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History > 2012 > USA > Prison (I)




Headmistress, Jilted Lover, Killer,

Then a Force for Good in Jail


December 28, 2012
The New York Times


Jean S. Harris, the private-school headmistress whose 1981 trial for the murder of a prominent Scarsdale, N.Y., physician galvanized a nation with its story of vengeance by a woman scorned, died on Sunday at an assisted-living center in New Haven. She was 89.

Her death was confirmed by her son James.

For more than a year — from her arrest on March 10, 1980, to her sentencing for second-degree murder on March 20, 1981 — Mrs. Harris’s case was front-page news.

The trial provided the fascination of a love triangle involving the cultivated headmistress of an exclusive girls’ school, a wealthy cardiologist whose book, “The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet,” had been a best seller, and an attractive younger rival for his affection. If Mrs. Harris was to be believed, it was the story of an attempted suicide by a jilted woman that turned into the unintentional shooting of the man who had rejected her.

But there was an underlying social debate that drew commentary from writers, sociologists and feminists and antifeminists alike. Mrs. Harris’s passionate defenders saw her plight as epitomizing the fragile position of an aging but fiercely independent woman who, because of limited options, was dependent on a man who mistreated her. Her detractors, who were just as ardent, suggested that such reasoning made it seem that it was the physician, Dr. Herman Tarnower, who was on trial.

Mrs. Harris was sentenced to 15 years to life, and spent 12 of those years at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, N.Y. But she managed to salvage that seemingly wasted period through a remarkable prison life. She counseled fellow female prisoners on how to take care of their children, and she set up a center where infants born to inmates can spend a year near their mothers. Then, after her release in 1993 following a grant of clemency by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, she set up a foundation that raised millions of dollars for scholarships for children of women in prison in New York State.

She also lectured about her often incongruous experiences with inmates.

“They looked at me as a rich white woman, even though some of the call girls earned six times what I did as a headmistress,” she told an interviewer.

At the center of the murder case was Jean Struven Harris, a slight, blue-eyed blonde, then 56, who was a product of comfortable suburban homes and a Smith College education. Headstrong, articulate and ambitious, she was the headmistress of the Madeira School, a boarding school for affluent girls on a sprawling wooded campus in Virginia.

At 10:56 on the night of March 10, 1980, the White Plains police received a telephone call from Dr. Tarnower’s secluded glass-and-brick house on a 6.8-acre estate in Purchase, N.Y. Lying in an upstairs bedroom dying of four bullet wounds was Dr. Tarnower, the 69-year-old founder of the Scarsdale Medical Group, whose diet book had sold three million copies.

When the police arrived at the driveway, they came across Mrs. Harris, wearing tan slacks and a mink jacket, driving away. She contended that she was going to look for a phone booth to call the police. But officers found a .32-caliber gun in the glove compartment, and a detective later testified that she told him: “I did it. ... I’ve been through so much hell with him. He slept with every woman he could.”

Dr. Tarnower and Mrs. Harris, the divorced mother of two grown sons and 13 years his junior, had been lovers for 14 years. But in the years before the shooting, the doctor had begun appearing at dinner parties and taking vacations with his office assistant, Lynne Tryforos, a divorced woman who was then 37. For years Dr. Tarnower, a lifelong bachelor, had refused to marry Mrs. Harris. Now, as a wealthy man, he could dally with the even younger Mrs. Tryforos.

In her eight days on the witness stand, Mrs. Harris was able to describe her betrayal with an arch wit that charmed the courtroom. She recalled how she once discovered a birthday greeting from Mrs. Tryforos to Dr. Tarnower in a small advertisement on the front page of The New York Times, and how she responded: “Herman, why don’t you use the Goodyear blimp next time? I think it’s available.”

She testified that by March 1980, she had decided to commit suicide and had bought the revolver. She drove from Virginia to Dr. Tarnower’s place, she said, so she could have a few quiet moments with him before she shot herself “at the side of the pond where there were daffodils in the spring.”

When she went upstairs, she testified, she found him in his pajamas asleep in his bedroom. She noticed Mrs. Tryforos’s negligee, hair curlers and jewelry and fell into a rage, she said, deciding to shoot herself right there.

When she drew the revolver out of her pocketbook, she testified, Dr. Tarnower tried to stop her by pushing her hand down, but the gun fired. They struggled again, and the gun went off a second time.

Mrs. Harris, however, could not account for two of the bullets. On Feb. 24, 1981, after eight days of deliberation, the jury of four men and eight women decided that she had murdered the doctor.

The trial drew more than 100 reporters from around the country. The writer Shana Alexander and the critic Diana Trilling both wrote popular books about Mrs. Harris’s experience. Mrs. Trilling compared Mrs. Harris to Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary; Mrs. Harris, she said, was “material asking to be written but with no one to write her.” Some feminists rationalized Mrs. Harris’s action as legitimate revenge, although Betty Friedan, describing Mrs. Harris as a “pathetic masochist,” denied that there were any feminist issues involved in the trial.

Mrs. Harris took the guilty verdict calmly, but at her sentencing a month later, she was trembling with defiance.

“I did not murder Dr. Tarnower; I loved him very much,” she told the judge. “No one in the world feels his loss more than I do. I’m not guilty.”

At Bedford Hills, she held various jobs. She organized the prison library, tutored inmates for the state’s high school equivalency examinations and served as a teacher’s aide in the prison’s nursery.

“I was lucky that I could find something useful to do,” she told The Times in a 1993 interview. “I didn’t twiddle my thumbs. Really, I got up every morning and went to school and taught. I know it was useful, and I was lucky to have that job.”

She wrote an article for New York magazine on prison conditions, describing a humiliating search of her body by a guard. In 1986, she wrote “Stranger in Two Worlds,” offering her account of the Tarnower relationship as well as a chronicle of prison life.

Almost 70 years old when she got out in 1993, she tried to live out of the limelight, despite the occasional made-for-TV movie or book about the case (Ellen Burstyn played Mrs. Harris in a 1981 movie, and Annette Bening played her in 2005). She devoted herself to gardening outside her cabin on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire, writing and taking walks with her golden retriever, Lainey, who was named after a nun who directed the prison’s children center.

Jean Witte Struven was born in Chicago on April 27, 1923, and grew up in the fashionable Cleveland suburbs of Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights. Her father, Albert Struven, was a civil engineer who became vice president of a construction company that built oil refineries and steel plants around the world. She was educated at the Cleveland area’s leading private school and majored in economics at Smith College. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated magna cum laude in 1945. She went on to receive a master’s in education at Wayne State University.

Soon after leaving Smith, she married James Harris, the son of a middle-level chemicals executive from Detroit. She once told an interviewer that she had agreed to marry him largely to defy her father, who did not like him.

The couple settled in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and Mrs. Harris took a job teaching at a private school where some members of the Ford family sent their children. She gained a measure of social prestige, yet Mr. Harris’s career in a carburetor company languished. Their marriage foundered, and in 1964, she filed for divorce. Mr. Harris died in 1977.

Besides her son James, she is survived by another son, David; a sister, Mary Lynch; a brother, Robert Struven; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Hoping to put her sons through college, she took a higher-paying job as the director of the middle school of the Springside School, a girls’ academy outside Philadelphia. It was in that position that she met Dr. Tarnower at a dinner party. Both had made trips to the Soviet Union in recent years, and they compared notes.

Dr. Tarnower, the son of a hat manufacturer, was self-assured, urbane and witty. He was a hunter and a sports fisherman, and on his travels he collected Buddhas. He wooed her with roses and dances at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan. In the first year of their courtship, he gave her an engagement ring and proposed marriage. But Mrs. Harris hesitated, and soon he told her that he could not go through with the marriage.

But the romance continued. Early in 1972, Mrs. Harris became the headmistress of the Thomas School in Rowayton, Conn., and bought a house in Mahopac, N.Y., a 45-minute drive from Dr. Tarnower’s house. The Thomas School closed in 1975, and a year and a half later the position at the Madeira School opened up.

The geographic distance between them appeared to place strains on their relationship. Dr. Tarnower began dating Mrs. Tryforos while continuing with Mrs. Harris. In her three years at the Madeira School, Mrs. Harris was by most accounts a capable administrator and a strict disciplinarian who, among other actions, barred students from the bars in the Georgetown section of Washington. Shortly before the murder, her position at the school was imperiled by what some thought was her imprudence in suspending four student leaders after marijuana seeds and pipes were found in their dormitory.

Mrs. Harris grew weary of such conflict, and a letter of resignation was among the notes she wrote shortly before leaving for Dr. Tarnower’s house.

    Headmistress, Jilted Lover, Killer, Then a Force for Good in Jail, NYT, 28.12.2012,






Alabama to End Isolation of Inmates With H.I.V.


December 21, 2012
The New York Times


A federal judge on Friday ordered Alabama to stop isolating prisoners with H.I.V.

Alabama is one of two states, along with South Carolina, where H.I.V.-positive inmates are housed in separate prisons, away from other inmates, in an attempt to reduce medical costs and stop the spread of the virus, which causes AIDS.

Judge Myron H. Thompson of the Middle District of Alabama ruled in favor of a group of inmates who argued in a class-action lawsuit that they had been stigmatized and denied equal access to educational programs. The judge called the state’s policy “an unnecessary tool for preventing the transmission of H.I.V.” but “an effective one for humiliating and isolating prisoners living with the disease.”

After the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, many states, including New York, quarantined H.I.V.-positive prisoners to prevent the virus from spreading through sexual contact or through blood when inmates tattooed one another. But most states ended the practice voluntarily as powerful antiretroviral drugs reduced the risk of transmission.

In Alabama, inmates are tested for H.I.V. when they enter prison. About 250 of the state’s 26,400 inmates have tested positive. They are housed in special dormitories at two prisons: one for men and one for women. No inmates have developed AIDS, the state says.

H.I.V.-positive inmates are treated differently from those with other viruses like hepatitis B and C, which are far more infectious, according to the World Health Organization. Inmates with H.I.V. are barred from eating in the cafeteria, working around food, enrolling in certain educational programs or transferring to prisons near their families.

Prisoners have been trying to overturn the policy for more than two decades. In 1995, a federal court upheld Alabama’s policy. Inmates filed the latest lawsuit last year.

“Today’s decision is historic,” said Margaret Winter, the associate director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the inmates. “It spells an end to a segregation policy that has inflicted needless misery on Alabama prisoners with H.I.V. and their families.”

Brian Corbett, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections, said the state is “not prejudiced against H.I.V.-positive inmates” and has “worked hard over the years to improve their health care, living conditions and their activities.”

“We will continue our review of the court’s opinion and determine our next course of action in a timely manner,” he wrote.

During a monthlong trial in September, lawyers for the department argued that the policy improved the treatment of H.I.V.-positive inmates. Fewer doctors are needed if specialists in H.I.V. focus on 2 of the 29 state’s prisons.

The state spends an average of $22,000 per year on treating individual H.I.V.-positive inmates. The total is more than the cost of medicine for all other inmates, said Bill Lunsford, a lawyer for the Corrections Department.

