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November 12th, 2003 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

PRISONVIEWS

Does Oregon coddle its inmates? Ask Harvey Caron.

     
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Harvey Caron is the face of the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Literally.

When wayward youth come in every Thursday on court-ordered tours, prison officials want them to see and hear this 49-year-old con. For one thing, he's a guy whose teenage pot-dealing led him down a road to murder and a life sentence. But what really make Caron a featured attraction at the Salem facility are his looks. The knife-scarred cheek, the heavily muscled arms, shaved head, 6-foot frame and that silvery-red mustache that branches over his lip like twin mutant caterpillars. "He's scary-looking," says Mike Yoder, the OSP official who selected Caron (pronounced "Car-OWN") for the job.

But while they're happy with Caron as a public face, prison officials would prefer some things stay private. As the burly con himself puts it, "We have our secrets."

Caron's statement applies not only to the contraband, sex and other staples of Hollywood prison stories, but to practices quietly sanctioned by the state Department of Corrections. Why the latter are not advertised became clear last month when media outlets unleashed a barrage of indignant reports that inmates across the state were increasingly allowed to watch cable television in their cells.

"Personal TVs make prison life too soft," snarked an Oct. 11 editorial in the LaGrande Observer.

"What's next? Cocoa? Popcorn?" huffed an Oregonian editorial three days later. "By definition, hard time should not include a remote."

Clearly, there's been a shift in public sentiment in the past decade. In 1994, the Department of Corrections banned smoking in prison. This summer, lawmakers cut funds for inmate education, programs, meals and vocational training.

Redemption is out. Punishment is in.

So it's a good thing those writers hadn't seen the cell Caron calls "my house." Sitting in the corner is a 13-inch Samsung TV. It sits above a combination radio/dual-deck tape player. No popcorn, but he does have nachos with cheese sauce and refried beans; instead of cocoa, he buys instant coffee--which he can sip while flipping through the latest Home & Garden.

This is the side of Caron's life that prison officials don't want to see in print: that part that's almost bearable, with TVs, horseshoes, ping pong, handball and even a rudimentary miniature golf course. Why? Because it drives people nuts. "There is a very strong belief that people go to prison to be punished," says Ben de Haan, a past director of the Oregon Department of Corrections. "And if inmates have golf and television, that doesn't look like punishment to people on the outside. If not explained adequately, it makes it look like we're running a Holiday Inn."

Caron concedes that if he were a crime victim's family member looking at the lifestyles of some OSP inmates, "I would probably be angry. I would think that since they committed a crime they don't deserve anything."

And yet, after 20 hours spent at OSP during the past two weeks, the debate over Harvey Caron's quality of life seems a bit more complex.

Growing up in Southern California, Caron was considered a dork until, as a teenager in the early '70s, selling pot won him acceptance. With Mexico beckoning from a short plane hop away, he started smuggling weed in bulk.

"It was a pretty lucrative business," he says, "I was busted when I was 21 years old at an Oceanside [Calif.] airport with 500 kilos of marijuana in an airplane."

That was 1975. He skipped bail, lived in Mexico for four years, then was recognized by cops while visiting back home. A newcomer in California's Soledad prison, he quickly realized that life for a 160-pound rail of an inmate would be tough. He started lifting and, over seven years in California and federal prisons, transformed himself into a 245-pound hulk who benched 400 pounds. Says Caron, "You become the monster."

He did. In 1988, he was free and living in Roseburg, smuggling cocaine between California and Seattle, when a driver stole his coke and lied about it. "I shot her in the head," he says. "She was a friend. How insane is that?"

Her body turned up in the woods outside Canyonville in 1992. Dental records identified her, leading detectives back to Caron, who was back in prison on a firearms charge. Sentenced to life, he's been at OSP ever since.

Oregon's oldest prison and only maximum-security facility looks like a Hollywood set (and was once used as one). Guard towers, cinder-block buildings and 25-foot cement-block walls curve around a grassy central yard. Atop every fence and structure loom hungry curls of keen-edged razor wire.

Oregon's 11 other prisons are newer, cleaner and cheerier. But inmates know this bleak, decrepit behemoth is the place to be.

