A New View of Crime in America

What does incarceration do for the member of a family that views prison as a rite of passage? A New York Times reporter takes a close look at intergenerational criminality.

Fox Butterfield | In My Father’s House | Knopf | October 2018 | 37 minutes (7,317 words)

 

Tracey

A Fateful Compulsion

At precisely 8:00 a.m. on August 10, 2009, a solitary figure emerged from the front gate of the sprawling Oregon State Correctional Institution. The man looked small set against the immensity of the yellow-painted prison complex, sheathed by coils of gleaming razor wire. It was Tracey Bogle. He had just finished serving his full sixteen-year sentence for the attack on Dave Fijalka and Sandra Jackson, and he was carrying a large plastic trash bag that held all his worldly possessions: a well-thumbed Bible, a few other books, his copious legal file and a change of clothes. Tracey was wearing black slacks and a dark collared shirt that had been donated to him by two volunteers from the Seventh Day Adventist Church. They had also given him $25, the only money he had.

No members of Tracey’s family were waiting to meet him. His brothers were all in prison themselves. His two sisters were leading vagabond lives, doing drugs and panhandling where they could. His mother, Kathy, was about to go on trial and then go to jail too. So Tracey had asked me—knowing that I was working on a book about the Bogle family—if I would pick him up. He needed a ride to the halfway house for newly released sex offenders where he would be required to live by state law, and he needed to be driven to meet his new parole officer and to a state office to get his allowance of food stamps so he could buy food. He also had to report to the Oregon State Police office to register as a sex offender.

At first I was reluctant. As a correspondent for The New York Times for thirty-six years, I had followed the paper’s strict code of not becoming personally involved with a source to get a story. But Tracey had no one else to turn to, and I knew from reporting on criminal justice for the past fifteen years that the odds of a newly released inmate making a successful transition back to life outside prison were bleak. In fact, a comprehensive national survey of state prison inmates by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that two-thirds of the 600,000 inmates released every year are rearrested within three years, and three-quarters of all inmates are rearrested within five years. Our prisons have become a giant, expensive recycling machine that feeds on itself. Repeated findings by criminologists about this high level of failure had led one leading sociologist, Robert Martinson, to conclude, “With few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitation efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism.”

Martinson’s conclusion was so damning that it soon became known as the “nothing works” doctrine in trying to rehabilitate inmates. Later research by other criminologists questioned Martinson’s findings, but the “nothing works” notion helped lay the groundwork for America’s great social experiment with mass incarceration in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s as the way to solve our crime problem. So I thought that picking Tracey up on his release from prison and following him around for a week or two might give me an insight into why so few convicts were able to make a successful reentry into civilian life.

By this time I had observed the Bogles long enough to know that much of their criminal behavior was already baked in during their childhood upbringing, long before they spent years in various prisons. Nonetheless, Tracey had been in prison for sixteen years, and counting the earlier years he spent in juvenile institutions in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Nevada, he had been locked up almost full-time since he was fifteen. He had, literally, come of age in prison, and not only his family members but most of his friends were inmates. Tracey was only one tiny digit in the explosion of our prison population. We now have 2.3 million people in prison and jail, and Americans spend an estimated $179 billion a year on prisons, police forces and our court system. That is more than the entire annual budget of any of the individual fifty states, including the largest and most expensive: California, New York, Texas, and Florida.

Keeping that many convicts off the street certainly averts a large number of crimes. But is the experience of being confined in prison for long periods of time achieving anything else, causing any productive change in inmates’ behavior? Or is there something in the convicts themselves so ingrained that prison cannot change them or make them less likely to commit more crime? I was looking for clues from Tracey.

Tracey had done what he was required to do under Oregon prison regulations to be rehabilitated. He had gone through mandated alcohol and drug treatment classes. He had passed his GED test, earning a high school equivalency degree though he had not gone beyond the seventh grade in school. He had taken the little vocational instruction that was offered, learning to be a janitor. He had also become, outwardly at least, a passionate and vocal Christian, reading the Bible every day and quoting scripture to other inmates when they kidded him about whether his newfound faith was real. Tracey had even applied to Chemeketa Community College in Salem, receiving what he said was a formal acceptance. On closer inspection it was only a form directing him to take reading and math placement tests when he got out before he could be admitted. This was the first of many stories Tracey passed off as true. Convicts live such constrained lives that they learn to manipulate rules and people as a way to get what they want. It is called being institutionalized.