South Carolina has also faced legal scrutiny. In 2010, the Justice Department notified the state that it was investigating the policy and might sue to overturn it.

    Alabama to End Isolation of Inmates With H.I.V., NYT, 21.12.2012,






Life Sentences for Low-Level Crimes


December 16, 2012
The New York Times


To the Editor:

For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars” (“Time and Punishment” series, front page, Dec. 12) reveals the injustices and ruined lives emanating from barbaric policies that punish low-level drug crimes with life imprisonment. Sentences are way out of proportion to the crimes committed. Widespread pardons and commutations are in order.

Forget the economic costs to society. These policies deserve to crumble because they are immoral. Confining Stephanie George, a mother of three, and one of the cases described in the story, for life, in an 11-by-7-foot cell shared with another person, for possession of half a kilogram of cocaine is a grotesque misuse of government power.

Americans perhaps prize individual freedom above all else, yet no other democracy permanently locks up so many of its citizens.

President, Every Child Matters
Washington, Dec. 12, 2012

To the Editor:

During the 15 years that Stephanie George has been in prison because of mandatory sentencing, we have learned a lot about the effects of a parent’s incarceration on children.

International advocates have recognized parental incarceration as the greatest threat to child well-being in the United States. Millions of children are separated from their parents and are confused about the meaning of fairness and justice, and are often told that their futures are limited because of their parents’ actions.

We expect Ms. George to learn from her choices, but we as a society have not learned from ours. It is time we change policies that take a mother away from her children for life at little or no benefit to public safety and at great cost to taxpayers. No other country separates so many families and treats its children this way.

Brooklyn, Dec. 13, 2012

The writer is program director of the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, Osborne Association.

To the Editor:

Your article pointed out that there are 500,000 people in prison or jail for drug crimes. This is a staggering statistic that is compounded to the point of amazement by the fact that most of those serving these draconian sentences are nonviolent.

I speak from the vantage of someone who served a mandatory 15-to-life sentence under the Rockefeller drug laws of New York State for a first-time nonviolent drug offense in 1985.

I wound up serving 12 years of that sentence before Gov. George A. Pataki granted me executive clemency.

The bottom line is that mandatory minimum sentencing laws have proved to be a failure. It’s time that we abolish these laws and instead institute a system that protects society and is cost-efficient and fair for all.

Manager of Media Relations
Drug Policy Alliance
New York, Dec. 12, 2012

To the Editor:

Laws requiring mandatory minimum periods of imprisonment, a result of politicians’ wish to appear tough on crime, often result in unfair and unduly harsh sentences.

Across our country, people are serving lengthy sentences that are altogether disproportionate to their crimes and circumstances. The judiciary should have the responsibility of weighing the goals of sentencing to find the length of imprisonment that is just and appropriate for individual offenders.

While there have been some reforms, mandatory minimum sentences often cause the imprisonment of offenders for far longer than is sufficient or necessary. Taxpayers bear some of the financial costs, but the offenders, their families and their communities also suffer under the weight of these unjust laws.

President, New York State Association
of Criminal Defense Lawyers
White Plains, Dec. 12, 2012

    Life Sentences for Low-Level Crimes, NYT, 16.12.2012,






For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars


December 11, 2012
The New York Times


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Stephanie George and Judge Roger Vinson had quite different opinions about the lockbox seized by the police from her home in Pensacola. She insisted she had no idea that a former boyfriend had hidden it in her attic. Judge Vinson considered the lockbox, containing a half-kilogram of cocaine, to be evidence of her guilt.

But the defendant and the judge fully agreed about the fairness of the sentence he imposed in federal court.

“Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing,” Judge Vinson told Ms. George, “your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder but not actively involved in the drug dealing, so certainly in my judgment it does not warrant a life sentence.”

Yet the judge had no other option on that morning 15 years ago. As her stunned family watched, Ms. George, then 27, who had never been accused of violence, was led from the courtroom to serve a sentence of life without parole.

“I remember my mom crying out and asking the Lord why,” said Ms. George, now 42, in an interview at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee. “Sometimes I still can’t believe myself it could happen in America.”

Her sentence reflected a revolution in public policy, often called mass incarceration, that appears increasingly dubious to both conservative and liberal social scientists. They point to evidence that mass incarceration is no longer a cost-effective way to make streets safer, and may even be promoting crime instead of suppressing it.

Three decades of stricter drug laws, reduced parole and rigid sentencing rules have lengthened prison terms and more than tripled the percentage of Americans behind bars. The United States has the highest reported rate of incarceration of any country: about one in 100 adults, a total of nearly 2.3 million people in prison or jail.

But today there is growing sentiment that these policies have gone too far, causing too many Americans like Ms. George to be locked up for too long at too great a price — economically and socially.

The criticism is resonating with some state and federal officials, who have started taking steps to stop the prison population’s growth. The social scientists are attracting attention partly because the drop in crime has made it a less potent political issue, and partly because of the states’ financial problems.

State spending on corrections, after adjusting for inflation, has more than tripled in the past three decades, making it the fastest-growing budgetary cost except Medicaid. Even though the prison population has leveled off in the past several years, the costs remain so high that states are being forced to reduce spending in other areas.

Three decades ago, California spent 10 percent of its budget on higher education and 3 percent on prisons. In recent years the prison share of the budget rose above 10 percent while the share for higher education fell below 8 percent. As university administrators in California increase tuition to cover their deficits, they complain that the state spends much more on each prisoner — nearly $50,000 per year — than on each student.

Many researchers agree that the rise in imprisonment produced some initial benefits, particularly in urban neighborhoods, where violence decreased significantly in the 1990s. But as sentences lengthened and the prison population kept growing, it included more and more nonviolent criminals like Ms. George.

Half a million people are now in prison or jail for drug offenses, about 10 times the number in 1980, and there have been especially sharp increases in incarceration rates for women and for people over 55, long past the peak age for violent crime. In all, about 1.3 million people, more than half of those behind bars, are in prison or jail for nonviolent offenses.

Researchers note that the policies have done little to stem the flow of illegal drugs. And they say goals like keeping street violence in check could be achieved without the expense of locking up so many criminals for so long.

While many scholars still favor tough treatment for violent offenders, they have begun suggesting alternatives for other criminals. James Q. Wilson, the conservative social scientist whose work in the 1970s helped inspire tougher policies on prison, several years ago recommended diverting more nonviolent drug offenders from prisons to treatment programs.

Two of his collaborators, George L. Kelling of the Manhattan Institute and John J. DiIulio Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, have joined with prominent scholars and politicians, including Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich, in a group called Right on Crime. It advocates more selective incarceration and warns that current policies “have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders” so that they become “a greater risk to the public than when they entered.”

These views are hardly universal, particularly among elected officials worried about a surge in crime if the prison population shrinks. Prosecutors have resisted attempts to change the system, contending that the strict sentences deter crime and induce suspects to cooperate because the penalties provide the police and prosecutors with so much leverage.

Some of the strongest evidence for the benefit of incarceration came from studies by a University of Chicago economist, Steven D. Levitt, who found that penal policies were a major factor in reducing crime during the 1990s. But as crime continued declining and the prison population kept growing, the returns diminished.

“We know that harsher punishments lead to less crime, but we also know that the millionth prisoner we lock up is a lot less dangerous to society than the first guy we lock up,” Dr. Levitt said. “In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration. Today, my guess is that the costs outweigh the benefits at the margins. I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.”

Some social scientists argue that the incarceration rate is now so high that the net effect is “crimogenic”: creating more crime over the long term by harming the social fabric in communities and permanently damaging the economic prospects of prisoners as well as their families. Nationally, about one in 40 children have a parent in prison. Among black children, one in 15 have a parent in prison.


Cocaine in the Attic

Ms. George was a young single mother when she first got in trouble with drugs and the law. One of her children was fathered by a crack dealer, Michael Dickey, who went to prison in the early 1990s for drug and firearm offenses.

“When he went away, I was at home with the kids struggling to pay bills,” Ms. George said. “The only way I knew to get money quick was selling crack. I was never a user, but from being around him I pretty much knew how to get it.”

After the police caught her making crack sales of $40 and $120 — which were counted as separate felonies — she was sentenced, at 23, to nine months in a work-release program. That meant working at her mother’s hair salon in Pensacola during the day and spending nights at the county jail, away from her three young children.

“When I caught that first charge, it scared me to death,” she recalled. “I thought, my God, being away from my kids, this is not what I want. I promised them I would never let it happen again.”

When Mr. Dickey got out of prison in 1995, she said, she refused to resume their relationship, but she did allow him into her apartment sometimes to see their daughter. One evening, shortly after he had arrived, the police showed up with a search warrant and a ladder.

“I didn’t know what they were doing with a ladder in a one-story building,” Ms. George said. “They went into a closet and opened a little attic space I’d never seen before and brought down the lockbox. He gave them a key to open it. When I saw what was in it, I was so mad I jumped across the table at him and started hitting him.”

Mr. Dickey said he had paid her to store the cocaine at her home. At the trial, other defendants said she was present during drug transactions conducted by Mr. Dickey and other dealers she dated, and sometimes delivered cash or crack for her boyfriends. Ms. George denied those accusations, which her lawyer argued were uncorroborated and self-serving. After the jury convicted her of being part of a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, she told the judge at her sentencing: “I just want to say I didn’t do it. I don’t want to be away from my kids.”

Whatever the truth of the testimony against her, it certainly benefited the other defendants. Providing evidence to the prosecution is one of the few ways to avoid a mandatory sentence. Because the government formally credited the other defendants with “substantial assistance,” their sentences were all reduced to less than 15 years. Even though Mr. Dickey was the leader of the enterprise and had a much longer criminal record than Ms. George, he was freed five years ago.

Looking back on the case, Judge Vinson said such disparate treatment is unfortunately all too common. The judge, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan who is hardly known for liberalism (last year he ruled that the Obama administration’s entire health care act was unconstitutional), says he still regrets the sentence he had to impose on Ms. George because of a formula dictated by the amount of cocaine in the lockbox and her previous criminal record.

“She was not a major participant by any means, but the problem in these cases is that the people who can offer the most help to the government are the most culpable,” Judge Vinson said recently. “So they get reduced sentences while the small fry, the little workers who don’t have that information, get the mandatory sentences.

“The punishment is supposed to fit the crime, but when a legislative body says this is going to be the sentence no matter what other factors there are, that’s draconian in every sense of the word. Mandatory sentences breed injustice.”


Doubts About a Penalty

In the 1980s, stricter penalties for drugs were promoted by Republicans like Mr. Reagan and by urban Democrats worried about the crack epidemic. In the 1990s, both parties supported President Bill Clinton’s anticrime bill, which gave states money to build prisons. Three-strikes laws and other formulas forced judges to impose life without parole, a sentence that was uncommon in the United States before the 1970s.

Most other countries do not impose life sentences without parole, and those that do generally reserve it for a few heinous crimes. In England, where it is used only for homicides involving an aggravating factor like child abduction, torture or terrorism, a recent study reported that 41 prisoners were serving life terms without parole. In the United States, some 41,000 are.

