Welcome to a cell on Arkansas’s Death Row

A inmate’s model shows the scale of confinement in Arkansas’s Supermax

[private]Pictured here are two views of a cell on Arkansas’s Death Row. The photos are of a model that was made legally by a Death Row inmate, using materials that were allowed at the time. The model was then given to a free-world visitor, as prison policy allowed. I have been asked not to identify either the artist or the owner.

The actual cell, though irregular inside, is 11′ 7″ by 7′ 6″. The blue protrusion in the lower-right corner was for a television. New televisions have recently been installed however, nearer the commode.

I believe the device shown to the right of the bed is a remote for the television, but I do not know if that was changed or eliminated with the change of TVs. Stations available to inmates are limited and the warden decides what DVDs get shown. And, yes, that is a cell phone on that ledge in the door. Guards take the phone from cell to cell. It is programmed only to call people who have been approved for a particular inmate. The person being called must accept the charges.

A spout for the shower head can be dimly seen to the right of the combined commode-and-sink, beneath the jerry-rigged clothesline. The grated rectangle above the sink is a bright recessed light that remains on much of the time. The floors, walls and ceiling are concrete. The bed is concrete too, topped with a thin pad. Some prisoners have chosen to string a curtain over part of their narrow, horizontal windows, as illustrated here.

Two doors are shown on the exterior. Guards and the inmate enter and leave through the door on the right. The trapdoor above the number drops down, exposing a horizontal slot. This is where food trays are passed, and through which inmates are handcuffed before guards enter the cell or before the inmate is taken out.

The door on the left hides a utility chase. Plumbing pipes and electric wiring are behind it.

This model was made primarily of thin pieces of wood, about the size of Popsicle sticks, held together with glue. Inmates must buy their own art supplies from a list approved by the prison. Until a recent crackdown, they were allowed to have up to two 500-piece boxes of the sticks.

In the past, well-behaved Death Row inmates were also allowed access to up to 10 two-ounce bottles of paint, 10 brushes, two 11×12-inch drawing pads, two four-ounce bottles of glue, and a set of colored pencils. The permission was part of the prison system’s policy is “to afford inmates the opportunity to make constructive use of leisure time by participating in approved work craft program carried out under staff supervision, where available within institutions.”

Within the past 10 weeks, however, guards on Death Row have confiscated almost all craft materials that inmates had previously—and legally—obtained. Supplies that they had purchased or that families and friends had purchased for them were taken away without explanation and most reportedly have not been returned.

When I asked about the confiscations, prison spokesman Dina Tyler replied that the crackdown has been system-wide.  “We want to make sure that inmates are getting their own supplies and not ordering for other inmates,” she wrote. “We have had some problems with this in the past. We also are making sure that they are getting only what is allowed and not extra items.”[/private]

No snakes in heaven

Misskelley reflects on work, chow and how much he’s changed since his sentence

[private]Jessie Misskelley, Jr. wakes up at 2:30 a.m. Most of the time, he doesn’t go to breakfast. “I just don’t like it,” he says.

Six days a week, he works in the laundry at the prison system’s Varner Unit, in southeast Arkansas. Each barracks holds 54 people. It’s Misskelley’s job to pick up the laundry bags from inmates in 22 of the unit’s barracks and to return the bags once they’ve been washed.

Lunch is from 10:30 to 11 a.m. He rarely goes to the chow hall for that meal either. “Every now and then I go,” he says, “if they’re serving sloppy Joes, spaghetti, fried chicken or brown beans. But it’s very rare that you see that.”

Instead, he eats food he buys from the prison commissary: dehydrated soups, ramen noodles, chips, instant chili, instant beef stew, cereal (Lucky Charms he moistens with water), crackers, chips and cookies—usually vanilla wafers “because there’s more of them in a bag.”

Misskelley is one of many inmates who, if they can afford it, avoid most food served by the prison. He estimates he spends about $65 a week for the commissary supplies. The money is sent to him from “different supporters” who contribute to his account at the prison online. He says, “Some, I don’t even know who they are to thank them.”

He realizes he’s on a bad diet. At 34, he stands five-foot-two and weighs about 185 pounds. He’s totally bald and has a perfectly round clock on top of his head, complete with Roman numerals. He’s worn the tattoo for a decade. When Misskelley grins, which he does often, he looks like happy elf. 

