In the summer of 1992, eastern Kansas was a swamp. Rains soaked the land. Roads were washed out. Frequent thunderstorms plagued us. Lightening stroked the sky as thunder cracked and rumbled in the distance. The sky darkening to the color of charcoal, it might as well as have been night. A dark and stormy night at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary — just where I wanted to be, as opposed to still tucked in my warm comfy bed, asleep.
At seven am, I drove my baby blue Honda civic along the twisting roads, trees whipping their branches around me in the wind. Stopping twice, map in hand, to ask for directions, since my typical route had been washed out by the flooding. In 1992, we didn’t have cell phones or GPS, just a flimsy paper map and a dim memory of the route, which I’d traveled mostly with others in the driver’s seat. I dreaded going to the Penitentiary. Besides the fact that I always got lost on the twisting and twining roads, I felt like a mouse in a cage. A barbed wire encased monstrosity made out of concrete and steel with tiny cells, no windows, and what amounted to a cheap airport lounge to visit with clients. Granted it could have been worse – at least there were couches and cushioned chairs, with little wooden coffee tables. On television prisons had black tables and steel gray chairs, with a bulletproof glass between you and your client. Here? There was no glass and vending machines lined the walls. If purgatory had a waiting room, it most likely resembled an airport lounge in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.
I was on my way to a parole hearing. We’d spent the last month and a half preparing. And to say I was nervous was an understatement. There was a lot on the line. For one thing the hearing was long over due. My client, a tall African-American man in his late forties, with salt and pepper hair and a quiet gentlemanlike demeanor, had petitioned the Kansas Defender Project, for which I worked, to represent him at his parole hearing. He should have been up for parole five-ten years ago, but due to a bureaucratic clerical error, his parole had been pushed back another ten years.
At least, he’d been productive with his time. Couldn’t say the same thing about the rest of my clients. During that period, he had written a pamphlet about the consequences of drug abuse for teens, and ran a drug rehab support group in the prison for the other inmates. He was in prison for robbing banks, which he had done mainly to feed his cocaine habit. It probably is important to note that my client was what we liked to call a career criminal. This was his third offense, hence the lengthy sentence. He’d been in prison at least once before – also for robbing banks.
That summer, I had three clients who were in prison partially due to their drug habits. Of the three, Joe Williams (his real name I’ve long forgotten and I wouldn’t share it anyhow) was by far my favorite. The other two were respectively, a hit man for a major east coast drug cartel operating out of the Carolinas, and a man who was caught with possession of crack cocaine. The hit man wasn’t anything like what you saw in the movies. For one thing – his eyes had a dull yellow cast to them, and he had track marks running up and down his arms, a lifetime of doing heroine would do that to you. Even his skin had a yellow tint to it. He had no remorse. He never claimed he wasn’t a killer. He claimed that he hadn’t had effective representation of council and wasn’t necessarily guilty of these particular crimes or that anyone, in his opinion, had successfully proved otherwise. My job was to obtain his records from his counsel, review them and determine if there were any grounds for an appeal. So far, I hadn’t found any, but at least I’d obtained the records, the last two student lawyers who’d represented him hadn’t gotten that far. The other client, I couldn’t do anything for – the Federal Sentencing Guidelines made it clear that if you were caught with possession of crack cocaine and suspected of dealing – you spent five to ten years in a Federal Penitentiary. His family lived in New York City, but he was stuck in Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas.
As an aside, I’d known people in college and much later, who not only used recreational narcotics, but dealt them. Dated a guy once who had dealt LSD, and knew another guy who got suspended for doing the same thing. And I had friends who used cocaine recreationally. [I never had – I have enough issues with caffeine and sugar, cocaine and LSD would drive me insane.] The difference between the folks I knew in college and my friends and the men I was representing in prison were two things: 1) they were white, the guys in prison were black, and 2) they had money, education, and opportunity, while the men in prison did not. Didn’t excuse the men’s crimes, but…well, as my Criminal Procedure Professor and Defender Project supervisor told us on more than one occasion, “There but for the Grace of God, Go I.”
Anyhow, Joe the Bank Robber’s parole hearing had been rescheduled twice due to a prison wide lock-down. There had been a brutal knife fight just two days before and a guard had been injured. As a result, everyone was locked in their cells and visiting hours were suspended. When we arrived, we sat for two hours in a waiting room, with family members and attorneys. If the prison visiting room felt like an airport lounge, this resembled a doctor’s waiting room, complete with elevator music. No wait that was the Guard’s radio playing quietly in the background. If I listened closely enough, I could almost make out the twine of Patsy Cline.