“It is unconscionable that we routinely sentence people like Stephanie George to die in our prisons,” said Mary Price, the general counsel of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “The United States is nearly alone among the nations of the world in abandoning our obligation to rehabilitate such offenders.”

The utility of such sentences has been challenged repeatedly by criminologists and economists. Given that criminals are not known for meticulous long-term planning, how much more seriously do they take a life sentence versus 20 years, or 10 years versus 2 years? Studies have failed to find consistent evidence that the prospect of a longer sentence acts as a significantly greater deterrent than a shorter sentence.

Longer sentences undoubtedly keep criminals off the streets. But researchers question whether this incapacitation effect, as it is known, provides enough benefits to justify the costs, especially when drug dealers are involved. Locking up a rapist makes the streets safer by removing one predator, but locking up a low-level drug dealer creates a job opening that is quickly filled because so many candidates are available.

The number of drug offenders behind bars has gone from fewer than 50,000 in 1980 to more than 500,000 today, but that still leaves more than two million people on the street who sell drugs at least occasionally, according to calculations by Peter H. Reuter, a criminologist at the University of Maryland. He and Jonathan P. Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University say there is no way to lock up enough low-level dealers and couriers to make a significant impact on supply, and that is why cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs are as readily available today as in 1980, and generally at lower prices.

The researchers say that if the number of drug offenders behind bars was halved — reduced by 250,000 — there would be little impact on prices or availability.

“Mandating long sentences based on the quantities of drugs in someone’s possession just sweeps up low-level couriers and other hired help who are easily replaced,” Dr. Caulkins said. “Instead of relying on formulas written by legislators and sentencing commissions, we should let judges and other local officials use discretion to focus on the dealers who cause the most social harm — the ones who are violent, who fight for turf on street corners, who employ children. They’re the ones who should receive long sentences.”

These changes are starting to be made in places. Sentences for some drug crimes have been eased at the federal level and in states like New York, Kentucky and Texas. Judges in Ohio and South Carolina have been given more sentencing discretion. Californians voted in November to soften their state’s “three strikes” law to focus only on serious or violent third offenses. The use of parole has been expanded in Louisiana and Mississippi. The United States Supreme Court has banned some life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders.

Nonetheless, the United States, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, still has nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners.


A Mother Taken Away

Ms. George said she could understand the justice of sending her to prison for five years, if only to punish her for her earlier crack-selling offenses.

“I’m a real firm believer in karma — what goes around comes around,” she said. “I see now how wrong it was to sell drugs to people hooked on something they couldn’t control. I think, what if they took money away from their kids to buy drugs from me? I deserve to pay a price for that. But my whole life? To take me away from my kids forever?”

When she was sentenced 15 years ago, her children were 5, 6 and 9. They have been raised by her sister, Wendy Evil, who says it was agonizing to take the children to see their mother in prison.

“They would fight to sit on her knee the whole time,” she recalled recently during a family dinner at their home in Pensacola. “It’s been so hard for them. Some of the troubles they’ve had are because of their anger at her being gone.”

The youngest child, William, now 20, dropped out of middle school. The older two, Kendra and Courtney, finished high school but so far have not followed their mother’s advice to go to college.

“I don’t want to blame things on my situation, but I think my life would have been a whole lot different if she’d been here,” said Courtney, now 25, who has been unemployed for several years. “When I fell off track, she would have pushed me back. She’s way stronger than any of us.”

Ms. George, who has gotten a college degree in prison, calls the children every Sunday. She pays for the calls, which cost 23 cents a minute, with wages from two jobs: a regular eight-hour shift of data processing that pays 92 cents an hour, supplemented by four hours of overtime work at a call center in the prison that provides 411 directory assistance to phone companies.

“I like to stay busy,” she said during the interview. “I don’t like to give myself time to think about home. I know how much it hurts my daughter to see her friends doing things with their mothers. My boys are still so angry. I thought after a while it would stop, that they’d move on as they got older and had girlfriends. But it just seems like it gets worse every Mother’s Day and Christmas.”

She seemed undaunted, even cheerful, during most of the interview at the prison, where she sleeps on a bunk bed in an 11-by-7-foot cell she shares with another inmate. Dressed in the regulation uniform, khaki pants and work boots, she was calm and articulate as she explained her case and the failed efforts to appeal the ruling. At this point lawyers say her only hope seems to be presidential clemency — rarely granted in recent years — yet she said she remained hopeful.

She lost her composure only once, while describing the evening in 1996 when the police found the lockbox in her apartment. She had been working in the kitchen, braiding someone’s hair for a little money, while Courtney, then 8, played in the home. He watched the police take her away in handcuffs.

“Courtney called out, ‘Mom, you promised you weren’t going to leave us no more,’ ” Ms. George recalled, her eyes glistening. “I still hear that voice to this day, and he’s a grown man.”



This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 14, 2012

An article on Wednesday about growing skepticism over mandatory prison sentences referred incorrectly to Supreme Court rulings on sentencing for juvenile offenders. The court has banned sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of crimes that did not involve killings; the justices also struck down laws that required such sentences in homicide cases without allowing judges or juries to consider individual circumstances. The court has not completely “banned life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders.”

    For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars, NYT, 11.12.2012,






In California, County Jails Face Bigger Load


August 5, 2012
The New York Times


FRESNO, Calif. — Standing on the footsteps of the Fresno County Jail, where he had just been released one recent afternoon, Juan Diaz rated the food inside a 2. The state prison at Coalinga, where he served three years on a weapons conviction, earned a 10.

Battle-hardened young men like Mr. Diaz, 33 — who is a member of the Bulldogs, the largest Hispanic gang in California’s Central Valley, and who spent the night in jail for missing a court date on charges of possessing a stolen car and methamphetamine — used to deride the downtown Fresno jail as “Club Snoopy.”

Spending years in jail instead of prison is an increasing possibility now, as California carries out the most far-reaching overhaul of its criminal justice system in decades. And that idea fills Mr. Diaz with dread.

“I’d go insane,” he said. “I would probably hang myself, seriously. I would probably do something stupid.”

Built for stays shorter than one year, the jail does not offer the kind of activities, work programs and amenities found in most prisons. “You’re stuck in a little cell,” Mr. Diaz said, while prisons with outdoor space provide plenty of “yard time.” Soup costs $1 here, compared with 30 cents at the canteen at Coalinga, which Mr. Diaz said he left in 2005. “My homie just got out a couple of months ago,” he said, “and the canteen went up only, like, 3 cents, 4 cents.”

Ordered by the United States Supreme Court to reduce severe overcrowding in its prisons, California began redirecting low-level offenders to local jails last October in a shift called realignment. Its prison population, the nation’s largest, has since fallen by more than 16 percent to 120,000 from 144,000; it must be reduced to 110,000 by next June.

Counties with already tight budgets are scrambling to house the influx of newcomers in facilities that were never designed to accommodate inmates serving long sentences, like a man who began serving 15 years for fraud recently in the Fresno jail.

Fresno County — a sprawling agricultural area surrounding the city, which is also facing financial problems and became a punch line for Conan O’Brien recently — is adding 864 beds to its chronically overcrowded jail. Under a longstanding federal consent decree that requires the Sheriff’s Department to release inmates when the jail reaches capacity, 40 to 60 people are let go early every day.

In a move watched by other states also facing prison overcrowding, California is handing its 58 counties money and leeway to decide how to handle the new arrivals. Liberal communities like San Francisco are using a greater share of the state money on programs and alternatives to incarceration. But most counties, particularly here in the conservative Central Valley, have focused on building jail capacity.

That troubles organizations on both sides of the political spectrum. Sheriff Keith Royal of Nevada County, the president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, said members were worried about their capacity to provide “adequate treatment” in jails and about “litigation at the location level.” The American Civil Liberties Union warned that instead of making fundamental improvements to the criminal justice system, many counties risked simply repeating the state’s mistakes by reflexively putting people behind bars.

Criticized for its overemphasis on jails, a local committee overseeing realignment in Fresno recently approved using $848,000 from its state total of $20.8 million this year to expand drug rehabilitation programs for people released from jail. But even that relatively small amount is facing deep skepticism from the county’s Board of Supervisors, which will vote on the plan in September.

“Some people, you’re not going to change their behavior until they’re incarcerated and they have to pay the consequences,” said Debbie Poochigian, the chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors. “I believe we’re keeping our community safer because they’re not out there looking for their next victim.”

The county has used about 40 percent of its state money so far to reopen two of three jail floors that were closed a few years ago because of budget cuts. The priority, Ms. Poochigian said, should be to finance the reopening of the third floor. If Fresno runs out of space, she added, inmates could be transferred to jails in other counties or to private jails.

According to the Board of State and Community Corrections, the population in county jails rose by about 4 percent from an average of 71,293 in last year’s third quarter to 73,957 in the first quarter of 2012, the latest figures available. In Fresno, like elsewhere, about two-thirds are inmates awaiting trial.

Allen Hopper, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U. who co-wrote a study on the shift to jails, said the population at county jails could be significantly reduced by overhauling pretrial procedures. Many inmates, who present no risk, remain in jail simply because they cannot afford bail, he said, adding that alternatives like electronic monitoring and day reporting could free up jail space and save counties money.

But in counties where elected officials are afraid of appearing soft on crime, such alternatives are particularly sensitive.

“Everything is political,” said Sheriff Margaret Mims of Fresno County.

Sheriff Mims said she had become “less optimistic” about the shift to jails because of rising crime in the county, including burglaries and car thefts. Though law enforcement officials acknowledge that rising crime cannot be linked directly to the realignment policy, they say people engaging in nonviolent offenses like property crime no longer fear being sent to prison.

Despite Fresno County’s conservative attitude toward crime, the policy shift has fueled a debate about alternatives to incarceration by grouping various agencies in the committee overseeing the change, said Emma Hughes, a criminologist at California State University, Fresno, who is working as a consultant for the county.

Linda Penner, the chief probation officer and chairwoman of the realignment committee, said that having secured money to reopen two jail floors, the committee had the political room to approve the $848,000 for the rehabilitation program.

“Do I think we’re all getting on the same page in reckoning with the fact that we have to create alternatives to detention?” she said. “Yes.”

Inside the Fresno jail’s north wing, where the newly reopened facilities are, each floor is composed of six two-level “pods” housing 72 inmates. In one pod, men were lying on three-level bunk beds, watching television, playing cards or doing push-ups. They are given an hour a day at an indoor gym on each floor. Inmates in the jail’s older wings get only three hours a week, split between an indoor gym and a rooftop basketball court.

Violence among inmates has risen since the policy shift, Sgt. Terry Barnes said, attributing it to inmates’ realization that they might spend years in a place with few of the activities and amenities they enjoyed in prison.

“They’re very frustrated with the idea that this is it,” said Sergeant Barnes, a corrections officer who has worked at the jail for 24 years.

