It’s often been said that the jails and prisons in the U.S. operate on a revolving door system, with many of the same prisoners returning to incarceration time after time after time. Sadly, that’s a mostly true statement.

With nearly 2.5 million people crammed into U.S. prison and jail facilities, or on probation or parole—3,789,800 on probation and 870,500 on parole (2015 stats), well, that equals to approximately 1 out of every 37 people in the U.S. is currently under some sort of supervised correctional status.

Yes, America can proudly boast (note the sarcasm) that we hold 25% of the world’s prison population. That’s a pretty staggering number considering the U.S. accounts for only 5% of the world’s population. Those numbers don’t mean much, you say? Well, let’s approach from another angle … our wallets. Each year the U.S. spends between 74 and 80 billion dollars on incarceration. That’s BILLION dollars.

Sure, most citizens don’t want to be bothered with felons and other law-breakers. You know, out of sight/out of mind. But it’s not quite that simple. You see, Isaac Newton had the right idea when he mused, “What goes up must come down,” because the same applies to prisons, jails, and inmates—what goes in must come out. That’s right, the majority of people sentenced to jail or prison must be released at some point, and those former prisoners are generally released back into their former communities.

What happens to former prisoners when they do finally make it back to their old neighborhoods? That’s a question most people don’t consider because the ex-con’s troubles don’t pertain to “most people.” Unfortunately, though, an inmate’s troubles affects everyone. Remember the 80 billion dollars it costs to incarcerate and supervise those millions of prisoners? Well, U.S. taxpayers are responsible for paying that whopping bill.

Doesn’t it makes sense that we should try to address the problem instead of throwing good money on top of bad? Obviously, incarceration isn’t always the correct answer to every case, because many offenders just keep coming back after they’ve “paid” their debt to society.

Let’s address recidivism …

… and why I think it occurs so often. First of all, I have many years of experience working in both corrections and in law enforcement, which means I’ve seen the system in action, from all sides. I’ve also owned a business where I employed a few former inmates, men who’d received prison sentences resulting from my investigations. Ironic, huh? Yes, I honestly believe in second chances.

What do former prisoners face upon their release? (these may vary depending on location)

1. They must, on a regular basis, check in with a probation or parole officer.

2. They must have an established residence.

3. Many drug and sex offenders must register with the local police, advising officials where they’ll be residing and working.

4. They must maintain employment (in some areas this is a discretionary requirement imposed by the court).

5. They’re required to complete a monthly report detailing their earnings, address changes, if any, employers name (probation officer will visit the job site and home), drug offenders must submit to urine testing, all must submit vehicle information, record of purchases (many probationers may not possess credit or debit cards), and they’re encouraged to further their education (This is a bit of a catch-22 for some since drug offenders may not receive grants to attend college. Murderers, yes, but drug offenders, no).

Some companies refuse to hire people who’ve been convicted of felonies … any felonies.

A vast number of employers absolutely will not hire felons and, as I stated above, drug offenders are not eligible for student loans. In fact, many felons are legally banned from working in certain professions, such as:

  • airport security screener
  • armored car crew member
  • bank teller
  • child care provider
  • delivery driver
  • health care positions with direct patient contact
  • public safety officer
  • residential installers
  • apartment or condo maintenance
  • jobs that require handling money
  • Realtor
  • Some volunteer programs refuse to accept felons (any felon)—nature programs, animal shelters, libraries, etc.

Even when a felon finds a job he is subject to a list of restrictions, including (this is only a partial list, and it may vary from area to area):

  • Agents /officers must be allowed to visit worksite and/or speak with a supervisor to discuss client’s performance, progress, and accountability
  • Cannot work in a position that serves alcohol
  • Cannot work with minors
  • Cannot work with vulnerable adults
  • Employment must be within or close to a supervision district so that agents may visit the worksite
  • Not allowed to use or have contact with devices that host a computer modem (i.e. any device that can access the Internet)
  • Cannot travel outside area or state (affects delivery drivers)

A few professions do hire convicted felons, but the list is short. And, this is still entirely up to the company. Some do not employ those who’ve been convicted of crimes.

Professions often available to convicted felons:

  • Warehouse work
  • Maintenance and janitorial positions
  • Food service (no alcohol)
  • Production and manufacturing
  • Assembly
  • Construction
  • Landscaping

In addition, many convicted felons are banned from living in publicly assisted housing (section 8), or worse.

So, you see, without a job, or with the limited occupations to choose from, and without housing and educational opportunities, it’s darn tough for a former prisoner to make it on the outside.

To top it all off, the convicted felons never actually “pay their debts to society.” The stigma of being a “convicted felon” hangs over their heads for life. This is especially true for those who were convicted of federal offenses. Some states allow convicted felons to vote in elections (others do not).

Still, felons, even one-time first offenders convicted of minor, non-violent felonies lose their right to own firearms and other weapons, their right to vote, student loans, housing, etc. And these restrictions are for life.

Second Chances!!

Wouldn’t it make sense to give the non-violent offenders a second chance, by removing the “convicted felon” status after, say, 10 years of living a productive, crime-free life. At least then they’d have the opportunity to return to school, live in better neighborhoods (away from criminal activity), find a decent job that would help support their families and take better care of their children, who, by the way, also suffer by being forced to live in poor conditions.

Having a second chance and goals to work toward could be part of the solution to the “prison problem” in this country. Now, I’m not talking about hardcore career criminals and repeat offenders. Nor am I including violent offenders. Most of those thugs need to remain behind bars for as long as we can keep them there. And I certainly don’t believe that every inmate would take advantage of the opportunity if presented to them. But there would be many who would work hard to achieve the goal and finally be able to put the mistake behind them for good.

If this helped keep just a small portion of the recidivists out of prison, the results could be huge. Families could remain together, children would grow up with two parents in the home, employers might find top-notch employees, the former inmates could become better educated and productive members of society, and taxpayers would save approximately $30,000 per year per inmate. Not to mention that instead of costing taxpayers, the non-recidivist would become a taxPAYER.

New York City is set to begin a program that offers guaranteed employment to each of their 8,500 inmates as they leave jail. These jobs are to be short-term, low skill level employment—cooks, restaurant bussers, or construction flaggers, etc.

The $10 million program will apply to inmates no matter what crime they’ve committed, even if they’re on the sex offender registry. Everyone gets a job. Everyone, including murderers, rapists, robbers, and …

I’m not sure the New York City plan is the best idea in the world, but they’re making an effort to address the issue. While not the most well-thought-out plan, it could still give former prisoners a much-needed boost of confidence, self-worth, and desire to do better. It could also go a long ways toward reducing the intense shame many feel after their release.

Anyway, that’s my two cents on the matter. What do you think? A second chance for some, or lock ’em up and forget about them? Remember, though, most of those who go in must come out at some point.

looking-out.jpg

Of course, there is the issue of private prisons that have contracts with the government … contracts that promise a minimum number of inmates will be sent their way. We must also remember that the private prisons are a big, money-making industry with stockholders.

And then there’s the food industry that makes a bundle off the prisons. And the construction companies, the jobs for officers, stock brokers medical staff, administration, the vehicle contracts, the weapons contracts, dog food (canines), condiment sales (I once sat next to a woman on a plane who was on her way to a huge nationwide prison food convention. She was in charge of condiment sales to prisons and jails—packets of mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise, along with napkins, and sporks—a multi-million-dollar industry)

Inmate phone calls are EXPENSIVE!

Let’s not forget the prison phone systems, where a collect call can go for fees as high as nearly $300 for just one hour of conversation. Think about it for a second. A call for a kid’s birthday, a mother’s sick, etc. $300 for an hour of family time is a tough expense for most families.

A portion of that whopping phone bill goes back to the prison in exchange for a contract with the provider. Again, it is the family who shoulders this burden since inmates don’t earn anywhere near enough money to cover the expense, yet, officials encourage strong and regular family contact.

Anyway, you get the idea.

A very happy prisoner. I asked why the big smile. Her reply was, “Things could be worse. At least I’m alive and healthy.” Notice the blue phone and its cord at the right side of the photo. Collect calls only.

Private Prison Profits Big Time!

CoreCivic stock at the time of the original posting of this article (now revised), stood at $34.70 per share. Today (May 21, 2018), shares were at $20.65. Still, the “people business” is certainly booming when others are failing miserably.

To read more about CoreCivic, visit their website by clicking here.

