When Did She Get Out?
Confusion has often swirled around Greene’s whereabouts, with a lot of local residents still assuming she’s in prison. But Greene, 71, has been back in southern Buncombe County for nearly a year, since January 2022, living with relatives in a comfortable home in a relatively new subdivision.
“I got called the week before Christmas (2021) — they called me upstairs to give me my release date, the date I would be leaving the institution,” Greene said. “So I left on Jan. 12 (2022). But I remain in custody. I still am in BOP [Bureau of Prisons] custody. If you look me up, I’m in there.”
The Bureau of Prisons inmate locator shows Greene still in custody under the authority of the Residential Reentry Management field office in Raleigh. Her release date is listed as March 30, 2023.
Scott Taylor, a spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said via email that Greene transferred on Jan. 12, 2022, from the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Texas to “community confinement overseen by the BOP’s Raleigh RRM Office.”
Greene said she received a sentence reduction in September 2021 that cut her sentence to 59 months, from 84 . She said court documents about her cooperation with the federal investigation are sealed, but she acknowledged she provided assistance to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“And then you earn good time in prison,” Greene said. “So my good time reduced that by another eight months.”
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES, also came into play. One provision of the 2020 act was to push for early release of nonviolent federal offenders to ease the burden on the prison system and reduce the chance of COVID-19 spreading.
“You can apply for the CARES program when you have served half your time if you are nonviolent,” Greene said. “So I was eligible to apply in the middle of November.” She was approved in December.
Greene said her case now is contracted out to an office in Gastonia that handles released federal prisoners.
“I have to go to Gastonia once a week,” Greene said. “I have to actually go down, and you do a drug test.”
Greene also has to call a Bureau of Prisons official every morning and night from her home landline phone, and she has to have permission to drive places, including to the interview with Asheville Watchdog. Greene has been denied requests, “and that’s okay,” she said.
“They’re not big on entertainment,” Greene said. “They’ll let you visit your family. They’ll let you go to doctors and to church, and in my case to legal. And they let you go to work.”
Greene does not have to wear an ankle monitor or global positioning system (GPS) tracking, and she is allowed to drive.
Serious Health Scares
In 2015 Greene was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent treatments and extensive surgery in 2016.
“I’m happy, happy to tell you I’m six years out from reconstruction and things are fine,” Greene said. “But after I actually left the county, I was diagnosed with a very unique kind of lymphoma, and so that is what I continue to (fight).”
That diagnosis came in March 2018 for a type of “lymphoma that like two in a million people get. I’m thinking, ‘That’s not the odds you’re looking for.’”
It’s called acute cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, Greene said.
“What it really means is that when it presents, it presents on my skin, and our objective is to never let it become systemic in my body,” Greene said.
The Mayo Clinic describes cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, or CTCL, as “a rare type of cancer that begins in white blood cells called T cells. These cells normally help your body’s germ-fighting immune system. In cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, the T cells develop abnormalities that make them attack the skin.”
During her time in the federal prison system, Greene needed to be in a medical facility because of the lymphoma, and because at the time she had not been free of breast cancer for at least five years.
“Since I’ve been home I’ve gone for treatments up to three times a week,” Greene said, a light form of radiation. “Until they adjusted the type of treatments that would work for me, I went through some chemo and some radiation, and that affected (me)” with nausea and other side effects. “But we adjusted based on how that was making me sick.”
An Odyssey in the Federal System
Greene reported to Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, on Oct. 2, 2019, expecting to spend the next seven years of her life in prison, she said. But her medical needs necessitated residency in the prison medical center, a minimum-security facility that houses women requiring special medical and mental health care.
“I would tell you when you drive up, other than all that razor ribbon, it’s a beautiful complex,” Greene said, laughing. “The hospital is the only hospital for females in the BOP system.”
While the facility, comprising the hospital, a high-rise prison, and a prison camp, held 1,400 people, Greene said her unit held 60 (The FMC Carswell website says it has 1,211 total inmates now).