Its design allows 2,203 prisoners to mingle in a way not allowed in newer prisons. The worn linoleum-floored hallways are in constant ebb and flow with inmates in regulation blue jeans and blue shirts, moving about unfettered, looking almost like aged high-school students at the bell. But instead of going from class to class they move between cells, cafeteria and jobs.

In addition to the chance to mingle, OSP has other things that draw inmates: programs, clubs and perks for good behavior. In-cell cable TV, which is now spreading to other prisons, has been a staple at OSP for 15 years. "TV is the best thing that ever happened to us," one OSP corrections officer told WW. "It's the perfect babysitter."

Because of its age and design, this city-behind-walls has a more highly developed society and culture than any other Oregon prison.

At the bottom of the caste system is the loathsome "cell-thief" who steals from his colleague's home. Above that come the rapists and child molesters, "rapos" and "chomos." Then come the "lames," the socially, mentally or physically challenged, who are ignored or ridiculed. Then come the normal thieves, murderers and rest of the middle-of-the-road crowd. There are also the black, white and Latino "bangers" who make up 13 percent of the population. And there are the inmate leaders, to whom others show deference.

Caron speaks with the confidence and fearlessness of a guy pretty far up the hierarchy (which is why he was selected as this article's focus).

"He is a very strong inmate, both physically and socially," says Detective Steve Duvall of the Oregon State Police, who has figured out OSP during hundreds of prison-crime probes around the state. "He is very well-respected, and respect is the cornerstone [of society] among inmates."

Caron earned his stature early on as a player in the prison's underground economy (see sidebar), smuggling tobacco, trading in banned girlie-mags and using his artistic skills to sell illicit tattoos. But he changed his ways after a tobacco bust in 2000 erased privileges and cost him $400 cash.

Today, Caron says he restricts himself to more official perks.

This is the side of prison life that's more bearable.

OSP's inmates are split among five blocks. Most blocks contain roughly 500 inmates and comprise four floors of barred cells, abutting an open cavernous area. Life here comes with just two showers a week plus a soundtrack of clanging, knocking, shouting, groaning, whining, and the sounds of bodily functions.

Caron, however, lives in the honor block with only 222 inmates, all of whom have at least two years of "clear" conduct. Their cells are larger, at 6.5 feet by 10 by 8 feet high (standard cells are 5.5 by 9 by 7.5), and have actual doors, each with a little window, which remain open most of the day. This allows unequaled freedom of movement in and out of the common area, which is stocked with tables for chess and chitchat, a 190-degree water-heater for soup, a shower room and a row of telephones, allowing people to get clean or make calls anytime. Cell doors here can be closed at will for privacy and peace.

Like other inmates, he purchases most of his amenities from the prison canteen, which sells everything from personal CD players ($63.60) to TVs ($216), food such as Hillshire Farm stone-ground mustard (60 cents a pack) to Ben and Jerry's Phish Food ice cream ($3.10 a pint), and religious items such as a Wiccan pentacle altar cloth ($8.95). Caron's instant coffee costs $7 for an 8-ounce bag. Cocoa goes for $4.45 a box, or $5.70 if sugar-free.

He is able to buy these things only because he has a job--another plus in his existence. In 1994, Oregon voters passed a law requiring all prisoners capable of it to be engaged in a full 40-hour-week of work and programs. At OSP, hundreds of inmates work. Their jobs include working at a huge laundry that services state hospitals, universities, McMenamins and the Governor Hotel. There's also a kitchen, furniture factory, prison hospice and auto shop.

Whether inmates get the job they want depends in part on their abilities, seniority and disciplinary record. Caron says he has one of the best gigs--the rec-yard detail, giving him more access to the quarter-mile track for jogging, as well as the open-air weight pile. The job pays $50 a month. When the weather is nice, he is outside weeding, mowing, picking up garbage and painstakingly replacing rocks that his colleagues spend all day kicking off the gravel paths. When the weather is bad, he keeps things clean inside the recreation building, which holds bleachers, tables for chess and ping pong, and large TV screens hanging from the ceiling.

He is grateful for his job, because it pays for his canteen purchases, which in turn support his artwork, snacks and health.

"If you want an aspirin, you have to buy it yourself," he says. "I'm 50 years old. I take vitamins. I drink Metamucil."

