Longreads

Stripped: The Search for Human Rights in US Women’s Prisons

Illustration by Wenjia Tang

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Adam Skolnick | Longreads | September 2018 | 36 minutes (9,904 words)

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
— Fyodor Dostoevsky

“God’s mercies are infinite. They are new every morning.”
— Lamentations 3:23

Though its pews were packed, the courtroom was silent as a sanctuary. Most onlookers who filed into Pierce County Superior Court in Tacoma, Washington, on January 25, 2013, were residents of nearby Gig Harbor, a community shaken by a shocking crime, here for the final act: the sentencing.

In the front row, Kay Nelson watched nervously as her sister, Karen Lofgren, the defendant, prepared to make her final statement. The sisters lived two streets apart. Nelson’s children were like older siblings to Lofgren’s two daughters, who were just 6 and 9 years old. Conservative and Christian, Nelson had always been an advocate for tougher crime laws, and until her sister landed in Lady Justice’s crosshairs, she could have never fathomed praying for a judge in criminal court to show mercy on her behalf.

Lofgren’s husband, Todd Hardin, was on the far side of the room. He opened the hearing with an impassioned speech. “Since I learned of Karen Lofgren’s plot to hire someone to murder me, there is not one day I have let my guard down,” he said. “The impact of her actions have been immeasurable. I am now a single parent who lives with the fear of Karen Lofgren — that Karen Lofgren wants me dead and have my children be fatherless.”

Sitting next to Nelson was her friend, Laurie Dawson. Within days of Lofgren’s arrest, Nelson had reached out to Dawson for help. A seasoned international activist with a deep Christian faith, Dawson’s eyes panned from Hardin to Lofgren, then landed on Judge Katherine Stolz. Lofgren’s fate would soon be in her hands, and there was reason to be optimistic.

When Lofgren officially changed her plea to guilty seven weeks earlier, she and her lawyer filed a motion before Judge Stolz, making a bet that the move would be met with a more lenient sentence. Lofgren hoped to be released in time to watch her daughters contend with adolescent angst and begin to take on the world. If she could explain how lost and afraid she felt, they may eventually forgive her, and the notion that one day she’d have an opportunity to rebuild a relationship with them allowed her to get out of bed that morning, dress in a neat suit, and face her punishment.

The prosecutors made no promises, but with Dawson’s help, Lofgren and her attorney, Wayne Fricke, presented the crime as a one-off. There were positive psychological evaluations and letters of support from members of their church and the community. There was Lofgren’s clean criminal record and her sterling career as an emergency room nurse at a local hospital. It was all in the court record now. Plus, she could have been locked up right when she changed her plea, but the prosecutors and the judge let her freedom on bail stand until sentencing. Why would they do that, Dawson wondered, if Lofgren was a danger to Hardin or anyone else? Their decision seemed to foreshadow a light sentence. After all, no violence was done. Nobody was harmed at all.

Because there was no hit man, and there never had been.

* * *

Gig Harbor is set among a jumble of mountains rooted with fir, cedar, and pine, and kissed by a glacial inlet that shimmers like dark-green glass near the southern end of the Puget Sound. The town forms up around a stunning marina dotted with vintage mid-century sailboats, modern luxury yachts, and racks of kayaks. Antique shops and cafés, restaurants and boutiques huddle around the marina, surrounded by spectacular homes along the coast in all directions. And though there’s a trickle of suburban spillover from Seattle, Gig Harbor is largely a conservative town, almost all white, with precious little crime.

Because there was no hit man, and there never had been.

Hardin and Lofgren enjoyed sea views from their second-floor terrace, in their dream house on a new cul-de-sac. A general contractor, Hardin built their place and several others on the surrounding streets. They met when he was building one across the street from Nelson’s. He showed Lofgren around his job site. She was impressed, and they began dating. When Hardin shattered his leg early on in the relationship, Lofgren nursed him back to health. In 2002, they were married. She was almost 38 years old.

Gig Harbor, Washington. All photos by April Wong.

Lofgren couldn’t have children on her own so they visited a specialist who fertilized donor eggs in vitro. Both of their daughters were conceived this way, born three years apart, and Lofgren guarded her secret. Nobody knew except for Hardin, and he agreed to keep mum, but she insists he held it over her head. When they’d fight, Lofgren recalls he told her that because they weren’t her eggs, she wasn’t the biological mother, and that he could take the children away at any time. Lofgren called his bluff and filed for divorce in 2010, but Hardin convinced her to reconcile. In 2011 their marriage began deteriorating again, and according to Lofgren, Hardin vowed to take the children, a charge he vehemently denies.

Lofgren insists she was terrified, and not just about losing the girls. From June to December 2011, on the recommendation of a family friend and local police officer, Lofgren visited the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center (FJC), a versatile agency in Tacoma that serves victims of domestic violence and child abuse, five times. In a dark twist, the center is named for the estranged wife of David Brame, the former chief of the Tacoma police department, who, after repeatedly being accused of domestic abuse, shot Crystal Judson then killed himself in a Gig Harbor shopping center parking lot in 2003 (she died a week later). All of this in front of their two children. In the aftermath it was discovered that city officials knew of Crystal’s abuse, but never intervened. That was the last time anyone in Gig Harbor could remember a high-profile violent crime occurring in their midst. Until Lofgren was arrested.


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On her first visit on June 2, 2011, FJC staff opened a file on Karen Lofgren, and it details the abuse she claims she was living with. She said that Hardin stalked her, researched her internet browser history, read her journal, and confiscated her computer to search it. She told counselors that he would hide her car keys and had kicked her out of their bedroom. On the morning of June 2, she said, he screamed at her, cursed, and called her names. He followed her around the house and when she tried to hide in a closet, he found her there. Lofgren made no allegations of physical abuse, and she maintains that Hardin never hit her, but according to Craig Roberts, the FJC’s director, that does not mean she wasn’t in danger.

