Solitary Man

Lifer Bill Herron knew exactly how to get out of jail -- until 16 years ago, when the Missouri Department of Corrections locked him in solitary

Three days a week, for one hour, Bill Herron can trade his 8-foot-square cell for a fenced dog run.

That cage is twice as long as his cell but half as wide. Three times a week, Herron has a chance to breathe fresh air for a change. But it is also a chance to be hit with flying shit or piss or get caught in the crossfire of the spit fights that erupt between prisoners in the four adjacent dog runs.

Herron forgoes his chance for recreation.

Jay Thornton
Prisoners in the "honor hall" at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, built in 1868 and designated a national landmark, are allowed quite a bit of freedom. Herron isn't.
Jay Thornton
Prisoners in the "honor hall" at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, built in 1868 and designated a national landmark, are allowed quite a bit of freedom. Herron isn't.

"You're not given any choice of who is in the cage next to you," Herron says. "They are allowed to put a nut in the cage there. They just go down the line and stick anybody in there they desire. They're liable to have a prisoner that's psychotic. I just quit going."

Prison policy allows solitary confinement in the "administrative segregation" unit, where "an inmate may be temporarily placed for the security and good order of the institution."

But "temporarily" is a relative term when it comes to the Missouri Department of Corrections' relationship with Bill Herron. Herron has been in the ad-seg unit for 16 years, longer than any other state prisoner -- longer than Lawrence Merola, for example, who has a similar record of murder and escape but has been much more violent while in prison and whose longest stretch in solitary has been seven months.

"A lot of inmates did a lot of things," says Steven Hickman, whose 11 years as a prison nurse gave him an intimate perspective on the men who came and left "5C," Jefferson City's administrative-segregation unit. "[Herron] seemed to be the only one who went down there and never came out."

DOC officials won't talk specifically about Herron because he has filed civil lawsuits against them. But a recent legal brief filed by the Missouri attorney general's office summarizes the position of the state's adult-institutions director, George Lombardi, who supervises all of Missouri's prisons: "Lombardi has never seen such a unique combination of escape proneness, violence, guile and intelligence in one particular individual as demonstrated by Herron."

The brief goes on to say: "In order to move Herron from administrative segregation, DOC officials are looking for some evidence of a significant change in Herron to indicate something different from his past behavior in predicting future conduct."

Herron is not giving them that evidence. Instead he's making legal argument after legal argument that his confinement violates Missouri DOC policy, as well as the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment.

Administrative segregation is designed as short-term punishment, depriving prisoners of social interaction, phone calls, dental floss, television and radio, among other things. These are painful losses that cause inmates to think more than twice before hiding forbidden items in their cells, fighting with other inmates, wandering into restricted areas or doing anything else that might get them sent to ad seg.

With the help of the attorney general's office, the Missouri DOC has been able to convince state and federal judges that Herron is not being abused.

The Jefferson City Correctional Center is the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi River. It opened in 1836 and for its first hundred years was Missouri's only state prison. Its stone-and-concrete walls are at least 15 feet high on the inside; they link 15 towers, where officers stand poised with rifles.

Over the years, the guards in those towers have supervised the likes of Sonny Liston, who boxed while in prison and went on to become the world heavyweight champion. (A weathered portrait of Liston posing in a boxing stance remains high on one of the walls above the recreation field.) Pretty Boy Floyd counted days here, as did James Earl Ray, who escaped on April 23, 1967, by hiding in a breadbox as it was trucked out of the prison. A year later, Ray killed Martin Luther King Jr.

Others have left in coffins. Though Missouri's death row was moved to the Potosi Correctional Center, which opened in 1989, the old gas chamber remains intact at Jefferson City for tours by students and community groups. The chamber's 12 sides surround two cold metal seats where condemned prisoners sat for their final gulps of poisoned air. Photos of the executed hang on the wall next to the chamber. The 40 portraits include the faces of Carl Hall and Bonnie Heady, who kidnapped 6-year-old Bobby Greenlease from a Kansas City school in 1953, killed him and buried his body near Heady's house in St. Joseph, then demanded a $600,000 ransom from the child's wealthy parents.

Now the Jefferson City Correctional Center is on a deathwatch of its own. It's one of three maximum-security prisons in the state (besides Potosi, there's the Crossroads Correctional Center, in Cameron, which opened in 1997), and its replacement is under construction on the east side of Jefferson City and scheduled to open in 2003.

In the meantime, Jefferson City continues to house some of the state's most violent inmates. Yet most of them are allowed freedom within its walls, particularly those prisoners assigned to the so-called honor hall. The three-story stone edifice inside the 40-acre prison complex was built in 1868 and is designated a national landmark. The residents of its 149 two-man cells have their own cell keys and can come and go as they please most of the day. The 7-by-10-foot cells seem more like dorm rooms than cages. They have windows and Spanish-tile floors, and their residents have added personal touches such as welcome mats and pictures. Honor-hall inmates are allowed televisions, radios and fans, all made of clear plastic to keep them from being used to store forbidden items such as alcohol, drugs and weapons. Residents can shower or use the phone most any time during the day.

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