BY MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff Writer
Monday, December 03, 2007
12/04/07 at 1:49 AM
For more: Read part 1 of the series, listen to Michael Overall read excerpts and watch a slide show.
Prison gives a man
hours to think on
why he’s there
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 2 of 3
LEXINGTON — Somebody left a King James Bible
in the cell for him to find. Now it’s lying open on the desk in front of the window, the iron bars
casting two parallel shadows across the pages, turned
to Acts, Chapter 12.
In the passage, an angel opens a prison gate to let St.
Peter walk free.
Craig Steed has read it over and over again, but right
now he’s sitting on the lower bunk and gazing out the
window. If he leans back on the bed and puts his head
near the wall at just the right angle, he can look out and
see his own prison gate, where a Tulsa County van
brought him to Lexington five days ago.
“Do you know about ‘The Candy Bar’?” Steed wants
It’s a video that new inmates watch as part of orientation
at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center,
now,” Steed says, leaning back to look at
the prison gate again.
It could be tomorrow or next week or
even next month, but someday Steed will
leave through that gate—not with an angel,
but with an armed escort.
He won’t know where he’s going until
he’s on the way, but he could spend the
rest of his sentence in a drug- and alcohol-
Or he could wind up in minimum security,
with at least some degree of freedom.
Or he could go to maximum security,
where even a candy bar would seem like
“There goes a van right now,” Steed
says, still leaning against the wall to see
the gate. “I wonder where it’s going.”
He wakes up every morning and, in the
fog of sleep, expects to reach out and
touch his wife. For a moment, he thinks
he’s going to open his eyes and see her
face gazing back at him.
He forgets that she ever left him, that
he ever started drinking again, that he ever
got pulled over for driving under the
So it’s a bitter surprise when his eyes
come to focus on a gray concrete wall
with graffiti scrawled next to his pillow. A
black circle surrounds a cross with the
“Instead of waking up with a woman, I
wake up with the Aryan Circle,” Steed
Gang symbols decorate a lot of cells at
“This can’t be happening to me,” he
says. “This isn’t my life. This isn’t who I
The rest of the wall looks like a math
professor’s chalkboard, cluttered with
complex equations where previous inmates
have “calculated time.” Factoring
in good behavior, overcrowding and parole
guidelines, a prison calendar becomes
algebraic, and nobody has a short
answer for “How long until you get out?”
Steed hasn’t written on the wall, but
with a three-year sentence, he hopes to
be out in less than 12 months.
Waking up in a cell that measures 10
feet by 8, Steed barely has room to
stretch out on the floor to do his morning
push-ups. Then he can use the “desk
chair” — really just a small metal stool
bolted to the floor in front of the desk —
as a kind of stair-stepper machine.
When he runs out of breath, the stainless-
steel toilet doubles as a sink for
washing up and a water fountain for taking
“It’s ingenious, really,” Steed says,
demonstrating how to turn on the faucet.
From the sink on top, water drains into a
tank, where it waits to be used for flushing
the toilet bowl.
“And watch this thing flush,” he says,
pulling a lever to trigger a mighty torrent
of water. “You could put a bowling ball
down that thing.”
During his time at the Tulsa Jail, before
coming to Lexington, Steed learned how
to make a “sheetline,” which most inmates
pronounce with a short “i” instead
It means stringing a bed sheet from
wall to wall in front of the toilet to preserve
some privacy. Although Steed
doesn’t have a cellmate here — a rare luxury
at Lexington, where the cell blocks almost
always stay at maximum capacity —
he still has to worry about the windows.
One overlooks an exercise yard, and a
smaller one lets a guard peek through the
“You’re not supposed to do it,” Steed
says. The rule book forbids it. “But you
have to. You just have to.”
Growing up in rural Osage County,
Steed was 14 when he stole a six-pack
from his mother and took it down to the
creek for an overnight camping trip.
“I didn’t like it,” he remembers. “And I
promised myself that I’d never be an alcoholic.”
As a boy, he watched his mother drink
and, although Steed won’t talk much
about it, the experience obviously
“I never wanted to be like her. Never.”
About a year later, he left his mother’s
house to live with his father in Tulsa,
where he enrolled at Edison High School.
Used to his mother’s strict rules, where
he had to come straight home after
school and rarely invited friends over,
Steed wasn’t sure what to do with his
“My dad didn’t really care what I did. I
mean, it’s not that he didn’t care. He just
thought that I needed to make my own
mistakes. He wasn’t trying to protect me
from every little thing.”
A loner when he lived with his mother,
Steed made a lot of friends in Tulsa. One
night in somebody’s bedroom — it might
have been his own house; Steed doesn’t
exactly remember — his friends wanted
“It was peer pressure, just like an afterschool
special. It really was,” he says. “It
was like, ‘Hey, come on. Everybody’s doing
it.’ They were my friends, and I wanted
them to like me.”