  • CoreCivic, one of the largest private prison companies in the world, is the company formerly known as Corrections Corporations of America.
  • CCA houses approximately 90,000 prisoners in over 65 facilities.
  • CCA has been the center of controversy over the years. Most of their troubles, but definitely not all, were related to cost-saving practices that included inadequate staff, extensive lobbying, and lack of proper cooperation with legal entities. CCA swapped amid the ongoing scrutiny of the private prison industry. Many believe the name change of private prisons is due to their rising unpopularity among the public, and to avoid a connection to past bad and illegal behavior.

Another for-profit “private prison company,” Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (WCC), now a subsidiary of G4S Secure Solutions changed its name to the GEO Group, Inc. It, too, houses thousands of prisoners around the world.

The Geo Group alone reported GEO reported total revenues for the fourth quarter 2017 of $569.0 million. This figure up a bit up from $566.6 million for the fourth quarter 2016. 2017 revenues include $2.8 million in construction costs associated with the development of the  Ravenhall Correctional Centre in Australia.

Yes, private prisons are a big business.

#prisonreform

#secondchances


Life on the inside

Above and below – inside a small county jail where conditions were truly deplorable.

Showers drained into the corridors.

 

Jailer entering corridor.

Jail Pods

132-jail-module-interior.jpg

Above – Inside a shipping container “pod” that was converted into a dormitory-style jail cell. This pod is located inside a parking garage outside an overcrowded county jail.

Below – Space between two modules serves as the recreation yard. Absolutely no sunlight to be found, anywhere. Nothing but concrete, sewer pipes, exhaust fumes, and prisoners.

pod-recreation-area.jpg

Below – In this county jail, prisoners are brought to these small rooms where they “visit” with family members seated on the opposite side of the window. The family’s room is a mirror image of the inmate’s visiting room. The view below is from the inmate’s side of the glass.

visiting-room.jpg

Overcrowding is a big issue within some prisons and jails. As an answer to their growing space problem, this county jail (below) installed steel beds in the hallways, outside the already packed jail cells.

hall-in-shadows.jpg

 

Looking out from inside the trustee cells.

 

Hallways and corridors were narrow, making for dangerous conditions for the jailers. The jail was heated by steam (boilers) and radiators were there, but scarce. There was no heat inside the cells. And, there was no air conditioning whatsoever. The only airflow came from  small widows. Here, you can see one of those windows (top left corner), open and tilted in toward the cells. The electrical cord is connected to a portable TV sitting on the wonky shelf, also at top left next to the window.

Narrow corridors are dangerous!

 

Makeshift antenna controls were fashioned from string or wires. Not allowed, but prisoners will be prisoners …

Wires to rotate rabbit-ear antennas from side to side to help receive a better picture. No cable!

 

Below is an image of an isolation cell (“the hole”) where unruly, violent prisoners in this jail are housed. No bed, no sink, no toilet. Merely a drain in the floor to use for, well, you know.

The tin cup pictured above is an actual drinking vessel that was originally part of the fabulous dining experience for prisoners inside a county jail. The lockup itself was every bit as fabulous as the cup. Both were well past their expiration dates when the county finally gave in and demolished the old place.

As they say, “if those walls could’ve talked.” If so, we’d have heard tales of jailhouse coffee potent enough to dissolve steel beams. A cook who somehow transformed  liver and onions into a dish that even the pickiest of inmate diners enjoyed. We’d also have heard about the graveyard shift jailers who discovered whole baked turkeys in the refrigerator and consumed them during the course of their shift. The turkeys were for the prisoner’s Christmas dinner. The prisoners were still there on New Years Day. The jailers were not, courtesy of a very angry sheriff who, at the last minute, had to hire a caterer to prepare additional turkeys for the prisoners.

The old red brick jail building, if it were able to speak before its demise, might’ve told us about the prisoner who managed to smuggle a gun inside and dared officers to “come and get it.” Certainly we’d have heard about the roaches and mice and the general funky stench of a place with little ventilation (no air movement at all in some corners of the facility).

The jailhouse could’ve gone into detail about how prisoners were allowed recreation once or twice each month and that was only to step outside onto a square of concrete for a game of basketball, if the ball was inflated and that was a rarity.

It might also speak of the dangers facing deputies (they were called jailers at this department). Blind corners and stairwells. Hallways too narrow, forcing officers to walk next to bars. No cameras “in the back” Therefore, when jailers opened the door to enter the lockup area they had no idea what waited for them on the other side. Had inmates escaped their cells, and that had happened a couple of times, deputies were sitting ducks for an ambush.

Anyway, let’s go inside for the only peek available inside this small facility. Believe it or not, this place was located in a county within the U.S., not in some third world country. And, it was in use not so awful long ago.

Follow me, but don’t touch anything, including those top two strands of wire. They’re electrified. A human bug zapper!

As we pass through the front gate, after being “buzzed” inside, please look to your right and you’ll see the recreation yard, a simple square of concrete. Inmates were allowed outside once or twice per month. Since there are no day rooms inside, it was a rare treat to see and do anything that wasn’t inside a 6×9 concrete cell.

Rec yard

Upon entering this jail, we first set foot inside this tiny lobby that also served as the visiting room. Visitors stood facing one of two small windows that were equipped with sound holes so that inmates and visitors could hear the other speak. No phones and no contact. FYI – should officers arrest and deliver a suspect to the jail they brought them through this lobby area. Therefore, visitors would be made to move to a secure office or other area until the prisoner and officer passed through. Super safe, right?

Visitation and lobby area.

On visitation day (Sunday afternoon only), inmates were brought two at a time to this small cell where they were locked inside. The two small windows are the reverse sides of the ones in the previous image. Until visitations, a piece of cardboard was positioned over the windows to prevent prisoners, the trustees who cleaned the jail and were allowed to roam about freely, from seeing out into the office area/lobby.

Inmate visitation cell.

Stepping through the doorway leading to the cellblock area we first pass the trustee cells. The door to these cells remained unlocked during daylight hours to allow those prisoners to complete their chores—cleaning, mopping, delivering meals, etc. They were locked in at night.

Looking out from inside the trustee cells.

Hallways and corridors were narrow, making for dangerous conditions for the jailers. The jail was heated by steam (boilers) and radiators were there, but scarce. There was no heat inside the cells. And, there was no air conditioning whatsoever. The only airflow came from  small widows. Here, you can see one of those windows (top left corner), open and tilted in toward the cells. The electrical cord is connected to a portable TV sitting on the wonky shelf, also at top left next to the window.

Narrow corridors are dangerous!

Makeshift antenna controls were fashioned from string or wires. Not allowed, but prisoners will be prisoners …

Wires to rotate rabbit-ear antennas from side to side to help receive a better picture. No cable!

To show just how dangerous this place was for deputies, notice how close this jailer was to the bars. He had no choice due to the swing direction of the door.

Jailer enters corridor. Danger!

There were no light fixtures inside the cells. Instead, each block of four cells was illuminated by floodlights mounted to the corridor ceilings. The fixture below hangs above one of the few windows in the block.

Floodlights gave the impression of peering in at zoo animals on display.

Prisoners received their meals through horizontal slotted openings in the bars. Trustees delivered the meals.

Tray slot

Meals were prepared in the jail kitchen. Trustees received meal trays from the cooks through a pass-through window leading from the kitchen to the jail corridor. Coffee was always available for deputies, 24 hours a day. Inmates were given coffee with their breakfast. One of the perks of being a trustee was to have coffee whenever they wanted, during daylight hours. Deputies and prisoners drank coffee from the same pot, the one pictured on the countertop below.

Jail kitchen

There were no showers inside the cell blocks. Instead, deputies escorted prisoners to showers located in another area … once each week, if they were lucky. Showers had no floor drains, therefore water spilled out in the corridors

Showers drained into the corridors.

To open cell doors deputies/jailers used a Folger-Adams key to release a lock on a cabinet housing the door controls. The same key locked and unlocked all interior jail doors

Folger-Adams key

With the cabinet door unlocked, the jailer opened and closed cell doors using levers and a large wheel. Each lever controlled the lock to one cell door. The jailer pulled the desired lever down to lock a door(s) and then turned the wheel to “roll” the barred doors either open or closed. This was all performed manually. No electronic controls. Should a door not close completely, its corresponding light (below the levers) illuminated with a bright red glow.

The door to the jailer’s right (below) was the entrance to a block of four cells and a very small small day room. When the jailer opened the cell doors, it released each of those four prisoners into the day room. He’d then roll the doors shut until night. Prisoners were not permitted to remain in their cells during daytime hours.

