“They do little to nothing in the way of helping people become better,” the famous blind hacker Matthew Weigman told me after spending years in the US for his endeavors exploiting telecommunication systems.
The year was 2009, and I was sitting in a dank, musky holding cell in my orange jumpsuit and blue slippers inside the Earle Cabell Federal Building in Dallas, Texas, aka the Dallas Courthouse. The wing was run by the US Marshals, and they were in the process of shackling inmates to have them shipped back to jail after their court hearings. This included handcuffs and leg shackles. The cold metal always cut into my skin, but I was used to it by now.
While sitting in my chains and waiting to be extracted, I overheard the voice of a young man in the holding cell beside mine, having a lively discussion with one of the Marshals. We couldn’t see each other, but I could hear him.
My ears pricked up as soon as I understood that the young man was a hacker. He was boasting about some of his exploits to one of the Marshals, who was familiar with his case and eager to learn more from the kid who had made it all over the news.
As I live and breathe, it was none other than Matthew Weigman, AKA ‘Lil Hacker,’ the young, legendary blind phone phreaker in the flesh. Suddenly, I recalled the night of my arrest, when one of the arresting FBI agents boasted about catching Weigman. He described how his room was littered with telephone wires but also how impressive the kid’s intelligence was.
Weigman was only 19 when he received an 11-year sentence for his part in a swatting conspiracy against his rivals. On that fateful night, the FBI agent made sure I understood the grim fate awaiting me for my own cybercrimes, juxtaposing Weigman's punishment against the abyss of time I was staring into.
At only 19, Weigman found himself slapped with an 11-year sentence, a consequence of his involvement in a ruthlessly calculated swatting conspiracy against his enemies. Moreover, what's really riveting is the depth of Weigman's infamy. While his conviction is a matter of public record, his life story is truly remarkable. Even Kevin Mitnick acknowledged Weigman's mastery of social engineering.
Let me emphasize that Weigman is not your typical run-of-the-mill trickster or dilettante hiding behind an app like Spoof Card. No, this virtuoso was armed with a photographic memory and social manipulation skills that eclipsed anyone I'd ever encountered.
Weigman delved into the arcane secrets of telephones and the intricate web of Telecom systems, mastering operators' jargon. He could effortlessly dupe even the sharpest telecom minds, leaving them completely unsuspecting and eating right out of his hand.
“Dude, you’re Matthew Weigman,” I called out from the bars.
“Yup. What’s up?” he said.
“I’ve heard a lot about you, bro. I’m GhostExodus.”
“Heard of you,” he said as we began to talk about his exploits.
Thus, our friendship began.
In jail with Weigman
Bound by chains on our hands and ankles, we were marched in single file to a transport vehicle ready to whisk us away to Segoville's Federal Detention Center. The moment we arrived, Weigman became an overnight sensation. I had my stint in the limelight as a hacker and local celebrity, but now it was Weigman's turn to shine. You’d have to meet him to understand the gravity of who he is.
I guided Weigman through the jail unit, our temporary home of concrete, razor wire, and steel. With my hand firmly on his shoulder, I helped him navigate the layout of the place. Despite his legal blindness, his vision is a chaotic blur, making it virtually useless. He depends on the symphony of sounds, the tactile sensations, and hazy glimpses to piece together the puzzle of his surroundings.
He commanded a large crowd that encircled him, with me at his side. A sea of blurry faces, each one hungry for hacking secrets, surrounded us. They were captivated by his enigma, probing his mind for hours. He was confident and outspoken, possessing a wealth of information that stirred our imaginations.
Weigman didn’t show any sign of defeat or fatigue, even after having received a prison sentence that was ready to steal over a decade of his life. Time that could never be redeemed. I remember thinking, “I want to be just like that when I get my sentence.” In my mind, Weigman was indomitable. Whatever he was feeling about his fate was imperceptible. In my mind, he was a soldier, and I admired him for it.
What Weigman did has already been written.
How Wiegman became the Darth Vader of the fiber optic wires of the Telephony universe is also well known.