Tracey had been in prison for sixteen years, and counting the earlier years he spent in juvenile institutions in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Nevada, he had been locked up almost full-time since he was fifteen.

Despite some seeming progress, there was one troubling issue about Tracey. During his incarceration from 1990 to 2006, he had exhibited symptoms of severe mental illness. His problems first showed up in 1996, when he started telling other inmates and his guards that he was hearing angry voices and seeing demons and angels. Sometimes, with his Bible in hand, Tracey announced to other inmates that he was an angel of God. Other times, if Tracey suspected a fellow inmate was staring at him, Tracey became paranoid and would beat the other man up. Although Tracey, like his brothers, was short, only five feet nine inches tall, he had bulked up from 170 pounds to 240 pounds through a relentless weight-lifting regimen and was a mean fighter. When Tracey assaulted another inmate, he was put in the hole, or solitary confinement. After several of these episodes, Tracey was sent to the mental health staff for diagnosis. But most of the counselors either dismissed Tracey as a faker or gave him a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. It was the default diagnosis for troublesome inmates, and it was a hard label to shed, because it was a mental condition rather than a mental illness, and there was no cure. In fact, it was not really a diagnosis at all but more of a checklist describing the behavior of inmates the staff did not like: they were manipulative, prone to violence and lacked any regard for others.

Then, in 1997, Tracey saw a new counselor in the Counseling and Treatment Services division of the Oregon Department of Corrections, Ann Heath, a licensed clinical social worker. She was a tall woman in her early sixties with short blond hair and blue eyes that seemed to perpetually smile. After meeting Tracey, she made a quick and important discovery: the other counselors had not spent much time actually listening to Tracey, because they didn’t like him. “It was a rare commodity for Tracey to have anyone listen to him for forty-five minutes,” Heath said, the length of time for a mental health appointment in prison. “It was rare for anyone to listen to him at any time in his life. He didn’t really have a home. His father beat him and was drunk all the time. None of his teachers at school listened to him. No one at MacLaren,” the reform school where he had been sent. But Heath did listen to him. “I think he liked me because I actually listened to him. I became a parent figure.

“Tracey was very delusional, and I thought he was really sick,” Heath found. “He believed he was on a mission from God, and he could see and hear demons and monsters attacking him. Tracey was always bringing me a Bible and he was rewriting it. His mission was to change the world. I got the sense he had been very abused at home but didn’t want to talk about it.”

Heath wrote in a report dated January 15, 1997, that Tracey was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. This was a serious diagnosis of a real mental illness and went much further than the other counselors had gone. “Tracey was clearly psychotic, and his delusions were very fixed,” she recalled. “A lot of my work with him was to get him to take his meds,” meaning Risperdal, an antipsychotic drug. “He didn’t like the way it made him feel,” Heath related, “so he tried not to take it. But when he took it, he was able to get along better with people and do his job as a janitor in the main hallway.”

After four years of working with Tracey, Heath was pleased when the chief psychiatrist for the Oregon Department of Corrections, Dr. Marvin Fickle, examined Tracey and essentially corroborated her diagnosis by saying Tracey had a “psychotic disorder not otherwise specified.” What this meant, Heath said, was that Dr. Fickle found that Tracey was psychotic but believed as a psychiatrist that he did not have enough evidence to conclude whether Tracey was schizophrenic, hearing voices and seeing things, or whether he was bipolar, suffering from alternating bouts of depression and mania, with high energy and rapid speech.

Looking back, Heath now thinks Tracey may have been bipolar, because he was very grandiose, believing he was an angel of God, and because he often talked very fast for long periods. In truth, she said, it can be difficult to distinguish between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Until the 1990s, Heath said, “American psychiatrists tended to say anyone with psychosis had schizophrenia.”

Whatever the correct diagnosis, Heath’s weekly sessions with Tracey and getting him to stay on his meds gradually eliminated his visions, and the voices subsided. It was a rare outcome, Heath said, because “usually these disorders last a lifetime. They don’t just go away.”

Heath did not know that Tracey’s oldest brother, Tony, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, or that his half brother, Tim, and half sister, Debbie, had both been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. If she had known all this, Heath said, she might have concluded that mental illness was being passed on in the Bogle family, because bipolar disorder has been found to be highly heritable.

