BY MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
For more: Read part 1 of the series, listen to Michael Overall read excerpts and watch a slide show.
A prisoner is
headed for his
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 3 of 3
GRANITE -- A white Chevrolet van pulls off the
road and stops in front of a tall chain-link gate topped
with barbed wire and surrounded by surveillance cameras. It all looks terribly familiar to Craig Steed, shackled hand and foot behind the tinted windows.
When the van left Lexington a couple of hours ago,
he expected to head northeast toward Vinita, where
the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has a drug-and alcohol-treatment program. Instead, the van
turned southwest, and Steed opened his official travel
documents to see the destination listed as "OSR."
"It took me a minute to figure it out," he says. "OSR?"
The Oklahoma State Reformatory sits along a desolate stretch of highway that connects Lone Wolf with
Granite, just west of Quartz Mountain, where the big-sky landscape looks more like Wyoming than southern
Oklahoma. The ground stays as flat as a ping-pong table until it reaches the horizon; then it stands straight
up to form gigantic rocky buttes.
The reformatory itself is just another rock formation
of sorts. In 1908, prison laborers took
stones from local quarries and piled them
into a castlelike fortress, a 24-foot wall of
solid granite that surrounds several medium- to maximum-security cellblocks.
When the gate opens, the van pulls into
a compound where Steed and several other inmates clamber out before having
their shackles removed. They've arrived
just in time for dinner, served in a large,
noisy hall with long rows of crowded tables. "Straight out of 'The Blues Brothers,' " as Steed describes it.
The newcomers walk single-file and sit
together, with the other inmates watching them, calling out to them, winking at
them, whistling and blowing kisses.
"We're the fresh meat," Steed says.
"OK, I know some of them were just kidding, just trying to get to us."
Some of them. Probably most of them.
But not all of them. Steed can't eat, leaving most of his meal on the tray.
"I couldn't believe they were doing this
to me," Steed says later. "They were putting me behind the wall. My biggest
nightmare was coming true."
After dinner, the guards take the newcomers to the basement, where they
change out of Lexington's orange jumpsuits and put on the gray pants and button-up shirts of ordinary inmates. From a
supply closet, a trusty hands out fresh
"Uh-oh," the trusty smirks at Steed.
"The next time they bring you down here,
that's going to be bad news. Very bad
Baffled by the cryptic taunt, Steed quietly follows a guard down the hallway,
away from the other inmates. The guard
takes him upstairs and outdoors, across
the compound and back through the
chain-link gate where the white Chevrolet van arrived two hours ago.
Stopping just outside the prison wall,
the guard points down a gravel road that
leads to a separate, industrial-looking
"There you go," the guard says. "That's
As the guard turns back inside the
main prison, Steed walks by himself, but
he doesn't stay on the road. For the first
time in six months, since he was taken to
jail for driving under the influence, he
walks on the grass.
Nothing but a simple padlock secures
the gate in front of minimum security.
Greg Brooks, the warden's assistant, digs
through his pocket to find a ring of keys,
trying several before finding one that fits.
It might have been faster to climb over --
razor wire tops the fence, but not the gate
As he walks down the sidewalk, Brooks
says hello to several inmates, calling a
few of them by name as they linger in the
"Anybody seen Steed?" Brooks wants
to know. The men shake their heads.
"This is an open-cell unit," Brooks explains, reaching for the front door to
show that it's not locked. "They can come
and go as they please, within limits."
Inside, Brooks stops in the middle of
the building at a guard's station with a
360-degree view through bulletproof
glass, which allows just two or three uniformed officers to keep an eye on several
different dormitories at once.
"Which one is Steed in?"
A guard directs Brooks to an irregular-shaped room -- a parallelogram with
benches in the middle and bunk beds
stacked two-high along the walls. At 11 o'clock in the morning, a few inmates are
still tucked under their blankets, sleeping, while several others are lying on top
of the covers and watching their personal
television sets, listening through headphones to keep the room quiet.
"Steed!" Brooks demands. "Which one
is Steed's bunk?"
"Over there," an inmate points toward
an empty bed on the far wall. "He's at
Two weeks after coming to Granite,
Steed has landed a job at the reformatory
garage, where inmates service the entire
fleet of Department of Corrections vehicles.
Before his arrest, Steed ran his own
lawn-care business, where he developed
an almost compulsive need to stay busy
and a fondness for working outdoors. He
craves the feel of soft grass underfoot, but
he took the job that was offered, even if it
For extra cash, he used to spend the
weekends rebuilding car engines, so he
already knows how to tear apart a white
Chevy van and put it back together.
A five-minute walk from his cellblock,
the garage sits next to a parking lot for
the prison staff, without so much as a
fence between the open garage doors and
the highway entrance about 100 yards
"Nobody's going to run," Steed promises.
There's really nowhere to go, and when
you inevitably get caught, you don't come
back to minimum security. You go behind the walls, to maximum -- and Steed
has already had a glimpse of that.
"I'm going to do my job," he says,
"cause no problems, and count the days
until I get out of here."