Yet there is little to his life beyond eating, sleeping, working, reading his wrestling magazines and listening to his radio. He says he doesn’t socialize with other inmates because, “They get that nonsense on their minds,” and engagement can lead to trouble.  “Why should I get mad?” he says. “If I get mad, it will only cause more problems, and I try to avoid that.”

He stops and laughs. “Wow, I’ve changed a lot. When I was a teenager, I was constantly in trouble. My temper was real bad. I would fight for anything. But now I just overlook it.”

He pauses. “So I think I came a long way.” Then the prisoner seems to enjoy the irony of what he just said. “Yes,” he chuckles, “I have come a long way.”

Misskelley’s biggest comfort is the phone call he makes to his dad every Friday. “As long as I talk to him,” he says, “I’m good.”

He draws support from his legal team:  Jeff Rosensweig of Little Rock, Michael Burt of San Francisco, and Nancy Pemberton, an attorney-turned-private –investigator, who’s also in San Francisco. “I talk to Nancy a lot,” he says. “She tells me all the time, ‘Don’t give up. I’m going to get you out.’”

Misskelley is relieved that Judge David Burnett has left the bench. Burnett officiated at the trials of the West Memphis Three and for 17 years—until his recent election to the Arkansas Senate—remained the only circuit judge ever to rule on the men’s appeals.

“We should have got Burnett out of the way a long time ago,” he says. “I believe it should have been done a lot faster because I know he wasn’t doing his job right.”

Misskelley reflects that at his trial in 1994, Burnett “should at least have let Dan [Stidham, his attorney] present his case the way he was supposed to. Dan could only do what Burnett allowed him to do.” And when Burnett heard Misskelley’s petition for a new trial, “he should have let my witnesses tell where I was at that night.”

Still, Misskelley reflects, “I’m not mad at him for what he did. If I was a judge and somebody done that to a kid—like we was accused of murdering those three little boys—I would have probably done the same thing. But he was a judge, and he went to school, and he was supposed to do the right thing.”

That thought seems to stir another one, more religious or philosophical. “If you want something in life you have to be good,” he says. “To get to Heaven you’ve got to be good.”

And what does Misskelley, a Christian, expect to find in Heaven?

“Golden floors and no more evil,” he says. “Like down here, say, for instance, there are snakes. They bite you. I’m real scared of snakes. But in Heaven, there’s not any snakes.” [/private]

The ‘conscious decision’ that earned Jason Baldwin 77 days in solitary

An almost perfect prison record–and he marred it with eyes wide open

[private]Almost any prison officer who’s had anything to do with Jason Baldwin will tell you that—with one very large exception—he’s been a model inmate. Between 1994, when Baldwin entered the Arkansas Department of Correction at the age of 16, and now, when he’s a slightly balding 33-year-old veteran of life bounded by barbed-wire, Baldwin has—but for that one occasion—been a trusted and valued inmate.

Over the years, and at different prisons, Baldwin has worked in the library, as a counselor and in the office of the prison department’s school. He held a 1-C classification, the highest class that can be attained by an inmate serving life without parole.

By 2006, Baldwin had been imprisoned for 13 years. He was living then at the Tucker Unit, about 35 miles southeast of Little Rock. Because of his trustee status, he was given a farm-related clerking job. He and about eight other inmates worked with a small group of officers at a separate building nearer the fields that everyone called “Little Tucker.”

The office work was routine, but the atmosphere in Baldwin’s new assignment was not like anything he’d encountered before. Someone had brought a guitar to the building, and Baldwin began to learn to play.

More amazing, there were computers there. The computers were not connected to the Internet, but someone in charge did allow the inmates to play video games on them, listen to music and watch movies.

Baldwin knew that all of this was illegal. But he liked it.

“When I got there, they already had that stuff going on,” he said in December 2010 interview. “I didn’t instigate it, but I made a conscious decision to benefit from it.” Even though he couldn’t get onto the Internet, he said, “I was working on it, though. I wanted to.”

The once-model inmate explained his thinking. Like most kids in high school, he had expected to go on to live a normal life. “Back in 1993, I was already on my way,” he said.

“Mrs. Littleton, my next-door neighbor, had helped me get my first job. It was at Kroger [a grocery chain]. I had to cut my hair. Mrs. Littleton was going to match me dollar-for-dollar on new clothes and then on a new car.”

He said she showed him this generosity because he’d been helping her. He’d go shopping with her put away her groceries, and when she drove to Tennessee to visit her daughter, Baldwin would ride with her, “just to be safe.”