Steed opened a beer, and this time, he
didn’t stop drinking until he passed out.
The thing is, he liked it. He liked it a lot.
Not the taste — that you can get used
to. But being drunk.
“I was probably drinking again the very
next night,” he says. “I just liked the way
it felt. And I think there’s something genetic;
I really do. Some people, when they
start drinking, they just can’t stop, and
I’m one of those people.”
Now, after 15 years of on-again, offagain
drinking and three DUIs, Steed
might finally get the help he needs. If he
can talk his case manager into it, he
hopes to be sent to Vinita, where the Department
of Corrections has one of the
most respected drug- and alcohol-treatment
programs in the state.
“I have a disease,” he admits. “I’m not
saying what I did wasn’t my fault. I belong
here. I’ve done this to myself. But I need
help. I need treatment.”
Until mid-afternoon, Lexington stays as
quiet as a library — only the occasional
guard’s footstep or a clanking door
comes echoing through the cell block.
Steed reads the Bible for a while, then
he works on a letter to his grandfather,
rambling for several pages before running
out of things to say.
Day after day, for hours at a time, he
will do nothing but sit on the lower bunk
and gaze out the window, watching birds
attack insects in the grass, following
clouds as they morph into different
shapes, counting cars as they drive down
The guards won’t allow televisions or
radios in the cells. Other than his Bible,
Steed doesn’t even have a book or a magazine
to interrupt the monotony. Nothing
is allowed into the cell unless it comes in
an 8ô-by-11 manila envelope from the
Legal Department, which so far has offered
Steed a notepad with pencils and a
copy of the Lexington rule book, which
he’s virtually memorized from reading it
10 times a day.
The window provides the only distraction,
and that makes the window absolutely
fascinating. Steed will notice even
the smallest change in the weather. He’ll
remember every obscure type of bug that
crawls across the sheer glass. And he’ll
recognize all the faces that walk back and
forth from the next cell block.
With the front gate in view if he strains
to look from the right angle, no vehicle
comes or goes from Lexington without
Steed noticing. Some inmates might relish
having a cell to themselves, with the
top bunk left empty. But not him.
“I just want somebody to talk to,” he
complains, fidgeting nervously with the
seam at the bottom of his orange shirt. “I
don’t care if he’s a nut. He could be an ax
murderer — at least he’d be interesting.”
Never the kind of guy to loaf around,
Steed used to work two jobs most of the
time — not so much for the money, but
just to stay busy.
Now he spends a lot of time trying to
sleep. Or he paces back and forth. Writes
another letter. Gazes out the window.
Turns on the sink faucet just to hear the
water running. Then sits down to read the
Acts has become a favorite, although
Matthew and Luke seem interesting. Revelation
doesn’t make sense, and the Old
Testament grows tedious.
“So-and-so beget so-and-so,” Steed
says. “Even in here I’m not bored enough
to read that.”
One afternoon, a fruit fly provided an
hour of entertainment as it flew around
the cell, until it disappeared into an air
vent and never came back. The window
offers the only consistently reliable
source of amusement, and Steed never
stays away from it for long.
As dusk settles in, the window will give
him the first glimpse of dinner as trustees
come down the sidewalk with a wheeled
“Oh, man. The food,” Steed sounds excited.
“You wouldn’t believe the food in
A typical dinner might include chickenfried
steak with mashed potatoes and
cream gravy, served with sweet bread
and double-layer chocolate cake for dessert,
all courtesy of the prison’s culinary
arts school for inmates.
“When I get out of here, that’s the only
thing I’m going to miss,” Steed says.
“People who aren’t in prison should be
lucky enough to eat like this.”
Lexington grows louder after dark,
with the inmates yelling through the
closed doors, faces pressed against the
small windows that look out into the cell
The muffled words echo against the
concrete walls, everyone screaming at
once until the voices swirl into an unintelligible
“You know the old Charlie Brown cartoons?”
Steed explains. “It’s like when the
teacher was talking and all you heard was
‘wha-wha, wha-wha-wha.’ It doesn’t even
sound like English.”
The other inmates apparently know the
language, because the conversation will
go on for hours. But Steed will catch only
a few random phrases, most of them unprintable.
Between 8 and 9 o’clock, a guard will
open Steed’s door to let him walk across
the cell block to the showers. With 20
cells in this “quad,” and two inmates in
most cells, the guards will open only a
few doors at a time to avoid a traffic jam in
the bathroom. But the open stall has only
two shower heads, so Steed will still have
to wait in front of the sinks for his turn.
Nudity doesn’t faze him anymore.
“It’s like the old high school locker
room,” he shrugs. “The first couple of
times, you think everybody’s staring at
you. But then you’re like, ‘Get over it.’
You just mind your own business and get
out as fast as you can.”