If a prisoner refused to come out, the others were returned to their cells (for safety) and deputies would then go inside to remove the misbehaving inmate, who would then serve a few days in the hole for not following instructions and jail rules.

Wheel of Misfortune

And that, my friends, was your look inside a place not many have seen. Those who have wish they hadn’t, I’m sure.

Cheers …

 

FMC DEVENS: An administrative security federal medical center with an adjacent minimum security satellite camp. In spite of being classified as a medical facility, FMC Devens is still a federal prison, nonetheless. However, unlike one of its predecessors—Alcatraz, pictured above—Devens is a bit more modern with a few more comforts than the bare bones conditions found at “The Rock.”

Anthony Weiner, the former politician turned convicted felon is now an inmate at the Federal Medical Center Devens in Ayer, Massachusetts. He was allowed to self-surrender, meaning family and/or friends drove him to the prison and then said their goodbyes before Weiner was likely led to an area to begin intake/processing.

Weiner’s proposed release date is May 15, 2019. With good behavior (no write-ups or other disciplinary troubles) he’ll serve only 85% of his sentence. That’s the rule in the fed system. Be a good boy and you’ll be out sooner than the sentence handed down by the court. Act out and you’ll serve every day of it.

FMC Devens

FMC Devens is situated adjacent to Mirror Lake, just a short drive down the road from Red Tail Golf Club. A hike through the woods to the rear of the place and you’ll cross Sheridan Road and then the George W. Stanton Highway. On the opposite side of the Stanton is the Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge. A right on the Stanton takes you to a state prison, past the Great Wolf Lodge, and Stoneville and then Farley. A left and you’d soon be in Cambridge, near Harvard.

The total inmate population at FMC Devens is 1134. Of those prisoners, 129 are serving their time at the adjacent/satellite camp. Inmates at the camp are those with short sentences and have proven their trustworthiness (they’re not apt to cause trouble or to escape). “Campers” are responsible for a lot of the maintenance work around the prison(s). They mow lawns, repair plumbing, electrical, etc. Paint, repair vehicles, and more.

The main prison, the FMC is a medical center with professionals and equipment needed for the treatment of injury, disease, and illness (physical and mental). Upon arrival and settling in, each inmate must attend orientation to learn the rules and regulations. They undergo full physical exams and evaluations.

Inmates must be counted at various times throughout the day and night (Can’t have one go missing) – Official counts are conducted at 12:05 AM, 3:00 AM, 5:00 AM, 4:00 PM and 10:00 PM. (4:00 PM and 10:00 PM will be a standing count, meaning each prisoner must stand beside their bunks. Absolutely NO talking or movement.) On holidays and weekends,  an additional “stand up” count takes place at 10:00 AM. An emergency count (suspected escape, etc.) may take place at any time deemed necessary. All emergency counts are standing counts.

Other rules include (From the BOP—FMC Devens—website):

  • Official counts will be conducted at 12:05 AM, 3:00 AM, 5:00 AM, 4:00 PM and 10:00 PM. (4:00 PM and 10:00 PM will be a standing Count.) On holidays and weekends, there is an additional “stand up” count held at 10:00 AM.
  • Pass System: At this institution, a fifteen minute period has been determined to be an adequate amount of time to move to any area in this facility. Inmates traveling from one destination to another during any time other than open movement (work call, meals and recall) require a pass. There are four types of passes here:

1. Institution Pass – issued when an inmate goes from one point to another.
2. Recreation / Library Pass – issued when an inmate must go to the recreation yard, inmate activity center, legal and leisure libraries.
3. Facilities Pass – issued to inmates working in the Facilities Department who are on required job sites throughout the institution.
4. Medical Pass – issued to inmates during a sick-call appointment allowing the inmate to report back to Medical Staff at a designated time.

Passes will be issued by the sending staff member and will be retained by the inmate until the movement is completed. Inmates should have the pass visible when traveling from one area to another. All inmates are required to be in possession of a pass when not traveling during open movement and must present the pass to any staff member when instructed to do so. Once the inmate’s scheduled travel is completed, the pass must be returned to the issuing staff member.

  • Out-of-Boundary-Areas: Certain areas are “Out of Bounds” unless inmates are assigned to work there or have been called by staff. If an inmate is called to one of these areas, he is to report immediately to the staff on duty. Inmates should not linger following completion of their business. These areas include but are not limited to:

1. Administration Building (except to go to Correctional Systems and to R&D). 2. Any housing unit, other than the one in which the inmate is assigned.
3. Grass areas (except where authorized on the Recreation Yard).
4. Rear gate area.

  • Urine/Alcohol Surveillance: Inmates may be asked to give a urine or Breathalyzer sample at any time. When an inmate is called to give a urine sample, he has two (2) hours to provide the sample or an Incident Report will be written. Inmates must remain under direct staff observation during those two (2) hours. Failure to submit to a urine sample or Breathalyzer will be treated as a refusal and will result in disciplinary action. Water or other fluid may be taken only upon permission of the Operations Lieutenant or the Captain. A Breathalyzer test must be completed when called for testing. There is no allowed delay.
  • Barber Shop – Haircuts and hair care services are authorized in the barber shop only. Hours of operation will be posted in each of the housing units and the barber shop.

 

INMATE DRESS REGULATIONS

Authorized Uniform

A. The authorized uniform consists of khaki trousers and shirt at the FMC and green trousers and shirt at the FPC. The uniform will be worn on all work assignments, except Food Service workers who wear the white trousers and shirt.

B. The authorized uniform will be worn during all visits and during normal working hours defined as 6:15 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, excluding Federal holidays. The shirt will be tucked neatly into the trousers and buttoned, except the top button may be unbuttoned. The sleeves may be rolled neatly to the elbow, or worn all the way down and buttoned. Trousers will not be rolled up, sagging, or bloused inside the inmate’s socks or shoes.

C. Shower shoes are not to be worn outside the housing units.

D. Sweatshirts may be worn, but will be worn under the authorized shirt.

E. Underwear, including thermal underwear, will not be worn as outer garments except in the individual’s room. Thermal underwear will not be worn with shorts, T-shirts, or tank tops.

F. All sleeves, trouser, and shorts will be hemmed; cutoffs and other altered clothing are not permitted.

G. The regular authorized dress uniform is required for educational classes and during normal working hours at religious services. Food Service workers are permitted to wear the white shirt and pants to Education classes. After hours and on weekends, leisure wear is permitted in religious services.

H. Inmates must wear clothing at all times, except when bathing, including leisure activities and in the living areas.

Work Details

A. Institution issued white T-shirts with the ID tag attached may be worn on outside details in lieu of the khaki or green shirt during the summer (e.g., June – August). The T-shirt must be clean, neatly tucked in, and in good condition.

B. Safety (steel-toed) shoes are to be worn on all work details. 3. After Hours:

A. For evenings, weekends, and holidays, inmates must be properly dressed to include shirt (with sleeves), pants or shorts, and socks. If wearing the khaki uniform, shirts must be tucked in.

Recreation

A. Approved athletic shorts, pants, and sweatshirts may be worn while participating in indoor and outdoor recreational activities. Shirts are to be worn at all times by inmates participating in recreational activities and must be tucked in while on the compound. Tank tops may be worn during recreational activities in the outdoor or inside recreation areas. Tank tops may not be worn on the compound or in the Food Service area. Sunglasses will not be worn inside buildings unless prescribed by medical staff.

B. When participating in inside athletics, all participants will be required to wear athletic shoes. On the track, any authorized shoe with the exception of shower shoes is permissible.

Food Service

A. Inmates are required to wear their authorized uniforms for the breakfast and lunch meals on weekdays.
B. Inmates may wear athletic wear as described above, after hours, during weekends, and on Federal holidays in Food Service. C. Inmates will not be allowed in the dining room with torn, soiled, odorous, or wet apparel.

Head Wear

A. No caps will be worn inside any building except for Food Service workers, who are working in Food Service.
B. Religious head wear is allowed in the dining room and must be approved by the Chaplain.
C. Doo rags will not be worn outside the living areas.

Visiting Room

A. Inmates are required to wear the authorized uniform in the visiting room.

B. Foot wear is limited to the black boot and boots purchased from Commissary unless the inmate has a medical slip indicating they are required to wear one of the medical shoes issued by the Medical Department.


Alcatraz Island – by boat, as seen by inmates upon arrival.