“It was all going to start after that last day of school, June 3. I could have had some money and a new car. New clothes. I had it going on.”

Instead, he was arrested, accused of murdering three children, jailed for months, then tried and convicted. Before he turned 17, he’d been sentenced to life in prison.

Faced with the opportunity at the farm office, Baldwin reasoned that he had already lost irreplaceable years for a crime he didn’t commit—years, he realized, when computers were getting faster, smaller—cooler—and into the hands of everyone his age. Until his chance at the farm office, Baldwin had not played an electronic game since his trial, when, he recalled, one of his attorneys had lent him a device on which he’d played a bit of Tetris.

It was a rationalization, and he knew it. And he wasn’t too surprised when the inevitable crackdown happened. On Aug. 27, 2006, prison officials discovered the goings-on in the farm office.

Baldwin was taken to the state’s Supermax Unit, where Damien Echols is held, and placed in solitary confinement. He was kept there for 77 days. “Internal Affairs wanted me to tell them which officer was responsible for bringing the stuff in,” Baldwin said. “I wouldn’t do it. That’s why they kept me in the hole.” Even after they released him from solitary, officials kept Baldwin at the Supermax for an additional 90 days.

Today, Baldwin lives at the department’s Maximum Security Unit, which adjoins the less stringent Tucker Unit where he got into trouble. He has regained the class he lost by his decision to enjoy the illicit activities and now lives in a barracks reserved for trustees. “The majority of the officers wish me well,” he said. “They tell me they pray for me.”

He recalled with a grin that last September, after the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered an evidentiary hearing to review evidence in his case, “I was coming from the laundry with my cleaning stuff, and I was smiling. And the warden saw me and said, ‘Baldwin, what are you smiling at. You think you’re going home?’”

Baldwin has again been assigned to a high-level job as the only assistant to the free-world teacher who heads the unit’s school. One of his duties is to prepare a school handout that goes to all inmates every week. The handout presents a problem on one side, and the solution, with a step-by-step explanation of how to reach it, on the other.

“I do everything,” he said. “I keep the classroom clean and I teach, mostly math and the GED classes. I teach that it’s not just about the math, it’s about problem-solving in real life. I focus on skills like critical thinking.” 

So how does Baldwin evaluate his own critical-thinking, three and a half years ago, when he had the opportunity to join in the fun in the office at “Little Tucker”?

 “You’ve got to understand. I live in a repressive environment,” he replied. “Institutionalization is a cold force.” He offered the example of photos in inmates’ cells.

He had 75 of them. Though prison policy allows inmates to keep only five personal photos, guards had overlooked the policy for years. That recently changed, however, and now the rule is strictly enforced.

“There’s one guy who’s been here for 45 years,” Baldwin said. “He had a bunch of photos. The guards told him, ‘Send them home or we’ll destroy them.’ He said, ‘Heck, I’ve been here 45 years. Everyone I ever had is dead. Who’m I gonna send them to?’ So they destroyed them—all but five.”

Baldwin’s point is that photos, guitars and computers are just a few of the things that all inmates are denied. For more than 17 years, he has tried to make the best of his situation. He laughs, “I go into the school with my clipboard, and I’m like, ‘Check out my iPad, Guys.’”

But given a chance to grab at some of the life he’s missed, he did. So his personal assessment is this: “I’m glad I did it once. But I wouldn’t do it again.”[/private]

Blood evidence on inmate Echols

The severity of policies at Arkansas’s Supermax can be seen in prisoners’ wounds

[private]Damien Echols lifts the white pant’s leg of his prison uniform to show a visitor his sock. Even through the glass that separates them, the visitor can see that the sock is stained by fresh red. Echols stretches out his arms, exposing his wrists, which are circled by deep impressions from the handcuffs his guards just removed.

Echols knows that he risks retaliation for showing a reporter this evidence of his treatment. He doesn’t care. “There’s a general level of abuse that exists here all the time,” he says. “But then, there are particular guards who hate—hate—to see any attention shown to this case whatsoever. Those are the ones who apply extra pressure just to show me I’m not special.”

When Echols was sentenced to death in 1994, he did not get an Arkansas Department of Correction number as Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., did when they too entered the state’s prison system. Baldwin is ADC 103335, Misskelley ADC 103072. Echols is SK 931. The SK stands for “safe-keeping,” the idea being that the men on Death Row were never sentenced to prison, like the 16,000-some other state inmates. The prison system is just supposed to be holding him in “safe-keeping” until his real sentence—death—is carried out.