However, what remains unspoken is the haunting reality that the trauma he would endure as a visually impaired hacker in a US prison would irrevocably alter the bright young man I encountered that day.
You need all your senses to navigate and survive the Federal prison system. Every facial expression, tonality, and inflection in a prisoner’s voice and body language is an indication of their mental state, mood, and what they’re about to do. If you’re in their way, you could lose your life. Without sight, you’d never see the surrounding danger.
Alas, my time with Weigman was cut short. It had only been a day, then he was transported to Fort Dix FCI in New Jersey. Shortly after, I ended up meeting one of Weigman’s co-defendants, Carlton Madison Nalley, another incredibly bright individual, and we quickly formed a friendship over our love for technology and computers.
Fort Dix is notorious for violence. I never saw Weigman again, nor did we speak again until after a decade had passed. By then, our experiences had transformed us into different people, altered by what we went through just to survive another day.
I found Weigman on Facebook sometime around 2020 during the pandemic. He wasn’t hard to find. Although I don’t have a photographic memory, nor do I have the power of instant recall – as Nalley commonly describes Weigman, I don’t forget much. Except when I do, but that’s another story.
He had been released from prison on October 20th, 2018. I pitched the idea of doing an interview with him. Interestingly enough, he hadn’t spoken to anyone after being freed. In fact, all the news articles were just ancient history by now.
Matthew Weigman speaks out
We discussed the interview over Facebook Messenger. I didn’t want to just talk about his charges or his life story again – it has already been retold so many times it would amount to copypasta.
Weigman describes the hardest part of being blind and incarcerated was the fact that even though he was in a government institution, reading material, access to a walking cane, and even overall support that one might expect from correctional officers for someone with a disability was not provided.
“They want to see inmates become better people,” he said. “But they do little to nothing in the way of helping people become better.” He explained how he had to wait half a year just to have a cane issued – mind you, this is an identification cane used by the visually impaired.
Imagine being blind, trying to climb a staircase, or trying to visualize where you’re walking but can't.
“How was I expected to acclimate myself to society if I was not availed of services that would further my rehabilitation and efforts to reenter society if I simply could not gain access to braille and a form of transportation, a cane, without first having to obtain the assistance of a sighted inmate?”
After this response, the question nagging me was whether correctional officers ever mistreated him. It’s one thing for prison officials to be negligent. Willful negligence can itself be a form of abuse.
The answer was yes. He explained how the Bureau of Prison (BOP) Correction Officers retaliated against him after he pursued civil litigation to redress grievances. I wasn’t surprised. Retaliation is an epidemic in US prisons, and there’s almost no way to avoid it.
“In one such case of their constant abuse of power, I was asked how blind I was. In another, I was moved from housing unit to housing unit because of civil litigation filed by myself with the assistance of another inmate.”
I know all too well what happens when an inmate attempts litigation against prison guards.
I had to know if he was ever housed in a Special Housing Unit or SHU. These are control units used for disciplinary purposes, where inmates are housed 23 hours a day, five days a week. Sometimes longer. If the SHU doesn’t have showers inside the cells, they are allowed to shower three times a week.
It’s similar to solitary confinement, except that it's common to have a cellmate. Being confined to a SHU as punitive punishment is the ultimate form of retaliation. These are basically BOP-run black sites that can operate like roach motels. You might check in, but you might not check out. I myself survived 13 months in one of the worst SHUs operated by the BOP.
“I was confined to the Special Housing Unit or SHU on more than one occasion. The first situation involved me gaining unauthorized access to the telephone system in Mansfield Jail, better known as MLEC Or Mansfield Law Enforcement Center, “ said Weigman.
“I was tired of having to pay nearly $20.00 per call. I did something about it. When I refused to provide [a certain] inmate with a free call, he reported me to staff, and I was immediately held in the SHU in Mansfield.”
Ah, yes. I remembered him telling me about that during our time in Seagoville FCI. Back then, he’d also told me how he’d hacked into the voice mailbox of his prosecutor from the Mansfield jail phones and proceeded to delete voice messages from his FBI case agent. By accessing the Telecom system itself and spoofing his caller ID from within the network, he was able to connect directly to the prosecutor’s voice mailbox without a passcode.