Outside the jail, David Otero, 35, was chaining his bicycle to a handrail before visiting his brother inside. Mr. Otero said he himself had spent seven months in the jail and 38 days at a state prison for a hit-and-run conviction in 2006. Prison had better amenities, he said, but there was “a lot more politics” there than in Club Snoopy.

His brother, who spent more than 10 years in prison on various drug convictions, was now serving his second year in jail for robbery, Mr. Otero said. He and his mother visit often, giving his brother money for the canteen.

“If he knows he’s a block away from his mom and his brother, who can visit him anytime, that’ll have a direct impact,” Mr. Otero said. “We’re just up the street.”

    In California, County Jails Face Bigger Load, NYT, 5.8.2012,






5 Jailed in ’95 Killing of Cabby Didn’t Do It, U.S. Inquiry Says


August 2, 2012
The New York Times


Amid a rash of murders of taxi drivers in New York City, the killing of Baithe Diop in 1995 still attracted attention. He was shot in his livery cab, left to die as his car rolled down a street in the Bronx, not stopping until it struck a trash hauling bin.

Six people were tried; five were ultimately convicted. An article in New York magazine that focused on the investigation carried the headline, “How to Solve a Murder.”

But now, 15 years after the criminal trials, federal authorities have concluded that all five of those now imprisoned for the murder were innocent of the crime.

The United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, which conducted an exhaustive review of the case, reported its findings in June to the Bronx district attorney’s office, which had prosecuted the defendants over the course of two trials and defended their convictions on appeal.

The new findings suggest that there was a colossal breakdown in the criminal justice system. Robert T. Johnson, the Bronx district attorney since 1989, said through a spokesman on Thursday that his office had been notified of the new evidence discovered by federal prosecutors but had not yet been able “to resolve all of the questions that have been raised by this evidence.”

Paul Casteleiro, a lawyer for one defendant, Cathy Watkins, would not discuss the new findings but, like other lawyers in the case, said he would soon file papers asking that his client’s conviction be vacated based on newly discovered evidence and her actual innocence.

“It’s a mind-boggling case,” Mr. Casteleiro said. “She’s stone cold innocent.”

The murder of Mr. Diop, in January 1995, came at a time when cabdrivers were being attacked regularly in the city, with nearly 70 drivers killed in 1993 and 1994. Mr. Diop, a 43-year-old Senegalese immigrant, was working for New Harlem Car Service; on his last fare, he made a pickup at West 141st Street in Harlem and headed to the Bronx, where he was robbed and killed.

All of those arrested in Mr. Diop’s murder pleaded not guilty, but jurors in two separate trials returned convictions. In the first trial, four men were tried for the Diop murder and a second killing, two days earlier, that was said to be related: the execution-style shooting of Denise Raymond, a Federal Express executive, in her apartment.

Three men — Devon Ayers, Michael Cosme and Carlos Perez — were convicted of the Diop murder (a fourth, Israel Vasquez, was acquitted); all four men were convicted in the Raymond killing. Jurors accepted the theory advanced by prosecutors and the police that Mr. Diop’s murder was part of an elaborate plot to distract the police from the intended crime: the theft of $50,000 worth of cocaine from a passenger in Mr. Diop’s car.

In a second trial that focused only on the Diop murder, two more defendants — Ms. Watkins and Eric Glisson — were convicted. The defendants all received long prison sentences.

Then, in late May, federal prosecutors received a letter from Mr. Glisson at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, N.Y. Mr. Glisson again professed his innocence, saying he had been wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of a cabdriver in 1995 in the Soundview section of the Bronx.

He added that he had heard that the killing had been carried out by members of a Bronx narcotics gang called Sex Money and Murder, or S.M.M. He cited the names of several gang members.

The letter had been addressed to a prosecutor who was no longer in the office, and was then redirected to John O’Malley, an investigator in the office’s violent crimes unit who had once been a homicide detective in the Bronx.

Mr. O’Malley immediately recalled that Mr. Glisson’s description of the crime matched a version of a confession that he had heard in 2003 — from two former S.M.M. members, Jose Rodriguez and Gilbert Vega, who had agreed at the time to cooperate with prosecutors against their former gang.

Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Vega had independently told investigators, including Mr. O’Malley, that they were involved in an armed robbery of a livery driver in the Bronx in late 1994 or early 1995. They had said they believed they had killed the driver but had left the scene quickly and were uncertain. They recalled that they had just come from a woman’s apartment in Harlem and had gotten into a livery cab with an African driver to return to Soundview.

At some point during the ride, Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Vega said they decided to rob the driver; when the driver argued and struggled, the men said they both shot him. Each man separately recalled jumping out of the moving livery car.

Mr. O’Malley went to Bronx homicide detectives in 2003 to try to corroborate the confession, but no records could be found of a homicide that matched. Because there was no proof of death and no identified victim, Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Vega pleaded guilty to serious but lesser charges related to the taxi robbery.

Upon receiving the letter from Mr. Glisson in May, Mr. O’Malley phoned Mr. Vega and Mr. Rodriguez, and both reaffirmed their accounts of how they shot Mr. Diop. On June 15, Mr. O’Malley met with Mr. Glisson at Sing Sing.

He eventually prepared a detailed affidavit, which is dated Monday and has not been made public, presenting his findings in support of a potential motion by the defendants for a new trial.

“I believe the evidence is overwhelming that Vega and Rodriguez, acting alone, robbed and shot Baithe Diop on Jan. 19, 1995, causing his death,” he wrote.

The defendants who seem likely to benefit most quickly from the new findings are Ms. Watkins and Mr. Glisson, who were convicted solely in Mr. Diop’s murder. The other imprisoned defendants — Mr. Ayers, Mr. Cosme and Mr. Perez — were also convicted of the murder of Ms. Raymond, on which Mr. O’Malley’s investigation does not focus.

But the findings by Mr. O’Malley, who worked closely with a senior prosecutor, Margaret M. Garnett, would seem to raise serious questions about the convictions in Ms. Raymond’s killing because the Bronx prosecutor’s office relied on the same key witnesses and said the two murders were related.

“We certainly believe that a serious issue like this must be resolved as soon as possible,” Mr. Johnson, the Bronx district attorney, said through a spokesman about Mr. O’Malley’s findings. “Therefore, we are attempting to rapidly gather further information from our own files and those of the United States attorney.” The office of United States Attorney Preet Bharara declined to comment on Thursday.

Claudia Trupp, a lawyer for Mr. Perez, said he “has been consistent throughout our representation that he’s innocent of these crimes.”

Mr. Vasquez, the defendant acquitted of the Diop killing but convicted in the Raymond murder, had his conviction overturned by a state appeals court that said the theory of the case against him was “based on speculation unsupported by any credible evidence.”

Earl S. Ward and Julia Kuan, lawyers who are representing him in a civil-rights lawsuit, said in a joint statement, “It was in pursuing Israel Vasquez’s civil rights claims that it became obvious to us that everyone who was convicted in both of these crimes was innocent.”

As for Mr. Glisson, the inmate whose letter to federal prosecutors prompted the new review, he was “overjoyed” when Mr. O’Malley visited him at Sing Sing and told him of his findings, his lawyer Peter A. Cross said.

Mr. Cross said Mr. Glisson, describing the meeting, said Mr. O’Malley had “outright apologized,” and said, “We know you’re innocent and we’re going to do everything we can to get you out of jail.”


Jack Styczynski contributed reporting.

    5 Jailed in ’95 Killing of Cabby Didn’t Do It, U.S. Inquiry Says, NYT, 2.8.2012,






In Texas, Arguing That Heat

Can Be a Death Sentence for Prisoners


July 28, 2012
The New York Times


HOUSTON — Last summer’s record-breaking heat wave had a grim impact on Texas, playing a role in the deaths of roughly 150 people. Many of them were found in their homes or apartments, but a few were discovered somewhere else — in their prison cells.

Ten inmates of the state prison system died of heat-related causes last summer in a 26-day period in July and August, a death toll that has alarmed prisoners’ rights advocates who believe that the lack of air-conditioning in most state prisons puts inmates’ lives at risk.

The 10 inmates were housed in areas that lacked air-conditioning, and several had collapsed or lost consciousness while they were in their cells. All of them were found to have died of hyperthermia, a condition that occurs when body temperature rises above 105 degrees, according to autopsy reports and the state’s prison agency.

Other factors contributed to their deaths. All but three of them had hypertension, and some were obese, had heart disease or were taking antipsychotic medications, which can affect the body’s ability to regulate heat.

One inmate, Alexander Togonidze, 44, was found unresponsive in his cell at an East Texas prison called the Michael Unit at 8 a.m. on Aug. 8 with a body temperature of 106 degrees, according to prison documents. The temperature in his cell, taken by prison officials 15 minutes after he was pronounced dead, was 86.2 degrees and the heat index was 93 degrees.

Five days later, at the nearby Gurney Unit prison, Kenneth Wayne James, 52, was found in his cell with a body temperature of 108 degrees. His autopsy report stated Mr. James most likely died of “environmental hyperthermia-related classic heat stroke,” noting several risk factors, including Mr. James’s chronic illness and use of a diuretic, and the lack of air-conditioning.

“We were looking for him to come home in a few months,” said Mary Lou James, the mother of Mr. James, who had been charged with injuring a child and was serving a five-year sentence for violating probation. “I think that’s just awful, to have a place like that where you don’t have any air. I don’t think human beings should be treated in that manner.”

Officials with the prison agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said 12 inmates had died of heat-related causes since 2007. The debate over the lack of air-conditioning in the prison system has intensified in recent weeks, after lawyers from the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project sued the agency in federal court over one of the inmate deaths from last summer. They also plan to file additional wrongful-death lawsuits.

Of the 111 prisons overseen by the agency, only 21 are fully air-conditioned, and inmates and their advocates have argued that the overheated conditions during triple-digit summers violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Prison officials dispute those claims, saying that the health and well-being of the inmates are their top priorities and that the autopsies of the 12 inmates who died list a variety of contributing factors to their deaths. They said they take steps to help inmates on hot days, including restricting outside work activities and providing extra water and ice.

“It is unknown whether the lack of air-conditioning was a contributing factor in the offender deaths,” Jason Clark, a prison system spokesman, said in a statement. “Texas experienced one of the hottest summers on record in 2011. It was an unprecedented event affecting the entire state and much of the southern and eastern United States. T.D.C.J. took precautions to help mitigate the impact of temperature extremes on offenders and staff. The agency continues to do so.”

But a corrections supervisor who works at a prison where one of the 12 inmates died said the number of heat-related fatalities was a cause of concern, as was the larger number of inmates and corrections officers who require medical attention because of the heat.

At least 17 prison employees or inmates were treated for heat-related illnesses from June 25 through July 6, according to agency documents. Many of them had been indoors at the time they reported feeling ill.

At the Darrington Unit near Rosharon on June 25, a 56-year-old corrections officer fainted in a supervisor’s office and was taken to a hospital. Heat exhaustion was diagnosed. At the four-story Coffield Unit near Palestine, where one inmate died of hyperthermia last August, dozens of windows have been broken out — prisoners slip soda cans or bars of soap into socks and throw them at the windows, hoping to increase ventilation.