“Safe” is not a word that Echols would ever have used to describe life on Death Row, but he and others there report that conditions have worsened considerably since a change of wardens about a year ago. The blood on Echols’s ankle and the impressions left on his wrists are but the latest of the physical insults he has suffered as a prisoner. They are the result of a new regimen at the state’s Supermax Unit for transporting Death Row inmates whenever they’re outside of their cells.

It used to be that men to be taken out would back up to the door of their cells and extend their wrists through a slot so that a guard on the other side could handcuff them for the walk—usually to the visitation room. Once there, while the inmate’s visitor watched from across the glass, the inmate would step into the visitation cell, the guard would close and lock the barred door, and the cuffs would be removed.

In the past year, however, that process has gradually changed. In addition to the handcuffs, guards began shackling Death Row inmates. That is, placing around their ankles cuffs connected by a short chain or strap that permits only a hobbling walk. On top of that, wardens have also imposed an additional restraint: a leather strap that connects the handcuffs to the shackles. What prompted such Hannibal-Lecterish measures is unclear. Echols and others say that they don’t know what led to the change. Nor has the ADC reported any violence from Death Row inmates—a population that has long been regarded as one of the least troublesome in the system.

Walking while shackled is difficult, but Echols says guards go out of their way—at least with him—to apply the shackles and cuffs so tightly that they leave marks and/or draw blood. He recently reported by mail that, because of the bleeding problem, guards are now locking the shackles over the prisoner’s pant legs, so that metal does not touch skin. Despite that, he says, walking in the restraints remains painful.

The date of this visit is Nov. 30, 2010. Just a few weeks earlier, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered that  an evidentiary hearing be held in the cases of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, to determine whether the three deserved new trials. Echols says that things started getting especially bad for him a month before that ruling, when the supreme court held televised oral arguments in his case. He believes that some of his jailers watched the proceedings on TV.

“After it was over, four or five guards came into my cell and trashed it,” Echols says. “They took all of my books, my journals, my personal writings and sketches. They threw family photos on the floor and walked on them. They just seemed kind of pissed off. Sullen.

“They never said why they were doing it. They don’t tell me anything. To these people, I’m not even human. They don’t owe me an explanation. I remember one did say, ‘We’re going to help you do a little house-cleaning.’”

Echols estimates that that “house-cleaning” session lasted about 45 minutes. Then it happened again.

“It was a day or two before Veterans’ Day,” Echols says. “Guards I’d never seen before came in. There were three guards doing it and one watching. This time it lasted about 15 to 20 minutes. They threw everything on the floor and kicked it around. Then they took my bowl.”

Prisoners are allowed to have a small plastic bowl they can buy from the commissary. They use it to save food from their food trays for later, or to rehydrate items such as ramen noodles that they can buy from the commissary.

After those incidents, when a CNN reporter asked Echols about letters he’d received from John Mark Byers, Echols had to say he no longer had them, that they’d been taken by the guards. “It seemed to me they were gathering as much stuff as they could,” he reflects, “to look through at their leisure—or to be used by the attorney general.

“All I know is I’ll never get it back.”[/private]

A look at the judge assigned to the WM3 evidentiary hearing

Judge David N. Laser is said to go ‘right to the important thing’

[private]When Judge David Laser took the bench at the scheduling conference with attorneys in the case of the West Memphis Three, he looked a bit like Santa Claus: roundish of belly but with a trim gray beard and mustache, and a black robe instead of the usual red-and-white outfit. He’s bald to about the top of his head, and from there, his hair is longish in back to where it curls above his collar. Though it’s not evident when he’s on the bench, he is said to be rather short—five-foot, give or take an inch. In northeast Arkansas, however, Laser is considered a legal giant.

The judge imposed a gag order on the attorneys at that January 4 conference. Even before that, he had told reporters that he would not grant interviews until the evidentiary hearing to which he’s been assigned is over. Nevertheless, he is a well-known—and apparently well-respected—member of his community and many people who know him agreed to talk about him.

“He has a very good work ethic,” a former law partner observed. “He will stay as long as he needs to stay to get the job done, and he’ll show up as early as he needs to show up.” Another attorney calls Laser “a standout” in Arkansas’s Second Judicial District, adding: “Whenever there’s a real difficult or complex case, all I can say is, he usually ends up being assigned to it.”