 

 

 

We’ve all seen the reports of innocent men and women who’ve been released from prison—exonerated—due to faulty evidence, cleared by DNA evidence, etc. But what was it about the evidence that robbed people of years of their lives by forcing them sit in a prison cell while completely innocent of the crimes they were accused of committing?

Let’s take a quick peek at the human hair. For many years, law enforcement collected hairs found at crime scenes and then delivered those hairs to their laboratories for examination and comparison (does the hair found match that of a suspect?).

If the examiner took a look under a microscope and then decided the hairs were indeed a solid match then his/her word was good enough for the courts. The suspect must be guilty because the scientist said that positively and without a single doubt the hair placed the defendant at the scene of the crime. Therefore, a jury or judge had all they needed to convict and send a bewildered person to prison.

Well, in 2015 the Justice Department revealed that FBI agents weren’t so sure that hair analysis was the most exact science in the world. In fact, they basically admitted that hair analysis, at best, is inconclusive. They no longer use it as a sole means to build a case against someone.

Santae Tribble was convicted of murder based on the analysis of a hair found at the crime scene. He spent more than 27 years in prison before DNA analysis of the hair proved his innocence. He was awarded  $13.2 million in his wrongful conviction lawsuit. A little something for his “minor” inconvenience.

Next comes bite-mark evidence. Not so long ago, within the past couple of years, the Presidents  Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) announced that forensic bite-mark evidence is not scientifically valid, nor is it likely to ever be validated. In other words, more junk science (skin may move after death during decomposition, skin and flesh are not stable material—may not hold a precise pattern, etc.).

Then there are tool marks, tire impressions, footwear impressions, and fingerprints. Yes, there are flaws within the testing of those items as well. Even the golden goose of all evidence—DNA—is not a perfect science.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 2155 people have been exonerated of crimes they didn’t commit. To put that in perspective … innocent people spent 18,750 years in prison due to someone’s error—flawed evidence examination, prosecutor or law enforcement mistake, evidence contamination, flawed procedures, flaws in the law, etc. 18,750 years, gone. Lives wasted.

A great example of how a flawed bite-mark examination sent an innocent man to death row is the story of our friend Ray Krone. Ray was … well, I think I’ll sit back and post Ray’s tale as he told it to me a while back.

Ray Krone Spent 10 Years on Death Row for a Crime He Didn’t Commit

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend Cheryl read a novel by Polly Iyer about a man who had been wrongfully convicted of murder, released, and then framed for a series of murders. As with all good fiction, there were elements of fact in this story. Polly’s description of the impact of wrongful convictions struck a chord with Cheryl, and she sent Polly an email saying so. That email started an exchange that led to me posting on this blog today.

My story isn’t much of a mystery, but it has twists and turns that wouldn’t make it past a fiction editor’s red pencil. Lee thought that it might be of interest to you, so here goes. I’m not a professional writer but I hope that I’ll be able to provide some useful insights into the ripples that result from sloppy police work, ineffective defense counsel, and overzealous prosecutors.

I won’t go into details about my life prior to my arrest and wrongful conviction. It was unremarkable as most lives are, except to the people who live them. I sang in the church choir, was a Boy Scout, and played team sports throughout my school years. I was never in any trouble, never even had detention in school. I grew up in a small town, joined the Air Force, and following my Honorable Discharge remained in Phoenix, AZ, my last duty station. I got a job with the United States Postal Service as a letter carrier.

Ray before his arrest for a crime he didn’t commit

At 35, I was single and living the good life. My salary allowed me to buy my own home and have lots of big boy toys—sand rail, Corvette, swimming pool. I had a loving family back in PA, and loyal friends all over the country. Little did I know that I was about to find out just how important those people were.

I’d always enjoyed team sports, and still do. A bar in my neighborhood sponsored volleyball and dart teams, and I played on both. On December 29, 1991, the owner found his night manager, Kim Ancona, on the men’s room floor. She’d been sexually assaulted and stabbed to death. A co-worker told police detectives Kim had said someone named Ray was going to help her close up that night. I had a casual acquaintance with this woman, and knew her only as a bartender and occasional dart player. She was living with a man and as far as I was concerned, that was as good as married and made her off-limits.

Detectives found my name and phone number in her address book and came to see me. It’s important to note at this point that my name and phone number were not in my handwriting or in Kim’s. How they got there remains a mystery to this day. I was questioned by the Phoenix Police, and cooperated—until I realized they were trying to pin this murder on me.  The legal wrangling is public record—you can Google my name and read countless stories about my case.

Being the one hundredth person to be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die, only to be found factually innocent after spending years on Death Row and in prison, put me on the radar of a society that was beginning to question the value of capital punishment. My conviction was based solely on bite mark evidence. Because I refused to show remorse for a crime I didn’t commit, I was sentenced to death. After almost three years on Death Row, I was granted a new trial. I was again convicted, and sentenced to 23 years for the kidnapping, and 25 years to life for the murder. Only a random series of events would free me.  Court-ordered DNA would finally free me and identify the real killer. I spent a total of ten years, three months and eight days in prison for something I didn’t do. I was 35 when arrested and 45 when I was exonerated.

Ray as an inmate at Arizona State Prison in Yuma

The life events that other people take for granted were stolen from me, and no amount of money, sympathy or accolades will ever give me a chance to experience them. They are gone forever. Am I bitter? I try not to be—the family and friends who stood by me have helped me adjust and appreciate what I do have. I try not to focus on what I’ve been denied in this life, but what I’ve been given. I’ve learned the hardest way possible the true meaning of “you find out who your friends are.” Despite the love and support of friends and family, I still have moments when I feel rage at what happened to me, even after more than ten years of freedom.

Billboard on I-83 in Harrisburg, Pa.

There have been millions of words written and hundreds of television shows about the impact on men and women who were sentenced to die for a crime they didn’t commit. There are well-documented studies about innocent men and women who were executed in the name of justice. There are other victims of a legal system that penalizes the poor and rewards prosecutors for conviction rates without examining the accuracy of those convictions.  Not just the families of the wrongfully convicted, who often lose what little they have in the defense of their loved ones, but the families of the original victim, the new victims created by the guilty party who remains free, their families, the jurors who are denied access to all of the evidence in a case. The list goes on and on—I misspoke when I called it a ripple—it’s a tsunami, wreaking havoc and destruction, and in many cases, is preventable.

I’m part of a nationally-known group called Witness to Innocence. We have only one membership requirement, but it’s a tough one. You must have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die for a crime which you did not commit. Although many of us are unable to speak publicly about what happened to us, many others find it therapeutic to do so. We have spoken in front of groups ranging from high school students to Congress to the United Nations. We share our experiences at law schools, forensics conventions and gatherings of legal professionals—anywhere that telling our stories will help provide insight, and hopefully inspiration.

The Witness to Innocence photo above is of only some of the members. Left to right: Ray Krone, Albert Burrell, Kirk Bloodsworth, Gary Drinkard, Randy Steidl, Ron Keine, Delbert Tibbs and Derek Jamison. Each of these men (and our one female member, Sabrina Porter) have stories that defy belief, as do all of the members.

I’m honored to have been invited to address the readers of this blog. For more information about Witness to Innocence, stories of exoneration or speaker’s schedules, please visit www.witnesstoinnocence.org


According to the Innocence Project, since 1989, 353 people have been exonerated of their crimes based on DNA. Twenty of those people served time on death row.

Recently, a group of governors, faith-based leaders, and other experts were assembled to find ways of helping the nation’s inmate population turn their lives around, get a second chance, and successfully re-enter society. The idea behind the move is to make our communities safer and to provide opportunities for those men and women as they return to life outside of prison walls.

Since approximately two-thirds of the more than 650,000 ex-offenders released from prison every year are rearrested within three years after their release, the committee’s task will not be easy.

It’s often been said that the jails and prisons in the U.S. operate on a revolving door system, with many of the same prisoners returning to incarceration time after time after time. Sadly, that’s a mostly true statement.

With nearly 2.5 million people crammed into U.S. prison and jail facilities, or on probation or parole—3,789,800 on probation and 870,500 on parole (2015 stats), well, that equals to approximately 1 out of every 37 people in the U.S. is currently under some sort of supervised correctional status.

Yes, America can proudly boast (note the sarcasm) that we hold 25% of the world’s prison population. That’s a pretty staggering number considering the U.S. accounts for only 5% of the world’s population. Those numbers don’t mean much, you say? Well, let’s approach from another angle … our wallets. Each year the U.S. spends between 74 and 80 billion dollars on incarceration. That’s BILLION dollars.