“That’s one of the great myths of the whole domestic violence phenomenon,” Roberts says. “People don’t realize how much damage can be done without laying a hand on somebody. Emotional abuse can sometimes be worse than physical abuse. It affects your psyche so much. You lose all your confidence. You become isolated from your friends.” Lofgren’s friends and family had no clue about what she was going through, and that gap between outside perception and reality can be dangerous for women living with abusive partners because the seeds of tragedy grow in that space. “Emotional abuse leads up to physical abuse, but you may go years before there’s any physical harm,” says Roberts.

‘That’s one of the great myths of the whole domestic violence phenomenon,’ Roberts says. ‘People don’t realize how much damage can be done without laying a hand on somebody.’

In the report filed on June 2, Lofgren mentioned that Hardin owned two guns. She claimed he drank to excess, and in their paperwork, staff indicated that on that day and during each subsequent visit they assisted her with “safety planning” so she might avoid physical harm should his behavior escalate.

She filed a protection order soon after her first visit, which forced him to leave the house, but, according to Lofgren, the harassment continued. Police reports support her claims and Hardin was once cited for violating the protection order. Meanwhile Lofgren’s fear morphed into an anger she could not control. She became unmoored. Then as Hardin prepared to move out of their family home, Lofgren wanted someone there to keep watch, and a friend at the hospital dropped the name, Darryl Burgess.

Burgess was the brother of one of Lofgren’s best friends, Michael Burgess, who had worked with Lofgren at Mary Bridge hospital before passing away in 2010. Lofgren and Burgess had met briefly at Michael’s funeral, not long after Burgess was released from federal prison, and she remembered his imposing physical presence. Hardin is a big man, but Burgess, who is 6’4” and over 300 pounds, is even larger. That and his criminal record made him intimidating. Lofgren called and offered him the job.

On that first day and in the coming weeks, Lofgren confided in Burgess about her divorce, and how scared she was. She claims that Burgess told her Hardin “needs to die.” Lofgren laughed it off, but she maintains that he kept bringing it up and suggested he knew someone who would do the job. The more she thought about what Burgess said, the more she found comfort in the fantasy, and over time she became convinced that it was the only way she would be free of Todd Hardin forever.

Burgess denied Lofgren’s account under oath during his deposition and during a recent phone interview, during which he claimed that Lofgren tried to hire him to kill Hardin. He told me that he turned her down and said he’d find a hired gun to placate her. Instead, on January 23, 2012, he approached his probation officer, Steve Gregoryk, and confessed that he’d been asked to help a friend kill her husband. On January 27, he and Gregoryk met with Detective John Jimenez in the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, and Jimenez opened an investigation. Jimenez would need hard evidence, and that meant Burgess would have to get Lofgren to self-incriminate on tape. In subsequent court papers, which document Burgess’ collaboration with Pierce County detectives, Gregoryk revealed his thinking that week.

I am highly skeptical of [redacted] intentions. I have also spoken with [redacted] former probation officers about [redacted] admission, and they have also wondered what other motivations [redacted] may have which would cause [redacted] to bring this matter to the attention of authorities.

Still Gregoryk found Burgess’ story credible enough to contact Assistant US Attorney Susan Roe, who wrote Connie Smith, the Chief of United States Probation in Washington’s western district. In her letter from January 30, Roe recommends the court grant approval for Burgess to act as a confidential informant (CI) in Pierce County, but includes a warning: His “history of sexual violence against women must not be overlooked; therefore [redacted] must not have any unmonitored contact with … the suspect.”

Darryl Burgess is a registered Level III sex offender. On August 15, 2001 he was indicted on four counts for “knowingly [causing victims] to engage in a sexual act.” In fact, prosecutors alleged he assaulted four women by force on the grounds of Fort Lewis in Washington state. In January 2002, he pleaded guilty to one count, and in his plea agreement, prosecutors outlined his modus operandi: He would pick up the victim on the street, and then drive deep into the countryside where they wouldn’t be seen or heard. He targeted sex workers. One alleged he used a weapon; according to his indictment, three of them were sodomized. He was sentenced to 108 months in federal prison, and after serving more than seven years, he was placed on supervised release and paroled in 2009. When he met Lofgren, he had about four years left on his probation.

While it is tempting to wonder why his probation officer, a US attorney, and Pierce County detectives felt it wise to both believe in and deploy a man with such a criminal history, allow him into the home of a woman with no criminal record (presumably around her daughters), you might ask the same question of Lofgren. Though she claims to not have been aware of all the details around his crimes, she knew they were sexual, yet still maintained close contact.

The case turned on a series of meetings and calls recorded by law enforcement. They met at a Pier 1 Imports in Tacoma on February 18, 2012, where Burgess was recorded saying that the murder was Lofgren’s idea. “You’re the one who came and said … ‘I want this done,’” he said.

“I honestly don’t remember,” she said later in the conversation. “It seems like it just kind of evolved. … Honestly … I don’t remember how that evolved.”

Reading the transcripts of wire recordings obtained by Pierce County detectives, you wouldn’t rate Burgess an especially good CI. In hindsight it’s easy to see him pushing an agenda, but Lofgren missed it. They have a back-and-forth where he threatens to call it off, and that stops Lofgren.

“But you said that there’s no way to stop it.”

“Oh, Karen,” he responds. “You can always stop it.”

As the conversation progresses you can feel Burgess waver, and at the midway point he offers her a way out. “I really didn’t think you … deep down … that you wanted to go through with this,” he said.

“I do,” she said. “I dreamt about this for years.”

Her response did not help her cause.

Three days later, on February 21, in the parking lot of the same Pier 1, Lofgren met with Burgess and an undercover sheriff’s detective, who court papers describe as a “hit man” (quotes theirs). She gave the detective a recent photograph of Hardin, his daily schedule, and a pair of diamond earrings that she valued at over $5,000 as down payment. The detective gave her one last opportunity to back out: “Do you want this job done or not? …. I just need to know that you’re not going to have a change of heart. And if you are, I’m going to walk away right now.” She did not.

However, she was soon consumed with guilt and regret, and phone records indicate that she attempted to call Burgess at least four times and texted him at least once around the time of the meeting. She says that she was attempting to call off the hit, but he failed to answer. She left messages with increasing urgency.

Hey, will you please call me? I’ve left you a couple messages and I texted you. I need to talk to you about something. Okay? So will you call me, please? I don’t understand why you’re not calling me back?