“It was very much like a hospital,” Greene said. “And my unit specialized in cancer and dialysis, so everybody who was in my unit had one or the other.”
Carswell, like a lot of prison facilities, had a store called the commissary, where inmates could buy a limited range of products, such as hygiene items and snacks.
“They fed you three times a day,” Greene said. “You were not going to go hungry, but a lot of people of course would buy from the commissary to fill in for snacks and those kinds of things.”
Prison food, as expected, was for the most part pretty bland.
“If you were going through a cafeteria line, you wouldn’t pick it out,” Greene said with a laugh. “Very, very basic, and in Texas you better like rice and beans.”
Given access to a few extra spices, Greene said, the cooks could really deliver.
“I will tell you that those women could take those basic ingredients and make some of the most phenomenal food I’ve ever eaten, but they had to have the stuff from the commissary to do it,” Greene said.
Surprised By Kindness
Greene said she was initially apprehensive about her prison sentence, but said she found other female inmates overwhelmingly kind. The hospital facility served all levels of criminals, including violent felons.
“I will say that from the get-go, I was never afraid,” Greene said. “Not from day one. I never was.”
Despite movies and TV shows depicting assaults as commonplace in prison, Greene said she never had any fear of that inside.
“What I found was the women were very kind, and they knew what you had and didn’t have when you walked up from R&D,” Greene said, referring to Receiving & Discharging.
For example, Greene said, the BOP would issue inmates “these horrific boots” that were uncomfortable.
“Somebody said, ‘Here, I’ve got an extra pair of tennis shoes. Wear them until you can get to the commissary,’” Greene said, adding they may lend you “a T-shirt or sweatpants.”
“What you learned from the first day you were there was you pay that forward,” Greene said. “That was my absolute observation from all 27 and a half months, is you help one another.”
Greene said she’s not allowed to keep in touch with other former inmates, but some deeply moved her.
“There are many who stand out in my memory that stick with me,” Greene said. “Some of them are alive in spite of so many things. Some of them will turn their lives around, and some of them don’t have the structure to ever turn their lives around.”
Greene said she’ll elaborate more on her life in prison, the relationships she formed, and what she learned from her time in prison, in the future.
She teared up at the memory of some of her friends and roommates, though, called “bunkies.”
“These are the stories, some of them are so horrific,” Greene said. “Some of them … I don’t think they’ll ever be able to change. They’re just so injured.”
Shackled and Handcuffed
Inmates in the federal system often are on the move, and Greene said the transfers are not so gentle. She soon learned that transfers of federal prisoners happen frequently, often with little to no notice.
“You never know what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen,” Greene said.
“The night before a transfer, the prison puts out a ‘callout sheet’ to tell you if you will be going somewhere,” either for a doctor’s visit, lab work or similar task, she said.
“But also, you do not know when you might be moving from one facility to another,” Greene said. “And there’s a lot of reasons people move from one facility to another.”
On one early morning in February 2020, Greene was asleep in her cell, a converted ICU room that held two sets of bunk beds and one small footlocker for all of her possessions.
“At 1:30 in the morning my door slams open,” Greene said. “All they said was, ‘Greene, pack it up. You’re leaving.’”
She packed it out and headed downstairs to Registration & Discharge, where she was issued travel clothes — a set of khaki scrubs.
“I get through the whole thing — there’s nothing quite like being shackled and handcuffed,” Greene said. “So, I’m shackled and handcuffed and ready to get on the bus.”
She said everyone goes to a federal transfer station in Oklahoma City to be moved to other facilities.
“They have two really large passenger jets, and then they have small planes, small jets,” Greene said. “And ‘Con Air’ really is what it’s called.”
As she got ready to board the bus, a guard said, “Greene, get up here.” She was missing one more approval signature, so she had to go back.