 

When I picked up Tracey at the front gate of the Oregon State Correctional Institution on his release, he was smiling broadly. “I want to do good, but I get the jitters,” he said to begin our conversation. “I don’t remember what freedom feels like. It feels like I’m on Mars. I can’t believe I’m not in prison.”

Tracey had heard about all the things he now had to do and about all the restrictions he faced both because he was on parole and because he was a sex offender, even though Tracey still vehemently insisted that what he had done was not sodomy. The restrictions started with the place he had to live, until he proved he was capable of staying out of trouble. It was a halfway house approved by the Department of Corrections for newly released sex offenders called Stepping Out Ministries, and by coincidence it was run by one of Tracey’s cousins, Tammie Bogle Silver. Her father, Babe Bogle, was one of Rooster’s older brothers. It was a Christian-based religious program with regular prayer services, a strict curfew and a no-alcohol policy. Unlike prison, which is the ultimate welfare state, where food, housing and medical care are free, Tracey would have to pay $300 a month for a bed, and the residents had to buy and cook their own meals.

On our drive from the prison to check in at his new housing, Tracey spotted a McDonald’s in a strip mall and asked to stop so he could get his first Big Mac in sixteen years. Then Tracey saw a Domino’s Pizza next door and changed his mind. In prison he had never had the luxury of choice. It was only as we came outside after lunch that Tracey saw there was a children’s day-care center on the other side of the Domino’s. Tracey had just violated one of the primary terms of his release as a sex offender: he was not allowed to be at a property next door to a school, children’s day-care center, park or playground or any place where people under the age of eighteen regularly met. “I wasn’t supposed to be there,” Tracey said ruefully. “But how can I anticipate all the places I’m not supposed to go?”


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When Tracey arrived at the quarters of Stepping Out Ministries, in a hulking former Catholic nuns’ home, his cousin Tammie greeted him and assured him his first day out of prison would be the most difficult because the changes are so overwhelming. “Tomorrow when you wake up it will be real different,” Tammie said. “You will not hear the doors slam or the guards yelling. But you will have to make your own breakfast.”

Because Tracey would be on parole for three years, the next step for him was to meet his parole officer near the Marion County jail. The parole officer spelled out more rules for Tracey. Since Tracey had been drunk when he attacked Dave Fijalka and Sandra Jackson, he could not go to any bar, tavern or liquor store. He could not have any contact with his brother Bobby, with whom he had committed the crime. (Bobby was still incarcerated in the Oregon State Penitentiary.) Tracey was also not to drive a car alone. In addition, he would be subject to a curfew imposed by his parole officer, who could make Tracey wear an electronic ankle bracelet to monitor his movements if Tracey’s conduct aroused his suspicion. And because he was a sex offender, Tracey was not supposed to use the Internet without prior approval by his parole officer, to avoid pornography.

After hearing all these terms, Tracey grew tense. “It seems they don’t want me to do good,” he said. “The parole board is attaching so many conditions that they will make me fail.”

The next step was to go to the Oregon Department of Human Services to pick up Tracey’s food stamps. They came in the form of an “Oregon Trail” debit card emblazoned with a picture of a covered wagon. It was loaded with $200 a month, the allotment for a newly released inmate. The state’s assumption was that within the first month out Tracey would find a job and thereafter be able to pay for his own groceries, so after that first month his food stamps would be terminated.

The following day Tracey had to go to the Oregon State Police office in Salem to register as a sex offender. A female clerk took his photograph and advised Tracey that he would have to reregister every year within ten days of his birthday, and any time he moved, or he would be in violation of his parole. This condition would last for the rest of his life.

Tracey was becoming agitated with all these terms. He was clenching his jaw and fists, and his speech sped up. “Anyone who has sex with his wife is a sex offender,” Tracey said to the female clerk, who ignored his outburst. “You are all hypocrites, labeling me as a sex offender. These were people I knew who stole a business from me. They were not innocent. You’ve got this all wrong. I am not a sexual predator. I shouldn’t have to register. I am going to a judge to get my convictions reversed,” Tracey said with confidence. He was thinking of Judge Norblad, the Bogle family’s own judge, as they had come to see him.

Back at Stepping Out Ministries, Tracey told his day’s story to another resident who had been in prison with Tracey and was also a sex o ender. “You need to slow down, brother,” the other resident said. “You don’t want to dwell in the past and carry all that anger. Good luck with trying to fight being registered as a sex offender. You need to get on with the rest of your life.”