Hey, it’s me again. I’m still trying to get a hold of you. Will you, I don’t understand … would you please, please, please, please call me back?

Before the detective got out of the car, he told Burgess, “[If] she has any kind of issues … you give me a shout, hopefully soon.” In an interview, though, Burgess revealed for the first time that, off-tape, the detectives working the case instructed him to ghost Lofgren. “They told me not to talk to her until the warrant gets processed,” he said. Lawyers I spoke with argued that is a major violation of Brady v. Maryland, a 1963 Supreme Court decision that declares that all material evidence favorable to the defendant must be turned over to the defense team.

Hey, will you please call me? I’ve left you a couple messages and I texted you. I need to talk to you about something. Okay? So will you call me, please? I don’t understand why you’re not calling me back?

Lofgren’s defense was far from stout, however. In recent interviews, Wayne Fricke, Lofgren’s lawyer, didn’t recall receiving transcripts of those voicemails, and wasn’t aware of whether those recordings were provided by prosecutors during discovery. Discovery receipts filed in Superior Court on March 29, 2012, prove that they were. Yet the first time Lofgren ever saw them was when Dawson found them in a public records disclosure in 2016.

Nevertheless, Lofgren did not make any effort to call the police herself, and on February 23, the day she assumed her husband would be killed, she was arrested without incident — relieved, she said, that Hardin was still alive.

Kay Nelson wasn’t granted access to visit Lofgren in Pierce County jail for two weeks. Meanwhile, she had to remove Lofgren’s belongings from her house. When she finally did visit, she found herself staring through Plexiglas at her sister in a county jail jumpsuit and speaking to her through a phone receiver. It was as if she’d been transported to some parallel reality. She couldn’t ask about the case because everything they said would be recorded, and she spent most of her hour fighting tears as Lofgren reassured her that she was safe.

When she connected with Nelson, Dawson began reading newspaper stories that described Lofgren’s case and found them both familiar and wanting. The coverage hit hard yet didn’t get at the tangled roots of Lofgren’s crime. Dawson sensed that because she herself had lived through a tragedy even more horrifying in 2004, when her brother-in-law, an accomplished international aid worker and burgeoning tech entrepreneur in the throes of a nasty divorce and custody fight with Dawson’s sister-in-law, killed his two young daughters, then shot himself.

His was a crime so brutal and dissonant, two families were sent spinning. Just like in Lofgren’s case, everyone was at a loss. His parents felt isolated, and when they published an obituary in their local Seattle newspaper praising him, illustrated with a photograph of him holding his daughters’ hands, it caused an uproar in the community and pitted two families who were once united with love for those girls against one another.

The killer’s sister called Dawson and asked her to speak at his funeral. She couldn’t do it. She adored those girls, and hated that man for what he did. How could she possibly ignore his crimes? But the next morning, a family member recommended she open her Bible to:

Lamentations 3:23: God’s mercies are infinite. They are new every morning.

“When I read that verse, I thought what separates me from him? I’m so bitter and angry. I really had to go in my soul and choose forgiveness,” she said. “Forgiveness allows the weight of hate to lift off of you and fills the space with love.”

(L-R) Kay Nelson and Laurie Dawson outside the Washington Correctional Facility for Women.

If her analysis seems Pollyannaish to you, consider that she said the same thing when she spoke about forgiveness at his funeral. Her intervention helped the families overcome rage and bitterness and grieve for the two girls as one. Still, the guilt, shock, and pain she carried for not knowing or intervening while the girls were alive never fully receded, and when she pulled up a chair to the Plexiglas in the drab visiting area of Pierce County Jail, Dawson could see those same emotions reflected in Lofgren’s eyes. She picked up the phone.

“I feel like there’s more to this story than probably any of us understand,” she said. “And I’m here to figure that out.”

Dawson exited jail that afternoon certain she had taken the first step on a long journey. “I left feeling like there was something I’m supposed to do with her,” she said. “But I had no idea what that meant.”

Four months after Lofgren’s arrest, her aunt and uncle paid the $1 million bond, and she was released. At first she went to her parents’ home in Spokane, but she later moved in with Dawson at her rustic, sprawling seaside cabin on Hood Canal in Washington, which she shares with her husband, a retired Navy captain, and their two children. The front deck juts over a deep-green finger of the Puget Sound, and the view is mountainous and postcard-perfect. Seals lounge on their dock. Whales exhale vapor trails in the summertime.

Dawson, 54, is petite and fit. She’s an avid trail runner and a true child of the mountains. When Lofgren arrived she became Dawson’s rebuilding project. She arranged for Lofgren to see a therapist, hiked with her on the surrounding trails, and gathered letters of support from Lofgren’s colleagues and friends. Lofgren’s attorney was proposing a sentence of two years, and Dawson hoped for even less.

“I was extremely naive,” she said.

When it was Lofgren’s turn to speak in court on the day of her sentencing, she looked up at the judge, then down at her prepared statement, as if mustering the courage to begin. “I wrote here, ‘regret, humbled, horrified by my actions, begging forgiveness.’ They’re all just words,” she said, “and they’re insufficient to express how I’m feeling.”

Lofgren apologized, but she also spoke about how she felt trapped and controlled first by Hardin, then by Burgess. Throughout Lofgren’s speech, Dawson monitored the judge’s attention and was not encouraged. When it was her turn, Judge Stolz didn’t waste time getting to the point.

“It’s always the victim’s fault,” she said. “I don’t buy that when it’s a man sitting there who has killed his wife or girlfriend; and I don’t … buy it when it’s a woman.” Stolz sentenced Lofgren to more than 13 years in prison and issued a no-contact order with the children that would last until they turned 18.

Her ruling was met with an audible gasp. It wasn’t lost on the gathering that Burgess served less than eight years for rape, while Lofgren never even met an actual hit man, much less committed a violent act. Even Burgess was shocked. “I thought she’d get two to three years,” he said. “Do I feel bad for her? Yes, I do.”

The gavel fell and Lofgren removed a silver necklace with a Coptic cross from around her neck and gave it to Fricke, who passed it to Dawson. A deputy then gently cuffed her hands behind her back.

