The Day The President Went To Prison
I drove 5 hours westbound from Lexington, getting off the parkway and going through the town of Eddyville, a county-seat town of 2500 that had been relocated after the creation of Lake Barkley flooded Old Eddyville. I drove through Eddyville and on the small roads leading to Kentucky State Penitentiary. I rounded a curve and saw first barbed wire, a water tower, and then a castle-like structure (KSP is sometimes called the Castle on the Cumberland). As I got closer, I saw men walking in a large field surrounded by towers inhabited by men with rifles. I parked my car and noted the incongruity of a 100 year old prison on the banks of a beautiful lake. Boats with fishermen and skiers were juxtaposed with the razor wire and big stones of the penitentiary. I approached the gate and announced that I was there to see Eugene Gall. I was asked to sit and wait. And wait. And wait. I showed an ID. I was asked to take my wallet and briefcase back to my car. They asked why I was there. I had to show a letter granting me permission. Perhaps an hour and a half or two hours after I arrived, I was frisked from head to toe and then allowed to go through the big iron gate demarcating imprisonment from freedom. Anyone who has ever heard the sound of the gate behind them will never forget. It sounds final and mortal. I was led through a series of gates, with each gate shutting resoundingly behind me. No words were spoken between me and the guard escorting me to death row. I saw men working, men sitting, men walking, mostly men waiting. Finally I was led past the last gate to death row where I met my client Eugene Gall for the first time. We shook hands and sat down and got down to the business of learning about each other. We met that time and many times thereafter in the cell block that housed death row, which at that time was where the electric chair was located. We talked with the chair sitting waiting not 50 feet away. After several hours, I left through the same series of gates, finally being released into the sun with the lake and the fishermen and the boats. I drove back 5 hours to my home in Lexington.
That was my first visit to a prison. I went back to KSP many times to see Eugene and several other clients. I also went to Kentucky State Reformatory, the Kentucky Correctional Institute for Women at PeeWee Valley, Northpoint Correctional Institute, the Roederer Farm Center, and many of Kentucky's other penal institutions. I have interviewed a client under a stairway where it was so hot we had to take off our shirts to finish the interview. He served me coffee. I have interviewed clients knowing that guards were listening. I have encountered arbitrary rules that changed from visit to visit. I have walked across the yard and heard former clients yell out my name. But no experience was quite like that first experience.
In my years as a trial lawyer, I often heard during plea negotiations the prosecutor say something like, “5 years is too little,” or “my final offer is 45 years.” When I heard that, it was clear to me that the prosecutor had no idea what he was talking about, that he had never been in a prison, never sat down and talked with an inmate, never looked into the eyes of a man whose liberty had been taken away for the rest of his life. As I later worked in the Kentucky General Assembly and listened to legislators create new crimes, or raise parole eligibility from 20% to 85%, or increase the classification of a crime from 5-10 years to 10-20 years, I often remembered those men that I talked with in the prisons across Kentucky. At those times, I wished that prosecutors making plea offers, and legislators creating sentencing ranges, had spent some time in prisons and jails. I think it would have made a difference. I think that they would realize that there are human beings in prison, not just criminals. Human beings with dreams, with families, with disappointments, with regrets.
On Thursday the 16th of July, Barack Obama became the first US President to go to a prison. You can read about it here. He went through those doors. He sat and spoke with federal prisoners. I don't know what will come of it. But it warmed my heart. It made me feel good knowing that the most powerful man in the world had decided to reach across that gulf of power and class and shake the hand of a man whose liberty was taken away in the name of the United States of America. I think it will make a difference.