Sure, most citizens don’t want to be bothered with felons and other law-breakers. You know, out of sight/out of mind. But it’s not quite that simple. You see, Isaac Newton had the right idea when he mused, “What goes up must come down,” because the same applies to prisons, jails, and inmates—what goes in must come out. That’s right, most people sentenced to jail or prison must be released at some point, and those former prisoners are generally released back into their former communities.

What happens to former prisoners when they do finally make it back to their old neighborhoods? That’s a question most people don’t consider because the ex-con’s troubles don’t pertain to “most people.” Unfortunately, though, an inmate’s troubles affects everyone. Remember the 80 billion dollars it costs to incarcerate and supervise those millions of prisoners? Well, U.S. taxpayers are responsible for paying that whopping bill.

Doesn’t it make sense that we should try to address the problem instead of throwing good money on top of bad? Obviously, incarceration isn’t always the correct answer to every case, because many offenders just keep coming back after they’ve “paid” their debt to society.

Let’s address recidivism and why I think it occurs so often. First, I have many years of experience working in both corrections and in law enforcement, which means I’ve seen the system in action, from all sides. I’ve also owned a business where I employed a few former inmates, men who’d received prison sentences resulting from my investigations. Ironic, huh? Yes, I honestly believe in second chances.

What do former prisoners face upon their release? (these may vary depending on location)

  1. 1. They must, on a regular basis, check in with a probation or parole officer.
  2. 2. They must have an established residence.
  3. 3. Drug and sex offenders must register with the local police, advising officials where they’ll be residing and working.
  4. 4. They must maintain employment (in some areas this is a discretionary requirement imposed by the court).
  5. They’re required to complete a monthly report detailing their earnings, address changes, if any, employers name (probation officer will visit the job site and home), drug offenders must submit to urine testing, all must submit vehicle information, record of purchases (many probationers may not possess credit or debit cards), and they’re encouraged to further their education.

The above sounds reasonable until you consider the vast majority of employers absolutely will not hire felons, and, in most instances, drug offenders are not eligible for student loans or other such perks we all enjoy. In fact, many felons are legally banned from working in certain professions, such as:

  • airport security screener
  • armored car crew member
  • bank teller
  • child care provider
  • delivery driver
  • health care positions with direct patient contact
  • public safety officer
  • residential installers
  • apartment or condo maintenance
  • jobs that require handling money
  • barber
  • Realtor
  • First responder
  • Teacher
  • Psychologist
  • Attorney
  • Some felons are not eligible to obtain business licenses
  • liquor store clerks
  • restaurants that serve alcohol
  • health care – nurses, dental assistants, etc.
  • nursing homes

*Keep in mind that rules and laws may vary from one area to another.

Even when a felon finds a job he is subject to a list of restrictions, including (this is only a partial list, and it may vary from area to area):

  • Agents /officers must be allowed to visit worksite and/or speak with a supervisor to discuss client’s performance, progress, and accountability
  • Cannot work in a position that serves alcohol
  • Cannot work with minors
  • Cannot work with vulnerable adults
  • Employment must be within or close to a supervision district so that agents may visit the worksite
  • Not allowed to use or have contact with devices that host a computer modem (i.e. any device that can access the Internet)
  • Cannot travel outside area or state (affects delivery drivers)

A few professions do hire convicted felons, but the list is short. And, this is still entirely up to the company. Some do not employ those who’ve been convicted of crimes.

Professions often available to convicted felons:

  • Warehouse work
  • Maintenance and janitorial positions
  • Food service (no alcohol)
  • Production and manufacturing
  • Assembly
  • Construction
  • Landscaping

In addition, many convicted felons are banned from living in publicly assisted housing (section 8).

So, you see, without a job, or with the limited occupations to choose from, and without housing and educational opportunities, it’s darn tough for a former prisoner to make it on the outside.

To top it all off, the convicted felons never actually “pay their debts to society.” The stigma of being a “convicted felon” hangs over their heads for life. This is especially true for those who were convicted of federal offenses. Some states allow convicted felons to vote in elections (others do not). Still, felons, even one-time first offenders convicted of minor, non-violent felonies lose their right to own firearms and other weapons, their right to vote, student loans, housing, etc. And these restrictions are for life.

Wouldn’t it make sense to give the non-violent offenders a second chance, by removing the “convicted felon” status after, say, 10 years of living a productive, crime-free life. At least then they’d could return to school, live in better neighborhoods (away from criminal activity), find a decent job that would help support their families and take better care of their children, who, by the way, also suffer by being forced to live in poor conditions.

Having a second chance and goals to work toward could be part of the solution to the “prison problem” in this country. Now, I’m not talking about hardcore career criminals and repeat offenders. Nor am I including violent offenders. Most of those thugs need to remain behind bars for as long as we can keep them there. And I certainly don’t believe that every inmate would take advantage of the opportunity if presented to them. But there would be many who would work hard to achieve the goal and finally be able to put the mistake behind them for good.

If this helped keep just a small portion of the recidivists out of prison, the results could be huge. Families could remain together, children would grow up with two parents in the home, employers might find top-notch employees, the former inmates could become better educated and productive members of society, and taxpayers would save approximately $30,000 per year per inmate. Not to mention that instead of costing taxpayers, the non-recidivist would become a taxPAYER.

Anyway, that’s my two cents on the matter. What do you think? A second chance for some, or lock ’em up and forget about them? Remember, though, most of those who go in must come out at some point.

Of course, there is the issue of private prisons that maintain contracts with the government … contracts that promise a minimum number of inmates will be sent their way. We must also remember that the private prisons are a big, money-making industry with stockholders.

And then there’s the food industry that makes a bundle off the prisons. And the construction companies, the jobs for officers, stock brokers medical staff, administration, the vehicle contracts, the weapons contracts, dog food (canines), condiment sales

(I once sat next to a woman on a plane who was on her way to a huge nationwide prison food convention. She oversaw condiment sales to prisons and jails—packets of mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise, along with napkins, and sporks—a multi-million-dollar industry).

Let’s not forget the prison phone systems, where a collect call can go for fees as high as nearly $300 for just one hour of conversation. Think about it for a second. A call for a kid’s birthday, a mother is sick, etc. $300 for an hour of family time is a tough expense for most families.

A portion of that whopping phone bill goes back to the prison in exchange for a contract with the provider. Again, it is the family who shoulders this burden since inmates don’t earn anywhere near enough money to cover the expense, yet, officials encourage strong and regular family contact.

Anyway, you get the idea.

By the way, Corrections Corporations of America stock was, at the time of this post, at $22.74 per share, down from $34.70 back in April 2017. Still, the “people business” is certainly booming.

It is my wish/hope that the newly formed committee would put their heads together and realize that second chances could indeed have worthwhile effects. It’s worth a try to offer an opportunity at once again becoming a productive citizen instead of someone who has little or no likelihood of making it. No job, no housing, no attainable goals, and no self-worth do not offer the needed building blocks of a solid future outside of prison.

 

The death penalty has long been a subject of controversy. Some of those against it argue that it’s not our place to take the life of another human, no matter how heinous the crime. Others say the process amounts to cruelty akin to torture. And, there’s the claim that innocent men and women could be executed, especially when taking into account the number of people released from death row—160—after evidence proved their innocence.

Not long ago, condemned inmate Clayton Lockett was strapped to a gurney and subsequently administered the drugs that were supposed to kill him, in a humane manner—the first drug should sort of put the inmate to sleep while the others that follow end his/her life. Well, what followed the introduction of medications was evidence of all that could go wrong during an execution. Lockett gasped, wheezed, writhed, breathed heavily, and lifted his head. Remember, the process is supposed to be humane, right?

In 1994, I witnessed the execution of Timothy W. Spencer, the serial killer nicknamed The Southside Strangler. Spencer was put to death via the electric chair. I was told ahead of time by prison officials that the process was a totally nonviolent and extremely humane way “to go.” Well, it wasn’t. Not even close.

After Spencer was strapped to the chair by the “death squad,” who also attached the electrical leads, one to his head and the other to a leg, he was hit by two jolts of electricity. The first caused Spencer’s body to swell and lurch forward against the restraints. Had he not been tightly fastened to the oak chair, I’m almost certain the strong electrical shock would have propelled his body forward and then down to the concrete floor where he’d have flopped about like a fish out of water.