Five days after sentencing, she was transferred to Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), the only medium-security prison in the state for women (Washington doesn’t have a maximum-security prison for women), set just a few miles from downtown Gig Harbor and a little more than a mile from her church. “I went from a privileged upper-middle-class life to the most marginalized part of the population,” Lofgren said.

She sobbed as she was led through intake, where another woman serving time handed her a prison uniform. “There’s hope,” Lofgren remembers her saying, “there is always hope.” Within the hour she was escorted to her cell in the prison’s receiving sector. It felt just like those old prisons in the movies, bars and all.

A few months from her 49th birthday, she’d landed in a photo negative of her former life. She was now a ghost living at Purdy, as the medium-security prison is known. Among the hundreds crammed into a jigsaw of brick and concrete, wrapped in chain link and razor wire, set on the invisible edge of one of the prettiest towns in America, a country with an underbelly hidden under lock and key that reveals much about how we as a nation feel about one another, our capacity for empathy, and that one inalienable right ignored in our constitution. The natural-born right to human dignity.

* * *

The United States leads the world in mass incarceration. We have 4 percent of the world’s population, yet are home to 21 percent of the world’s incarcerated people. Of those, 56 percent are people of color, and 33 percent are Black. African Americans are the most overrepresented racial group in the prison system, while white Americans are underrepresented, which is no surprise to those with even a base knowledge of American criminal justice.

You’d think with so much experience, we’d be good at imprisonment, yet we have one of the worst rehabilitation records worldwide. About 83 percent of all incarcerated people are arrested for a subsequent crime within nine years. There’s a reason for that. Our prisons are not geared toward rehabilitation, and they haven’t been for more than 40 years.

The American prison system grew out of an earnest quest for mercy. In the republic’s early years, punishment for property or violent crimes was corporal, and executions were common. Philadelphians established the first brick-and-mortar penitentiary in the United States in 1790 to stem such violence. In the early 19th century, Massachusetts did away with whipping and branding, and started building prisons too, and in short order each state had a prison system.

None of them were well-funded, which is why most resorted to providing goods and services. Prison labor in the Confederacy was considered a necessity during the Civil War, when those held in the South churned out uniforms and shoes for troops. Perhaps that’s why the 13th Amendment, which ostensibly ended slavery, included a provision to allow for the unpaid servitude of convicted felons? American prisons were an economic albatross that also never worked as an agency of rehabilitation.

“All reliable figures show that the majority of boys sentenced to State Reformatories get into further trouble upon release. Furthermore, the majority of life histories of adult prisoners in penitentiaries reveal a record of previous incarceration,” wrote Ray Mars Simpson, a psychologist at a branch of the Illinois State Penitentiary, in his 1934 essay Why Prisons Fail. His words were a siren call.

Studies were mobilized, and in the middle of the 20th century rehabilitation became a buzzword that resonated within both political parties. Then in the late 1960s, two progressives weighed in on the issue of how to better use prisons to rehabilitate, and came up with opposite conclusions.

In 1969, Jerome Miller, a psychiatric social worker, was appointed by the governor of Massachusetts to overhaul the state’s juvenile corrections system. By 1972 he’d effectively abolished the juvenile “reform schools,” closing them and emptying decaying, abusive institutions, while placing kids in group homes, drug treatment centers, and job training programs. His project, opposed by labor unions and the prison guards they represented, was dubbed the Massachusetts Experiment, and though it was a success (juvenile crime dropped along with recidivism rates), it wasn’t replicated nationally.

Robert Martinson, on the other hand, became an academic star. A one-time socialist with Hollywood good looks, Martinson had a well-honed point of view. A white man, he joined the Freedom Rides against segregation in the South in the early 1960s with his African American wife, and he was jailed for 39 days in Mississippi. Back then, rehabilitation was establishment speak. It was delivered with paternalism, and was almost always paired with an indeterminate sentence. In most states the warden was given absolute authority to keep a person locked up until the warden himself deemed them rehabilitated. That’s how so many Black revolutionaries were jailed indefinitely for civil disobedience and property crimes.

The most famous example was George Jackson, the author of the bestselling Soledad Brother. After being convicted of stealing $70 from a gas station, he was sentenced to one year to life in prison. In his book, Jackson challenged the moral authority of wardens around the country, and about a year after it published in 1970, Jackson was killed by prison guards while attempting to escape from San Quentin. His death kindled the smoldering grievances of those held at Attica, and helped spark the infamous riot at the New York prison, which further focused the national spotlight on America’s prison problem.

Some suspect that after initially stumbling into the corrections field while working within California’s penal system, Martinson became driven to prove that rehabilitation was a myth to free men and women saddled with indeterminate sentences. Around the same time that Miller was closing prisons, he wrote a subversive essay in the New Republic called “The Paradox of Prison Reform,” in which he played on the fears of law-and-order hawks.

Two years later, in 1974, Martinson went further and published a study he’d been cultivating for years. It was called “What Works: Questions and Answers About Prison Reform.” And his short answer was nothing works at all. He termed any positive effects from prison programs “isolated exceptions.”

“That study burned through the corrections industry,” said Jennifer Luther, the CEO of Correctional Rehabilitation Services, and a former employee in the Washington Department Of Corrections. Martinson was interviewed on 60 Minutes. He won a grant for about $300,000 and became the media’s go-to authority on prison rehabilitation, but his assertions were off. Yet the few people who called him on it were drowned out by political expediency.

Conservatives seized on the Martinson report to slash corrections budgets. “That set the table for the 1980s and 1990s,” Luther said. In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act into law, and while it provided some funding for drug treatment, its primary purpose was to establish a range of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. In subsequent elections, the tough-on-crime rhetoric continued to lure voters, and in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which included the so-called “three strikes” provision. Similar three-strikes laws were implemented in states all across the country.

Martinson wasn’t around to watch his subversive dream metastasize. In 1979, he stepped out of the window of his Manhattan apartment and fell to his death. Perhaps he sensed what was coming. Together, these new sentencing standards transformed and bloated the prison system and destroyed lives. In 1982 there were roughly 330,000 people behind bars in America. Today, according to the Sentencing Project, there are more than 2.2 million people in federal and state custody, and the fastest growing segment of the population is women.

