BY MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff Writer
Sunday, December 02, 2007
12/04/07 at 1:48 AM
For more: Read part 1 of the series, listen to Michael Overall read excerpts and watch a slide show.
A new inmate can
only imagine the
state prison system
Editor’s note: Prison officials won’t let anyone even
take a close-up photo of the front gate at the Lexington Assessment
and Reception Center, where all Oklahoma inmates
begin their sentences. Until now, only the guards
and the inmates themselves ever got a good look at the
other side. Here, for the first time, the Tulsa World follows
one prisoner through the gate.
Part 1 of 3
LEXINGTON — A white Chevrolet van pulls off
the highway and stops in front of a tall chain-link Lgate, topped with barbed wire and surrounded by
Shackled hand and foot behind the tinted windows,
13 men have endured a three-hour ride from Tulsa
County, but now the van has arrived ahead of schedule.
The gate won’t open for another 45 minutes.
Out the back window, Craig Bryan Steed can see the
sun just beginning to peek above the scattered farms of
Cleveland County. But daylight doesn’t make much difference
at the Lexington Assessment and Reception
Center, where floodlights have already erased any
trace of darkness.
Under the relentless orange glare, Steed can see the
watchtowers and the rows of concrete cell blocks, each
surrounded by its own razor-wire fence.
Now he has another half-hour to sit and think about
what’s going to happen on the other side of this gate.
There’s time to replay every bad prison movie he’s ever
seen: jack-booted guards with high powered
rifles. The stern warden pacing
back and forth. German shepherds
straining at the leash.
Steed has been arrested a few times
but never sent to prison before, so he can
When the gate finally opens, the van
backs up near a pair of garage doors,
where Steed and the 12 other men line up
next to a stack of water bottles and surplus
With the shackles removed, they simply
wait for their names to be called before
stepping one by one through a side
door and, officially, into the custody of
the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
This is the threshold between freedom
and incarceration — a greasy, cluttered
garage where prisoners are delivered
with as much drama as the mail.
A couple of guards sip coffee and snack
on doughnuts while they fill out paperwork.
Steed needs to sign a consent form
to let the Tulsa World photograph his
“They gonna make you famous,” one
“I hope not,” he chuckles.
Nearly 30 years old, with a receding
hairline and three days of stubble, Steed
still has a boyish grin. He tucks his chin
down and looks up at the guard with big,
“I don’t want to be the poster boy for
Herded through a metal detector and
down a short hallway to a windowless,
gray room, the new inmates are told to
change clothes, replacing the orange
jumpsuits from Tulsa County with slightly
brighter orange jumpsuits from Lexington.
Between outfits, the men stay naked
for several minutes while a guard
walks around the room with a clipboard,
documenting every bruise, scratch, freckle
Once dressed, the men sit down to
have their heads shaved bald with a pair
of electric clippers — a fate Steed avoids
only by wearing his hair shaved already.
Then it’s time to strip again.
With the orange jumpsuits crumpled
around their ankles, the men take turns
bending over the back of a chair while a
guard steps behind them, pulling on a
pair of latex gloves.
“Turn,” the guard says. “Lift.”
It’s not just a matter of searching for
“You have to break them down, shock
them into the system, just like going into
the military,” says Sgt. Everett Shea,
whose sleeve is rolled up to show off an
eagle tattoo, celebrating 10 years in the
After trying what he calls “a normal, civilian
job” for a while, Shea wanted to be a
prison guard because he likes the uniform,
the chain of command and — best
of all, he says — “that sense of brotherhood
with the other guards.”
When inmates transfer from a county
jail to the state prison system, they call it
“chain pull.” And it gives Shea the chance
to play drill sergeant.
“This is prison boot camp,” he says.
“You have to let them know who’s in
charge. They aren’t. We are.”
Looking down at the floor as they rebutton
their jumpsuits, the men avoid eye
contact as they come out of the exam
room. Sitting down on benches in the
hallway, no one talks.
The youngest guy barely looks 18, a
pudgy kid with round cheeks and a clean
face that never needs a razor. He starts
giggling, almost under his breath at first,
then cracking up completely.
