Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Criminals I Have Known

by Mike Crawmer

Not that I’ve known all that many criminals, mind you. But my early career as a newspaper reporter—including a stint covering Congress—meant I encountered a criminal or two. To borrow a phrase, here are their stories.

The summer of ’75 I covered the trial of a woman charged with murdering her abusive husband. I can still picture her sitting at the defense table—slump-shouldered, scared, overwhelmed, older than her years. I remember her testimony—she spoke in her own defense—as she recalled the events that led up to the shooting: the fight that left her battered and bruised (again), the husband sleeping it off on the living room sofa surrounded by empty beer cans, the wife finding his gun, then pumping several bullets into his torso, silencing his snores and rage forever. I don’t recall her sentence, but in those days in that court, I’m sure it was a long one.

Several years later in another job I wrote about a university writing program for inmates at the old Western Penitentiary on the North Side. Getting inside entailed a harrowing passage through several intimidating metal doors. But once seated with the inmates, I felt comfortable. The two 30-somethings I interviewed were articulate and eager to talk about what learning to write meant to them. I waited until the end to ask them, in so many words, “So, what are you in for?” Murder was their answer. Two separate cases, same outcome: Life in prison with no chance for parole. (I was invited back to their graduation ceremony; most unusual “commencement” speech from the prison superintendent.)

Fast forward to this year. I’m visiting a friend serving out his sentence in a federal prison. It was a shock to see how much “Peter” had changed. He’d lost 60 pounds and grown a beard (he could shave only with an electric shaver, which prison rules barred, though safety razors were okay). At 78 he is the oldest inmate in a prison population split almost evenly between white-collar criminals and drug dealers. He ticked off the names of a couple ex-Congressmen he’d met on the campus-like grounds of the minimum security facility, and told us about the former Orthodox bishop who blamed his incarceration on “something to do with bingo.”

Mostly, though, Peter complained about the food. I couldn’t blame him; the main course on that evening’s dinner menu was deep-fried chicken livers. He was counting the days til his release to a half-way house. All pretty much to be expected of this Korean War veteran who holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago and had left behind a comfortable retirement, season tickets to the opera, and a loving family.

I’d like to think I left that courtroom and those prisons a little wiser. I do know that I left those sad places thankful to be free.


Tory said...

I do want to hear about the commencement speech!

I keep thinking about my High School commencement speech, which was given by then-governor Romney, who's now running for the Republican presidential nomination. I tell you, based on that speech alone, I'd NEVER vote for him. (Not that it matters much, given I never vote Republican.)

I have a friend who taught in prison and at a community college. She felt teaching in prison was by far the more gratifying experience in terms of the maturity of her students.

Joyce said...

Sad stories, Mike. I think the woman who killed her abusive husband should have received an award instead of prison.

Lee Lofland said...

Mike, you've written about a side of prison life that most people don't even know exists. Prisons are micro-worlds within our society. They have their own rules and unwritten laws, and whether we like it or not, most of the inmates within those worlds are everyday people. They just got caught something (I'm not talking about the violent offenders) that a lot of people do every day.

I'm not trying to plug my book (again :), but I did write an entire chapter about prisons and jails. I also wrote a section that describes an inmates journey through the system. I talk extensively about the federal system, which is another animal entirely. It's a surreal world where these people live. You just can't make up the sort of things you see in there. The emotional aspects are just over the top.

Great blog, Mike. And I think it's wonderful that you took your time to visit and help out. Bravo!

That's right, these comments are odd coming from an ex-cop, but I've never believed in the philosophy of "jail is the answer to the problem." It is in most cases, but once their there something needs to be done to reduce recidivism. Warehousing and medicating people with Thorazine does not help that problem.

I'm just saying...

Lee Lofland said...

Okay, I spelled something wrong (their instead of they're). So lock me up...besides, it's early.

Annette said...

Interesting stuff, Mike.

And, Joyce, I agree one hundred percent.

mike said...

Joyce--I recall the defendant's atty arguing something that approaches our concept of spousal abuse, but that wasn't recognized by the courts back then. Also, the family was well-known in the community--they were American Indian (a rarity in those parts), poor, living in a run-down house, and all the kids had run-ins with the law. Also, to enter the courthouse you had to walk past the statue erected after the Civil War to honor the county's sons who fought and died for the Confederacy. The county's monument to those few who fought for the Union is at Gettysburg.