* * *

Dawson visited Lofgren in prison as soon as she could. She had put on Lofgren’s necklace on the day of her sentencing, and she was still wearing it when they met at a Formica table and shared vending machine snacks in the visitors room. Lofgren was rattled. She had been confused in the mess hall and placed her tray askew after lunch. That misstep enraged a corrections officer working in the cafeteria, who threatened her with segregation (solitary confinement). Lofgren is lucky in ways few incarcerated people are in America: She has an ideal advocate. Soft-spoken, yet strong, committed, and unafraid, Dawson contacted the superintendent who apologized for the incident and invited Dawson to join the family council.

On a subsequent visit, Lofgren told Dawson that she and the others were strip-searched every time they left the visiting area. Dawson looked across the room at a woman in her 80s. She couldn’t help but imagine her own mother being told to spread her feet to shoulder width, expose her chest and raise her breasts, squat and cough, before bending over and exposing her anus. All of it performed in front of armed guards for the privilege of spending an hour or two with friends or family.

Dawson began attending family council meetings and learned that only one third of the women living at WCCW received any visitors on a consistent basis, and that’s not because the remaining two thirds have been disowned by family and friends. It’s because of indignities like strip search and because prison life is expensive. Calls come in collect and cost more than $2 for 20 minutes, plus a fee to be placed on the call list. All of that goes to a private company called GTL. Each email costs at least 35 cents to send, with proceeds collected by a private company called JPay. Men and women are allocated the same allotment of toilet paper and underwear by the DOC, but women use much more of both in the outside world and are made to supplement from the prison’s canteen, where they also purchase vital feminine health and beauty products. “It’s a racket,” Dawson said of companies profiteering off inmates at WCCW.

Then there’s mental health. Once a person arrives at WCCW, they are subject to a psychological assessment, and if they are diagnosed with a specific condition they are set up with a treatment plan. But a significant percentage of incarcerated people with mental health issues slip through undetected and if they request to see a counselor during their imprisonment, they must pay a $4 fee per session. Considering that women who work at prison earn as little as 40 cents per hour, it’s not hard to see that these extra costs end up falling on their families for as long as they can carry it. Dawson estimates she spends roughly $2,000 a year just to visit and keep in touch with Lofgren, who lives close by. It costs a lot more for those further afield. A working vehicle, plane or bus tickets, a clean, safe place to sleep, and food from overpriced vending machines in the visitors room demand real money, and the vast majority of incarcerated people are poor. They don’t have friends or family with the disposable income or time to spare.

“It’s not just the incarcerated person who is being punished. All those who want to stay a part of your life. They are all punished,” Dawson said, “You journey the punishment with them.”

Whether or not they can afford to visit, family members constantly worry about how time in prison will affect the people they love because they all know that there is no systemic rehabilitation philosophy employed at WCCW. I contacted a consultant who used to work there and now advises statewide in Washington’s jails and prisons. She was reluctant to be named in this story but called the Washington DOC a broken system. She said that many incarcerated people she interviewed wanted help, but the mental health budget was too meager. She’d witnessed high-functioning people with addictions get disqualified for free drug treatment, and though Lofgren was a shattered woman when she arrived in prison and her crime was an outgrowth of trauma, she did not automatically qualify for PTSD care. Very few incarcerated people do. “We had to advocate for her at all levels of the Department of Corrections for her to receive an evaluation and diagnosis so that she could have treatment for PTSD,” Dawson said.

‘It’s not just the incarcerated person who is being punished. All those who want to stay a part of your life. They are all punished,’ Dawson said, ‘You journey the punishment with them.’

WCCW does offer a range of support groups, but in Washington’s only medium-security women’s prison, where according to national statistics, 77 to 90 percent of women can be expected to arrive with a history of domestic abuse, child abuse, or sexual or emotional trauma, there is no dedicated domestic violence or trauma support available free of charge.

In November 2013, nearly a year after Lofgren was sentenced, Dawson was offered a tour of the prison. As they entered Receiving, they passed a diverse group of women in a holding pen transferring from one unit to another. “It looked like a dog kennel,” Dawson said. “They were standing in a cage with their belongings, and I felt this overpowering feeling that this was not created in the image of God. There was no greater purpose here. This was the stripping of human rights and human dignity.”

The prison staff had their reasons. Most of the time the process is avowedly about maintaining safety and security, and even though women’s prisons are far less violent than men’s, and the majority of incarcerated women are there for drug offenses or theft, guards are trained to treat everyone with the same scrutiny and caution. But what does that produce, and is it necessary? Those were the questions Dawson asked that day and has been asking ever since.

* * *

Laurie Dawson is a veteran human rights advocate. Originally mobilized in the late 1970s as a high school senior in Bangkok, she helped provide medical aid to refugees fleeing the Cambodian killing fields to Thailand, where she had been born and raised by American missionaries. As an adult she has been deeply involved with the Free Burma Rangers and has aided displaced people in the ethnic states of Myanmar for decades.

“I grew up with a lens that the United States was a champion for human rights abroad, but Karen’s case has taught me that we don’t actually champion [human rights] for our own people,” she said. “You can see it in our prisons.”

In fact, you can see it throughout the criminal justice system. White supremacy and a suspicion of the poor is baked into the constitution itself, which is distinguished by an ugly birthmark — the Three Fifths Compromise, which decreed that enslaved people should be counted as three fifths of a free person for the purposes of representation in Congress. That insidious provision, packed with hateful symbolism and political consequence, is as responsible for the framing of U.S. democracy as any language adopted at the constitutional convention in 1787. It established a legal baseline that emboldened white supremacists for more than a century, helped preserve the institution of slavery for decades, and was never fully inked over by the 13th Amendment.