“I’m supposed to be watching them, I’m not supposed to be boiling them in their cells,” said the corrections supervisor, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “If you’ve got a life sentence, odds are you’re going to die in the penitentiary. But what about the guy who dies from a heat stroke who only had a four-year sentence? His four-year sentence was actually a life sentence.”

One of the 10 inmates who died last summer, Larry Gene McCollum, 58, a prisoner at the Hutchins State Jail outside Dallas, had a body temperature of 109.4 degrees. Nine days before his death in his cell, the indoor temperatures at Hutchins were routinely recorded by prison officials and ranged from 100 degrees to 102 degrees, according to agency documents.

Those temperatures exceed those allowed by a state law requiring county jails to maintain temperature levels between 65 and 85 degrees in occupied areas. But the law applies only to county jails, not to state prisons.

“After this many deaths, prison officials obviously know this is a problem,” said David C. Fathi, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, in Washington. “Prisons aren’t supposed to be comfortable, nor are they supposed to kill you.”

State Senator John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said he was not alarmed by the number of deaths, noting that the overall state inmate population exceeds 150,000. Keith Price, the former warden of the Coffield Unit, agreed.

“Just from a statistical standpoint, that’s really not significant, particularly when you consider the population,” Mr. Price, an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at West Texas A&M University, said of the 12 deaths. “Many inmates are poorly equipped to manage their lives and thus make poor decisions. I do not believe it is up to the taxpayers to provide air-conditioning for inmates when some simple self-discipline would avoid many of these problems.”

Prison officials said that air-conditioning had not been installed in many buildings because of the additional construction and utility costs, and that retrofitting them would be an extraordinary expense.

Prisoners’ rights advocates said that treating inmates who become ill from the heat is just as costly, and that retrofitting entire buildings was not the only possible solution. They said allowing medically high-risk inmates to spend time in air-conditioned areas would be one improvement.

    In Texas, Arguing That Heat Can Be a Death Sentence for Prisoners, NYT, 28.7.2012,






On Eve of Prison,

Blagojevich Keeps Talking,

but Some Tune Out


March 14, 2012
The New York Times


CHICAGO — Rod R. Blagojevich stepped into his front yard on Wednesday for a last goodbye.

As always, the cameras rolled. Helicopters whirred. Curiosity seekers and supporters crushed in, delivering banners with messages like “Only God is Perfect.” Tears fell.

But much of Chicago, which had been living with Mr. Blagojevich’s tale for years, seemed to shrug. What began in 2008 with his stunning, predawn arrest at this very house, amid allegations that he had tried to trade or sell a United States Senate seat, had taken many topsy-turvy detours: his impeachment as governor, his attempt at a star turn on the television talk show circuit and reality TV, the deadlocked jury, the second trial and the anticipated start, on Thursday, of a 14-year prison term.

Around this state, people said they were simply ready to think about something (anything) else — or that they had already stopped pondering Mr. Blagojevich long ago, a few even confiding that they had not realized that he was still around.

“It’s like, good riddance,” Patty Loeffler, 58, said the other day as she caught a bus along Michigan Avenue. “And I’ll be glad when we stop hearing about it.”

Said Michael Benninghoff, 44: “I think we’ve kind of moved on.”

Mr. Blagojevich, known for his tailored suits and trademark puff of dark hair, is a former prosecutor and state and federal lawmaker who once saw himself as a possible presidential candidate. On Thursday, he is expected to arrive at a low-security federal prison near Littleton, Colo., where inmates must give up everything but simple wedding bands and religious medallions, undergo a strip search, don khaki uniforms and prepare to work around the prison for as little as 12 cents an hour.

Now, at 55, he is the fourth Illinois governor in recent memory to be imprisoned, but the arc of his unraveling was anything but ordinary, even by this state’s long tradition of political corruption.

In 2002, Mr. Blagojevich, a Democrat, was elected governor on a reform platform — the antidote, his campaign seemed to say, to a Republican governor, George Ryan, who was mired in scandal and would later go to prison. By late 2008, just after Barack Obama won the White House, Mr. Blagojevich, then in his second term, happily found himself assigned by state law to appoint a replacement for Mr. Obama from Illinois in the Senate.

But by then, federal agents had already been recording Mr. Blagojevich’s telephone calls, and swiftly came a slew of corruption charges that the federal prosecutor said would make “Lincoln roll over in his grave.”

The most headline-grabbing of all the ways prosecutors said Mr. Blagojevich tried to make money for official acts: He had, in stunningly salty, crass language caught on the recordings, tried to get a better job, a cabinet post, a big campaign donation in exchange for Mr. Obama’s old Senate seat. He used expletives to describe just how “golden” his opportunity to pick a new senator was.

After two trials, he was convicted on 18 counts. But in the interim, Illinois came to know Mr. Blagojevich, who vehemently professed his innocence and whose lawyers have started an appeal, in a way the state never really had when he ran it. He recited poetry in news conferences. He shared chats with daytime talk show hosts. He performed Elvis Presley songs for a neighborhood party. He wrote a memoir. He pitched pistachios in an ad. Until the last few months, he talked and talked and talked.

But if sympathies for Mr. Blagojevich seemed scarce outside of his circle of friends and neighbors in recent days, the same did not hold for his family.

Elected officials — even those who had furiously condemned Mr. Blagojevich’s behavior — expressed deep empathy for his two school-age daughters, who are expected to continue living here in his North Side home after Mr. Blagojevich reports to prison. In recent weeks, Mr. Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, appeared on Rosie O’Donnell’s television show and tearfully professed her fear that the girls are “going to be totally screwed up from this.”

And on Wednesday, she stood beside her husband, tears running down her cheeks, as Mr. Blagojevich spoke of his daughters and asked aloud, “How do you make sense of this, and what is it that you can tell your kids so they can appreciate the magnitude of this calamity?”

Judy Baar Topinka, the state comptroller and a Republican who once ran against Mr. Blagojevich for governor and lost, said, “It kind of breaks my heart.” Still, she said, the legacy of Mr. Blagojevich on the state — and its grim financial situation — will last far longer than his 14-year prison term.

And why, she asked, did he feel the need to give one last public statement rather than leave quietly?

“This is typical Blagojevich — he still in his final hours cannot give up the spotlight,” she said.

At 5:02 p.m. Central Time precisely — a time that assured that Chicago television stations could go with live feeds to the starts of their evening news — Mr. Blagojevich stepped out of his house in a pair of blue jeans and into the waiting throng.

Clutching his wife, he launched into a speech he might have used on the campaign trail, reminding the crowd of his efforts to bring health care to all children, extra health examinations for women, free public transportation for the elderly. He said he took responsibility for things he had said — “political talk” and “horse trades,” as he described them. Then he said he was hopeful for an appeal.

“The law as it stands right now is that I have to go do what I have to go do, and this is the hardest thing that I have ever had to do,” he said.

As he walked away, having spoken for more than 10 minutes, he seemed to be searching for words.

“I’ll see you around,” he said, finally.


Steven Yaccino contributed reporting.

    On Eve of Prison, Blagojevich Keeps Talking, but Some Tune Out, NYT, 14.3.2012,






Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity


March 10, 2012
The New York Times


PARCHMAN, Miss. — The heat was suffocating, and the inmates locked alone in cells in Unit 32, the state’s super-maximum-security prison, wiped away sweat as they lay on concrete slab beds.

Kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours each day, allowed out only in shackles and escorted by guards, they were restless and angry — made more so by the excrement-smeared walls, the insects, the filthy food trays and the mentally ill inmates who screamed in the night, conditions that a judge had already ruled unacceptable.

So it was not really surprising when violence erupted in 2007: an inmate stabbed to death with a homemade spear that May; in June, a suicide; in July, another stabbing; in August, a prisoner killed by a member of a rival gang.

What was surprising was what happened next. Instead of tightening restrictions further, prison officials loosened them.

They allowed most inmates out of their cells for hours each day. They built a basketball court and a group dining area. They put rehabilitation programs in place and let prisoners work their way to greater privileges.

In response, the inmates became better behaved. Violence went down. The number of prisoners in isolation dropped to about 300 from more than 1,000. So many inmates were moved into the general population of other prisons that Unit 32 was closed in 2010, saving the state more than $5 million.

The transformation of the Mississippi prison has become a focal point for a growing number of states that are rethinking the use of long-term isolation and re-evaluating how many inmates really require it, how long they should be kept there and how best to move them out. Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio and Washington State have been taking steps to reduce the number of prisoners in long-term isolation; others have plans to do so. On Friday, officials in California announced a plan for policy changes that could result in fewer prisoners being sent to the state’s three super-maximum-security units.

The efforts represent an about-face to an approach that began three decades ago, when corrections departments — responding to increasing problems with prison gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the “get tough on crime” demands of legislators — began removing ever larger numbers of inmates from the general population. They placed them in special prisons designed to house inmates in long-term isolation or in other types of segregation.

At least 25,000 prisoners — and probably tens of thousands more, criminal justice experts say — are still in solitary confinement in the United States. Some remain there for weeks or months; others for years or even decades. More inmates are held in solitary confinement here than in any other democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week.

Humanitarian groups have long argued that solitary confinement has devastating psychological effects, but a central driver in the recent shift is economics. Segregation units can be two to three times as costly to build and, because of their extensive staffing requirements, to operate as conventional prisons are. They are an expense that many recession-plagued states can ill afford; Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois announced plans late last month to close the state’s supermax prison for budgetary reasons.

Some officials have also been persuaded by research suggesting that isolation is vastly overused and that it does little to reduce overall prison violence. Inmates kept in such conditions, most of whom will eventually be released, may be more dangerous when they emerge, studies suggest.

Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections, said he found his own views changing as he fought an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over conditions in the prison, which one former inmate described as “hell, an insane asylum.”

Mr. Epps said he started out believing that difficult inmates should be locked down as tightly as possible, for as long as possible.

“That was the culture, and I was part of it,” he said.

By the end of the process, he saw things differently and ordered the changes.

“If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave,” he now says.


A Very Costly Experiment

James F. Austin held up the file of an inmate in Unit 32 and posed a question to the staff members gathered in a conference room at the Mississippi Department of Corrections headquarters in Jackson.

“O.K., does this guy really need to be there?” he asked.

It was June 2007, and the department was under pressure to make court-ordered improvements to conditions at Unit 32, where violence was brewing. Dr. Austin, a prison consultant, had been called in by the state. As the discussion proceeded, the staff members were startled to discover that many inmates in Unit 32 had been sent there not because they were highly dangerous, but because they were a nuisance — they had disobeyed orders, had walked away from a minimum-security program or were low-level gang members with no history of causing trouble while incarcerated.

“He started saying, ‘You tell me what kind of person needs to be locked up,’ and it wasn’t near the numbers that we had,” said Emmitt L. Sparkman, deputy commissioner of corrections. By the time they were done, the group had determined that up to 80 percent of the 1,000 or more inmates at Unit 32 could probably be safely moved to less restrictive settings.

