INJUSTICE INSIDE THE WALLS OF JUSTICE – A COMMENTARY ON THE NATION’S PENAL SYSTEM
by Bob Helle
It’s almost a cliché but imagine being escorted into a prison cellblock populated by hardened criminals and hearing that mammoth steel door clang shut behind you. It’s every bit as terrifying as it’s been repeatedly portrayed over time in fictional novels, television, and film. And then some.
As a newspaper reporter working the cops-and-courts beat at a daily in Ottawa, Illinois, I often sought permission to get inside jails and prisons to discuss the nuances, the methods, and the rationale behind the criminal activity. I reasoned, correctly, I believe, that it made perfect sense to discuss the crime with the actual criminals. I did this not to be daring but to seek out the truth. Truth, you may ask, as articulated by a convicted felon? The operative word is “convicted.” I often found that prisoners were actually quite forthcoming after the fact. After all, the trial was over and the deed had been done. This is not to say that gleaning crime details from an inmate was easy – it was most certainly not. And it was a fairly daunting task to gain permission from the prison hierarchy to even interview an inmate. My motivation, as stated above, was not to be daring but to draw out the actual truth – versus the sometimes ignominious courtroom version of the truth – of a case when questions and motivations lingered in the aftermath of a conviction. I often found that the real truth emanated not from the criminal justice system in the form of discovery documents produced by the prosecution and defense teams, but from the perpetrators themselves. It seemed more than reasonable to expect to find the real essence of a crime with the person who actually committed the crime. Provided, of course, that the convict was ready to discuss his dastardly deeds with a newspaper reporter. Some were not. But most of the ones I approached seemed almost anxious to discuss their plight.
Getting inside a prison to interview a prisoner was difficult but far from impossible. Once I got over the initial shock of actually being locked inside a correctional facility amid a bunch of violent, hardened criminals, it became, believe it or not, business as usual, especially after my initial foray inside the walls of justice. Reporter’s notebook – check. Miniature tape recorder – check. Pens that worked – check. An interview subject who was anxious to tell his side of the story – check. I’d be locked and loaded.
By far the toughest part of any inmate’s life, at least from what I gleaned in my interviews, is the abject loneliness spawned by the separation from loved ones, particularly when small children are involved. One especially poignant interview I conducted was with a father of three little girls. This man was not your typical felon; a young man in his late 20s who came from a good family with the prototypical Midwestern upbringing, he and his wife found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Both worked but for meager wages in a bad economy. Struggling to make house payments and put food on the table for the three little girls, Brian, as I will refer to him now, reluctantly turned to a life of crime. Growing up, Brian developed a knack for opening locked doors. He had somehow become quite proficient at it. Unfortunately for him, he never lost the touch. Perhaps his misguided, short-sighted, and blatantly illegal efforts would have been thwarted had he not been so blessed.
It was an unusual series of crimes, and that’s why I pursued Brian’s story. It was unusual from the standpoint of how he gained entry into retail establishments. No ordinary criminal, Brian eschewed the front and back doors. He chose only stores that could be entered from the ceiling. That way, he reasoned, he could just “drop in” without being encumbered by pesky security cameras and alarms. He would abscond with goods that he could resell, thereby generating considerable ill-gotten gain. And his scheme worked for a time. Ultimately, however, he chose the wrong establishment for his drop-in method of theft. Security cameras indeed identified him entering through the ceiling, and he was caught dead to right. Though he had no “sheet” – no rap sheet with a lengthy laundry list of priors, he was connected to myriad cases of breaking and entering and grand theft. The magnitude and the number of crimes were more than sufficient to warrant a slew of felony convictions, for which he was sentenced to many years in prison.
I’ve lost track of Brian, but his story left an indelible etch on my psyche. I find myself wondering what he’s doing today, what became of his little girls and their quality of life today. I learned that a prisoner is more than a number, despite the fact that they are in large part reduced to a number by our penal system. I learned that some of them really aren’t such bad people after all. I learned that they have families who care about them and who suffer severe heartache and painful loss in the aftermath of a felonious crime. I learned that some prisoners really do have a conscience and suffer deep regret. I learned that some of them could probably be rehabilitated, if only we had an infrastructure in place to promote rehabilitation.
I entered Brian’s facility that day with a goal of finding out why he chose such a novel approach to crime; after all, most after-hours retail thieves just smash their way in through the front door. When I left the prison, the actual crime method seemed almost secondary to Brian’s emotional state. Especially heart-wrenching was Brian’s description of his daughters’ prison visits. With tears in his eyes, he described how they would hold their little hands up to the glass separation, trying in vain to touch their daddy’s hand. I left the prison that day just feeling sad, and not without shedding a tear or two of my own. I was sad for Brian, sad for his family, and sad for a penal system that really does nothing to foster rehabilitation. This was more than 20 years ago, and really, not much has changed. Instead, convicts like Brian, who are inherently good, often are turned into monsters by a lifestyle permeated by such prison hallmarks as forced sodomy, gangs with more clout and presence than the prison guards, and extreme violence. How can anyone, even so-called model prisoners, be rehabilitated under such adverse conditions?
This is not to suggest that some hardened criminals are beyond rehabilitation. Some are. Some studies have suggested, for example, that pedophiles, among other deviants, cannot be rehabilitated. From my experience as an investigative reporter, I believe this to be true. There seems to be no “cure” for pedophiles. Other studies have shown that recidivism does not necessarily correlate to the length of a sentence. Other studies have shown the opposite. Who knows where the real truth lies? From my interviews with Brian and a host of other prisoners, I learned only one real truth: the current criminal justice system in this country has been broken for a very long time and it is not working. Many half-hearted efforts have been conducted over time to overhaul the penal system, but today’s prisons, for the most part, operate under the same model that existed 50 years ago. Whenever I think of today’s stagnant, repetitive, and failing prison methodologies, I’m reminded of one my favorite phrases:
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing in the same way and expecting different results.”
Bob Helle is a former newspaper reporter and editor, having worked at six different newspapers in Iowa and Illinois. “Former” doesn’t mean he has deviated all that much from writing and editing, however. In 2000, after experiencing first-hand the early stages of the newspaper industry’s now-ongoing circulation struggles, he made the difficult decision to exit that realm, accepting an offer from the University of Iowa, his alma mater, to edit medical reports. While continuing to work for the University, now in student financial aid, Bob has broadened his outside editing interests to include adult-fiction editing, which he considers a labor of unrequited love. Over the past few years, Bob has edited the works of several independent authors, including Darcia Helle. He remains indebted to Darcia for giving him a chance to demonstrate his mettle as a book editor. An avid baseball fan, Bob maintains a baseball blog during the season. His love of dogs rivals his love of baseball, and he and his wife Carol can often be found relaxing with their brother-sister boxer tandem, Ivy and Toby.
Connect with Bob on his new website: http://anovelapproachtoediting.wordpress.com
If you’re in need of awesome editing, you can contact him directly at: roberthelle1956 – at – yahoo.com
Come back on Monday, February 18, for a fascinating glimpse into the world of forensic art with Ken Lang’s article Me? A Forensic Artist?
You can see the full month’s schedule here: Criminal Justice Blog Series
Tags: Bob Helle, Conversations with Inmates, Crime Journalism, Crime Journalists, Criminal Justice, Criminal Justice Discussions, Fiction Editors, Indie Editors, Interviews with Criminals, Investigative Journalism, Investigative Journalists, justice system, True Crime Stories