Reporter's notebook: Looking into solitary confinement | Buzz Blog

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Reporter's notebook: Looking into solitary confinement

Posted By on September 27, 2012, 6:22 PM

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How do you accurately write about someone and their situation when the Utah State Prison won't let you talk to them?---

The immediate answer is through letters and court documents, but the added complication of mental illness makes it difficult to evaluate some of the material you gather.

The prison is its own beast, with its own rules and regulations dictated first and foremost by security.

Access is controlled by the institution, by its various layers of management, by the internal issues that govern relationships between staff and leadership, those on-the-line and those in the hierarchy. How the internal politics— particularly among line staff and management—play into all this is hard to tell.

When it comes to inmates -- individuals incarcerated for felonies -- you also have to acknowledge that some will lie, exaggerate, twist and flatten the truth to suit their needs.

Others, however, wear their hearts and their souls on their sleeves, to the point that, the more you report on them, or attempt to report on them, the more emotionally drawn you are to their stories.

Jeremy Haas is a case in point.

For me, Jeremy is someone who exists only through photographs, poems and drawings that demonstrate his mental torment; the tears and muted words of his heartbroken mother, who says, "I haven't hugged him in six years"; and his own letters, which tell of his desperate, unfulfilled desire to be loved.

Jeremy Haas has been in prison for six years now. He vanished into the system after a police officer arrested him with a loaded handgun in his waistband. He confessed to a slew of crimes, according to a police affidavit. The merit of that confession, given his limited mental capacities, is questionable but, as one attorney consulted for the story noted, that's "a ship that's long sailed."

His mother, Jacqueline Krum, is a soft-spoken woman who has a house-cleaning business and lives in Provo. The Jeremy she talks of is someone who had never been kissed by a girl, never gone out on a date. She says he is mentally 8 years old.

She has kept every one of the letters he's sent to her in a large white file. They document his mood swings, his instability, his anger and frustration and his love for his mother. There are delicate drawings of teenagers -- one, hauntingly, with a noose around his neck.

In one letter, dated Nov. 16, 2011, he writes with bad news. He tells her he has to do a year in Uinta 1, "because when I was in U4 I did not go back in my cell I stayed out & I fucked up the hole section & it took SWAT to take me down."

The prison has its own SWAT unit that deals with violent prisoners. They go into a cell in SWAT gear and "extract" a prisoner who is being violent, attempting suicide. I requested the number of times that SWAT went into Uinta 1 cells over several years, but was denied on the grounds the prison didn't have the resources to gather the information.

Jeremy told his mother that "I am a severe threat and they do not want to move me until I show I don't want to be violent anymore." 

I've received three envelopes from Jeremy.

The first contained a detailed five-page letter responding to my questions about his situation. The second contained four squares of connected toilet paper on which he'd written a followup inquiry as to when the story was coming out.

The last was two pieces of paper torn from an A4 sheet, where he confirmed that he had indeed had a pet spider in his cell, who he named Dirt because the spider kept getting in the way every time he swept the floor of his cell. He also wrote about his frustration at not being able to find someone to love him. He had used one other square of paper to fashion me a gift -- he wrote my first name and drew a small design beside it.

In a 2007 Prison Journal, a collection of poems and drawings by inmates from across the country, Jeremy has two items. One is a drawing of a teen, his arms crossed, his face scowling, in front of a prison wall. Underneath is written: "Going crazy while doing time."

He also wrote a poem the journal published called "Night Sky":

I remember lying in the grass/ with so many thoughts racing through my mind/ while thinking about the beautiful night sky.

As I lay comfortably looking at the night sky/ I look for all the really cool pictures/ That the stars make/ As the cool breeze blows over me/ Just laying there in the cool grass,/ Looking at the beautiful night sky.

I've been working on this story for at least six months. I originally intended to write something addressing similar issues back in the summer of 2011,  when I started talking to Maxine McNeeley about her concerns over the Salt Lake County lockup's treatment of alleged cop killer Curtis Allgier. That story, however, went in a direction I hadn't expected. But through it, I began corresponding with inmate Paul Payne, who expressed his deep concerns for the future of Jeremy, Ryan Allison and Cameron Payne (no relation to Paul). Paul Payne, like Jeremy, resides in the maximum-security wing in the Point of the Mountain prison.

In essence, Paul Payne didn't want these inmates to go down the same road he had, making wrong decisions that led him to spend his life in prison. But with these young men -- and Coleman Stonehocker, the fourth inmate included in my CW cover story -- there's the added complication of mentalhealth issues.

The more I learned about Jeremy's plight, the more disturbed I became. I had to find a local voice that could speak to these issues, but one of the reasons why there is so little news attention given to the prison is that there's really no one on the outside, at least who I could find, who advocates for the inmates.

Then, out of the blue, with just a couple of weeks before going to press, I connected with Aaron Kinikini, an attorney at the Disability Law Center. He and his colleague Laura Boswell were in the process of preparing to check up on Jeremy. Driving away from interviewing them, it felt like such a relief that, finally, someone was reaching into the darkness to offer a hand to Jeremy—whether he would even trust them, Boswell noted, after all he had gone through, was another issue—that it brought me to tears.

When I first went to meet with Paul Payne, he asked me if stories such as the one on this week's cover can do any good, can lead to any change. I told him I didn't know, but my sense was that if you tell the truth, as you understand it, sometimes the right person listens. For Jeremy's sake, I hope so.

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