Normally, he spends a few hours a day in the activities room, a high-ceilinged area lined with small booths guarded by chicken wire and locks. Each booth represents a "club"--ranging from groups for debate, public speaking and parenting to a veterans group and the "lifers," an advocacy group for inmates serving life sentences. Wednesdays Caron joins the "heavies," a group of the older, more badass inmates in the system, to discuss with OSP behavioralist Lonny Webb and each other how to change their thinking.

"I have changed my behavior," Caron told them two weeks ago. "My quality of life has improved."

He also attends a meditation class a couple of times a week.

In the evenings he writes letters, carves scrimshaw or makes art that he sells on a website operated by his girlfriend in the world outside, creativeconvictions.com. He has access to an art workshop.

Standing in his cell, showing off his intricate drawings of wizards and large-breasted women, Caron says that, all things considered, his lifestyle is "cush."

Of course, the more you talk to Caron, the more you realize that he means "cush" only in relative terms.

Every morning, Caron and his fellow inmates are handed an individualized schedule by corrections officers who hover around them, making sure they follow it. And his privileges could disappear in a flash.

"Every step of the day, you're told what to do," Caron says. "Some staff here are pretty cool, and other staff are assholes. Any of them can write me up at any time and say I was disrespectful...and ruin my life at the snap of a finger."

At 5 am, Caron's battery-powered alarm clock beeps. He clambers down from the top bunk past the prone form of his cellmate, an attempted murderer named Raymond "Abe" Mitchell. Caron takes his morning pee in the small, seatless porcelain toilet bolted to the wall just 18 inches from where Mitchell lies.

At 5:15 am, a loud wake-up bell resounds through the block. Cell doors automatically unlock with a loud K-ching.

At 5:30 am, Caron heads to the chow hall, a large room with rows of round tables and a serving line at one end. With just 25 minutes to wait in line, eat and leave, inmates shovel it in. Last Tuesday, Caron opted for the farina over the biscuits and gravy, which he calls "shit on a shingle."

At 6:50 am, he goes to work.

They break for lunch at 9:45 am. Then it's back to his cell for "count" at 10:30. The door locks while the COs--don't call them guards--make sure no one's disappeared.

Then it's back to work until 2 pm, at which point he normally gets to hit the weight room until 4 pm, when there is another count. Then he is able to do programs and other activities.

Unfortunately, the activities room that is Caron's favorite hangout has been shut down since a Sept. 2 murder. Apparently, a 31-year-old "banger" from Portland, David Shane Polin, hadn't paid an illegal drug debt. According to inmate scuttlebutt, multiple assailants crushed his skull and stabbed him 30 to 40 times.

This brings up another part of the downside to prison: the violence. The scar on Caron's cheek is where an inmate stuck a knife through it, after first plunging it several inches into his back.

And a few weeks ago, a younger inmate was lured to an out-of-the-way stairwell with no security cameras and raped by at least two of his larger colleagues.

There have been two inmate suicides at OSP in just the last four months. And Caron's less well-adjusted colleagues regularly assault COs, often with "cocktails" mixed from blood, urine, feces and spit.

"This is a sad, ugly, violent place," says Caron. "I live in a bathroom. You're spending 12 to 18 hours a day in that little cage with another man."

As for the perception of cushiness at OSP, he says that can only be held sincerely if you haven't been there. "We may put a face on like it doesn't bother us and it's really cool. But deep down there is a lot of pain and suffering. Your family forgets about you. Your girlfriend is going to run off with someone else."

The last time he had sex? "You mean with another person, right?" he says. "On Jan. 26, it will be 11 years."

Caron sees why the public balks at the few privileges he receives. "Do I deserve these perks?" he asks. "God, I killed somebody, for chrissakes. I don't deserve anything. But the thing is, if they're not going to kill me, teach me some life skills so when I get out I can be a functioning citizen."

Oregon's prison system is a far cry from a Holiday Inn, but it has long been considered unique. Two years ago, it was featured in a New York Times article as one of two state systems that do much more than just lock people up.

Lonny Webb, who runs Caron's "heavies" discussion group, says Oregon's system recognizes that punishment is a pretty ineffective tool when inmates have seen it all. "You can't scare them into [good] behavior," he says.

The perks inspire good habits because, as he puts it, "People don't do anything for free."