The second surge of electrical current was the one that left an impression in my mind, even after all these years. In fact, it left a permanent etch in my senses—taste, smell, sight, and sound. Again, his body swelled, but this time smoke began to rise from Spencer’s head and leg. A sound similar to bacon frying could be heard over the hum of the electricity. Fluids rushed from behind the leather mask covering his face. The unmistakable pungent odor of burning flesh filled the room.

After a wait of five minutes, the prison doctor placed his stethoscope against Spencer’s chest, and then said, “Warden, this man has expired.” By the way, the wait time was to allow the body time to cool off enough so the doctor wouldn’t burn himself.

Maybe it’s just me, but that process—death by electric chair—was far more troubling than to see someone moan, writhe, and breathe heavy. Still, suffering is suffering, no matter the form.

The Death Penalty: Do We Kill Innocent People?

Going back to the number of people released from death row after their innocence had been proven … is it possible that prison officials have killed innocent people? Sure it is, and the post conviction proceedings to prove one’s innocence is a massive uphill battle. But Ray Krone and his attorneys did just that … after Ray served 10 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.

Actually, according to Witness To Innocence, the average amount of time an exonerated death row survivor spends behind bars is approximately 10 years. What about the prisoners who were executed during those 10 years? How many of them were killed while the real killers live among us?

Okay, I strayed a bit, but I can’t help but think about Ray and his story each time an inmate is executed.

The so-called botched execution of Clayton Lockett brought the death penalty back into the spotlight. President Obama asked his attorney general to look into the matter of Lockett’s execution, and others. He called Lockett’s execution “troubling,” and he expressed concern that death penalty sentences may be racially biased and that those sentences may be unevenly applied. Let’s have a look at the stats.

 

According to the Death Penalty Information Center:

Since 1976, 1463 death row prisoners have been executed.

– 55.8% of prisoners executed were white

– 34.4% African American

– 8.2% Hispanic

– 1.6% other

 

Race of Victims in Death Penalty Cases

– 76% were White

– 15% African American

– 7% Hispanic

– 2% other

 

Currently, there are 2843 inmates on death row.

 

Death row inmates by race:

White – 42%

Black – 42%

Hispanic – 13%

Other – 3%

Total number of death row prisoners exonerated = 160

So why does the U.S. execute murderers? Does the threat of execution prevent people from committing murder? Does it stop serial killers from doing what they do? Or, do we execute merely as a form of Lex Talionis, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Well, according to a survey of Midwest presidents of the country’s top academic criminological societies, 88% of the experts polled rejected the idea that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder. (Radelet & Lacock, 2009)

You tell me, is it time to stop executing killers? Or, are we not killing them fast enough?

Do you care that a certain amount of suffering sometimes takes place during lethal injections and electrocutions? Is it worth the risk of killing an innocent person, like Ray Krone, to give the population some sort of satisfaction and/or closure?

Could you “pull the switch”, knowing there’s a possibility that the person in “the chair” is innocent?

Jerry Givens, a former executioner for the Commonwealth of Virginia—the man who executed the death row inmate I saw put to death—best put this subject into perspective when he said, “If I execute an innocent person, I’m no better than the people on death row.”

Givens, after executing 62 people, now strongly opposes the death penalty.

It’s certainly no secret that jail and prison food can be absolutely disgusting. Therefore, it is also no surprise when prisoners take it upon themselves to upgrade the quality of their daily cuisine.

They do so by using items purchased from the commissary, a few ingredients stolen from the kitchen (kitchen workers earn extra money by pilfering food to sell to fellow inmates), from prison/jail gardens and, if they’re lucky, someone smuggles something in from the outside that’s really good, such as real meat.

By the way, most of the food items smuggled from the kitchen are concealed inside the pants of the workers. Officers often tend to skip the crotch area when conducting pat-downs, so yes, that delicious piece of leftover cake or chicken breast was once, well … right “there.” Yum …

Most prison culinary pros use only the best of cooking tools, such as a sharpened vegetable can lid (one edge folded over for safe gripping), used for slicing, dicing, and chopping. Also necessary are plastic garbage bags for steaming and boiling, and microwavable bowls. If the commissary doesn’t sell bowls, and most do, the cut-off bottom of a plastic bucket serves nicely. Five gallon bucket bottoms also make excellent pots for cooking stews, soups, and pasta, as well as being utilized as nice serving containers for large groups—birthday, holiday, or Super Bowl parties.

If the facility does not provide microwaves or, if you’re confined to a cell without access to a microwave, well, you’ll have to be a bit more creative, such as perhaps using a stinger to generate heat.

Stingers are used to heat liquid and/or boil water

Stinger – spoons

A stinger is a device made from electrical wire and two metal objects, such as razor blades, spoons, forks, or even parts from fingernail clippers.

 

 

 

 


So, what sort of dishes are concocted from these piecemeal ingredients and crude cookware? Well, for starters …

Jailhouse Tamales

Ingredients

  • One bag of plain corn chips
  • One bag of spicy hot chips – Cheetos, Doritos, etc.,
  • Hot water – (only the amount needed to transform mixture into a thick mush/paste)
  • Hot sauce

Directions

  1. Place all chips into one chip bag
  2. Mash/crush/pulverize the chips
  3. Add just enough hot water to transform mixture into a thick mush/paste
  4. Knead mixture well
  5. Drain excess water, if any
  6. With mixture/dough still inside chip bag, mold into shape of a tamale
  7. Let “tamale” “cook” (let it stand for 5 minutes or so).
  8. Remove tamale and top with hot sauce
  9. Enjoy

Spicy Tuna Surprise

Ingredients

  • One can of tuna
  • A hunk of stolen kitchen cheese
  • One package of Ramen noodles (flavor is optional)
  • Jalapeños – stolen from kitchen, jail garden, or purchased from commissary

Directions

  1. Break noodles into smaller pieces
  2. Cook noodles per package instructions (add hot water heated with stinger)
  3. Drain tuna and then place it into a bowl
  4. Top tuna with jalapeño slices/wheels
  5. Add cheese crumbles or slices
  6. Mix seasoning packet into steaming hot noodles
  7. Top dish with prepared noodles
  8. When cheese has melted to desired consistency … enjoy

The Spread (for serving large groups – parties, social gatherings, etc.)

Ingredients

  • Top Ramen Soup (one package per guest)
  • The kitchen sink – whatever you want to add—tuna, corn chips, chicken pieces, summer sausage, popcorn, etc.

Directions

  1. Place noodles and spice mixes inside a plastic garbage bag
  2. Add any and all other ingredients of your choosing (see list above). Be creative
  3. Add enough hot water to “cook” the entire dish into the consistency of a casserole.
  4. Tightly close the garbage bag and allow mixture to “cook”
  5. When done, cover a tabletop with a newspaper or similar item and “spread out the ingredients.”
  6. Everyone uses a spoon to dig in and share this delicious “spread.”

Romantic meal

It’s no secret that many children of incarcerated parents are practically pre-destined to follow those same paths to a life of crime, followed by time spent in prisons and jails.

If memory serves, these kids are five or six times more likely to commit crimes than other kids their own age.

What’s it like to live as a member of one of those families? Well, let’s take a peek into the life of the Atwood family—Vernon and Vernon, Jr. Carly Atwater, Vernon’s wife and mother of Vernon, Jr., left many years ago. Couldn’t take the drinking and abuse.

So …

It had been nearly three years since Vernon Atwater had last seen his oldest son, Vernon, Jr.

December 14th, a day he would never forget, started when the judge, the Honorable James T. Williams, found Junior guilty of murder and sentenced him to twenty-five years in the penitentiary. Sheriffs’ deputies immediately handcuffed the newly convicted man and led him from the courtroom through a set of heavy wooden doors at the rear of the room.

Two hours later, Vernon stood outside on the sidewalk, pulling a few drags on a Lucky Strike, watching as two burly deputies helped his boy into an unmarked car to take him to the state prison in Rocky Creek.

Vernon spent the rest of the day in his grassless backyard, sitting in an old rickety kitchen chair drinking cheap beer and wondering what he’d done that caused Junior to do the things he did.

Vernon felt guilty for not driving to “The Creek” to see Junior, but something had always come up—overtime at the mill, the truck needed new brakes, the roof needed replacing. Those things took time and before he knew it weeks had turned into months and months into years.

Needless to say, Vernon was more than a little nervous about seeing Junior. Three years was a long time. His heart pounded and thumped against the inside of his chest as the car turned from the main highway onto the narrow blacktop leading to the penitentiary.