It’s in our prison statistics. In the way African Americans are policed on a daily basis and more often prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Our implicit denial of basic human rights for all people can be found between the lines in every sentence of every minor that has ever been tried as an adult in the United States of America. It’s common knowledge that suspects can be charged as adults for violent crimes, but few know that teenagers under 18 are often charged as adults for property crimes, like robbery. Those charges are more frequently filed against teens of color than they are against white kids, and adult convictions carry much longer sentences. In the United States minors can be sentenced up to 50 years in prison. Contrast that with, say, Germany, where all people under the age of 21 are tried as juveniles and the longest sentence they can receive is 10 years, and only 1 percent of those convicted receive that long a sentence. The driver behind such sentencing limits is the widely accepted medical knowledge that the part of the human brain responsible for rational thought (the prefrontal cortex) isn’t fully developed until age 25. You know who gets that right? Rental-car companies. We the people choose to ignore it.

‘I grew up with a lens that the United States was a champion for human rights abroad, but Karen’s case has taught me that we don’t actually champion [human rights] for our own people,’ she said. ‘You can see it in our prisons.’

Last fall, I traveled to Washington state to meet with Dawson and others included in this story. Our first stop was the Monroe Correctional Complex, a state prison for men set northeast of Seattle. We were there for a reading event put on by Concerned Lifers, an organization of those serving life sentences.

Ray Williams, 38, was the first to speak. His conviction on assault charges in 2008 was his third strike, so he’s in prison for life even though he committed his first offense when he was just 16 years old. Because he’d been tried as an adult. Williams explained that 75 percent of incarcerated men and 85 percent of incarcerated women come from low-income families and that 50 percent of children with at least one incarcerated parent (as his father had been) will do time at some point in their adult lives.

But it was the words of Eugene Youngblood, 45, who had been convicted of first degree murder when he was 19 years old, that I’ve thought of every day since. He compared the reception, rehabilitation, and opportunities child soldiers have received to the fate of young gang members. Both, he said, “were indoctrinated by adults, ready to kill, willing to die. Recruited at thirteen, armed by fourteen. Very similar situations, very similar stories, but we see them totally differently.” When it came to boy soldiers, he said, “we have empathy for them because we know these kids can be redeemable.”

His point is hard to deny. In one case we see the boy soldiers as human, and yet when it comes to our fellow citizens we do not. Maybe that’s because we don’t live with the crimes of the child soldiers like we do gangsters, but Barbara Owen, a professor emerita of criminology at California State University, Fresno and author of In Search of Safety: Confronting Inequality in Women’s Imprisonment, believes the problem is procedural.

“The United States has no traction when it comes to human rights,” she said. “We talk about civil rights. Everything is pursuant to the Constitution. People of color — especially Black people — are still struggling for their humanity in this country because innate human dignity is a concept that comes from the human rights school of thought, not civil rights.”

Although the concept of human rights dates back to the 16th century, the modern human rights framework anchored in international law coalesced after World War II with the creation of the United Nations. Ever since, human rights law has been used to encourage developing nations to adhere to standards of human dignity and opportunity. Nations with a strong rule of law, like the United States, have been exempt from that microscope.

The oppression of Jim Crow was not overcome because we agreed that every human being has a right to live free, and that we all deserve to be treated with dignity. It was defeated by small and large civil rights victories that dismantled its legal instruments. That’s an important distinction because though we celebrate the latter with good reason, when you examine how our prisons operate it’s obvious we still haven’t embraced the former.

“Look at the way we treat people when they have done something wrong,” Dawson said, “and we will see what we really believe. Do we believe in redemption? Do we believe in real liberty, in their life and in their pursuit of happiness?”

The good news is there’s another way.

In March 2015, WCCW held a TedX event. It was attended by incarcerated people, members of the Family Council, visitors, and prison staff. By then, Dawson had spent a lot of time considering how to reimagine prison as a concept, but it wasn’t until Dr. Emily Salisbury, a professor of criminal justice at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, took the stage that she first heard of an international framework that establishes minimum standards for the treatment of women in prison. She was further encouraged when she approached Salisbury after her lecture and learned that they were developed in her beloved Thailand.

‘Look at the way we treat people when they have done something wrong,’ Dawson said, ‘and we will see what we really believe. Do we believe in redemption? Do we believe in real liberty, in their life and in their pursuit of happiness?’

After attending law school at Cornell, Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol returned home to Thailand where she worked as a prosecutor, and began investigating her country’s prison system. She learned that women were 17 percent of the prison population, more than double the United States’ national average — that spike is mostly due to the fact that the we have exported our drug war policies to Thailand, where one or two tabs of speed can mean years in prison. She noticed that most incarcerated women were victims of sexual abuse or domestic violence, and that Thai jails and prisons lacked the necessary mental health programs people needed to get well and live successfully after release. She began documenting the health care needs of incarcerated women and the ways in which incarceration has a debilitating effect on the children of mothers behind bars.

In response, she launched an initiative called Kamlanjai (which means inspire in Thai) to educate women prisoners, deliver health services, and develop sound reentry programs to reduce recidivism. Within a few years her team came up with 70 principles that they believed should guide policy in all women’s prisons, not just in Thailand, but around the world. She and the Thai delegation presented them to the United Nations, and in 2010 new minimum standards for the treatment of women in prisons were adopted by the U.N. General Assembly. They were called the Bangkok Rules, and so far they have been implemented through pilot programs in Thailand, Indonesia, and Kenya.

Dawson downloaded the PDF as soon as she got home, and she felt empowered for the first time in more than two years. Finally, she had a foothold, something to reference when discussing issues with prison officials. The document covered a range of concerns: personal hygiene, mandated preventive health care, the facilitation of family contact, mental health programs, and security protocols. They took issue with harsh sentencing, too.

Rule 5 stipulated that incarcerated women “shall have facilities and materials required to meet women’s specific hygiene needs, including sanitary towels [napkins/tampons] provided free of charge.”

Rule 26 declared that contact with family members “shall be encouraged and facilitated by all reasonable means,” including possible travel subsidies for low-income families.

Rule 42 governed prison programs and stated, “particular efforts shall be made to provide appropriate services for women … who have psychosocial support needs, especially those who have been subjected to physical, mental or sexual abuse.”

Rule 61 suggested that courts should consider the caretaking demands of motherhood and a lack of criminal history during sentencing.