On his third day out, Tammie told Tracey he needed to start looking for a job, and she gave him a list of possibilities. He could cook at a senior center; he could work in a woodworking shop; he could get a maintenance job; he could work as a porter in a property management company; or he could be a stocking clerk at one of the Plaid Pantry chain of convenience stores in Salem. “Your main job now is to get a job,” Tammie said. “You need to start earning money to pay for your rent and your food. The important thing is to get on a set schedule.”

This was not the message Tracey wanted to hear, and none of the job choices were glamorous or promised good pay or career opportunities, in Tracey’s mind. At least in prison, Tracey said, housing and food were free and you didn’t have to worry about finding a job. Tammie had told him that he needed to fill out four job applications that day. Tracey filled out only one, for a job at the convenience store.

That evening, after returning to Stepping Out, Tracey said he had a plan for where he wanted to live. He would buy twenty acres of land and build his dream house there, a house big enough to accommodate all his brothers and sisters, the whole Bogle clan. It would be built in what Tracey termed “Mexican colonial” style, with five bedrooms and a guest house. There would be fields planted with corn, a vegetable garden, an orchard with apple, pear and cherry trees, a pond stocked with gold fish and a stream with trout that ran down a hill. “The house and fields and fish would be a refuge for my entire family, who are vagabonds,” Tracey said. He announced with confidence that he would design and build the house himself. “I am very good in construction.”

‘That thing about getting a gun is a real red flag. The early signs from Tracey are bad.’

Tracey’s dream house was grandiose, reflecting the kind of grandiosity that Ann Heath had observed in Tracey while he was in prison. Tracey now took this grandiosity a step further. He said he had a lot of experience as a lawyer, working on appeals of his case while incarcerated. “I am now going to represent myself to get this sodomy conviction overturned and get the governor of Arizona to pardon my brother Tony.” Tony was serving a life sentence for a murder he committed in Arizona, and there was no chance for a pardon.

If he didn’t get his sodomy conviction overturned, Tracey said, he would get a gun and go after the judge who sentenced him.

“Someone needs to send these people a message,” Tracey said, meaning the judges, district attorneys and lawyers who put him and his brothers in prison.

Another of the residents at Stepping Out overheard Tracey’s comments and passed them on to Tammie, and she said, “That thing about getting a gun is a real red flag. The early signs from Tracey are bad.”

Based on her experience with thousands of released inmates, and members of her own family, Tammie said that “Tracey is stunted emotionally. He seems like a child because he’s stuck at the age he went in,” fifteen, when he was first sent to MacLaren. “He will have trouble learning because he doesn’t trust other people; convicts don’t even trust themselves,” Tammie said.

“Tracey’s grandiosity in part is to compensate for his lack of self-confidence, like many convicts,” Tammie explained. “He will need to stay here at Stepping Out for at least a year to catch up emotionally. He needs to avoid a relationship with a woman till then too. But the first thing a newly released inmate wants is a woman. Tracey is still reading his Bible a lot,” she added. “But what is missing is the change of heart, his personal relationship with God. He is so full of anger that this is setting him up for failure.”

 

On Tracey’s fifth day out, he went to Chemeketa Community College in Salem to take his required placement tests, in reading, writing, and math. When I picked him up after he finished the tests, Tracey was giddy. “They were very easy. I did really well. I passed them all.” This was another flash of Tracey’s grandiosity, or bloated self-confidence to compensate for his spotty education. In fact, he had flunked one of the tests and had to retake it.

“You should have seen the girls; they were really looking at me,” Tracey said. “I think they wanted me.” It was true that Tracey cut an unusual figure on campus. He was at least ten years older than most of the students, and he was wearing black shorts and a tight black T-shirt designed to highlight his muscular biceps and his manifold tattoos.

Tracey found out from college guidance counselors that he would be eligible for federal student loans under the Stafford and Perkins programs. Each loan paid up to $5,500 a year, a total of $11,000 annually. This was like learning you had just won the lottery to Tracey. “Can you believe it?” he said to me. “They will pay me to go to college.” Tracey had found what he thought was his dream job. He could go to college and get paid a princely sum to do it. Tracey did not seem to realize that these were loans, not grants, and that legally he would be required to repay them.