Thunder continued to crack in the distance. The woman who sat next to me, stared at my colleagues and I in disdain. “You don’t care about us,” she said. “ You’re just here for what? To get paid? To get a good grade? You don’t care what happens here. We’re nothing to you.”
I was twenty-five years old, filled to the brim with my own self-importance, and a heartfelt desire to save the world, one prisoner at a time. “No, you’re wrong, I do care. Everyone has the right to fair representation no matter their crime or status. I care what happens to these people.” If anything, I thought, and no doubt my world-weary supervisor who sat next to me agreed, I cared too much.
After two hours, we were ushered through the massive gates and up a spiral staircase to the rotunda. Circling it were various small offices where the individual parole hearings would take place. Outside each door were two metal folding chairs, one for the lawyer and one for their client. Joe was already there. The lawyer, my supervisor, who accompanied me, walked into the room behind us to supervise the other young wet-behind the ears student intern, Christy and her client, a huge Cuban, who had been convicted of rape. I sat there in my knee length skirt, nicely pressed shirt, hose, heels, and suit jacket, sweating beside my client who wore an orange jumpsuit. On the way, I remember asking the guards what would happen if we had a power outage. Would we be stuck inside? No, they assured me, there was a back-up generator. Still, I found myself checking the walls and ceiling for escape hatches.
At one point, I looked up at the rotunda, a dull concrete dome encircling a bit of charcoal sky. Lightening lit it every few minutes. My client followed my gaze.
“Sort of freaky isn’t it?” Joe asked. “Probably dates back to the 1800s when this place was part of the military prison.”
“Actually, I was trying to figure out if you could use it to escape. The window has no grating or bars on it. Which is surprising in of itself..”
“Don’t really need bars, do you? There’s no way you can get up to it.”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe you could scale the wall and out you go-”
“No, wouldn’t work – for one thing, you’d have to get past the guards. This place is pretty secure. And then there’s all that barbed wire outside…assuming you got that far.“
“I don’t know, you could maybe use a wire cutter.”
“Where would you get it?”
“A lot more difficult than you’d think to sneak that out. Also they are careful just who they give that stuff to.” He studied it a moment. “Besides, how’d you even get up there? That window is what at least 50 feet.”
“You could use some rope, maybe climb the sides…”
“There’s nothing to dig your hands or feet into. Look at it,” he gestured at the wall of the dome, “those walls are smooth. And there’s a huge drop, fifty feet at least, You fall, you break your back. And assuming you could even get a hold of the rope…nope, wouldn’t work. You still have to fit through that window, figure out a way of getting off the dome, scale the barbed wire and get past the guards. Not worth the trouble. Too many things could go wrong. ”
It struck me at that point that this was probably not the most appropriate topic of conversation.
“I don’t know how you stand it – I’d get claustrophobic and start looking for exits within a week.”
“It’s not so bad. We’re barely in our cells, anyhow.“
Which was true enough – on my tour of the prison a few weeks ago, I’d noticed a movie theater and a television lounge, along with various other activities such as a library, a classroom, arts and crafts, etc. Several of my colleagues commented on how nice the prison seemed, a city run with military precision, plus food, shelter, and no fear of going hungry. Not such a bad deal.
“Well except for now – with the lock-down.”
“Two of the Cubans decided to attack two of the white guys and a guard got stabbed trying to stop it.”
“Does that happen often?”
He shrugged. “Often enough. Only results in a lock down if a guard is involved.” He paused, glancing up at the rotunda as thunder rumbled above us and lightening quickly followed, briefly lighting the room. “ You know that it’s not prison itself that’s the problem. Pretty monotonous actually, and they keep us busy – with forty hour a week schedules. No, it’s the people that you are stuck in here with that make it a prison.”
“Really? I’d think it would be the lack of control over your environment. Being stuck and unable to do what you want when you want to do it. Not to mention locked in a small room each night, with no windows.”
“Oh, that’s not so bad. You get used to it after a while. Like being in the army. Besides, it’s true outside as well…to a degree. You have to go to work. You have to follow rules.” He shrugged. “No, it’s the people. You can’t get away from them. And some of them can be really nasty. You learn over time who to avoid. But you don’t always have a choice. They don’t let you pick who you room with or exercise with, generally. And there are some people in here that…” He trailed off. “Let’s just say that there are people that have done things that make the worst of us cringe.”