These rules, if implemented, would help not just Lofgren but every woman at Purdy, because according to this document WCCW and every other women’s prison in the United States was substandard. Dawson kept digging and discovered the Mandela Rules, which had been adopted by the United Nations and provided new minimum standards for men’s corrections, as well. Sure, they were nonbinding, but they were a benchmark that the U.S. delegation had helped ratify.

“Every one of those rules is common sense if you’re basing your system on human rights and human dignity,” Dawson said. She didn’t waste time wondering if it was even possible to change the entire culture of a prison all at once. She decided to bring the rules directly to WCCW superintendent Jane Parnell.

For all the problems mass incarceration presents in our society, there are some worthy programs and projects bubbling up all over. WCCW is not some notorious hell. I toured the place, met well-intentioned staff, and was impressed with three programs. TRAC is a union-approved curriculum that trains incarcerated people in a variety of trades — like carpentry or iron work — and funnels them into a union so they can get paid (up to six figures) within days of their release. They also have a dog grooming and boarding operation, and a mother-and-baby unit that would meet the standards set forth in the Bangkok Rules.

In California, the San Quentin Prison University Project offers incarcerated people a chance at a college degree. In 2015 about 12,000 incarcerated students were enrolled in programs at more than 60 schools thanks to Obama’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. Education has long been linked to reduced recidivism rates, so programs like these make sense.

That same year, leaders from the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation visited Norwegian prisons where even people convicted of violent crimes live in their own housing. They work outdoors, fish, and cook their own food. A facsimile of that program is now operating just outside Bismarck, North Dakota, and Jennifer Luther, the CEO of Correctional Rehabilitation Services, believes that model can work nationwide. “I mean, do we want to institutionalize people? People who have been down for twenty years are totally institutionalized,” she said, “They’ve been treated like children for twenty years.”

To Dawson the time seemed ripe for radical change in Washington state too, and around the time she met with Parnell, she contacted the Thai Institute of Justice, whose Executive Training Program teaches high-level corrections staff around the world how to implement the Bangkok Rules. Barbara Owen, who has studied American corrections for 38 years delivers that training and calls her work on the Bangkok Rules “the highlight of my career.”

“Look, we can make the WCCW a model prison,” Dawson told Parnell, rules in hand, “and make it an inspiration for the rest of the United States!” Parnell seemed interested. It was clear that the status quo was broken. Crime was dropping, but recidivism remained high. Unfortunately, Parnell retired, and subsequent leadership wasn’t interested in pursuing the plan, so Dawson regrouped and zeroed in on one problem that had infuriated her since Lofgren’s arrival: strip searches.

She showered the DOC with public records requests and harvested all available strip-search data of incarcerated women in Washington for the previous five years. Her haul was more than 3,000 pages, which prove that a fraction of 1 percent of all strip searches reveal contraband, and when they do, the take is benign items like lace underwear, not drugs or weapons.

Dawson had already polled incarcerated people and guards, and she knew strip searches were a humiliating experience for both. “It’s a mechanism of control,” Dawson told me as she paged through her strip-search documents, “nothing more, and for women with a history of abuse it’s traumatizing.”

Rule 20 of the Bangkok Rules offered a solution: “Alternative screening methods, such as scans, shall be developed to replace strip searches and invasive body searches, in order to avoid the harmful psychological and possible physical impact of invasive body searches.”

Dawson and Kay Nelson, Lofgren’s sister, frequented Olympia, the state capitol. After witnessing her sister’s experience and connecting with family members of other inmates, Nelson has come full circle from a tough-on-crime hawk to a prison reform evangelist. Together they approached state legislators, and testified before committees. For three years they have advocated for simple reforms, including a line-item purchase of three high-resolution body scanners for WCCW, and another for Mission Creek, a minimum-security facility and Washington’s only other women’s prison.

In 2017, thanks to the work of State Senator Christine Rolfes, Dawson and Nelson’s line item was included in the 2018 state supplemental budget approved by the legislature, but they only found enough money ($240,000) for a single body scanner slated for WCCW. Still it was a victory, and its purchase provides some hope that strip searches will be phased out in at least one prison in America.

Senator Christine Rolfes and Laurie Dawson.

The larger fight to transform the culture of corrections in Washington state and elsewhere continues. A tagline used in the federal prison system reads: “Reentry begins on day one,” but it rings hollow.

“We’re teaching people how to do time instead of how to do freedom,” says Karlton Daniel. If Lofgren’s sentence sounds harsh, consider that Daniel was locked up for more than 22 years for refusing to turn in his brother-in-law who had committed armed robbery and assault with three friends. He was sentenced under the “accomplice liability” law, which allowed him to be convicted of the same crime committed by four assailants on a night he didn’t even leave the house.

The larger fight to transform the culture of corrections in Washington state and elsewhere continues. A tagline used in the federal prison system reads: ‘Reentry begins on day one,’ but it rings hollow.

Daniel persevered in prison, studied, and has been a massive success since his release five years ago. He’s a homeowner, the operations manager of a hydraulics company, and the cofounder of Circle of Change, which assists former inmates. But he insists that he’s a rare case and that if prisons were set up to help incarcerated people improve themselves there would be many more like him.

“Prisons are full of people who have experienced abuse, drugs, alcohol, violence, and guns. That’s all they know and you want people to change? They don’t know how to do it. What they learn when they get to prison is how to do time.”

Karlton Daniel outside his office.

Luther thinks every incarcerated person should go through triage, meet with a case manager regularly, and experience a suite of programs to help them grow, become educated, and heal, so they are less likely to reoffend. She says there is enough money and staff in the corrections pool to pay for and deliver what she calls data-driven interventions based on 40-plus years of research, and she already trains correctional officers to do just that. “When you help them learn, [they] appreciate it and come alive, and you start to see pods of enthusiasm to help people change their lives. It’s rewarding on both sides.” So far such interventions are limited.

In Washington state, the actual mechanics of reentry is one of its greatest sources of recidivism. According to Daniel, men and women released from prison get $40 and a bus ticket. They can apply for a subsidy of $500 a month for rent, but unless they have managed to save money — difficult when you make 40 cents an hour — or have some outside help, which we know is the minority of inmates, even that extra $500 a month will remain out of reach.