Confident that he now had a real paying job, Tracey dipped into his savings from prison, $1,700 he had earned as a janitor over his sixteen years of incarceration. He had entrusted it to his legal-aid lawyer for safekeeping. Tracey bought a new watch, new gray pants for going to class, a green parka for the winter, and his first cell phone. He also bought a car, for $900, a ten-year-old Dodge Neon that had been rebuilt by another ex-con Tracey knew, who had turned it into a drag-racing car. Tracey had neither a driver’s license nor insurance, so he used his mother Kathy’s expired license and her canceled insurance for the purchase. In buying the car, Tracey would be violating both his parole, which prohibited him from driving alone, and the rules of Stepping Out Ministries, which forbade its residents from having a car. Tracey was showing his old convict side: impulsive, manipulative, and with a penchant for rule-breaking. When faced with a choice, Tracey seemed to have a compulsion to take the easy way out and make the wrong decision.

Watching Tracey’s actions since his release, Tammie recognized something else. Inside prison Tracey had a well-established identity. In the outside world he had none. So he was moving quickly to build a new identity. He was a new man with a cell phone, car, good clothes, and what he regarded as a well-paying job going to college. Tammie saw buying the car as another step toward failure. “He should be focusing everything on finding a real job and then going to college,” she said.

On September 28, less than two months after getting out of prison, Tracey began classes at Chemeketa. There was one sign of coming trouble. Since Tracey’s parole officer still believed Tracey was a danger, he had ordered him to start wearing a heavy electronic ankle bracelet, even when he was in class with all those attractive young women students. The ankle bracelet annoyed Tracey.

Tracey was showing his old convict side: impulsive, manipulative, and with a penchant for rule-breaking.

Tracey had soon obtained his first actual job, as a framer for a construction contractor who had volunteered as a pastor while Tracey was in prison. Tracey was framing doors in new houses for $10 an hour, forty hours a week. In Tracey’s mind that worked out to earnings of $400 a week. When he got his first paycheck, though, it was only $100. The rest had been withheld for state and federal taxes, for Social Security and for Medicaid. “The government is robbing me,” Tracey said. The everyday civilian world was an alien place for inmates accustomed to free housing, food, and medical care and no taxes.

Tracey was becoming frustrated with the price of living at Stepping Out Ministries, even though it was only $300 a month and included some free food like cereal, milk and juice for breakfast. “I have to pay for everything now, housing, food, gas,” Tracey said. Tracey also had to pay for a mandatory sexual-predator class. It all seemed unfair. Tracey claimed he earned honors grades that rst fall semester at Chemeketa, maintaining a B average. He took psychology, advanced writing and public speaking. Tracey wanted to give a talk in the latter class about Martin Luther, one of his religious heroes, but the instructor suggested he talk about being a convict. “The kids thought I was really cool and wanted to know more about me,” Tracey reported with pride after his talk. In psychology there was discussion about how behavior gets learned in families, and Tracey wondered how that applied in his own family. “Is being a criminal something that you learn from your family as you grow up?” he mused. “Is it a kind of preconditioning? Or is it something genetic?”

On the whole, though, Tracey was concluding, “It’s kind of boring out here.” He was not allowed to buy liquor or go to a bar, because of the role alcohol had played in his crime. He couldn’t go to the mall, because there were people there under eighteen and that would be a violation of his sex-offender regulations. Tracey began to think about doing some burglaries, just for the excitement, he said.

Then there was the grind of college, which was not as easy as Tracey had expected. “These kids have been going to school for years, and they know how to do it,” he said. Things might be more interesting for him if he had a girlfriend, Tracey said. “But that department has been shut down and is out of business. I am a Christian.”

Sometime after Christmas 2009, however, things changed for Tracey. By early February he had moved out of Stepping Out Ministries to a thirty-two-foot dilapidated travel trailer he had bought and had parked in the Salem neighborhood known as Felony Flats. In April, Tracey refused to take his regular mandated lie-detector test and was ordered to report to his parole officer every day.

The explanation for Tracey’s change came quickly. He had met a woman during a church service at Stepping Out Ministries, Julie Phillips, and she was now pregnant. Tammie had kicked Tracey out of Stepping Out Ministries because there were minors participating in the church services, putting him in violation of his sex-offender restrictions. Things would become even more com- plicated when Tracey’s new girlfriend gave birth because his sex offender restrictions meant he could not be around his own baby. Tracey’s girlfriend was thirty-four years old, a college graduate with a business degree who worked for the Bank of America. And she was the daughter of a preacher, Tracey said.