“Oh, man,” he laughs, slapping his
knee. “I feel violated.”
“Yeah,” someone else chuckles. “They
found holes I didn’t know I had.”
Suddenly, the hallway lights up with
crude jokes and bawdy laughter, guys
high-fiving and slapping each other on
the back, with Steed in the middle of it,
still flashing that boyish grin.
The “reception process,” as the guards
call it, quickly settles into a mundane routine.
There’s form after form to fill out.
Line after line to stand in. Brochures to
read and laminated IDs to wear.
It might as well be enrollment day at a
junior college. Most of the guys look
about the right age to be freshmen, with a
few older students like Steed thrown in.
Everybody just happens to be wearing orange
The room could even pass for a small
cafeteria, overcrowded with plastic chairs
and long wooden tables. Just ignore the
locked door, a solid slab of metal with a
small bulletproof window. It doesn’t slam
shut — it slides laboriously into place
with an electric hum, as if the motor is
struggling to move so much weight.
Reading directions from a clipboard,
the guard slips into a tedious monotone,
like a school counselor who’s reading the
same set of instructions for the 101st
time. Never mind the automatic pistol on
While a nurse gives a brief lecture on
safe sex and the danger of sharing needles
—a lesson that would sound familiar
to any high school graduate — everybody
breaks into cliquish groups. The blacks
segregate themselves in a corner while a
couple of Hispanics sit face-to-face nearby.
The cool kids with tattoos grab a table
for themselves, and Steed sits down with
the other first-time offenders — the
geeks. He mentions that he graduated
from Edison High School in Tulsa, and
that starts a game of “Do you remember
“I think she was a year ahead of me. . . .
Yeah, I had a couple of classes with her
In the packet of forms to fill out, they
eventually turn to a page titled “Last Will
“This,” the guard reads in the same
monotone, “is in the event of your death
The conversation stops.
“Man,” Steed sighs, shaking his head.
“It makes you think. You get a three-year
sentence and it could turn into life — you
could go home in a box.”
In a room that echoed with voices just a
few seconds ago, you can hear Steed’s
rollerball pen scratching on the paper.
This is no junior college.
What makes Lexington unique is that
every state prisoner comes here, from
shoplifters to murderers.
It doesn’t matter whether you were
convicted in Little Dixie or the Panhandle,
whether you’re headed for maximum
security or a halfway house. No matter
what crime you committed and no matter
where you committed it, in the state of
Oklahoma, every prison sentence begins
A pothead can find himself in the shower
with a sex offender. Somebody who’s
never been arrested before can sleep in
the same cell with a career criminal. Everybody
gets thrown together for the first
several days before fanning out to correctional
facilities across the state.
“Some people come in here and act like
knuckleheads,” Sgt. Shea says. “And we
have to straighten them out.”
This batch from Tulsa County has been
nothing but cooperative so far. No fights.
No disruptions. The guards haven’t had
to raise their voices even once.
“You’re a good bunch,” Shea tells
them. “Keep it up and you’ll all do fine
They’re sitting on benches in the hallway
again, and nobody — Shea included
— seems to know what they’re waiting
“I told you it’s like the military,” Shea
says. “Hurry up and wait.”
Some of the inmates sit off by themselves,
arms crossed and heads down,
never saying a word unless somebody
asks them a question. And then the answer
is “yes” or “no” or just a shrug of the
Others won’t stop talking. Cracking
jokes and swapping stories, they seem almost
Steed falls somewhere in between —
friendly but not extroverted, joining conversations
but not starting them.
What surprises Shea — what surprises
him about every new batch of inmates —
is that nobody seems distraught or emotional.
“Every once in a while you see somebody
come in here and freak out, break
down. But not very often, and I don’t
know why. If I was on the other side of
this, if I was wearing orange right now in-
stead of blue, I’d be pulling my hair out.”
Steed and the other first-timers—four
or five guys who have never been to prison
before—seem to recognize each other
instinctively. They gravitate together
at one end of the hallway, just around the
corner from the locked door that leads
into the garage where they arrived just a
few hours ago.
Sgt. Shea sits down in the middle of
them, leaning forward to rest an elbow
on his knee, almost whispering as if he’s
about to reveal a secret.