Like many such prisons, Mississippi’s supermax, opened in 1990, owed its existence to the fervor for tougher punishment that swept through the country in the 1980s and 1990s.

“There was an incredible explosion in the prison population coupled with a big infusion of gangs,” Dr. Austin said. “Riots were occurring. Prison officials were literally losing control.”

Some states built special units to isolate difficult prisoners — “the worst of the worst,” prison officials said — from the general prison population. Others retrofitted existing prisons or established smaller units within larger facilities. The federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., was locked down in 1983 after the murder of two prison guards, its inmates confined to cells 23 hours a day and then kept that way permanently. In 1989, California opened Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, a remote town near the Oregon border, specially designed to control inmates in conditions that minimize human interaction.

By 2005, 44 states had supermax prisons or their equivalents. In most, inmates were let out of their cells for only a few hours a week. They were fed through slots in their cell doors and were denied access to work programs or other rehabilitation efforts. If visitors were allowed, the interactions were conducted with no physical contact.

And while prisoners had previously been sent to isolation for 10 or perhaps 30 days as a temporary disciplinary measure, they were now often placed there indefinitely.

Asked to explain the purpose of such confinement, prison wardens surveyed in 2006 by Dan Mears, a professor of criminology at Florida State University, cited “increasing safety, order and control throughout prison systems and incapacitating violent or disruptive inmates.”

But beyond that, said Dr. Mears, who called the rise of supermax prisons “a big, very costly experiment,” the goals seemed murky. Who exactly were “the worst of the worst”? How many people really needed such harsh control, and for how long? And how should the effectiveness of the prisons be judged, especially when measured against the costs of building and operating them?

Dr. Mears said there were no clear answers; indeed, he said, it is virtually impossible to determine how many inmates are in supermax prisons in the United States because there is no national tracking system and because states differ widely in what they call segregation units. “I don’t know of any business that would do this, not something that costs this much, with so little evidence or clarity about what you’re getting,” Dr. Mears said.

With no precise definition of who belonged there, prison systems began to send people to segregation units who bore little resemblance to the serial killers or terrorists the public imagined filled such prisons.

“Certainly there are a small number of people who for a variety of reasons have to be maintained in a way that they don’t have access to other inmates,” said Chase Riveland, a former head of corrections in Colorado and Washington State who now serves as an expert witness in prison cases. “But those in most systems are pretty small numbers of people.”

Mr. Epps, who is also president of the American Correctional Association, likes to say prison officials started out isolating inmates they were scared of but ended up adding many they were simply “mad at.”


‘The Real Damage’

In 1831, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, where prison officials were pioneering a novel rehabilitation method based on Quaker principles of reflection and penitence. They called it solitary confinement.

“Placed alone in view of his crime,” de Tocqueville wrote in a report to the French government, the prisoner “learns to hate it, and if his soul be not yet surfeited with crime, and thus have lost all taste for any thing better, it is in solitude, where remorse will come to assail him.”

But for many prisoners, isolation was as likely to produce mental illness as remorse, and by the late 19th century, enthusiasm for the approach had flagged. In 1890, deciding the case of a death row inmate held in solitary confinement, Justice Samuel Freeman Miller of the Supreme Court wrote that many prisoners fell, “after even a short confinement, into a semifatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still committed suicide.”

It was the last time the nation’s highest court would address the psychological effects of solitary confinement directly. But lower courts in some states have acknowledged the stress that isolation puts on inmates who are already mentally ill, prohibiting their being placed in solitary except in urgent circumstances.

When Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and expert on the effects of solitary confinement, toured Unit 32 for the plaintiffs in the A.C.L.U. lawsuit, he found that about 100 of the more than 1,000 inmates there had serious mental illness, in many cases improperly diagnosed. Some were actively hallucinating. Others threw feces or urine at guards or howled in the night.

In turn, the mentally ill inmates were mistreated by corrections officers, who had little understanding of their condition, Dr. Kupers said.

In a report filed to the court, he described the case of James Coffield, a mentally ill prisoner who had demonstrated “a long history in Unit 32 of bizarre and disruptive behaviors” that prison psychiatrists “characterized as merely ‘manipulative’ and which security staff punished with increasingly harsh force, including repeated gassing with chemicals.”

Mr. Coffield eventually tried to hang himself but failed and ended up in a vegetative state.

Many states continue to house inmates with mental illness in isolation. Some inmates appear to function adequately in solitary confinement or even say they prefer it. But studies suggest that the rigid control, absence of normal human interaction and lack of stimulation imposed by prolonged isolation can cause a wide range of psychological symptoms including insomnia, withdrawal, rage and aggression, depression, hallucinations and thoughts of suicide, even in prisoners who are mentally healthy to begin with.

A study of prisoners in the Pelican Bay supermax, for example, found that almost all reported nervousness, anxiety, lethargy or other psychological complaints. Seventy percent said they felt themselves to be at risk of “impending nervous breakdown.”

“Worse still is the fact that for many of these men, the real damage only becomes apparent when they get out of this environment,” said Craig W. Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an expert on the effects of solitary confinement, who led the study.

In fact, some research has found that inmates released from supermax units are more likely to reoffend than comparable prisoners released from conventional maximum-security prisons, and that those crimes are more likely to be violent. In Colorado, said Tom Clements, executive director of corrections, it turned out that about 40 percent of inmates held in long-term isolation were being released directly to the community with no transition period.

The psychological research has drawn attention, not least from the international community. In a report presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, Juan E. Méndez, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on torture and other abuse, called for a ban on solitary confinement except in limited situations and singled out the United States for its reliance on the method.

In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights blocked the extradition of four terrorism suspects from Britain, saying it wanted to study whether imprisonment at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo., violated a ban on inhuman or degrading treatment.

Yet for states, economic and practical arguments may prove more persuasive than humanitarian concerns.

“It’s just exceedingly expensive to hold someone in a segregation bed,” said Angela Browne, a senior fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit policy and research group, and head of the institute’s segregation reduction project, which works with states to find alternatives to segregation.

Several states, citing economic reasons, have converted supermax units to more conventional prisons, and a few have closed the prisons altogether. Unit 32 was closed in 2010. The increased costs are largely a result of the staffing required to deliver food and other services to cells and escort prisoners when they are let out.

In 2010, for example, Virginia reported that it cost $89.59 per day to keep a prisoner at Red Onion State Prison, a supermax unit with 399 employees, compared with $60.04 per day at Sussex II State Prison, a maximum-security facility that houses almost 500 more inmates but has a staff of 353.


Gambling on Change

Roy Harper, serving time for armed robbery, kidnapping and other charges, used to wake in his cell at Unit 32 seized with anxiety every morning. “You never know what the day is going to bring,” he said recently.

Sometimes it was flooding from malfunctioning toilets. Sometimes it was inmates setting fires or cutting themselves — two prisoners cut off their own testicles in the time he spent there, he said — and sometimes it was just the sense of isolation he felt, “like being alone in the world.”

Mr. Harper was a prisoner in Unit 32 from the day it opened to the day it closed, 20 years later. But the summer of 2007, he recalled, was worse than most. When the killings began, prison officials first cracked down, taking away the inmates’ fans — the only relief from summer temperatures that approached 100 degrees and, according to an environmental expert who filed a report on the conditions, could feel like 120 or more. They kept prisoners in their cells around the clock, not even allowing them out for exercise, he said.

Mr. Sparkman, the deputy corrections commissioner, viewed the situation as so critical that in July he moved from his home in Jackson to Parchman, where Unit 32 sits on the grounds of the state penitentiary. It was clear that a different approach was needed, he said: “What we were doing, the 23-hour lockdown, was not working.”

But the shift had to be made carefully.

“It was gradual, and it was very controlled,” Mr. Sparkman said. “We started out with one building, identifying those groups that we could let out, and we let some of them out. Some of them we were able to transfer completely out.”

A few guards rebelled at the new orders and resigned in protest. A few others were fired. But by the end of six months, most prisoners were spending hours a day outside their cells or had been moved to the general population of other prisons. A clothing warehouse was turned into a group dining hall, and a maintenance room was converted to an activities center. The basketball court filled with players.

Mr. Harper did not benefit immediately from the changes. He remained in 23-hour lockdown until he worked his way to greater privileges. But he was elated at what he saw, he said, with inmates “working again, walking without chains, going to the yard, going to the chow hall.”

The A.C.L.U. continues to monitor conditions in other prisons in the state. But Margaret Winter, the lead lawyer for the A.C.L.U. in its lawsuit over Unit 32, said she watched the transformation there in wonder, especially as two men who at the beginning of the process seemed deeply entrenched in their views shifted direction. The change, she said, was “stunning.”

Mr. Sparkman said the new approach went against everything he had been trained to do. “If you’d come to me in 2002 and told me I was going to do something like that, I’d say, ‘You don’t know me,’ ” he said. “I’d have probably locked them down for anything that squeaked.”

Mr. Epps looks back at the decision as a nerve-racking gamble.

“Was it scary? Absolutely,” he said. “But it worked out just fine. We didn’t have a single incident.”


Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington.

    Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity, NYT, 10.3.2012,






William Heirens, the ‘Lipstick Killer,’ Dies at 83


March 7, 2012
The New York Times


William Heirens, the notorious “Lipstick Killer” who in 1946 confessed to three horrific murders in Chicago and then spent the rest of his life — more than 65 years — in prison despite questions about his guilt, was found dead on Monday in the Dixon Correctional Center in Dixon, Ill. He was 83.

He was pronounced dead at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center, where an autopsy was to be performed, the Cook County medical examiner’s office said. Mr. Heirens was known to have had diabetes.

Mr. Heirens’ notoriety stemmed from the separate killings of two women, Josephine Ross and Frances Brown, in 1945. At the scene of the second murder, that of Miss Brown, someone had used lipstick to scrawl on a wall: “For heaven’s sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.”

The reports of a “lipstick killer” terrified Chicago as the press took note of other unsolved murders of women. Then, about two weeks after the Brown murder, on Jan. 7, 1946, a 6-year-old girl named Suzanne Degnan was discovered missing from her bedroom at her North Side home. A ladder was found outside the window. The police later determined that the killer had strangled her and taken the body to the basement of a nearby building, where it was dismembered. Her head was found in a sewer; other body parts were found scattered about the neighborhood.

The newspapers called the killing the crime of the century, and though the police questioned a parade of suspects, there was no arrest.

Almost six months later, Mr. Heirens (pronounced HIGH-rens), a 17-year-old student at the University of Chicago, was apprehended at the scene of a burglary in the girl’s neighborhood. The police charged him with the murder after determining that his fingerprints were on a $20,000 ransom note that had been left behind at her home.

While he was in custody, The Chicago Tribune, citing what it called “unimpeachable sources,” reported that Mr. Heirens had confessed to the Degnan murder. Four other Chicago newspapers published similar articles, basing them on The Tribune’s account. The outcry against him mounted.