“I got a girl pregnant, but I don’t even like her,” Tracey insisted. “I was just excited to have the chance to have a baby. I came very close to never being a father after a lifetime in prison. So this is a big thing for me.

“I don’t think I have the capacity for a relationship,” he continued. “Something inside me was broken because of all those years in prison. I was too isolated for too long from normal human relationships. I am a broken person.

“I realize now that life on the outside in some ways is harder than life in prison,” Tracey said. He felt there were more conditions and demands on him, more restrictions, in the free world than in prison, where he was all too familiar with the strict rituals of incarceration. “All those years of people telling me what I can eat, when I have to eat, and when I have to go to bed, just wore me out,” Tracey said. “I have some mental damage. I’m afraid I am a dead person. Julie is really nice, but I don’t plan on getting married. I don’t want the added responsibility.”

A few weeks later Tracey moved his trailer out of Salem to a campground next to the Enchanted Forest amusement park that his brother Bobby had robbed as a kid. The rent was cheaper, Tracey explained, and he would have the freedom of being alone, something he never had in prison.

The prospect of more student loans kept Tracey going. He had long wanted to study veterinary medicine because he loved birds, and Oregon State University in Corvallis, a forty-five-minute drive from his trailer, offered a good veterinary program. Tracey applied, using his grades from Chemeketa, and was accepted for admission that fall.

“People say criminals don’t have the brains to go to college,” Tracey said. “But it’s not true. I got honors grades at Chemeketa with a 3.0 grade-point average.” He also was given a fresh round of Stafford and Perkins loans for a year at Oregon State, $10,000, Tracey claimed.

On the surface, things were going well. During the fall of 2010 Tracey was commuting from his trailer to Oregon State and his grades were good, Tracey said. “I’ve done something that no one in the family has ever done, gone to college. I was shocked. So it’s very special to me. I’ve succeeded. This story has a happy ending. I wanted to break the family curse and I think I’ve done it.”

Tracey had a baby by then, Isaiah, who was born that November. Tracey did not want him to have the Bogle name—that would be continuing the curse. The baby was given his mother’s last name.

Under the surface, however, Tim Bogle, Tracey’s half brother and closest friend, felt something was going wrong. When Tim visited Tracey’s trailer he could tell Tracey was drinking again. This was a parole violation, but to Tim it was much more.

“It was drinking and getting drunk that led Tracey to commit the crime that got him arrested and sent to prison for sixteen years,” Tim said. “Alcohol has always been a huge part of Tracey’s life. He grew up with a drunk for a father who was drunk almost every day. Now, when I go over to his trailer, Tracey gets very argumentative with me, and when I tell him I see him getting addicted again, he tells me to mind my own business. This is Tracey’s own choice, the drinking. It’s as if he has a compulsion to make the wrong choice.

“Tracey is only going to college at all because it’s his only way to get money, the student loans,” Tim added. “He thinks it’s free money.” Tim began to suspect that Julie, Tracey’s girlfriend, was doing the real studying and writing Tracey’s papers for him.

Bobby, Tracey’s older brother, also started worrying that Tracey was “getting drunk every day like Dad did.” Bobby himself was still in prison, but called Tracey regularly to check in with him. “I think he’s fixing to go back to prison,” Bobby said. “All it takes is one fight or a cop pulling him over on the road when he’s been drinking. Those are parole violations.”

A few weeks later Tracey moved his trailer out of Salem to a campground next to the Enchanted Forest amusement park that his brother Bobby had robbed as a kid.

It finally happened on May 6, 2011. Tracey was drunk and burst into Tim’s house in Salem wielding a Sawzall, a cordless electric saw with a five-inch blade that Tracey had earlier borrowed from Tim to work on a small cabin he was building next to his trailer. “Tracey was out of control, and I thought he was going to cut me,” Tim said. “He blamed me for some trouble with his girlfriend, and he challenged me to go out to my garage and fight.” Tim’s wife, Chris, and his younger daughter, Britney, were standing there and were terrified about what might happen. “Tracey said he would whup my ass, and we started to fight, so I dialed 911.

“I hated to be the one who called the laws on Tracey, but he had been drinking and came at me with a weapon,” Tim said. After the police arrived and questioned Tim and his wife and daughter, they went to Julie’s house. The police witnessed Tracey threatening to rape her brother, and they also discovered his infant son, Isaiah.