“Do you have a problem with somebody
telling you how the cow ate the cabbage?”
Everybody huddles around.
“You want some advice?” Shea continues.
“Keep your mouth shut. Don’t borrow
anything from anybody. Don’t accept
any gifts. Don’t try to win any favors.
If somebody tries to mess with you, just
walk away. Swallow your pride. Pride
will get you hurt.”
The inmates look at each other for a
second, then turn back toward Shea and
nod their heads. Satisfied that he’s been
understood, he sits up straight again and
clears his throat.
“So what are you guys in for?”
Usually, the guards don’t want to
know — it keeps them unbiased if they
think of a guy as “just an inmate” and not
a rapist or a thief or a drug dealer.
“They’re all the same to us,” he says.
But this time he makes an exception,
and the inmates answer one by one
down the line.
“Possession with intent.”
“Assault with a deadly.”
Only one of them — the pudgy, baby faced
kid who started giggling after the
strip search — professes innocence.
“Framed,” he says. “Railroaded.”
Steed comes last.
Steed hadn’t had a drink in four years
and never planned to have one again. Instead
of an alcoholic, he was trying to be
a workaholic, pouring more than 60
hours a week into his lawn-care business,
then making extra money on the
weekends rebuilding car engines.
“I made good money. Had a good wife.
A good home. A good life,” he says.
Then his wife left him. In hindsight, of
course, he should’ve seen it coming —
the marriage had been neglected for
years. But he compares it to an IED in
“I’m just going along like nothing and
all of a sudden this bomb goes off and
my life is blown to pieces.”
With her gone, Steed couldn’t think of
a reason to live anymore.
“Binge drinking is just a slow form of
suicide,” he says. “I knew when I was doing
it that it was going to destroy my life
— I just didn’t care.”
One night last May, about a month after
his wife moved out, he went to see a
friend play in a band at Crow Creek Tavern,
a popular hangout in Brookside. Not
wanting to take any chances, he arranged
for a designated driver, he says,
but the guy ended up drinking even
more than Steed.
“My house was just a couple of miles
away. I figured, ‘What are the odds?’ ”
He lived near 31st Street and Harvard
Avenue, but Steed missed a turn and
found himself crossing the intersection
of 31st and Yale Avenue, a mile out of his
way. He wasn’t speeding or swerving or
driving suspiciously. A police patrol simply
noticed that his pickup’s tag light was
“I was probably going to get a warning
until he leaned in and smelled my
breath,” he says.
Steed stumbled out from behind the
“Do you want to take a sobriety test?”
the officer asked.
“No,” Steed shook his head. “I
wouldn’t pass. You got me.”
It wasn’t the first time.
Back in November 1996, Steed was
speeding down a rural Osage County
road in a vintage ’67 Ford. Trying to go
around a sharp curve three miles west of
Skiatook, he lost control and hit a tree.
His passenger, a 38-year-old woman
who lived next door to Steed in Tulsa,
was thrown out of the cabin and pinned
between the truck and the tree, where
she was declared dead at the scene.
Steed himself, only 18 at the time,
went to the hospital in stable condition
and later spent 173 days in the Osage
County Jail for involuntary manslaughter.
Within months, he was driving in
Osage County again, this time in a Chevrolet
that swerved across the middle line
several times before a police officer pulled
him over. A judge sentenced him to
another six months in the county jail on a
drunken-driving conviction, his first.
Steed quit drinking for a while. But in
2003, he was driving a Nissan hatchback
that hit a motorcycle on Interstate 44
near 41st Street, injuring the rider’s leg.
Police arrested him for leaving the scene
and for driving drunk.
But right now, sitting in the hallway
with the other inmates and Sgt. Shea,
Steed doesn’t go into all these details. He
simply tells them, “This isn’t the first
time that alcohol has ruined my life.
“But it’s going to be the last time.”
Now facing three years in prison,
Steed has lost his wife, his house, his
truck and his business. But instead of
feeling depressed about it, he sounds
hopeful, even upbeat. If binge drinking
really is a form of suicide, he might be
dead by now if he hadn’t been locked up.