The sight of the gleaming razor wire atop the double fences caused his throat to tighten. He hoped his boy was all right. He’d heard every horrible prison story there was to tell. But Junior was tough. He’d never allow anyone to do him harm. Of that he was firmly convinced. Still …

Hundreds of men behind the fences were engaged in all sorts of activities. They paused from their weight-lifting, jogging, handball, bocce ball, and basketball, trying to get a glimpse inside the passing vehicle.

He wondered how his son was going to react to seeing him today. He wondered if anyone had even told him he was coming.

At least this visit would be a long one.

Two six packs of beer. An argument over a stupid football game. One thing led to another and out came the hunting knife. A few months later Vernon found himself standing in the same upstairs courtroom, in the very spot where Vernon, Jr. once stood, facing Judge James. T. Williams.

Judge Williams, by the way, remembered Vernon, Jr’s case and made a point to mention it during the tongue-lashing he delivered to the elder Vernon during a lengthly and fiery pre-sentencing statement.

Vernon tried to be strong but his knees nearly buckled when he heard the judge hand down his sentence—twenty-five years to life.

It’s really true, Vernon thought as the unmarked sheriff’s car pulled into the prison sally port, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

The apple doesn’t fall far

Red Folders - Arkansas Executions

When someone commits a crime and is subsequently arrested for the offense, they instantly become a part of the “system.” They’re reduced to a case number and a few papers inside a file folder, like those seen above and below.

Red Folders - Arkansas ExecutionsEach of the red folders contains the file of a criminal case. They’re brief excerpts of a person’s life. A point in time when they decided to break the law. Sometimes, the things these people did are the same as things everyday people have done but were not caught (possession of small amounts of marijuana, for example).

Many of these “red folder people” are currently sitting in jail waiting for their day in court. Perhaps they’re locked inside a cell because they couldn’t raise the cash needed to meet bond requirements. Or, perhaps a judge felt they were a flight risk so she ordered them held under no bond status until trial.

Others, though, are out and about, working, playing, and tending to everyday wants and needs while the wheels of justice churn slowly toward their trial dates. Soon they’ll know their fates. Some will receive probation. Some will have charges dropped in exchange for performing community serve, and some will be sentenced to serve time in prison or a county jail. Others will simply go free with either time served or by having been found innocent of all charges.

One thing will remain a constant during the process, and beyond, and that’s the case number assigned to the red folder. It will remain attached to the offender’s case from day one until the record ceases to exist, if that point in time ever arrives.

Inside the vault in a courthouse complex.

Inside the vault in a courthouse complex.

Meanwhile, there’s this …

A short walk down red-folder-row in this particular courthouse records complex took me to a large walk-in safe/vault, much like what you’d expect to see inside a bank. This vault, however, contained something quite different than bundles of currency and sacks of gold coins.

Instead of mounds of cash, this steel- and concrete-clad room held a meager collection of office supplies and five neatly stacked columns of bankers boxes.

What, you might ask, is so important about twenty-eight bankers boxes that they’re all lined up like a row of soldiers standing at attention inside a locked bank-type vault? Well …

Arkansas Executions

Those twenty-boxes contain the files of active death penalty or potential death penalty cases.

Yes, those cardboard boxes you see pictured are all that’s standing between life and death for several men and women. They contain the details of each case—the words and evidence that could convict, or on appeal, change the outcome from death to life in prison.

Some whose case notes are stored inside the boxes would go on to accept plea deals to spare them from an appointment with “the needle.” Others are no longer in the system. Their day has come and gone.  A few still await “the end.”

I can’t begin to describe the feeling I experienced the moment I crossed the threshold of the vault. Eerie to say the least, and I suppose it was so because I’d personally witnessed the execution of a prisoner back in the 1980s.

Executions are Gruesome

To this day, I still picture images of serial killer Timothy Spencer sitting in the electric chair at Greenville Correctional Center, the facility that houses Virginia’s execution chamber.

That night, mere moments after Spencer’s gaze met mine, executioner Jerry Givens flipped the switch and the odor of burning hair and flesh filled the execution chamber. Spencer’s body surged and swelled and pushed against the restraints that bound him tightly to “Old Sparky.” Fluids spewed from behind the leather mask covering his face. His joints were frozen in place by the intense heat and burning. Sandbags were used to help straighten those joints once the body was cool enough to touch.

The prison doctor had to wait several minutes to allow Spencer’s body to cool enough to allow the use of a stethoscope to check for signs of life. That’s right. Too hot to touch without burning the doctor’s hands.

Me? I didn’t need a medical device to tell me the man was dead. What I’d seen, heard, and smelled was all the proof I needed. It was indeed a gruesome way to die. Gruesome. Gruesome. Gruesome.

Last week, Arkansas executed four prisoners. Witnesses said about three minutes into the process the condemned man jerked and coughed for about twenty seconds. Some described the execution as gruesome and called for an investigation.

Spencer, like the men executed in Arkansas, is dead. His demise was what I, someone who’s seen more than his fair share of death, would describe as gruesome. I said it above and again here. Gruesome. Can’t stress the point enough.

Twenty seconds of movement and moaning … well, I suppose it’s all relative.

So choose your own synonym. They all describe what I saw—grim, ghastly, frightful, horrid, horrifying, grisly, dire, awful, shocking, appalling, repulsive, repugnant, revolting, and/or sickening. Your pick. They all fit.


~

The following is list of the inmates currently on death row in Arkansas.

Gruesome awaits.

May God have mercy on their souls.

No.       Name                                Date of Birth    Race/Sex   Date of Sentence      County

SK911  Coulter, Roger                   12/01/1959      W/M         10/27/1989               Ashley

SK915  Ward, Bruce Earl               12/24/1956      W/M         10/18/1990               Pulaski

SK920  Davis, Don W.                    11/23/1962      W/M         03/06/1992               Benton

SK922  Greene,Jack G                   03/13/1955      W/M         10/15/1992               Johnson

SK925  Dansby, Ray                       03/03/1960      B/M           06/11/1993               Union

SK926  Nooner, Terrick T.             03/17/1971      B/M           09/28/1993               Pulaski

SK927  Reams, Kenneth                12/21/1974      B/M           12/16/1993               Jefferson

SK929  Sasser, Andrew                 10/21/1964      B/M           03/03/1994               Miller

SK933  Johnson, Stacey E.             11/26/1969      B/M           09/23/1994               Sevier

SK934  Kemp, Timothy W.            08/04/1960      W/M         12/02/1994               Pulaski

SK939  Rankin, Roderick L.            11/18/1975      B/M           02/13/1996               Jefferson

SK941  Jackson, Alvin                    06/30/1970      B/M           06/20/1996               Jefferson

SK946  McGehee, Jason F.            07/04/1976      W/M         01/08/1998               Boone

SK956  Roberts, Karl D.                 03/06/1968      W/M         05/24/2000               Polk

SK960  Isom, Kenneth                   06/03/1967      B/M           03/28/2001               Drew

SK961  Anderson, Justin                03/21/1981      B/M           01/31/2002               Lafayette

SK964  Thessing, Billy                   09/11/1968      W/M         09/10/2004               Pulaski

SK965  Thomas, Mickey D.            09/25/1974      B/M           09/28/2005               Pike

SK966  Springs, Thomas               06/25/1962      B/M           11/24/2005               Sebastian

SK968  Sales, Derek                      01/08/1961      B/M           05/17/2007               Ashley

SK971  Decay, Gregory                  07/11/1985      B/M           04/24/2008               Washington

SK972  Marcyniuk, Zachariah        05/21/1979      W/M         12/12/2008               Washington

SK973  Lacy, Brandon E.                01/01/1979      W/M         05/13/2009               Benton

SK976  Lard, Jerry D.                     03/13/1974      W/M         07/28/2012               Greene

SK977  Holland, Robert                 11/28/1968      W/M         10/04/1991               Union

SK979  Johnson, Latavious            10/31/1981      B/M           11/04/2014               Lee

SK980  Gay, Randy W.                  09/01/1958      W/M         03/19/2015               Garland

SK981  Holly, Zachary D.               10/08/1984      W/M         05/27/2015               Benton

SK982  Torres, Mauricio A.           12/24/1969      H/M           11/15/2016               Benton

14 White Males
14 Black Males
  1 Hispanic Male
29 Total

Mr. X: Federal Prison - The Ins And Outs Of It

Mr. X is a former business professional who committed a crime that landed him in federal prison. He’s out now and has agreed to share his story with the readers of The Graveyard Shift.