Mr. Heirens, who said he was beaten and given “truth serum” in jail, disputed the newspaper accounts, saying he was about to sign a confession in exchange for one life term but rebelled at “being forced to lie to save myself.” He was then charged with the Brown and Ross murders, saying they had incriminating physical evidence against him, including crime-scene fingerprints and a handwriting analysis. Offered three consecutive life terms in exchange for a guilty plea, he accepted, on the advice of his lawyers. Later he said he had done so only to avoid a death sentence if he had gone to trial.

“I confessed to live,” he said.

When he did confess, his memory seemed ragged. Time after time during the plea bargaining, prosecutors brought up details from The Tribune article, which he then incorporated into his testimony. Mr. Heirens recanted his confession soon afterward and maintained his innocence for the rest of his life while being denied parole or clemency numerous times. He questioned the validity of the fingerprints and other evidence, as have public interest lawyers who supported him.

In one clemency petition in 2002, his lawyers from the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions alleged more “prosecutorial misconduct, incompetent defense counsel, unprecedented prejudicial pretrial publicity, junk science, probably false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identification.” But others could not ignore his detailed admissions of guilt, even if he had retracted them. “He is the yardstick by which all evil is judged,” Thomas Epach, a Chicago police official, said at the 2002 clemency hearing.

Suzanne Degnan’s family fought all efforts to release him. Betty Finn, Suzanne’s older sister, said at the 2002 hearing, “Think of the worse nightmare that you cannot put out of your mind, you’re not allowed to put out of your mind.”

William George Heirens was born on Nov. 15, 1928, in Evanston, Ill. His father’s flower business failed, and the family teetered on the edge of poverty. In interviews, William said that his parents had fought frequently and that he had burglarized houses to relieve the tension he felt at home. He did not try to sell the things he stole, he said.

He was placed in two Roman Catholic youth detention centers. At the second, he proved to be an excellent student, skipping his senior year of high school. He was admitted to the University of Chicago at 16, with plans to major in engineering. In interviews, Mr. Heirens said his mother had led him to believe that sex was dirty. When he kissed a girl, he said, he would burst into tears and vomit. He said one reason he broke into houses was to play with women’s underwear.

In the burglary in which he was arrested, the police testified that he had aimed a gun at an officer and twice pulled the trigger, but that the weapon misfired. He was additionally convicted of assault with the intention of killing a police officer.

After Mr. Heirens went to jail, his parents and brother changed their names to Hill. He left no known survivors.

While serving one of the nation’s longest prison terms, Mr. Heirens became the first prisoner in Illinois to earn a degree from a four-year college. He also managed the prison garden factory and set up several education programs. In recent years, his diabetes damaged his eyesight, and he used a wheelchair. He told The New York Times in 2002 that he had learned that prison friendships were fleeting.

“Most of them, you hear for a little while, and then they kind of fade out,” he said. “Usually when they get out, they try to forget they were ever in.”

    William Heirens, the ‘Lipstick Killer,’ Dies at 83, NYT, 7.3.2012,






Life, With Dementia


February 25, 2012
The New York Times


SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Secel Montgomery Sr. stabbed a woman in the stomach, chest and throat so fiercely that he lost count of the wounds he inflicted. In the nearly 25 years he has been serving a life sentence, he has gotten into fights, threatened a prison official and been caught with marijuana.

Despite that, he has recently been entrusted with an extraordinary responsibility. He and other convicted killers at the California Men’s Colony help care for prisoners with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, assisting ailing inmates with the most intimate tasks: showering, shaving, applying deodorant, even changing adult diapers.

Their growing roster of patients includes Joaquin Cruz, a convicted killer who is now so addled that he thinks he sees his brother in the water of a toilet, and Walter Gregory, whose short-term memory is ebbing even as he vividly recalls his crime: stabbing and mutilating his girlfriend with a switchblade.

“I cut her eyes out, too,” Mr. Gregory declared recently.

Dementia in prison is an underreported but fast-growing phenomenon, one that many prisons are desperately unprepared to handle. It is an unforeseen consequence of get-tough-on-crime policies — long sentences that have created a large population of aging prisoners. About 10 percent of the 1.6 million inmates in America’s prisons are serving life sentences; another 11 percent are serving over 20 years.

And more older people are being sent to prison. In 2010, 9,560 people 55 and older were sentenced, more than twice as many as in 1995. In that same period, inmates 55 and older almost quadrupled, to nearly 125,000, a Human Rights Watch report found.

While no one has counted cognitively impaired inmates, experts say that prisoners appear more prone to dementia than the general population because they often have more risk factors: limited education, hypertension, diabetes, smoking, depression, substance abuse, even head injuries from fights and other violence.

Many states consider over-50 prisoners elderly, saying they age up to 15 years faster.

With many prisons already overcrowded and understaffed, inmates with dementia present an especially difficult challenge. They are expensive — medical costs for older inmates range from three to nine times as much as those for younger inmates. They must be protected from predatory prisoners. And because dementia makes them paranoid or confused, feelings exacerbated by the confines of prison, some attack staff members or other inmates, or unwittingly provoke fights by wandering into someone else’s cell.

“The dementia population is going to grow tremendously,” says Ronald H. Aday, a sociologist and the author of “Aging Prisoners: Crisis in American Corrections.” “How are we going to take care of them?”

Some prison systems are confronting that now. Many would like to transfer demented inmates to nursing homes, but their often-violent crimes make states reluctant to parole them and nursing homes reluctant to take them.

New York has taken the top-dollar route, establishing a separate unit for cognitively impaired inmates and using professional caregivers, at a cost of about $93,000 per bed annually, compared with $41,000 in the general prison population. Pennsylvania and other states are giving mental health workers special dementia training.

But some struggling prison systems, including those in Louisiana and California, are taking a less expensive but potentially riskier approach. They are training prisoners to handle many of the demented inmates’ daily needs.

“Yeah, they did something horrible to end up here,” said Cheryl Steed, a psychologist at the California Men’s Colony, where prisoners who help inmates with dementia are called Gold Coats because their yellow jackets contrast with the standard-issue blue. But without them, she said, “we wouldn’t be able to care for our dementia patients very well.”

After escorting Joaquin Cruz to an appointment, James Evers, a Gold Coat, was returning him to their adobe-colored cellblock when they encountered corrections officers strip-searching inmates for missing tools.

Mr. Cruz, 60, who barely recalls that he is in prison for killing someone who sold him fake cocaine, grew confused and resistant when guards tried searching him. “He has Alzheimer’s,” Mr. Evers managed to explain. “It’s not that he’s refusing to do what you’re asking.”

At the prison, shadowed by seacoast mountains, Gold Coats are paid $50 a month and have better knowledge of impaired prisoners’ conditions than many prison guards. Gold Coats, trained by the Alzheimer’s Association and given thick manuals on dementia, were the first to notice when Mr. Cruz began putting his boots on the wrong feet and “started pulling down his pants and going to the bathroom wherever he was,” said Phillip Burdick, a Gold Coat who is serving a life sentence for beating a man to death with a hammer.

Gold Coats report these changes, often at weekly support group meetings with Dr. Steed. They identify “different tricks and strategies to get guys to do what they need to do,” she said.

Before the program was started in 2009, demented inmates frequently caused fights, hitting those they considered threatening or disturbing other prisoners by encroaching on their turf. “The whole atmosphere was hostile,” said Bettina Hodel, a psychologist who started the program and once narrowly avoided being struck herself. Now, Gold Coats absorb much of that behavior.

“I been swung at, got a big fat lip, and my glasses have been broken,” said Ramon Cañas, a Gold Coat who killed a hitchhiker who stole his car. He said Gold Coats — there are currently six of them for about 40 inmates — often wear surgical gloves because they are exposed to “a lot of body fluids.”


Protecting the Vulnerable

But they also protect demented inmates from prisoners who try assaulting, abusing or robbing them. When Steven Berry, a Gold Coat, caught two inmates picking a demented prisoner’s pockets, he barreled toward them. “Got the stuff back,” reported Mr. Berry, a former Navy signalman who killed his sister-in-law and tried to kill his wife.

Gold Coats get harassed and called snitches for seeming to side with prison officials and because of the perks they receive. In the dining hall, to help dementia patients who, as Mr. Burdick says, “start forgetting basic things like what is a spork for,” Gold Coats sit with them at special “slow eater” tables, where meals are allowed to stretch beyond the usual 10 to 12 minutes.

When a prisoner tried stealing a patient’s dessert, Mr. Montgomery, one of the Gold Coats, snarled, “You got to give him his cookie back.”

“Who are you, the PO-lice?” the inmate barked. Mr. Montgomery retorted, “Yes, I’m the PO-lice!”

More inmates have dementia than prison officials realize, experts say. Prison routines can mask symptoms like forgetfulness. Corrections officers are used to punishing aggressive inmates, not evaluating them for Alzheimer’s.

“Not responding to questions appropriately, being belligerent — it’s just considered bad behavior,” said Sharen Barboza, director of clinical operations for MHM Services, a prison mental health provider that trains prison officials.

New York’s Unit for the Cognitively Impaired, begun five years ago, has so far cared for 84 inmates, but “there’s a number of people in the system that we really haven’t tapped,” said Paul Kleinman, the program’s psychologist. “They’re not being identified properly.”

Alzheimer’s currently affects 5.4 million Americans, a number expected to double by 2040. Experts believe that Alzheimer’s disease in prisons could grow two or three times as fast, said John Wilson, senior clinical operations specialist for MHM, because “protective factors that might mitigate developing dementia are slim to none in prison — things like complex jobs, rich social environment, leisure activities.”

Realizing that California, with nearly 13,000 inmates 55 and older, could not adequately care for demented prisoners, Dr. Hodel, when she was starting the Gold Coat program, asked the regional chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association to train inmates to help. The chapter’s area director, Sara Bartlett, worried that she and Arlene Stepputat, then the program director, would not be safe as “women in a man’s prison.” She doubted whether violent felons could provide sensitive care.

Both women were surprised that inmates seemed more receptive, with less-complicated emotional ties to the patients than many of the people they trained to care for relatives at home. “They were much easier to work with,” Ms. Stepputat said.

Heriberto G. Sanchez, chief psychologist of the California Men’s Colony, said prisoners “were appreciative that someone from the outside world thought they could do this.” One wrote in an evaluation, “Thank you for allowing me to feel human.”

The prison requires that Gold Coats have “a clean behavior record for about 5 to 10 years,” Dr. Steed said. So far, only one Gold Coat has been removed, because “he had problems” with dementia patients’ messy eating and other behaviors, Dr. Hodel said.

For inmates, the job has attractions. It pays better than other prison work and polishes a prisoner’s record.

Two Gold Coats have received parole.

One of them, Shawn Henderson, who got 25 years to life for a 1985 double murder and was twice denied parole, was released last February. Doing a job where “you get spit on, feces thrown on you, urine on you, you get cursed out” helped teach him to cope outside prison, said Mr. Henderson, 46. “Now when I come into an encounter like that on the street, I can be a lot more compassionate,” he said. “And I don’t look at telling authorities as snitching anymore.”