At the moment, he has 898 days to
go. But with points for good behavior,
the days could tick away before this
time next year.
In the basement of the main prison,
where Steed changed clothes on his
first day here, the trusty gave him
pants that were several sizes too big.
Maybe it was an honest mistake,
and maybe it wasn't. Either way, it
takes several days to order a new pair.
In the meantime, he has to walk
around with one hand on his belt loop
to keep them from falling down.
"It's cruel," Steed complains, "It's really cruel. What takes so long to get a
new pair of pants?"
He feels that some of the other guys
are watching him, following him --
whistling at the glimpse of his underwear, making suggestive comments
when he turns around.
Steed can't walk down the hall without somebody slapping his bottom or
trying to grab his crotch.
Inmates call them "canteen pants."
"You know -- easy access," Steed
explains. "Some guys want to wear
their pants like that so they never have
to pay for their own candy bars from
the canteen, if you know what I mean.
Baggy pants are an invitation, like
'come and get it.' "
In theory, minimum security should
have nothing but the best kind of prisoners -- the nonviolent offenders and
the short-timers, inmates who can expect to get out within a year or two if
they just don't make any trouble.
In practice, however, the theory
doesn't always hold true. With enough
time, even hard-core criminals can
"work their way down the system," as
wardens call it.
When a maximum-security unit
reaches capacity, some of the guys
who have been there the longest get
kicked down to medium security,
where somebody has to make room by
transferring outside the wall. Eventually, even a rapist or a career gang-banger can find himself in a bunk next
to a drunken driver such as Steed.
"Some of these guys have been institutionalized for so long, they wouldn't
know what to do if they ever got out,"
he says. "In here, you get three meals
a day and a roof over your head and cable TV if you want it, and you can sit
around on your butt all day if you want.
On the outside, some of these guys
would be at the homeless shelter."
The dormitory where Steed sleeps
has a full-length window, floor-to-ceiling, with a view of the yard and across
the gravel road to the old prison wall.
Inside the watchtower, a guard with a
high-powered rifle slung over his
shoulder stands silhouetted against
the blue sky. It serves as a constant reminder of where an inmate will go if he
causes a problem. But some of these
guys wouldn't care.
"They've been behind the wall before," Steed says. "Shoot, that's where
their friends are. Going back would
mean nothing to them."
In the evenings before sunset, Steed
likes to take a walk along a dirt trail behind the cellblock to work off some of
the weight he's gained. At the far end
of the trail, he's nearly half a mile from
the nearest guard.
At night in the dormitory, with about
50 guys sleeping almost within arm's
reach of the next bunk, the lights go
dim but never turn off, leaving the
room just bright enough for the
guards to see what's going on.
But in minimum security, the
guards are kind of like doctors at a
hospital -- they make the rounds and
come running if somebody calls, but
otherwise they don't hang around
much. Steed says he can go hours
without seeing one.
"You have to be able to take care of
yourself in here," he says. "You can't
count on anybody else."
Back at Lexington, visitors walked
into the prison through a lobby with a
receptionist and a sitting area, not so
different from a doctor's office. But
here in Granite, the front door is an
old-fashioned set of iron bars, virtually
unchanged since the first prisoners
were housed here in 1910.
Visitors walk down a short hallway
past the warden's office and through
another set of iron bars before reaching the cavernous hall of the historic
cellblock. Used only for storage and
meeting space since the 1980s, after
modern cellblocks were built in the
old prison yard out back, the main hall
smells of fresh paint with the DOC's
ubiquitously gray walls.
Brooks, the warden's assistant,
brings Steed to an interview room for a
private conversation, away from his
cellmates. Scientists know about "the
observer's effect," a rule that says the
mere act of observing a natural phenomenon can alter that phenomenon,
tainting the research. Journalists
know about it, too.
The other inmates realize that Steed
is talking to the Tulsa World about his
experience, and that itself is affecting
his experience. He's been called a rat.
A snitch. A traitor.
"They don't know what I'm going to
say," he explains. "Basically, I'm pretty
much an outcast at this point. Nobody
wants to be near me."
Regardless of whether his fellow inmates believe it, Steed has never
"The thing is, I don't give a rat's ass
if you're using tobacco in here or if
you're sneaking a joint out back," he
says. "If you want to fight somebody,
that's got nothing to do with me."
The inmates have unspoken rules
about fighting. If you get hurt, you lie
down in your bunk to heal -- you don't
go to the nurse's office. And if the
guards ask any questions, you say you
slipped in the shower or fell out of bed.
"Fights don't happen," Steed says. "I
mean, they happen. But they don't
And that's all he will say about it. If
he's been in a fight himself, the marks
"I'm not trying to get anybody in
trouble, least of all myself," he says.
"I'm not even talking about the guards;
I'm not trying to cause them problems.
That's never been what this is about."
Oklahoma plans to spend a record
$573 million on its prison system next
year to house more than 23,000 inmates. The question is: Does the money do any good? Or will those prisoners get out someday and go right back
to committing the same crimes that
put them here in the first place?