Part One

GYS: Thanks for taking the time to share what must have been a difficult time for you and your family. I’ll dive right in. What were the circumstances that ultimately led to your arrest?

X: It’s embarrassing to have to tell it. I’ll start by saying I was ill at the time. I had a mental problem, I guess you’d call it. My doctor gave me all sorts of drugs that were supposed to help me, but didn’t. They just screwed up my wiring—my thought processes. Anyway, to this day I still say I would have never done anything wrong had it not been for the assortment of antidepressants and pain pills. Still, I did what I did and I accept the responsibility for it. I wish I could change it, but I can’t.

GYS: And what was your crime?

X: I bought some cocaine to sell. I needed money. You see, I couldn’t hold down a job and my wife was struggling to make ends meet. The medicine and depression wouldn’t let me think properly. Either I’d get fired, or I’d quit for some crazy, unjustified reason. All I had on my mind was the feeling those little pills offered. At the time, I think I’d have married a bottle of Hydrocodone. I loved the stuff that much.

GYS: How long did your life of crime last?

X: I didn’t make a very good criminal. My entire crime spree lasted about a week. I bought the cocaine to sell, but chickened out. I couldn’t sell it. But someone who was involved in the transaction was already in trouble with the police and told them about me to help themselves out of their own jam.

GYS: Tell us about the arrest.

X: As it turns out, the person who told on me was an informant for a federal task force, so, needless to say, I was surprised when my house was raided by a team of FBI agents along with state and local police. There must have been fifteen or twenty officers involved in the raid of my home. All for a little less than $100 worth of cocaine.

GYS: Seriously, that’s all you had?

X: Yes, sir. $100 worth.

GYS: What were your charges?

X: Possession of a controlled substance (cocaine) with the intent to distribute, and obstruction of justice. The obstruction charge was later dropped. I think the feds automatically add that one to make you confess.

GYS: Why do you say that about the obstruction charge?

X: Well, they threatened to arrest everyone in my family—my wife, kids, and mother—if I didn’t confess. And if I didn’t admit to the crime then they’d let the obstruction charge stand, and that’s a minimum of a ten-year sentence. I had no choice at the time. Plus, they applied this pressure prior to my talking to an attorney, which I understand is perfectly legal. But let me again stress that I was indeed guilty.

GYS: So what happened next?

X: Gosh, it’s all a blur. Let’s see. I was handcuffed, placed in the back of a police car, driven to a remote jail about two hours away, fingerprinted, strip searched, de-loused, and placed in a jail cell. It was a real shock to me. I’d never even had a traffic ticket.

Oh, my family had no idea where I was, or what had happened. They were away when the raid took place—at work and in school.

This was also the time when I learned that I was a drug addict. Withdrawal symptoms set in while I was in the jail cell. The next couple of days were pure hell, for many reasons.

My only contact with humans was through a small slot in the middle of a steel door. I begged for help, but that door wasn’t opened again for three days. I did see a couple of hands twice a day when they shoved a food tray through the slot. But the person wasn’t allowed to talk to me.

Someone, a federal agent, finally came to get me on the third day. He took me to a federal courthouse for a bond hearing. My family was there, but I wasn’t allowed to speak to them. I don’t know how they knew to be there. I was denied bond. Why, I don’t know—this was a first offense, and a $100 dollar offense on top of that. So I was hauled back to the jail cell.

On the ride back, shackled like Charles Manson—handcuffs, waist and leg chains—I realized just how lovely trees, flowers, and the sky really are, even though I was seeing them through a steel screen. I also realized how important my family was. I’d taken a lot of things for granted in my life.

I wound up back at the jail, which I learned also doubled as a holding facility for federal prisoners. I was there for two more weeks until my wife scraped together enough money—$25,000—to retain an attorney to represent me. She had to borrow against the equity in our home. Federal court is really expensive. The attorney managed to get another bond hearing and I was released on my own PR, but I wasn’t allowed to go home with my family. I had to stay with a relative in another city because the prosecutor said I was a threat to my community. For $100 worth of drugs that I never took or sold!

Anyway, I remained there until I went to court.

~

Part Two

Jail Cell

 

Mr. X received a sentence of 37 months, to be served in federal prison, followed by a transition period in a federal halfway house, and 3 years supervised probation.

GYS: You mentioned a couple trips you took while incarcerated. I think the readers would be quite interested in those details. Tell us about the first one, please.

Mr. X: I’m sure you’re referring to my transfer from one prison to another, right?

GYS: Yes. I know you went on other excursions during your time in, but this is one that’s the most interesting, and it’s one our readers probably won’t expect.

Mr. X: Well, the first trip occurred after I’d been in about a year. My counselor called me to his office and said they’d figured my custody status wrong. Originally, they’d housed me in a minimum security prison—one with double fences, guard towers, armed perimeter patrols, and razor wire—but I was actually eligible to serve my time in a camp. He then asked if I’d like to transfer. My response was an immediate yes, if he could find one near my family. Who wouldn’t want to go to a camp? I mean, to go from hell on earth to a place with no fences, no razor wire, better food, better jobs, less guards, and better visiting opportunities. That was an easy decision. A no-brainer.

The arrangements were made in a matter of days. I was going to a camp near my home that’s run by a private security company. At the time, I was in a prison nowhere near my wife because she’d been transferred for work since I was first incarcerated.

I was, however, concerned and apprehensive about the transfer. Those trips can be awful. They chain you up and place you in the back of a hot van, or bus, and haul you to a jet that’s parked in some hidden spot. Then you fly to Oklahoma where you may sit for months before you finally take off for the new place. You may also get shuttled around from county jail to county jail. During that time, you don’t get visits, commissary, work, mail, etc., because no one knows where you are from one day to the next, for months at a time.

Well, that’s what I was expecting, but one of the guys I hung around with a bit—he fancied himself as sort of a jailhouse lawyer—said he’d read that you could apply for a furlough transfer. He went on to explain that it was possible, with the warden’s permission, to actually walk out the gate, hop on public transportation, and make the trip, unescorted.

I figured I had nothing to lose so the next night I approached the warden outside the dining hall and asked him about it. Well, without blinking an eye he said, “Fill out the application and get your plane ticket.”

I was stunned, but that’s what I did (my family made the arrangements). The day of my trip arrived and I still couldn’t believe they were going to let me walk out the gate. At 9 a.m. sharp, though, I was summoned to the main office. It was like a dream. I walked from the office to the front entrance where a guard asked me a few questions and then opened the gates. I walked outside to hugs from family members. They drove me to the airport where I enjoyed a nice meal and a flight across country. The couple seated beside me were pleasant, and I enjoyed a nice conversation with them—about nothing really, but it was wonderful to talk about things other than appeals and how to smuggle an extra dessert from the dining hall. I often wonder how they’d have reacted if they’d known I was a federal prisoner.

We landed at a large airport where I was met by my wife—she was my ride to the camp. We planned the trip so that we’d have a little time together. So we stopped by the house for some much needed “quality” time before making the three-hour trip to the prison camp. I’ll skip those details.

Later, I arrived at the camp with my bags in hand, kissed my wife goodbye, and went inside the office building (no fences, no guards outside, and no gates). A guard at the desk checked me in like I was at a motel. She then told me which building I’d be assigned to and pointed in that direction. I went through the rear door and made my way across a well-manicured lawn and stepped into a nicely air-conditioned building. No yelling, no loud TV’s, and absolutely no guards. Not one. It was like I’d been re-born. I was a new man with a glimmer of hope for my future.

GYS: Your next trip was a bit different, yes?

Mr. X: It sure was. After I’d been in a while I heard about inmates being granted furloughs—weekend trips to their homes to spend time with their family. The purpose of the furlough is supposed to help prisoners gradually become accustomed to outside life with their families. Well, I applied for one and it was approved. I went home for three days during the Christmas holidays, and it was wonderful.

My wife picked me up in the prison parking lot and we spent three glorious days together, at home, before I had to return to the camp. I was walking on air when I got back.

I’d also gone on short day trips, like to trim roses in the town parks, or to the warden’s Ruritan Club to spruce up the grounds. They were nice outings to break up your time and to see some real people, but they were nothing like my time with my family, at home. Still, seeing people and cars and trees and flowers and freedom … well, any time outside the camp grounds was like a dream.

*This article is a repeat post.