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]

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