Two long-time friends recalled that Laser grew up the son of a merchant in the small town of Forrest City, Arkansas, about a hundred miles south of Jonesboro; paid his way through law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville by working as a butcher at a local IGA grocery store; married his wife Ann while they were students; and now have two grown daughters and a son.

Laser’s profile on Plaxo.com (last updated almost two years ago) notes that he also has grandchildren. Other entries there reflect a man who enjoys “whatever the day brings;” cultivates new interests “every day;” “loves blues and rock and roll—country, classical—the works;” likes “CSIs, except CSI NY” and “all the Law and Orders;” reads “mysteries with psycho twists;” and holds religious views he describes as “historical/Jungian.”

A friend chuckles that Laser’s love of blues and rock have developed “mostly since his children have grown up and left home.” But when Laser graduated from law school, he was a newly married young lawyer in serious need of a job. He found one at a firm in south Arkansas, where he stayed a couple of years. He moved back to northeast Arkansas when he was hired by Bon McCourtney—“a colorful old guy who hired a lot of young lawyers,” according to Lovett.  “He was sort of a storied character” who was “old-school, to say the least.” Laser did mainly criminal trial work while with McCourtney.

Troy Henry, another lawyer who worked for McCourtney shortly after Laser left, remembers the older man as a good mentor, especially in regard to dealing with people. McCourtney “had a great understanding of human behavior,” Henry recalled, “and, once you’ve learned the book law, that’s the most important thing.”

While Laser was establishing his legal career, his wife Ann Laser earned a graduate degree at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. According to her website, she then began work as a psychotherapist, a career she continued for more than 20 years.

 In 1970, Laser left McCourtney to join another Jonesboro firm, where his practice turned mostly to civil trials. It was there that Henry got to know Laser.

 “I met him in the courtroom too many times,” Henry says with a laugh. “We battled time and time and time again, and he became one of my best friends. Whatever happened in the courtroom, whoever won or lost, we walked out, patted each other on the back and put it behind us. Unfortunately, very few lawyers are like him.”

In the late 90s, when Laser first ran for a position as circuit judge, he was unusual in at least two respects: he had never served as a prosecutor, and he didn’t draw an opponent.  Laser was re-elected six years later, again running unopposed. If he chooses to stay on the bench—which friends say they expect—he will have to run again next year.

Laser does not hear cases tried by Henry or other close friends. But Henry says he always hopes to draw a judge as good as Laser. “When attorneys go into his courtroom,” Henry says, “he already knows all about what they’re there for. He’s diligent and totally prepared. He goes right to the important thing, and that makes a world of difference.”

Stan Langley, another attorney who does not appear before Laser, echoes Henry’s admiration. “His strength as a trial lawyer was his full and complete development of the case. He left nothing to chance. He was almost over-prepared, if you ever can be.”

Langley says that Laser’s regard for preparation followed him to the bench. “He does a hell of a job,” Langley says. “He allows the parties to completely develop their cases. I doubt either side in the West Memphis case will have any qualms or reservations about having him as a judge.”

The picture of Laser painted by attorneys who are not friends of the judge was similar, though lawyers in this group asked not to be quoted by name.  Some pointed out that Laser  was one of the earliest judges in the state to push, along with Judge David Burnett, to establish drug courts in their district. The courts are intended to help first-time offenders avoid prison by submitting to strict monitoring of their conduct and avoidance of drugs.  “He does that every Tuesday night,” one attorney observed.

Another Jonesboro resident noted that, unlike one state judge who used to televise her drug courts, Laser is highly protective of his. “He likes for all of the attention to be centered on the defendant, so he limits attendance. He says, ‘I want them to do it on their own, and not with the whole world watching.’ He doesn’t like the spotlight on him or on the people in there.”

Almost everyone interviewed for this article used words like “personable,” “pleasant,” “kind,” and “meticulous” to describe Laser. Only one person mentioned ever having seen the judge get “annoyed,” and that, he said, happened only “when attorneys aren’t prepared or don’t follow procedure.”

Off the bench, David and Ann Laser divide their time between homes in Jonesboro and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Ann, who has an art studio . Her work—monotypes, paintings and mixed media—are sold online and in galleries in Jonesboro and London.

This quote from her website expresses her view of art, but it also describes a humane and judicious temperament: “I believe the challenge we all face as individuals, groups, and nations is to be able to understand, accept and hold the tension between polarities in ourselves and with others … polarities such as ‘us/them,’ ‘good/bad,’ ‘black/white,’ [and] ‘have/have-not.’”[/private]