About 10 days later they came by in the middle of the day to tell her she was leaving. One of her roommates, a cook in the kitchen, told her she’d be leaving the next morning, because she had to pack a lot of lunches for all those leaving.
When she was paged to go to R&D, she had to leave immediately.
“Forty-five minutes later I was on a plane,” Greene said, noting this was March 10, 2020.
She said she knew she’d be coming back to western North Carolina, as she was set to testify in the trial of Ellen Frost, a former County Commissioner charged with fraud in the equestrian case.
But instead of coming to WNC, she flew from Fort Worth to Missouri, then back to Oklahoma City.
“We went to this place that everybody who’s ever been in BOP calls ‘Shady Grady,’” Greene said, noting it’s a contract facility about an hour away from the transfer center. “The staff was incredibly nice, but it was, frankly, the dirtiest place I’ve ever been in my life.”
She was assigned a room with triple bunk beds.
“Here I am in the middle bunk bed, and way, way in the night I thought I heard somebody call my name, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m just dreaming. I’m tired,’” Greene said.
But then she heard her name again a few minutes later. When she inquired with a guard, they told her she was leaving immediately and didn’t even have time for a shower. This was March 11, 2020.
She got her stuff together and prepared to leave for the Federal Transfer Center. Two large airliners awaited.
They first landed in Louisiana, then at a possibly abandoned Air Force base in the Atlanta area where “there was not a soul there.”
“They don’t tell you where you’re landing or what’s going on or where you’re going to land,” Greene said. “I’m probably one of the few people who had an idea where she was going.”
Buses were lined up near the two jets. Armed guards with assault rifles appeared and worked the perimeter.
“It’s very clear if you run, you’re done,” Greene said with a laugh. “They’re not aiming for your knee. So you’re very compliant.”
“They do a good job of managing separation, and there are a ton of guards on these planes,” Greene added.
At this point, Greene was certain she was coming to western North Carolina, although she knew she wasn’t coming to Buncombe. But first they ventured four hours south to Ocilla, Georgia, to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility.
“I spent five days there, and it was just remarkable,” Greene said. “If you’re a people watcher, which I have been all of my life, for those people that are going to be deported, it was a grand old party.”
For Greene and her small group of five federal inmates, it was a more somber mood. They could not contact family during this time, mainly because of security reasons.
“It makes perfect sense, actually, it’s just a little unnerving if you are close to your family,” Greene said.
About midnight on March 15, 2020, “They came to the door and they screamed, ‘Greene, get everything together,’” Greene recalled. “We’ll come back and get you in an hour.”
On March 16, 2020, Greene took a seven and a half hour van ride with two federal officers to “somewhere in western North Carolina,” as Greene put it.
They took a lot of back roads. Greene wasn’t sure where they were until they pulled up to the McDowell County Detention Facility.
“As I got out of the van I said, ‘Would you mind a little feedback on your route?’” Greene said, recommending they take Interstates 40 and 26 for a quicker drive. The marshals were receptive to the advice, she said.
Greene said she got her best medical care of her entire incarceration at the McDowell County jail.
“(The nurse) made sure I was brought up (to my doctor in Asheville) for my treatments,” Greene said. “And that was the only time I got my treatments.”
The U.S. Attorney came to interview her, but as it turned out, Ellen Frost pleaded guilty and Greene’s testimony in court wasn’t needed. So Greene was released to return to FMC Carswell — “eventually,” Greene said.
On Sept. 15, 2020, she was supposed to go to the doctor, but they didn’t come to get her.
“I told my bunkie, I said, ‘Something is going on,’” Greene said, explaining that the nurse had set up a medical appointment for her and was unlikely to cancel that. “Well, at 3:30 the next morning, the cell door opens and the guard says, ‘Greene, you’re leaving. Let’s go.’”
In all, Greene had spent six months in the McDowell County lockup.