Lee--You're so right...it is another world inside a prison, with its own set of rules and expectations. Besides the food, the one thing "Peter" minds the most is what I'd call the absence of individual discretion...it's a rule-based existence overseen by guards who can deny an inmate even the most fundamental element of free expression or action. Then again, the federal facility is completely open...no walls, just low-slung buildings scattered across the grassy campus, linked by asphalt walkways and decorated with flower beds and trimmed trees (no low bushes, of course). It looks like it would be so easy just to "take a long walk," but few do, I guess. BTW, did I mention I want an autographed copy of your book too? Looking forward to its release.

Lee Lofland said...

Mike, one privately-run federal prison camp (federal prison camps are for inmates with no history of violence and with a sentence of 10 years or less, which is considered short time in the federal system) in the California desert has grounds that are beautifully landscaped and I don't think you could pay the inmates to leave. The food is good, and plentiful, and there are practically no corrections officers on duty.

Five-hundred prisoners are supervised by four or five officers. The inmates run the place. They teach classes in the schools, conduct their own church services, and if an inmate gets out of line, they take care of that, too. They don't want the trouble because that would bring more security and supervision. Actually, the place is pretty well-run. Think Hogan's Heroes, sort of.

My book has been released, it's just slow in making its way to the various stores. I heard from someone this morning who received her copy in the mail yesterday. Also, I'm teaching a couple of workshops this weekend at a conference in Columbus, Ohio, and the bookstore there says they've received copies. I did a signing two weeks ago in Portland, Oregon, so they're inching their way around.

Nancy said...

I found myself reading your post, Mike, and thinking about how Michael Vick might live in prison. (Providing he goes. I suspect he'll get an ankle bracelet, don't you?) But "inside," I expect he'd be treated like a hero.

I got my master's degree in reading, and many of my fellow students did their practicums in the low security prison near Williamsport. It was rumored to have a golf course at one time.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, Mike. I'm always amazed at the past lives of the Working Stiffs that come out in posts. I'd love to hear more about your experiences, especially the story about your friend. I think the deep-fried chicken livers alone should be enough to combat crime, don't you?

Lee Lofland said...

Nancy, if the golf course thing upsets you (golf, along with tennis and soccer, is taught at some federal prisons as part of the recreation program) then how do you feel about swimming pools inside a correctional facility?

There are none now, but I know of at least one federal prison that had one. The pool was at the FCI (Federal Correctional Institution) in Petersburg, Va. It was filled in several years ago, but it was in operation for quite a while.

mike said...

Golf course? Tennis? Not where I went, but what they do offer, I'm not sure. I'll have to ask on my next visit. I do know that my friend said he's read practically every book in the tiny library. He would like to join a work detail--gardening, whatever--but because of his age and heart condition he's not allowed. Actually, I got the impression he and the people who run the joint are in a conspiracy to keep him alive until his release next spring.

Lee Lofland said...

Several of the federal prison camps do offer gardening. In fact, I know one that has an inmate florist who keeps the staff's desks adorned with fresh arrangements, daily.

Each institution is different (they don't all have the same activities) and a lot of that difference is a reflection of the individual warden and his/her tastes and goals.

My prediction for Michael Vick is a sentence of twelve months and a day. Why the extra day? In the federal system, a sentence of twelve months or less doesn't earn good time. By adding the extra day Vick would be eligible for release in about 10 months.

On the other hand, this case is in the 4th Circuit, the toughest federal circuit in the country. The judges over there DO NOT play. Judge Hudson is one of the toughest and his boss, Judge James Spencer is no pushover either. But I'm standing by my prediction based on what little I know about the case.

I don't believe the sentencing guidelines go down far enough in this case to warrant just an ankle bracelet. But the judge could sure send him to a halfway house for a portion of the sentence.

If he's in a halfway house he's allowed to go out for work and to attend religious services.

Joyce said...

Lee, we are so lucky to have you here. The amount of knowledge you have stuffed into your head amazes me.

On the other hand, you could tell us anything and we'd probably believe you. :-)

Lee Lofland said...

You, above all, should know that cops have to be great liars, especially detectives... :)

Joyce said...

And they're pretty good at it, too.