“They set people up for failure,” Daniel said. “They need housing, food, identification, and you gave me $40. Now what do I do? What happens is they resort to that which they know best. We’re forcing them to do something we don’t want them to do.”

So the cycle continues.

* * *

Over the past five years, it has become clear to Dawson that Lofgren should never have pleaded guilty. A better strategy would have been to attempt to suppress Burgess’ testimony, and bring Lofgren’s case to a jury rather than an elected judge.

In 2016, Judge Stolz lost her seat amid accusations and ultimately a fine for multiple campaign finance violations. Last September, a UPS driver was mauled by pit bulls on a delivery in Puyallup, Washington, southeast of Tacoma. The driver was hospitalized with three dozen injuries that required 133 stitches. When police visited the address to investigate, they found Darryl Burgess living there.

When I knocked on Todd Hardin’s door last fall he told me Lofgren was a liar and that Dawson was misguided. He said then and reiterated over the phone in April 2018 that everything she has accused him of, she was actually doing to him. He also told me of recent death threats he’d received by text message. They came from scrambled cell phone numbers and he reported them to the sheriff’s department. He said he never threatened to take Lofgren’s children away, and was merely lawyering up to protect his rights as a father. “To me the better story is how two girls and a dad made it through extremely trying times and are flourishing. If people knew what it was like to be the victim in this case…” he said, his voice trailing off. “This hasn’t been easy.”

I’ve researched this case for months, and his version may be accurate. Nobody really knows, except Hardin and Lofgren. But when it comes to how we feel about Lofgren’s sentence, her imprisonment, and her opportunities to be better, should that even matter? Is a system based purely on punishment the best we can offer when it continues to suck up countless dollars and destroy lives? Or are we willing to dream bigger?

In the United States we are estimated to spend roughly $180 billion annually on criminal justice, $80 billion on incarceration alone. It costs more to imprison a man in California for a year ($75,560) than it does to put him through a year at Harvard. And those are just the hard dollars. A 2016 study by the Institute of Advancing Justice Research and Innovation at Washington University in St. Louis placed the aggregate cost upwards of $500 billion to $1 trillion each year. It’s a broken, expensive system and it continues to exist because to fix it requires a level of empathy and effort that has been difficult to summon and sustain.

Incarcerated people are doing their best to agitate for change. On August 21, 2018 inmates across the United States and in Canada launched a National Prison Strike, to protest unfair sentencing and low-wage slave labor, and to demand improved rehabilitative services and educational opportunities. Their first demand is “prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.” If the Bangkok and Mandela Rules were adopted as a nationwide benchmark, such a strike, due to end on September 9, would be unnecessary.

It’s a broken, expensive system and it continues to exist because to fix it requires a level of empathy and effort that has been difficult to summon and sustain.

Thus far, Trump has sent mixed signals regarding prison reform. He came out in favor of the First Step Act, a bill cosponsored by Doug Collins (R-GA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) that provides $50 million annually over the next five years for the Bureau of Prisons to ramp up education, drug treatment, and job training programs in federal prisons. It mandates people incarcerated in federal prisons be housed within a 500-mile drive of close family members, and includes some protection for pregnant women. Nevertheless, it is considered by most experts in the field to be a modest first step at best, doesn’t raise our federal penal system to the level outlined in the Bangkok and Mandela Rules, and it’s important to note that it would only impact around 185,000 people in federal prisons and would do nothing to improve the lot of people like Lofgren, in state prison systems.

On May 22, 2018, the First Step Act passed the House easily, but it’s future in the Senate is murky at best, in part because Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the chair of the Judiciary Committee, is the chief sponsor of a competing bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. That bill has 31 cosponsors from both parties, and it’s endorsed by a coalition of 200 civil rights groups because it is much stronger. It would fund an increase in rehabilitative programming as well as reduce mandatory minimum sentences and allow some incarcerated people to apply for early release.

“You can’t reduce mass incarceration,” said Jesselyn McCurdy of the American Civil Liberties Union, explaining her group’s support, “unless you stop the flow of people coming into prison.”

To his credit, Senator Grassley understands that, and his bill looks likely to pass if it can get a floor vote, which at press time wasn’t a guarantee. Don’t expect him to jump on the First Step bandwagon, however. His office confirmed by phone this May that he will not introduce any new prison reform bill that does not also tackle sentencing reform, something Trump, his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and members of the House, with an eye on the midterm polls, are reluctant to support.

Tough-on-crime policies have always played well to voters because righteousness is more potent than empathy. It’s visceral. It feels good. To the ambitious politician and their patriotic public. Empathy, on the other hand, is mysterious and subtle. It’s risky. We can never know for sure if the people we help are deserving. In fact, when it comes to changing the corrections system, we know some of them have committed unspeakable acts. But the nature of a person’s crime, their guilt or innocence, doesn’t influence Laurie Dawson’s passion to fight for something better for every incarcerated person. In addition to her policy work, Dawson volunteers for Bridges to Life, a faith-based restorative justice program, through which she ministers to people at a maximum-security men’s facility in Shelton, Washington. She talks a lot about the power of forgiveness and encourages the men she counsels to let go of the hate — and the self-hate — they’ve harbored much of their lives.

Tough-on-crime policies have always played well to voters because righteousness is more potent than empathy. It’s visceral. It feels good. To the ambitious politician and their patriotic public. Empathy, on the other hand, is mysterious and subtle. It’s risky.

“All people matter,” she told me on our last afternoon together. Though she lives in a beautiful place, she’s not wealthy. Her 83-year-old wooden home is worn and weathered, and she doesn’t earn a penny for her efforts to change the Washington state prison system. Still she shows up whenever and wherever she can.

“Anytime I deal with this kind of a system I’m going to choose resistance,” she said. “I’m going to choose to change it. We are choosing peace, we’re choosing human rights and human dignity, and we are opposing anyone who tries to strip that away. We are so far behind what the rest of the world is striving to be. It comes down to what do you choose? I believe in the light.”

***

Adam Skolnick is an author and journalist living in Los Angeles.

April Wong is an Australian commercial and editorial photographer based in Los Angeles. More of her work can be found at alovecreative.com.

***

Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Fact-checker: Matt Giles

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