Gold Coats conduct exercise classes and run meetings designed to stimulate memory and lessen disorientation. They escort inmates to doctors, acting as their intermediaries.

And they often need to be deft. One 73-year-old inmate stands by a gate most mornings, waiting for his long-dead mother to pick him up. Sometimes he refuses to shower, afraid of missing her. Mr. Evers coaxes him inside, telling him that his mother “wants you to shower before she gets here.”

More subtlety is required for Mr. Gregory, 71, who is serving a life sentence for brutalizing his girlfriend with a switchblade — throwing her body parts in the trash and getting caught, he said, when “I went right back to the room that I killed her in and had sex with another” woman. He does not believe he has dementia, but his gradually accumulating symptoms include breaking a mop over an inmate’s head and writing to outside agencies under the delusion that he will be granted parole.

To assist Mr. Gregory, Samuel Baxter, a Gold Coat who fatally shot a co-worker, firing six times, gently reminds him about bed making and schedules. “You have to allow Mr. Gregory to come to you,” Mr. Baxter said.

There are limits to what Gold Coats can do. They can file patients’ fingernails, for instance, but not clip them because that constitutes a professional caregiving responsibility that cannot legally be delegated to inmates. And there are indignities, like cleaning up after inmates who urinate on the floor.

“A year ago,” Mr. Baxter said, “I couldn’t have said, ‘You know what man, I’m going to go help this grown man get in the shower,’ ” and “get in there and help these guys wash theirself off.”

Gold Coats say they are moved by the work. “I’m a person who was broken,” said Mr. Burdick, who during 35 years in prison lost a wife to AIDS and a 16-year-old daughter to suicide. Dementia patients often “don’t even say thank you,” he said, but “they just pat me like that and I know what that means.”

Mr. Cañas said: “I didn’t have any feelings about other people. I mean, in that way, I was a predator.” Now, he said, “I’m a protector.”

Still, the Gold Coats have not figured out how to help Leon Baham.

When Mr. Baham, 71, received a dementia diagnosis a year ago, a psychiatrist, Dr. Russell Marks, noted that he pined for his wife “almost as though at moments he didn’t realize” that his crime had been “murdering the woman he was tearful about.”

In a recent interview, Mr. Baham recalled the murder hazily: “Blood everywhere. She said, ‘Sweetheart.’ ”

He has repeatedly been placed in the crisis center, once after “he urinated on the floor, he was banging his head on the cage, he needed a spit mask to prevent his spitting on others,” and he was “threatening to kill persons that he believed stole his watch,” Dr. Marks said.

After trying to enter the wrong cell, he told Dr. Steed, “I’m going to kill myself,” adding, “I don’t want to live this way.”

He was sent to a psychiatric hospital, returning less depressed. But he often sits confused in the yard. “I forget why I was going out there,” Mr. Baham said. “I’m slipping a little bit.”

Still, he resists the Gold Coats’ help and believes that he would have to pay them. Oblique assistance, like Mr. Burdick bringing him a jacket, is all he accepts so far.

“I don’t need them, you know,” Mr. Baham said.


‘I Was a Monster’

The compassion Secel Montgomery is required to show in his job as a Gold Coat was nowhere to be seen in the killing he committed in 1987. He wanted money for alcohol, and when his former sister-in-law refused, “I knocked her unconscious, tied her up and stabbed her.” Then he washed his hands and called his wife for a ride.

He grabbed things that had his fingerprints on them, but left his infant nephew there alone. “I figured that’s kidnapping,” he explained.

Mr. Montgomery, sentenced to 26 years to life, spent 17 years in a high-security prison for “disobeying orders,” he said. He made contraband alcohol called “pruno.”

Only in 2000, after Mr. Montgomery, 47, was found with marijuana, accused of threatening a prison official and locked in the “hole,” did he decide to change. “I was a monster,” he said.

Families of demented inmates seem unperturbed that prisoners like Mr. Montgomery now have so much responsibility. Laura Eklund, Mr. Cruz’s niece, said prison officials have asked if his relatives wanted him paroled, but the family has declined. “To be honest, the care he’s receiving in prison, we could not match,” she said.

When Mr. Cruz spies his own reflection, he often believes it is his brother Sergio. To keep him from getting agitated, his cell mirror has been covered with tape. But now when he looks into a toilet, he calls: “Hey, my brother, he’s down there. I can’t get him out.”

Mr. Montgomery said he tries to reassure Mr. Cruz, but if Mr. Cruz is locked in his cell, Mr. Montgomery — still a prisoner, after all — cannot enter even if he is allowed out of his own cell. He will call to Mr. Cruz through a tiny window in the thick metal door. “All I can do is say, ‘Cruz, come here, come here, come here,’ but he’ll stand there,” staring helplessly into the toilet and agonizing. “ ‘See, see, look, see.’ ”

    Life, With Dementia, NYT, 25.2.2012,






Texas Prisoner Burials

Are a Gentle Touch in a Punitive System


January 4, 2012
The New York Times


HUNTSVILLE, Tex. — Kenneth Wayne Davis died at 54 as not so much a man but a number: Inmate No. 327320.

Mr. Davis was charged, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated for capital murder by the State of Texas after taking someone’s life on Nov. 19, 1977. But when he died in November 2011, Texas seemed his only friend. His family failed to claim his body, so the state paid for his burial.

On a cold morning in this East Texas town, a group of inmates bowed their heads as a prison chaplain led a prayer for Mr. Davis, his silver-handled black metal coffin resting on wooden planks above the grave the prisoners had dug for him. Wearing sunglasses, work boots and dirt-smeared white uniforms, they might have resembled painters were they not so solemn, holding their caps and gloves in their folded hands.

They were Mr. Davis’s gravediggers but also his mourners. No one who knew Mr. Davis bothered to attend his funeral, so it was left up to Damon Gibson, serving 14 years for theft, and the rest of the prison crew to stand in silence over the grave of a man they had never met. Then Mr. Gibson and the others put their gloves on and lowered the coffin into the ground using long straps, providing him eternal rest in the one place in Texas where murderers and other convicts whose bodies are unclaimed can be interred, remembered and, if but for a few moments, honored.

On this day, Mr. Davis’s funeral was one of seven at the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery, the largest prison graveyard in the country, 22 acres where thousands of inmates who were executed or died while incarcerated are buried. All of them went unclaimed by their relatives after they died, but the cemetery is not a ramshackle potter’s field. It is a quiet green oasis on a wide hill near the campus of Sam Houston State University, with rows of small crosses and headstones, at the center of which stand a decorative brick well and a white-painted altar bearing a cross. The last years of these inmates’ lives were spent under armed guard behind bars and barbed wire, but there is no fence along Bowers Boulevard here, and no one keeps watch.

Walking along the hill beneath the pine trees, stepping between the rows of hundreds of identical white crosses and tablet headstones, you think of Arlington National Cemetery. But if Arlington is for heroes, the Byrd cemetery is for villains.

The concrete cross marking the grave of Duane Howk lists his name, inmate number and date of death in June 2010 but says nothing of the offense for which he was serving a life sentence, aggravated sexual assault of a child. The serial killer Kenneth Allen McDuff, executed in 1998 for strangling a 22-year-old pregnant mother of two with a rope, had gained notoriety for being the only inmate in United States history who was freed from death row and returned years later after killing again, but he lies beneath a nameless cross reading 999055.

The state’s prison agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, has been the steward of the cemetery since the first inmates were buried there in the mid-1800s, maintaining and operating it in recent decades as carefully and respectfully as any religious institution might.

An inmate crew from the nearby Walls Unit prison cleans the grounds, mows the grass and trims trees four days per week. The inmates dig the graves with a backhoe and shovels, serve as pallbearers and chisel the names on the headstones by hand using metal stencils and black paint. The cemetery was named for an assistant warden at the Walls Unit who helped clean and restore the graveyard in the 1960s, and even today, the warden or one of his deputies attends every burial.

“It’s important, because they’re people still,” said the warden, James Jones. “Of course they committed a crime and they have to do their time, and unfortunately they end up dying while they’re in prison, but they’re still human beings.”

In a state known for being tough on criminals, where officials recently eliminated last-meal requests on death row, the Byrd cemetery has been a little-known counterpoint to the mythology of the Texas penal system. One mile from the Walls Unit, which houses the state’s execution chamber, about 100 inmates are buried each year in ceremonies for which the state spends considerable time and money. Each burial costs Texas about $2,000. Often, as in Mr. Davis’s case, none of the deceased’s relatives attend, and the only people present are prison officials and the inmate workers.

Though all of those buried here were unclaimed by relatives, many family members fail to claim the bodies because they cannot afford burial expenses and want the prison agency to pay the costs instead. The same relatives who declined to claim the body will then travel to Huntsville to attend the state-paid services at the cemetery.

“I think everyone assumes if you’re in a prison cemetery you’re somehow the worst of the worst,” said Franklin T. Wilson, an assistant professor of criminology at Indiana State University who is writing a book about the cemetery. “But it’s more of a reflection of your socioeconomic status. This is more of a case of if you’re buried there, you’re poor.”

Prison officials have verified 2,100 inmates who are buried at the cemetery, but they say there may be additional graves. Professor Wilson recently photographed every headstone and estimated that there were more than 3,000 graves.

In some ways, the cemetery and the funerals held there lack precision and formality. Coffins are transported from the altar at the center of the cemetery to the gravesite on a trailer hitched to the back of a green John Deere tractor. Names and words are misspelled on a few headstones and markers. Relatives have brought portable stereos to play music during the funerals, blaring rap songs and AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells.” Most days, after the inmate crew has returned to the prison, the cemetery is a deserted, lonesome place. Of the thousands of graves, only a handful have flowers on them.

“You’ve got guys here who died in prison and were buried out here, and they could have made a difference someplace, even if it was only in a small community somewhere,” said Jim Willett, director of the nearby Texas Prison Museum and a retired Walls Unit warden who attended nearly 200 graveside services. “These guys didn’t just mess up their lives. There’s their family and other families that got messed up because of some screwup that they did, and then they wind up like this.”

On the day of Mr. Davis’s interment, three burials had family members present, and four did not. Vandals had entered the cemetery and set a large brush pile on fire, filling the morning air with smoke. Neither Mr. Gibson nor the inmate workers knew any of the men they were burying. “It has made me a better person,” said Mr. Gibson, 38, a father of two from Houston. “It has made me reflect on the things I’ve done. I don’t want this to be me.”

Two of the seven inmates who were buried, including Mr. Davis, were serving life sentences for murder, and the others had been imprisoned for drunken driving, theft, assault, sexual assault of a child or burglary when they died. Mr. Davis spent nearly 34 of his 54 years behind bars. In the ground in Huntsville, he was finally free of his prison uniform. The funeral home that handles inmates’ burials put him in dark pants, a white shirt and a tie.

    Texas Prisoner Burials Are a Gentle Touch in a Punitive System, NYT, 4.1.2012,




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