“For me? The child killers and rapists are by far the worst. We all hate them. Some real nasty dudes. Had to room with one once, not pretty. ”
“I’d think it would be the murderers and serial killers.”
“Oh they aren’t that bad. Murderers don’t tend to bug you much as long as you don’t tee them off. And there aren’t any serial killers or if there are they aren’t locked up with us. No, it’s the ones who get off on hurting kids that bother me. Something wrong with their heads.”
We both fell silent for a bit. Listening to the dull echo of the rain pinging against the dome and cringing at the cracks of thunder. Lights were dim, so the flashes of lightening were more intense than they may have been if the rotunda was well lit.
“Guess they don’t have bright lights in here as rule,” I said, breaking the awkward silence.
“Nope. Saving money. Also don’t really need it.” He paused for a long moment, chewing the inside of his mouth.
“So, you think I can make it on the outside? Without robbing banks and all? Your honest opinion.”
“After you get paroled?”
“Yeah. Not fall into the old habits, get a job, start over?”
I looked into his eyes, dark brown, coffee brown, reminding me a bit of my brother’s without the hint of mischief. Old eyes. Tired eyes. With just a glimmer of hope hidden in their depths.
“I think you can. You’ve written a pamphlet. I mean it would be hard…but I think you could, if you tried. You’re resourceful. ”
“Assuming I even get paroled.”
“Can’t see why not. You’ve rehabilitated yourself and it’s long past due. It’s in your favor.”
“But prison isn’t about rehabilitation,” he said. “It’s about punishment. That’s all. Punishing people for what they did. They don’t really rehabilitate you.”
“I think it’s both, along with deterrence.”
“No. Just punishment. You know that right?”
“Then why have parole? Or all the activities? The workshops? The law states -”
“Oh that may be their intent. But really they just want to punish you. The old eye for an eye, like in the Bible. They don’t push you to rehabilitate. You have to do that yourself. Fight for it. No, they don’t really care just as long as you pay and do your time. Deterrence maybe. Not that it works.” He looked at me again. “So you think I can make it out there, assuming I make parole that is?”
“I …I don’t know. I really don’t…I’m not sure I can even judge you or imagine what you’re dealing with. I don’t know what it is like to support a family, to be addicted to cocaine. And I don’t know what I would have done if I were in your place, in your shoes. I’d like to think I’d have handled things differently, but I really have no idea. And I don’t know what you’ll run into when you get out. But look what you’ve done in here – not everyone does this. Not everyone writes a pamphlet to tell kids why it’s a bad idea to do drugs, or sets up a class/rehab group for fellow inmates to help them get off drugs. Maybe you could go into counseling or work with addicts? “
“Maybe.” He looked across the room at the other prisoners sitting with their counselors. “Maybe. Would like to see my son again, at any rate. Been a while.” Then after a moment, in a quiet voice, barely audible, “Thank you.”
“I really should have worn slacks for this. Not comfortable in the hose. Besides I just found a run in them.” I had, while he was talking, it was running down my right leg. “You didn’t notice it, did you?”
“No. But then, I’m trying not to pay too much attention to your legs or look too closely. We don’t see many women in here, you know.”
Okay, awkward. Really need to work on not saying whatever comes into my head.
As luck would have it, at that moment, my supervisor stepped out of the room behind us. They were ready for us now. The other student attorney, Christy, and her client had just finished. She didn’t indicate if he had gotten parole. Nor did he. Considering he was a rapist, I was sort of hoping that he didn’t.
The room was sparse. Small desk. Six fold out metal chairs. Three officers behind the desk, and three chairs in front – where we were supposed to sit. Nothing else, except for a stack of files. They pulled out my client’s and the Q and A began. It only lasted thirty minutes, but it felt longer.
I answered most of the questions. My client barely said a word, and my supervisor, a young guy in his thirties, looked bored. Flipping through the documents in my lap, I found and handed the officers the pamphlet that Joe wrote, along with his certification as a drug abuse counselor. Hoping my hands didn’t shake too much – the bane of my existence was my trembling fingers. Whenever I got nervous – the trembling increased. In college, when I read poetry at coffee houses, they labeled me the trembling poet, because my hands shook so badly. Other people could hide their nervousness, swallow it, but for me – my hands gave me away every time. Sort of put a halt to any dreams I’d had of becoming a professional actress, a public speaker, or a stand-up comedian. My client, on the other hand, was the picture of calm waters. Not a ripple showed. Not a tremor. Stoic to a fault. As was my supervisor for that matter. I, however, was a trembling, emotional mess. This did not bode well for my future law career.