He then continued to elaborate, saying, “The second time I was confined to the special housing unit, I was already at the Federal Correctional Complex at Allenwood in White Deer, Pennsylvania. In this case, I had attempted to purchase the use of another inmate’s telephone pin or PAC Personal Access Code due to the oppressive and unwarranted restrictions placed on me while serving time in the Federal Prison System.”
There was a third incident, but he didn’t elaborate.
He told me that during the time he was incarcerated, he did receive mail frequently, but it was seldom from his family. I could relate. “They adopted the mindset that If I was out of sight, I would be out of their minds. In my term of imprisonment.”
I went through the same ordeal repeatedly. Being estranged from those who should be our family or fulfill crucial roles in our lives leaves us profoundly isolated, severed from vital connections, and forced to depend on external, often insufficient, sources for support.
Throughout his excessive prison sentence, Weigman was visited only twice. This fact only intensifies the trauma, emphasizing the stark reality of profound isolation, leaving you with a chilling certainty that you are undeniably alone and that nobody cares anymore.
I asked him if his experiences have had any physiological effect that has been carried out to the present day. I know what his answer would be. Still, I had to ask it if I hoped to give voice to what he’d survived all those years on his own in a world teeming with real criminals.
His answer didn’t surprise me. “Absolutely,” he said.
“Prior to my term of imprisonment, I had already been diagnosed with mental health issues. They have only worsened over time, leaving me in a state of mind in which I am now almost completely detached from others emotionally. I also believe due to certain violent occurrences, I now suffer from PTSD. That’s a self-diagnosis.”
After that, I knew I had to ask about his worst experiences. In contrast to my own experiences, his being blind added another element of terror I could not fathom. How do you dodge a punch while blind, when your greatest weapon prior to incarceration was a computer or telephone system?
“Despite being blind, I have always been willing to fight. As a child, I fought my brother and other kids,” he said. Then he began to elaborate how, as an adult, it became necessary for him to assert himself nearly half a dozen times while other inmates tried to take advantage of his blindness.
“I literally bit an inmate in the face while he brutalized the side of my face. The reason was that he had stolen commissary items, and he openly bragged about it. Still, that’s not the worst experience,” said Weigman.
He continued, saying, “I believe that the worst experience was at Allenwood. A man was killed while I sat across the table from him in the dining hall. I went numb. What else could I do? I was in a state of shock and I mentally entered survival mode.”
Let that resonate.
As things came full circle, I was eager to know how Weigman acclimated to the new world after being incarcerated for so long. After all, the sociological and technological norms we left behind so many years ago are now in the past, only to be replaced by new norms.
“I have found it quite easy to acclimate to both. I had a couple of phones even while in prison. The social climate seems to have gotten worse. That’s fine. I dislike most people,” he said.
Weigman then said that many things have obviously changed over the years. One such change is that he no longer associates with most of his immediate family, but especially that he finds it difficult to trust others in any sense of the word.
“So yes. Millions of things seem different to me. Mostly in a bad way.”
Factor in the difficulty he now faces finding a job while having a criminal record, being turned down due to their fears that he poses a security risk. I experienced the same rejection.
His closing comments painted a picture that’s a far cry from the “larger than life” personality he wielded over a decade ago. After what the US Justice System has had its way with hackers like us, we are left with fistfuls of the ashes of the lives we once lived and the people we once were.
Thus, we must rebuild ourselves from ashes in a world that cannot relate to what we survived.
“I’m living a pauper’s life and have nothing as far as possessions go except for two iPhones, two Android devices, and an Apple Mac. I struggle with any form of human interaction. The only support morally or otherwise is provided by my lovely girlfriend.”
Regardless of the dark moral character he formerly wielded in his prime, Weigman will forever be a titan of phone phreaking knowledge. He’s a legend with an admirable character arc that has survived the course of his own infamy while searching for a way to rise above his adversities in the only way he knew how.
He survived prison as a blind hacker against insurmountable odds.
He will certainly continue to overcome a world he cannot see.
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