If the shower doesn’t take too long, he
might have time to step into the exercise
pen, a concrete rectangle about four
times bigger than his cell, empty except
for a picnic table. A landscaper by profession,
Steed dreams about grass, but
there’s none to be found.
“When I get out of here,” he says, a
phrase that seems to be starting more
and more of his sentences, “I’m going to
roll around in it. Smell it. Taste it. Cover
myself in it.”
Back inside his cell, the lights will go
dim at 11:30 but not go completely dark.
Standing on the desk stool, Steed can
reach the cell’s light bulb to unscrew it,
breaking a rule but allowing him to lie
down without the glare.
Periodically through the night, guards
will come to the door for bed checks. The
nicer ones will shine a flashlight off the
ceiling, using the reflected light to make
sure everyone is still present and accounted
for. Others will shine the flashlight
directly in Steed’s face.
But it doesn’t matter much, because he
probably won’t be asleep anyway. He’ll
spend most of the night gazing out the
window, straining to see the front gate,
watching the overnight traffic. When will
it be his turn to leave Lexington in one of
those white Chevrolet vans?
And where will it take him?
Michael Overall 581-8383
When state Sen. Richard Lerblance recommends
adding thousands of new beds at
Oklahoma prisons, he finds an enthusiastic
audience at the Legislature. But when he recommends
using many of those beds for drugand
alcohol-treatment programs, the Senate
chamber falls quiet.
“Nobody wants to touch that issue,” says
Lerblance, a Democrat from Hartshorne.
“They’re afraid of being seen as soft on
crime. Well, I say, ‘Hogwash!’ ”
A past chairman of the Oklahoma Sentencing
Commission, Lerblance made statewide
news this fall when he proposed a $309 million
bond issue to add 3,818 beds to the prison
“It’s a matter of necessity,” he says, noting
that his proposal has gained broad support
and the Legislature will likely vote on it next
year. “The prisons are overcrowded and getting
more overcrowded, so we have to do
A related proposal, however, has quietly
disappeared into a legislative committee,
where it appears to be “dormant, if not dead,”
Senate Bill 635 aimed to provide “treatment
without delay” to drug and alcohol offenders
as soon as they enter Oklahoma prisons,
but it met with little support, he says.
Drug- and alcohol-related offenders by far
make up the biggest chunk of the state’s prison
population — more than 35 percent.
And more than half of all inmates, regardless
of what crime they were sentenced for,
are diagnosed with a “moderate to severe”
drug or alcohol addiction when they first go to
But of the inmates who are diagnosed with
an addiction, about half will be released without
receiving any treatment. Prison officials
say they simply don’t have enough funds to
offer treatment to all of them.
“It just doesn’t make any sense to house
these people for a year or two and then open
the door and kick them out,” Lerblance says.
“It won’t be long before most of them are
right back inside.”
Officials haven’t released details, but the
Oklahoma Sentencing Commission is working
on several recommendations to increase
the availability of treatment.
Lerblance plans to bring those recommendations
to the Legislature next year, but he
doesn’t sound optimistic about the reception
those ideas will have.
“Everybody wants to be tough on crime,
but being tough means being smart, too,” he
says. “Drugs are a big problem for the prison
system—a big problem—and ignoring it or
sweeping it under the rug won’t make the
problem go away.”
Whether Lerblance receives much support
in the Legislature or not, he’ll find willing allies
at the Department of Corrections.
Prison officials often mention the “Broken
Window Theory” to support the idea of treating
an inmate’s addictions — and treating
them after the first offense, instead of waiting
for multiple offenses.
The theory dates from the 1940s, when sociologists
observed — with a touch of hyperbole
—that just one broken window can start
to turn a nice neighborhood into a slum.
In other words: If left unfixed, a small problem
can turn into a big one.
“Intercede the first time that a kid breaks a
window,” says Mary Smith, director of Treatment
and Rehabilitative Services for the Oklahoma
Department of Corrections, “and that
kid will never get to the point where he’s robbing
houses and killing people.”
In the case of drug users and drunken drivers,
the “broken window” is the first offense,
Smith says. Force the defendant into treatment
then, and the state will likely avoid repeat
offenses that lead to prison, she says.
“Statistically, without treatment you can expect
this person to keep committing and recommiting
the same offense until he is finally
put through treatment. Then, after treatment,
the statistics swing the other way — you can
expect not to see this person in jail again.”
With that in mind, Smith has a simple question:
“Why not save time and money and go
straight to treatment the first time?”
Craig Steed spends 23 hours a day in a cell the size of a walk-in closet.
Craig Steed spends 23 hours a day in a cell the size of a walk-in closet.
Straining to find just the right angle, Craig Steed looks out the cell window to watch the prison’s front gate.
Alone in his cell, Craig Steed has plenty of time to think about what has become of his life. “This can’t be happening to me,” he says.