Biblitz delivers advise

ASK Biblitz about Prison.

'...guards staged "gladiator days," sending prisoners who were known enemies into a small yard and betting on which prisoner might prevail in the ensuing mayhem. When fights got out of control, guards trained their weapons on the prisoners.'

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Does it seem to you as if prison conditions are worsening, especially in the U.S.?

More about Prison.

Biblitz replies:

Yes! The practice of incarceration today is as disturbing as it is expensive and, far too often, DNA and other high-tech evidence reveal either that accused was nowhere near the crime scene (see Darryl Hunt) and/or the modus operendi put forward by the prosecution was physically impossible (see Todd Willingham). These two cases are quite likely just the tip of an iceberg.

Here are a few troubling highlights of recent prison history:


When Christian Longo asked if I wanted to watch him die, I told him I did.

By Michael Finkel
January, 2010

Longo is, indeed, making money on death row. But not on the market. He's really providing titillating letters and phone sex to a couple of gay men. This is a rather common fetish, it turns out; whenever a new inmate arrives on death row, according to Longo, he'll be inundated by letters from men (who've followed the case through the media) seeking a prison lover, perhaps turned on by the thought of an amorous murderer. Such men - known as "ATMs" - will return the favor with generous deposits in a prison account.

Longo said he has two ATMs. ... an accountant in San Francisco .... a schoolteacher (and grandfather of three) in New York City. ... He's had these two "on the hook" for more than five years, and in return they've given him thousands of dollars, though he says he recently ended the relationships. ...

... Longo, I believed, really wanted to "enhance someone else's life," as he wrote, by sacrificing his own, a real-life version of the Will Smith movie. However, I'd spoken with a transplant surgeon and learned that the execution procedure - sodium pentothal (inducing unconsciousness in 30-45 seconds) then pancuronium bromide (a muscle relaxant) then potassium chloride (stopping the heart) poured into the veins - rendered all organs useless. Some skin tissue could be saved. Maybe the heart valves. Then his body could be donated to a medical school.

It wasn't much - it didn't seem to fulfill his goal - and I told him so in my letter. The problem, I wrote, was that the state-administered death cocktail produced heart failure. If you were able to change the procedure (the law isn't specific about the precise drugs used) so that it induced brain death instead, the organs could be transplanted. And then, I continued, if you signed up other inmates and the idea went national, you might save the lives of dozens of people who would've died on organ waiting lists. ...

And so, in his single-minded way, Longo promptly dedicated himself to making the idea a reality. He came up with a name: GAVE. Gifts of Anatomical Value from the Executed. With the help of his brother, he set up a Web site - A photo on the first version of the home page showed a family riding a merry-go-round: Mom, Dad, two grinning kids. "I am a death inmate who wants to save lives," Longo wrote on his site. "Not to set right my wrongs - as this is unfortunately impossible - but to make a positive out of an otherwise horrible situation." Instead of needing my help to distribute his body parts, Long now wanted me to devote time to his new project.

... Longo had vowed, in return for my assistance with his Seven Pounds plan, to tell me the truth about the murders - a truth he had never revealed. ...

"How long before that final night did you know you were going to kill your family?" I asked.

He said it was only a few hours before, while at work, that he came to a decision. ...

... This was the time. As they were having sex. And he reached up and took her throat. ...

It takes quite a long time to kill someone by strangulation. Like five minutes. ...

When she was dead, he got up, put on some clothes, and strangled their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Madison, who was sleeping on the floor. He strangled her with one hand. ...

... He talked about returning to the condo after dumping the bodies of his wife and baby, in suitcases, off a dock and into the bay. He had no stomach for strangling anyone else, so he lifted Zachery and Sadie gingerly from their sleep, one at a time, and nested them in their car seats in the stolen minivan ...

... He placed each rock into a pillowcase. And then with a weighted pillowcase tied in a quick overhaul knot to an ankle, he threw one child off the railing of the bridge, walked around the van to the second car seat, again tied on a pillowcase, and dropped the other child off the opposite side. ...

"I can't remember," he said.

His eyes grew glassy. He was quiet again.

"I can't remember who I threw in first." ...

Longo's hope is that inmates, and not just those on death row, will be allowed both to make living anatomical donations - kidney and liver lobes and bone marrow - and then, for those who are executed, to give away all the major organs. More than 100,000 Americans are on organ-transplant waiting lists. The median time to receive a kidney, the organ most in demand, is 1,219 days. About 14,000 people donate organs every year. There are 2.4 million people incarcerated in the United States. Longo's goal is to inspire one per cent of them to participate in the living donation program each year. That's nearly 24,000 people. If he even came close to achieving that, it would more than double the nation's supply of available organs. ... (-- pgs. 123-127)


Actual death row stats:

View the list of Oregon death row inmates, including Longo, as of March 11/2010.

In 2009, there were 52 executions in the U.S., 106 new inmates under a death sentence and a total death row population of 3,279. There are now 35 states with the death penalty - down from 36 in 2008 and from 38 in 1999. (From Dealth Penalty Information's year-end report in December, 2009)

Welcome to Oregon State Penetentiary. Note especially those the inmates describe as victims. Come on in!

The new prisons:

Blank Spots on the Map

The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World

By Trevor Paglen

California's new prisons had little resemblance to their older cousins like Folsom and San Quentin, now immortalized in the songs of Johnny Cash. The new prisons were marvels of engineering, dense prefabricated cities of razor wire and white concrete that could go up at almost a moment's notice. Unlike earlier penitentiaries like Alcatraz, located prominently in the public view as a haunting visual reminder not to break the law, California's new industrial prisons were built far away from urban centers in the poorest and remotest regions of the state, out of sight and, to most of California's population, out of mind. From time to time, stories of torture and extreme violence make their way into the news. At Pelican Bay, California's premier "super-max" prison in the forest near the Oregon border, guards boiled a man named Vaughn Dortch alive. In a 1995 ruling stemming from abuse at the prison, federal judge Telton Henderson wrote that "dry words on paper cannot adequately capture the senseless suffering and sometimes wretched misery that Pelican Bay State Prison's unconstitutional practices leave in their wake."

At Corcoran State Prison in California's Central Valley, guards staged "gladiator days," sending prisoners who were known enemies into a small yard and betting on which prisoner might prevail in the ensuing mayhem. When fights got out of control, guards trained their weapons on the prisoners. Gunfire was daily occurrence. In the eight years after Corcoran opened, eight prisoners had been shot dead and fifty wounded. The guards nicknamed Warden George Smith "Mushroom George" because "mushrooms like being kept in the dark and fed shit." (From Facts on the Ground, pgs. 9-10)

Your turn to weigh in:

Should the U.S. harvest organs donated by prison inmates?

Should we overlook the state's patchy record in delivering justice post-DNA testing procedures, which have exonerated an embarrassing number of inmates like Darryl Hunt, and presume that the death sentence has been rightly handed down in each case according to the law and the will of the voters? If not, why not? Propose a legal test. All comments and opinions gratefully received. E-mail Please check back soon to read comments!


From: Richard Dieter (Death Penalty Information)
To: Leo Biblitz
Sent: Wednesday, May 05, 2010 10:09 AM
Subject: Re: Death row inmate organ donors?

The biggest problem is ensuring voluntary consent, which is conflicted by a person's death sentence.

Sent: Monday, May 10, 2010 10:01 PM
Subject: Re: Comment Form

Hi Leo,

It's an interesting topic that I have not personally heard proposed before, but it's a bit outside of our scope of practice. If you find that it gains legal support, please do let us know.

Thank you for thinking of us.

Be well,


Please check back soon for updates!