Burden of Innocence
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> interview: jack cowley

[Talk about the trauma that long-term inmates suffer.]

I would say about 100 percent of them have post-traumatic stress, combined with the problems they had prior to going to prison in the first place. Prison becomes another world. It's an unreality, as anyone on the streets would know it. Inmates live in the extreme. They become very secure in an environment which is very unsecure. They live by the bell. They know what's Wednesday, they know what's Thursday, and what's going to happen on those days -- and it happens -- the same time, every day, every week, every month, every year.

[Prisons] are very dark places. It's what people will do to one another when no one can see. Inside those walls, what goes on, it's totally another world.

Prisons don't change. Therefore, they become very unsensitized to any outside environmental circumstance. So when they get out, color becomes something that provides them with stress. Silence becomes something that [stresses them]. The touch of another human being gives them stress. The fast movement of cars gives them stress. Being called "John" instead of, "Hey, you," or "97431" gives them stress. But it's very secure, and they come to enjoy it, almost, in their security.

[But they all still want to get out?]

They all say they want to get out, and I think that, in the first several years, they all do. [But after 10 years or so], going home is very traumatic. In fact, more inmates escape from prison their last year, several years of confinement, because they're hit with the reality that they're going home and nothing has changed. They're just older.

photo of cowley

Cowley, a warden with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections for 20 years, is now chief of operations for Institutional Programs Inc., a consulting firm for corrections and criminal justice issues. In this interview with FRONTLINE, Cowley talks about prisons' violent and depraved conditions, how he coped with them and his own sense of complicity, and what can be done to help the exonerated. This interview was conducted on Oct. 31, 2002.

[Nothing but everything has changed?]

Well, nothing has changed, because when you go to prison, the real life stops. Many times, family will say, after 10 years, 15, 25 years, "He's older, but nothing's changed." You revert back to the time that you were sentenced, so nothing's changed. You're just older. It becomes very frustrating, for families as well, because they're expecting this different, older, mature, fixed person. It's the same. He's just older.

... People that go to prison, most of the people in prison, they're not, quote, "normal," unquote. They take things with them, so when they get out, they have the stress, post-traumatic stress of what the prison has done, as well as what they took in. ...

[Relationships are very difficult for the exonerated.]

Almost impossible. ... Even the family, ... they assume because a person goes to prison -- as most of the public assumes -- that these people are going to be OK when they're released. "They've done their time," as we say. "They've paid their dues, and they're going to be OK. They've been to prison. They're fixed; they're cured." [But] it's just the beginning of the problem.

So the families become very despondent: "He's wanting to stay out all night, he's wanting to run around." They're wanting him to get a job to act his age, and be socially significant, and he's wanting to turn his hat backwards and go hang out at the pool hall. ...

[Why is there no help for these people?]

... People have to assume that there is a basic truth in order to live their life. Some it's religion, some it's Mother Earth, some it's criminal justice system. In other words, the courts cannot be wrong, even with DNA evidence. So therefore, if a person has gone to prison, he is guilty, and even if they think he may not be guilty of that one, he was guilty of something [else]. ... They don't particularly care.

... I've had legislators say, "Feed them dog food and pray that they all get AIDS and die." You don't see people going to volunteer in prisons to help people -- not only the person in prison, but also their families. I've had families kicked out of churches because their sons were in prison. So, no, they don't particularly care. It's up to them then to make it when they get out. ...

[And when they're out it's very hard for them to get work.]

Why are we surprised that 50 percent to 75 percent of them go back? And the public says, "Well, because they're just bad people. They're evil people. That's why they go back." We just don't understand what prison does to people. And it's doing it every day, all over this country, to people.

[Individuals who have been exonerated sometimes become violent.]

I have not done a complete study, but I would say that many people that are exonerated ... have been involved to some degree in the criminal justice system at some level. They probably were not that well adjusted to the public life anyway, and it exacerbates itself, personal problems, when people go to prison and they're out. It's also easier in their head to fit with the inmate subculture than it is to live up to the expectations of the culture, now that they're thrown back into [it]. "So if that's the way that people think about me, fine. I'll go do this, and I can be accepted back over here as what I've become."

So, yes, there's a big part of that that goes on in their head. You have to be in a group. We're not solitary animals, so you're going to find a place to fit as a human being. And if you get out of prison and you see how people look at you ... you gravitate back towards the inmate subculture. It's almost a gang mentality. They embrace you, and they become your family. Particularly women in prison -- they really build family structures. ...

Anger is a very common trait among people that find their way into prison, and you learn to be angry in prison. ...

[What terrible things are done in prison?]

You mean what capacity of depravity do human beings go to, when you're void of any real ethics or morals or standards? You see, normal people -- correctional officers, wardens -- they expect people to act like convicts. That's the expectation. You know there's no books written for people [to teach them how to] act normal in prison. There's none. There's only books written on how to be a convict in prison. It's called the games convicts play. So people expect you to act like a convict in prison.

Oh, I could tell you stories, how can human beings do those kind of things. But I can also tell you stories of what I have done as a deputy warden to people confined in prison, and that after 15 years, I'm still asking God to forgive me for doing it. It just happens, I mean it's just void; they're very dark places. It's what people will do to one another when no one can see that really cares. Inside those walls, what goes on-- It's totally another world. ...

At the reformatory with my Crips and Bloods, my 18- and 19-year-old-gang members, there wasn't anything bad enough that I could do that hadn't already happened to those kids. They were not afraid of me or anything that I could do to them. ...

I had a lieutenant that was writing more misconducts than any other correctional officer. I called him to my office, and I said, "What is going on? You're writing double the misconduct reports than anybody else." He said, "That's my job. That's what I'm here for -- to make those sons of bitches pay. And I'm going to catch them every time." .... Driving people nuts is the easiest thing in the world for wardens to do. It's very easy. ...

[Why doesn't anyone want to take responsibility for these individuals once they're out of prison?]

You have to remember, in order for the system to do the things we do to inmates, we have to not take any responsibility for them being there. It's almost like we have to take no responsibility now for being released. ...

Remember, prison started out as small 200-bed, 500-bed prisons. Now we've got 2000-bed, 5,000-bed, 10,000-bed mega-complexes, and you just can't possibly provide the services for those numbers of people that have to be done. So wardens simply say, "It's not my responsibility. He's here to do his time -- that's it." ...

It's the only way that prison officials can survive. ... 'My job as a warden is done when he walks out that door, and he goes with what he has."


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published may 1, 2003

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