“Of everyone in the family, Tracey was my best friend, and we were the same age,” Tim said. “Our dad had taught us to fight, so Tracey’s idea of solving things was fighting. And our dad taught Tracey to drink. So Tracey got drunk, and when he got mad all he could think of to do was fighting.”

Tracey was booked into the Marion County jail in Salem on the evening of May 6, 2011. It was less than two years since he was released from prison after serving his sixteen-year sentence. Tracey was charged with burglary, for breaking into Tim’s house, and with assault and assault with a deadly weapon. At his trial, on September 11 that year, Tracey got lucky—he was sentenced to just sixty days in jail, which he had already served, and five years of probation.

Tracey went back to living in his trailer, but he stopped going to Oregon State. Instead, he somehow managed to get a fresh set of federal student loans to enroll at Portland State University, a branch of the University of Oregon, fifty miles to the north in downtown Portland. According to Tim, Tracey also found a new girlfriend in Portland, who helped him with his homework at Portland State.

“Going to college is my job now,” Tracey told Tim in March 2013. “I have to go to school to get paid.” He was still at Portland State, somehow still getting new federal student loans and not paying interest on them and managing to get passing grades.

In April 2013, when his probation officer asked Tracey to come in for a routine urine-analysis drug test, Tracey refused. A few days later he refused again. It was the kind of reckless behavior that had gotten him into trouble so many times before, acting on a compulsion he could not stop. The police traced the location of his cell phone. He was in Portland at his new girlfriend’s house. A team of police, along with several police dogs, went to her house and arrested him, taking him back to the Marion County jail in Salem. Tracey’s probation for the burglary at Tim’s house was revoked, and Tracey was quickly sentenced to six years in prison for the burglary with a dangerous weapon back in 2011. He was sent to the Snake River Correctional Institution in the high desert of eastern Oregon near the Idaho border. It was as far away from Tracey’s home in Salem as you could go and still be in Oregon. He hadn’t earned a college degree, and was unlikely to ever pay back all the federal student loans he had received, which totaled $20,000 or more. That would mean the end of any more federal loans.

 

Tracey’s compulsion to make the wrong choice and to engage in lawbreaking behavior raises the question of where that pressure comes from. He himself suggested one explanation—that it was behavior he had learned as a child by imitating his parents and older brothers, social learning. But Tracey also wondered if there was something else at work in him. Perhaps it was genetic.

Some criminologists have long posited that criminals are born, not made, and pointed to some physical characteristics that can identify them. In the sixteenth century an Italian physician, Giambattista della Porta, founded a school of physiognomy that claimed criminals could be identified by facial features and expressions. Della Porta believed a thief, for example, had large lips and keen eyesight, and he argued that human character could be read from physiognomy. In the late nineteenth century another Italian physician, Cesare Lambroso, developed an elaborate school that believed criminals had evolved backward and are a lower form of life, closer to their apelike ancestors, and could be identified by their large jaws and powerful canine teeth. In Lambroso’s view, criminals had a wide arm-span, which was greater than their height, another apelike feature. Lambroso worked out these characteristics by examining thousands of skeletons of well-known outlaws and living prisoners. Lambroso’s influence lingered on into the twentieth century in the United States with the work of the physical anthropologist Ernest Hooten, who in 1939 published a large study comparing American prisoners with a noncriminal control group. He concluded, “In every population there are hereditary inferiors in mind and in body as well as physical and mental deficients.” Hooten called for the segregation of these people of the “criminal stock,” and he also advocated, as a proponent of eugenics, that they be sterilized.

These earlier studies have now been discredited as pseudoscience by advances in genetic research. Nazi experiments with eugenics in World War II also made most criminologists reject any genetic interpretations of criminal behavior. And America’s history of racism has made virtually all our criminologists skeptical about research that attempts to find a genetic link to crime, preferring to look for its causes in society or the environment. In 1992, the University of Maryland was forced to call off a conference at the last minute titled “Genetic Factors in Crime” after complaints from the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP about the racial implications of attempting to link crime to genetics. Because blacks are convicted of crime disproportionately, the critics said, any effort to find genetic explanations for crime might be used to revive discredited theories that blacks are biologically inferior. The conference, which was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, was canceled after the NIH withdrew its funds because of the criticism.