The questions weren’t all that complicated. But over twenty years later, I find I can barely remember them. Staccato. Rapid fire. Providing about five minutes in between for answers. I had no time to check my paper-work. The officers were stoic as well. They flipped through their paperwork the way a banker would flip through his books, except with less passion. If anything, they looked bored and saw this as matter of routine.
“What has he done to rehabilitate himself?”
“You say here that he wrote a pamphlet? Explain that.”
“What was his record in prison? Did he conduct himself favorably, any incidents?”
“How do we know he won’t do this again?”
“What job could he get?”
“How many years has he served?”
Stuff like that. I remember telling them about his work on the pamphlet, and with the drug rehab group, and in shop. Explaining that his parole was long overdue and under the law, he should have been released at least five years ago. The officers didn’t blink. He had served the maximum sentence for the crime. That he had a flawless record in prison, no incidents. That his past should not be held against him and he should be granted a second chance as dictated by such and such statute. I worked hard to stick to the facts. No emotion. Facts. Nothing but the facts, sir, nothing but the facts – dry cold facts.
After a few minutes of shuffling through their papers, they told me that they agreed. He would be released from Federal custody to the state of Ohio. Apparently there was a detainer – so once he was released on parole from Leavenworth Penitentiary, he went back to Ohio, to either be released on parole or serve additional time there. I asked if they could release him from his detainer.
“Not within our jurisdiction.”
Afterwards, my supervisor, who co-run the Defender Project with the aforementioned Criminal Procedural Professor, advised that while I’d accomplished my goal – I had come across as too “emotional” and “nervous”. Stupid hands. He decided to do this in front of my client for some reason.
“I completely disagree,” Joe told him, defending my performance. “She did a great job. The emotion worked. It showed she cared and I think that made a major difference. I really hope you go on and become a lawyer – we need more people like you.”
Well, at least Joe the Bank Robber appreciated my abilities.
We parted ways on the rotunda steps, our clients went in one direction, while we were went in the opposite. Following the guards through the long barely lit hallways. It wasn’t until I passed through the iron clad reinforced steel doors that I breathed a sigh of relief. It wouldn’t be my last visit inside the prison. I had to teach a class the following week with a fellow law student on effectiveness of counsel.
Three pm in the afternoon. We’d been there all day. I was starving. At least the rain had stopped. The clouds had cleared a bit. The sky was now the color of wet socks, as opposed to charcoal. No lightening flashed. No thunder rumbled. I drove home, with Leavenworth Penitentiary rapidly fading in my rear-view mirror. The countryside was absurdly pretty, green rolling hills, lush trees, flowers, it was odd to think a maximum security penitentiary lay within its boundaries.
A week later, my client sent me a note thanking me again for getting him his parole and asking if I could help with the Ohio Detainer. Apparently he wasn’t paroled yet, just released from Federal custody into State custody.
I remember marching into my supervisor’s office, which resembled a professor’s office more than a lawyer’s. He was older than the attorney who had accompanied me to the parole hearing, with a receding hairline. He played the violin and the year before had managed to get me an internship with the Olathe Public Defender’s Office. “What can I do to get him released from the Detainer?”
“Sorry not within our jurisdiction.”
“There must be something.”
“You aren’t licensed in the state of Ohio, neither am I. We can’t do anything. Not our jurisdiction.”
I burst into tears, which was humiliating to say the least. “But…there must be something I can do … that we can do.”
“You can’t save them,” he advised me. “You do what you can. That’s all we can do. Any of us. You helped this man. You got him his parole, which was long overdue. That’s no small thing. And you acted as his advocate. You defended his right to a fair hearing. It’s not your fault that you can’t do anything else. The rest is up to him and to others.”
Twenty-three years later, I still remember that prison. See it vividly. It’s concrete and stone walls. The barbed wire. The towers. The dimly lit gray stone rotunda. The small waiting rooms. And the thunderstorm that raged outside as my client and I talked, killing time before the hearing. It’s odd what we remember, isn’t it? So much blurs together over time, I find myself forgetting little things here and there, but forever ingrained in my memory is that parole hearing on a long dark and stormy day in Leavenworth Penitentiary – or rather the conversation I’d had with a career bank robber within its depths.
To this day, I wonder what happened him. Joe had been forty-five years of age. Now, well, I’m past that age. So he’d have to be pushing seventy. Did he get released on parole? Did he change his life? Did he even live to reach seventy? I’ll never know.