‘You’re Going to Have a Long Day’
She changed back into her travel clothes, the beige khakis, and a guard told her, “You’re going to have a long day.” She was to be handed over to federal marshals in Mecklenburg County.
But she ended up at the Raleigh-Durham airport, with a group of about 20 women, and they flew to Memphis. Greene knew it was Memphis because of the FedEx hub there.
They next came into Oklahoma City about 10 or 11 on Sept. 17, 2020 – back to “Shady Grady.” COVID was raging and Greene and the other inmates had to follow strict health protocols.
“We were locked in our rooms,” Greene said. “We had 45 minutes when we could take our showers, get our ice, use the phone.”
Inmates in the system could check email, so Greene was able to let her family know where she was.
Like other inmates, when she was being moved, Green was shackled at the hands, by her waist, and by the ankles. She was also accompanied by two guards, including one female guard.
“They don’t move you without being shackled,” Greene said. “There’s no exception. You are a federal inmate.”
As someone dealing with cancer, the pandemic was particularly worrisome.
“COVID was rampant,” Greene said, noting the federal officials were “very careful about it.”
“I was concerned about it, but we were early enough in the COVID process that you didn’t know how serious it could be,” Greene said.
On Nov. 19, 2020, there was a lot of movement in the facility, and Greene thought she was going back to FMC Carswell. But she wouldn’t leave for another two weeks, when her medical clearance came through.
“I ended up being in Oklahoma for 17 weeks,” Greene said. “But you know what? I would’ve stayed there. It was more jail-like, but it was a good environment.”
She had a chance to work as an “orderly” there, and Greene enjoyed the tasks and responsibilities.
The first week of January 2021, Greene asked a guard at night who was leaving in the morning. This guard, Greene said, was one of the good ones who treated inmates well as long as they behaved.
“I’d say 80 percent of them were that way, and then you had 20 (percent) who loved wearing the gun and bossing you around,” Greene said.
The guard told them all 25 female inmates were leaving in the morning, headed to Houston. She spent four months in Houston, before going back to Carswell in Fort Worth.
“So it was an 11-month trip,” Greene said. “It’s fascinating to me how they deal with all of this.”
“I think if the inspector general’s office ever did an evaluation of the U.S. Marshall’s service, there would be some opportunity for improvement,” Greene said with a laugh.
She got back to Carswell on Feb. 9, 2021. Because of COVID, Greene had to go into three weeks of quarantine.
“Which means you didn’t leave the room at all, because of COVID,” she said. “They were real particular about that.”
Greene said she never got COVID while in the system.
She went back to the same unit at Carswell where she’d been before.
“When I left, there were 58 women in there,” Greene said. “When I came back, of those 58 women, there were only 16 of those women left. So it tells you how the movement was. There were a lot of women who were released because of COVID.”
On Confessing: ‘I Told On Myself’
Greene is not working anywhere, and she now spends a lot of time at home, though she does venture out for her medical treatments and approved activities. She is deeply involved in her legal battle against the county regarding equestrian payments.
Greene understands that people in Buncombe likely have lingering anger and resentment toward her, but she’s not encountered a lot of ugliness in her 11 months back in town.
“It’s really odd. You don’t know how people think of you and what they remember and what they know,” Greene said. “But in my being out, and that’s well before I went to prison, I’ve only had two people who (when) I was in their vicinity, be ugly to me.”
People on social media are another story, she said, as they’re emboldened to say nasty things from a distance.
Of the two people who got in her face, Greene said, “I just was gracious and they walked away. That’s just the best way to handle it.”
Asked if she had experienced any revelations about herself from her crimes and the time in prison, Greene said politely, “There have (been), but I’m not ready to talk about that today. I’d like to be more focused when I talk about this.”
She did share one fascinating nugget about her case.
“I think the thing that most people don’t realize is for the most part, I told on myself,” Greene said. “Nobody knows that.”
Asked why she did that, Greene said simply, “Because it was true.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at email@example.com.