Researchers estimate that more than two hundred studies have now shown genes play a role in crime. But they emphasize that there is no ‘crime gene.’

But in the past two decades, now that the human genome has been sequenced and scientists are studying the genetics of behaviors like alcoholism, some criminologists have cautiously returned to studying how genes might increase the risk of committing a crime and whether such a trait might be inherited. As Siddhartha Mukherjee put it in his best-selling book The Gene: An Intimate History, “It is like the return of the native—the emergence of the gene as a major driver for psychological impulses” after so many years of looking for causes outside the individual in society or the environment. Suddenly, using new, more sophisticated studies of identical twins, some raised together and some raised apart, scientists have been able to show that traits like impulsivity and novelty seeking—precursors for criminal behavior—have a genetic basis.

Researchers estimate that more than two hundred studies have now shown genes play a role in crime. But they emphasize that there is no “crime gene.” Instead, they are careful to stress that genes play a role only as part of a complex interplay with the environment, which can either intensify or turn off violent impulses.

The most acclaimed findings have been by Terrie E. Moffitt, a professor of psychology and behavioral genetics at Duke University. In a seminal article published in Science in 2002, she found that a variant of the MAOA gene (monoamine oxidase A enzyme), which controls the amount of serotonin in the blood, can act as what she calls a clean-up gene on children exposed to maltreatment. Those children with a highly active version of the gene are less likely to become antisocial after exposure to abuse, while those with a lower active variant are more likely to become anti- social, Professor Moffitt said in an interview. Moffitt stressed that it is the social experience of childhood abuse that is the root cause of the behavior and that it is the variant of the gene that may cause the vulnerability to develop antisocial behavior. “It is a complex dance between the social experience and the gene,” she said.

Moffitt found these results in a long-term study of a large group of children in New Zealand with her colleague and husband, Avshalom Caspi. Their findings have since been confirmed in a meta-analysis of twenty-seven studies by Amy Byrd of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. In a case like the Bogles, Moffitt suggested, the family environment and the genes could act as a one-two punch, reinforcing each other and leading to the buildup of so many family members’ being antisocial and becoming criminals. In scientific terms, this is called a “gene-environment correlation,” she said, where people at genetic risk end up in families with environmental risk because their families give them both their genes and their home life.

In addition, this coincidence of genes and environment can repeat cyclically all across the life course, Moffitt said.

For example, if a small boy’s mild genetic vulnerability leads him to be di cult to manage and unable to settle in the classroom, he will be reassigned to a classroom for disruptive children, come under their bad peer influence and act even more disruptively than before. If a teen’s mild genetic vulnerability leads him to show off and drive recklessly, he may have a car accident and get a head injury that impairs his judgment and makes him more impulsive and more prone than before to get involved in crime. If an adult’s genetic vulnerability leads him to frequent bars, he stands a good chance of meeting his girlfriend there, who also shares a lifestyle of alcohol and drugs and encourages his involvement in more criminal activities to secure more drugs. If a young person with a mild genetic vulnerability to sensation seeking tries experimenting with petty rebellious crime and gets caught, processed through the courts and incarcerated in prison, his new criminal record might stop him from getting a good job, leaving him few opportunities to go straight.

Professor Moffitt also stresses that there is no single crime gene. “It is probably forty genes that make someone susceptible to alcohol,” she said. “Or another fifty genes for sensation seeking. And more genes for the tendency to lose one’s temper. And another group of genes for the tendency to have difficulty learning.”

So far, however, behavioral genetics research has found little to explain why offenders like Tracey Bogle have so much trouble stopping their life of crime after being released from prison. For one thing, Professor Moffitt said, “We don’t have a lot of studies of adult criminals, because most genetic research is focused on how children and teenagers become antisocial and then turn into adult criminals.”

John Laub, the University of Maryland criminologist who analyzed the Gluecks’ data on delinquents in Boston in the 1940s, believes Moffitt’s research on the gene-environment interplay offers a possible explanation. When some people get both the gene and the bad environment, like growing up in the Bogle family, it is “a double insult,” Laub said. It is this interaction that makes it very diffcult for newly released inmates to stop committing crime. “It is just too hard and no fun.”

Tracey had probably suffered from this “double insult.”

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Excerpted from IN MY FATHER’S HOUSE by Fox Butterfield. Copyright © 2018 by Fox Butterfield. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.