Take Steed, for example. Presumably, the state wants him to stop drinking and driving. For a confessed alcoholic, that means not drinking, period.
So has the state accomplished anything by just putting him in prison?
"I can tell you that I don't want to
drink anymore," he says, emphasizing
"I mean, look at me. Look what
drinking has done to me, where it's
gotten me. I don't want to do it anymore."
A month ago, when Steed first came
to prison, he seemed almost grateful
to be here. Getting arrested stopped
him from drinking himself to death,
and with alcohol treatment, he was
hoping to start a whole new life when
he gets out, free from the addiction
that has chased him since he was 15.
For now, he's on a waiting list for
that kind of program, but no one can
guarantee that his sentence won't run
out before his turn comes around.
"I hate to say this," Steed says,
looking down at the floor, avoiding eye
contact. "But I'm just being honest. If I
got out of here today, I would try not to
drink. I would try, and I think I could
do it for a while. I went four years without a drink before this last time, and
maybe I could go that long again."
He takes a deep breath, still looking
"I think sooner or later, I'll be drinking again. If you've never been addicted, you won't understand."
Listening from the corner, Brooks
clears his throat. Time is up, and Steed
needs to get back to his cellblock.
In minimum security, an inmate
doesn't need an escort. The warden's
assistant just opens the front door and
lets Steed go by himself.
Head down, hand in his pocket, he
walks beside the old prison wall, past
the watchtower and around the corner, in front of the chain-link gate
where the white Chevrolet vans drive
in. But at least he gets to walk in the
Michael Overall 581-8383
Three years ago, the state of Kansas decided
to provide treatment instead of mere incarceration
for nonviolent drug offenders.
Not just for some drug offenders; not even
for most drug offenders.
For all of them.
The logic, state officials say, was as simple
as the landmark legislation’s name, Senate
“Here we are convicting the same people
for the same offenses time and time again,”
says Helen Pedigo, the executive director of
the Kansas Sentencing Commission. “Obviously,
what we were doing wasn’t working, so
why not try something different?”
The legislation mandates that anyone who
is convicted of drug possession receive as
much as 18 months of supervised rehabilitation.
The law doesn’t specifically include drunken
drivers, but many drunken drivers — some
national studies suggest a majority of them
— also have drug addictions. Thus many
drunken drivers are, in fact, receiving treatment
under SB 123.
“The crucial point is that the state of Kansas
put money in a pot for this treatment,” Pedigo
says. “I think every state has realized
that treatment is the way to go; the thing is
paying for it.”
She’s convinced, however, that the state
will save money in the long run.
With $8.9 million per year budgeted for
“123 treatment,” Kansas is spending an average
of $3,600 per offender. But compare
that with the average of $20,000 that Kansas
would spend sending those offenders to prison.
“It’s especially a good investment when you
consider that it’s going to break the cycle for
at least some of these offenders,” Pedigo
says. “They’re going to be a productive part
of society and contributing to the economy instead
of being someone that you and I pay
After only 36 months, Kansas hasn’t had
time to prove that its treatment program will
reduce repeat offenders. But for evidence, officials
point to the state of Washington, where
lawmakers decided 12 years ago to make
treatment available for nearly all nonviolent
Under the state’s “Drug Offender Sentencing
Alternative” program, inmates can reduce
the length of their sentences if they complete
Without treatment, nearly half of drug offenders
return to prison within three years of
their release, according to a 2006 study from
the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.
With treatment, fewer than one out of three
returns to prison. The study concluded that
for every dollar Washington spends on treatment,
it saves $7 to $10 in prison costs.
“It’s not being soft on crime,” Pedigo says.
“It’s being smart on crime.”
Attacks in prison
Prison officials have long suspected
that most inmate-oninmate
violence goes unreported,
but now studies have proven that
it’s true, especially with sexual violence.
The U.S. Department of Justice,
analyzing reports from federal,
state and local lockups, found
that a minuscule percentage of inmates
reported sexual assaults
Sexual assaults were reported
at a rate of 2.8 per 1,000 inmates,
according to a Justice Department
report last year to the
federal Prison Rape Elimination
Commission, which was created
by Congress in 2003 to study the
In confidential surveys, however,
more than 8.5 percent of inmates
reported being victims of
sexual assault, according to another
report submitted to the prison
More than 18 percent of inmates
have been the targets of
sexual harassment, according to
the same survey, which was funded
by the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention.
Craig Steed walks down a gravel road between minimum security and the Oklahoma State Reformatory in
Craig Steed walks down a gravel road between minimum security and the Oklahoma State Reformatory in
In the minimum-security barracks, the inmates live in tight quarters while the prison guards keep a low profile. “You have to be able to take care of yourself in here,”
Craig Steed says.
The watchtower serves as a constant reminder of where inmates will wind up if they
cause problems in minimum security, but some wouldn’t care. “They’ve been behind the
wall before,” Craig Steed says.
Craig Steed reports for work at the reformatory garage, where not so much as a fence
separates the unlocked door from the public highway nearby. “Nobody’s going to run,”