Ben de Haan, whose eight years at the Department of Corrections included 14 months as interim director, says it's easy for the public to misunderstand the TVs that are offered as rewards for good behavior.

"Frankly, I don't care what the inmates need," he says. "I mean, you have to be humane and all that. But the goal is that after they are released and go home, they create fewer victims in the community."

Research shows that behavioral programs relying on incentives "get very good results."

Perhaps what's most surprising is the reaction of Steve Doell, the prominent tough-on-crime victims' advocate whose daughter was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 1992.

Doell, who's been to OSP several times, says he's "not completely there yet" with in-cell TVs for all, but when Caron's circumstances are described to him, he says, "I think that the way he's living now should be something that is held out there for prisoners to obtain--and maybe we can get better behavior by doing that."

Offering perks as well as punishment to reprogram inmates, thus lowering the likehood of more crimes, "is not rocket science," he says. "I don't think prison should be the Ritz-Carlton. But I don't think we make it like a gulag out of Russia. We have to have something in between, with an array of programs and positive influences."

The cost to the taxpayer? It's hard to compare between states. But according to the most recent edition of Corrections Yearbook, in 2001 Oregon spent $64.50 per day per inmate, $3 more than the national average, ranking 17th out of 50 states. Since then, despite inflation, it has cut the figure to $64.12. A second trip to prison costs taxpayers on average $57,000, De Haan says.

For Caron, no amount of perks can change the fact that he lives in a cage, TV-gilded or not. He has coffee and dehydrated beans, but he doesn't have freedom.

"A TV and a radio, I'd give it up in a heartbeat to spend a little time with my parents or my girlfriend, or to have the freedom to walk over to my refrigerator and pull whatever I want out of it."

"They can take the TV--it means nothing to me, anyway--and say, 'You can break rocks for the next five years and then we'd let you go.' And I would do it." THE OTHER "PERKS"

Oregon State Penitentiary officials wage a constant war against illegal contraband--an unwinnable one. Inmates say marijuana cigarettes cost $7 per joint, or--since inmates are not supposed to have cash--a $7 bag of coffee. Heroin is $50 a dose, or $200 a gram. A box of illicit cigarettes can run $50. Since dirty pictures were banned, porn has become gold.

Some contraband is generated on site, such as the illicit hooch called "pruno," made by fermenting fruit and yeast. A few weeks ago, officials found a still made from three five-gallon plastic jugs stashed in a ventilator shaft in the prison butcher shop. Some inmates make pruno in their toilets.

Another commodity produced on site is sex. Inmates and officials say sex is not as common at OSP as in media portrayals of prison. But there are prostitutes who sell it.

The drugs, smokes and centerfolds come in from the outside, mainly through visitors, officials say. But guards also can be a source. One inmate claimed the availability of pot depends on "how much the guards bring in." (Statewide, since 1999 nine corrections officers have been fired for contraband, and three more quit while under investigation.)

Officials downplay the contraband and drug problem, pointing to their use of random searches and drug dogs, as well as to a minuscule failure rate in random urinalysis tests.

Inmates and other staff say there are ways around the testing. Marion County prosecutor Don Abar, who handles a lot of OSP cases, says inmate drug use "is common."


There has been a prison on the site of Oregon State Penitentiary since 1866.

 

 

 

OSP was a set for the movie Bandits, starring Bruce Willis. Harvey Caron appears in the movie as an extra and can be seen in the early scene where Willis is in the boxing ring. Caron is standing at the ropes.

 

 

OSP used to offer a college education, GEDs and more vocational programs. But those have been cut over the years, mainly due to budget constraints.

 

 

According to The Corrections Yearbook, six states allowed conjugal visits in 2001. Oregon was not one of them. Oregon also does not offer sex-offender treatment in prison, though 40 other states do.

 

 

In experiments in the '60s and '70s later deemed unethical, OSP prisoners were lured by the promise of cash and freedom--good recommendations to the parole board--in return for letting their testicles be bombarded with hazardous radiation.

 

 

In 1997, four OSP corrections officers were convicted, a fifth was indicted, and 11 others were fired, resigned or were disciplined in a scandal involving abuse of inmates with pepper spray, punches and stun guns.

 
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