“God is doing this for a reason. I really
believe that,” he says. “It could turn out
to be the best thing that ever happened
Over the next several days, he’ll face a
battery of physical and psychological exams
that case managers will use to determine
where to send him for the rest of
his sentence. But the options all fit under
two broad categories — treatment or
lockdown. Steed has a preference.
“I’m an alcoholic, not a criminal,” he
says. “I need help, not prison.”
The way he sees it, the state of Oklahoma
can accomplish one of two things.
“I can walk out of here sober and rehabilitated
and ready to be part of society
again, or I can walk out of here bitter and
broken and ready to give up on life.”
A lot of it depends on Steed himself
if he makes the right choices; if he keeps
the right attitude.
The rest will depend on what happens
here at Lexington.
Lunch comes in a brown paper sack,
tossed into Steed’s lap while he’s still
waiting in the hallway, five hours after
the Tulsa County van drove through the
He unwraps it to find a sandwich with
an unidentifiable type of meat. It smells
like a dirty sock, and Steed wraps it
again without taking a bite.
“Come on,” Sgt. Shea motions for him
to stand up. “It’s time to go.”
With Shea in front and another guard
in back, Steed waits at the end of the hallway
as a metal door slides open, triggered
by someone in a control room behind
The door leads into a sally port, where
the first door has to finish closing before
a second door can start to open, leaving
Steed and his escort momentarily
trapped between them.
“I did this to myself,” Steed admits,
looking at his reflection in the door’s
window. Shoulders slouched and eyes
half-shut, he hasn’t slept for 36 hours.
“I don’t have anyone else to blame.”
The second door leads to a long, empty
corridor, with everything painted
gray. Dark gray on the floor. Lighter
gray on the walls. And concrete-gray for
After 40 or 50 feet, the hallway takes
90-degree turn to the right, then after another
40 or 50 feet it turns back 90 degrees
to the left.
Everything looks clean. Empty. Quiet.
And gray — relentlessly gray — except
for one isolated pair of windows, where
the afternoon sun paints a yellow rectangle
on the floor.
Shea and the other guards walk ahead,
footsteps echoing, as Steed falls behind,
walking alone. They don’t have to worry
about losing him, because there’s nowhere
to go but down this empty corridor.
Down to Cell Block II.
Down to Quad No. 4.
Down to cell “M.”
“You OK back there?” Shea looks over
Clutching that brown paper sack,
Steed doesn’t say anything. He just
grins. But this time, somehow, it doesn’t
look so boyish.
Michael Overall 581-8383
She was going to drive her Toyota SUV
until they noticed that a taillight was out.
Instead, they took Craig Steed’s Ford pickup.
He wanted to go for a drive around Skiatook
Lake because Tammie “Renee” Fox
liked the scenery out there. What they
talked about remains unclear, but apparently
it involved Steed’s desire to date
Fox’s 18-year-old daughter, according to
“She decided to go with him,” Teri
Franklin says. “And that was a fatal decision.”
In November 1996, officials estimated
that Steed’s pickup was going 80 mph in a
40-mph zone when it strayed off the road
and hit a tree, killing Fox, who was 38.
Steed spent six months in the Osage
County Jail for involuntary manslaughter.
“I never understood why he didn’t go to
prison right there, right then,” Franklin
“There’s a lot that I don’t understand
about the justice system, and frankly, it
has left me bitter.”
She says she thinks about Fox every
But facing the 11th anniversary of her
child’s death this year, she’s been thinking
about her daughter even more than usual.
“She was a talented musician, you
know,” Franklin remembers. “She could
play the piano by ear.”
Franklin’s been thinking a lot about
“I never knew him myself, and I don’t
want to,” she says. “Knowing that he’s finally
being taken off the streets, all I can
say is, ‘It’s about time.’ ”
Craig Steed steps into the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center to begin his three-year sentence.
Craig Steed steps into the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center to begin his three-year sentence.
Sgt. Stephanie Howard escorts Craig Steed down a long, winding hallway toward his cell.
“It makes you think,” Craig Steed says about his imprisonment. “You get a
three-year sentence and it could turn into life — you could go home in a box.”