This week on Reveal, we take a look at prisons as a part of our series And Justice for Some.

The number of women in U.S. prisons has increased more than 700 percent since 1980. And for nearly all of that time, Oklahoma has led the nation in locking up women. Reveal Senior Editor Ziva Branstetter teams up with Allison Herrera and The Frontier, an Oklahoma-based investigative news website, to find out why.

Reporter Stan Alcorn brings us the story of how one man went to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Rodney Roberts spent seven years in prison and another 11 in civil commitment after taking a plea agreement. We take a deeper look at the plea deal process, which accounts for most people who end up in prison.

Finally, reporter Daniel Gross brings us the story of a company that has a near monopoly on the typewriters available in prisons. Swintec Corp. makes its typewriters out of clear plastic, so they can’t be used to smuggle contraband. Inmates use their Swintec typewriters to write poetry, fiction and jailhouse appeals.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: Let down and locked up: Why Oklahoma’s female incarceration is so high
  • Read: Private diversion programs are failing those who need help the most
  • Watch: Before Prison
  • Use: The data


Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

 Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 – 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Today, we’re talking about prisons. It’s a part of our occasion series, And Justice for Some.
So first off, here’s an interesting figure to think about. For every woman in prison in 1980, there are eight today. The male population grew too. It’s four times larger today than in 1980. This past summer, Governors and lawmakers from around the country met in Washington to talk about the skyrocketing number of women behind bars. Oklahoma’s Governor Mary Fallin was the keynote speaker. You could say, she’s an expert on the subject.
Mary Fallin:Oklahoma unfortunately has the dubious honor of having the highest incarceration rate of women in the nation. And that is not something I’m proud of.
Al Letson:Oklahoma’s rate is more than twice the national average. And it’s been that way for 25 years.
Mary Fallin:I’ve jokingly told crowds is that we don’t have men or women in Oklahoma. We just have some that have some issues.
Al Letson:We’re going to explain what Governor Fallin means when she says, “Some issues.” And the reality behind those numbers. The opiod epidemic plays a role. Oklahoma has been hit hard. But there’s also a big difference in the way men and women are treated. Reveal’s Ziva Branstetter teamed up with Alison Herrera and the Investigative website, The Frontier to find out why.
We begin with a visit to Oklahoma’s largest women’s prison. Mabel Bassett Correctional Center is in the middle of the state, just outside the small town of McLoud. The land is flat and wind swept with tumbleweeds rolling across the road leading to the prison.
When Allison visited, the Center had more than 1200 prisoners, including a woman sentenced to death.
So Alison, what happened when you got there.
Allison Herrera:Well first I was met at the outside gate by the Warden’s asst. His name’s Cory Catch.
Cory Catch:Hi.
Allison Herrera:I’m Allison.
Cory Catch:I’m Cory.
Allison Herrera:Nice to meet you.
Cory Catch:Nice to meet you.
Allison Herrera:It was casual Friday and he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
He escorted me to the visitation room where I met one of the prisoners, a woman named Robyn Allen.
Hi, how are you?
Robyn Allen:Good. How are you?
Allison Herrera:Fine. I’m good.
Robyn Allen:[crosstalk 00:02:17] that good?
Allison Herrera:Robin is 51 years old. A short stock woman with a round face and shoulder length auburn hair.
It’s just after breakfast and she’s back from the cafeteria.
Robyn Allen:Well, I just got my coffee.
Allison Herrera:Robyn’s never talked to a reporter before. She tells me she’s nervous.
Robyn Allen:A friend of mine put on makeup and did my hair. And it was like, “Oh my gosh.”
Allison Herrera:Robyn’s got on a gray cotton uniform that looks like hospital scrubs. Her inmate badge is on the front pocket.
Robyn Allen:My badge says, “Inmate. Allen, Robyn,” and then it says I’m a level four. The level four is the highest that you can go.
Allison Herrera:Robyn earned that level for good behavior. In her four years here, she says she’s taken every class they’ve offered. An anger management class called Cage Your Rage, Bible study, and a Faith and Character class. This all counts toward her getting out of prison a little earlier.
Robyn Allen:And they’re going to give it to you.
Allison Herrera:As we head toward the day room in Robyn’s unit, things get noisy. This is where prisoners take classes, socialize and make phone calls.
In the middle of all this, there’s a line of bunk beds. Oklahoma’s prisons are crowded and Mabel Bassett is no exception. Hundreds of convicted people are backed up in county jails waiting to be transported to prison as soon as a bed is empty.
But back to Robyn. She’s serving a 20 year sentence for trafficking drugs. She told me about the day she was arrested. It was February, 2013 in the small town of Duncan, in Stephen’s county. She’d just woken up and was smoking a cigarette when the Sheriff pushed in the door of her house. Robyn saw her daughter Cherise drop to the floor. A Deputy had a laser sighted rifle aimed at her.
Robyn Allen:They had the red laser on my daughter’s forehead. And I just gave up.
Allison Herrera:Robyn remembers one of the officers telling her she was, “Just a dirty drug dealer,” and deserved to go to jail. But she says what hurt the most was that her four year old granddaughter saw the whole thing.
Robyn Allen:They handcuffed us all and they took us out to the front porch. My granddaughter was in the house and … I can remember Angelie rubbing her head on my arm trying to get me to hold her. And I couldn’t hold her because I was in handcuffs.
Allison Herrera:Robyn and her daughter were arrested and hauled off to the county jail. It was Robyn’s first and only felony charge. She’d had a couple of misdemeanors more than 20 years ago, one of them for not returning rentals to a local video store. And this felony charge was for a non-violent crime. But at the bond hearing, the judge didn’t seem to take that in to account.
Robyn Allen:When me and my daughter went to court, the judge gave us $100,000 bond. I said, “Could we please have the bond lowered?” He said, “Why? You’re a menace to society.”
Allison Herrera:Drugs have been a menace in Oklahoma. In the early 2000s, authorities were busting more than a thousand homemade methamphetamine labs each year. The state restricted sales of the chemicals needed to make meth. But more than 250 people still overdosed on the drug in 2015.
Robyn had been using drugs for years. But she turned to selling them after she got hurt on the job cleaning hotel rooms. She couldn’t work and she said she sold meth to support herself, her daughter and her granddaughter.
In the end, Robyn and her daughter were both convicted. Her daughter got probation. Robyn went to prison.
Robyn says her 20 year sentence seemed long till she got to prison.
Robyn Allen:There’s girls on my pod that come from Stephens County, one of them has two 30 year sentences from Stephens County. There’s another girl there that’s got 25 years for trafficking from Stephens County.
Allison Herrera:Robyn says she’s doing everything she can to stay clean and out of trouble. Taking Bible classes and mentoring other prisoners.
A couple of years ago, she wrote the judge a letter asking him to reduce her sentence. She didn’t hear back.
Al Letson:That’s reporter Allison Herrera. She’ll have more of Robyn’s story in a few minutes. But how common is it in Oklahoma for a woman like Robyn to get 20 years in prison for her first felony conviction.
Ziva Branstetter spent the past year and a half trying to find out. She’s now a Senior Editor at Reveal, but before that, she covered criminal justice in Oklahoma.
So Ziva, it took months to get the data from the State’s prison system. What did you find out?
Ziva Branstette:Well Reveal’s data team and I analyzed thousands of records going back almost 20 years. Oklahoma has never done this type of analysis of its own data. What we found was that the majority of women being sent to prison were being sent there for drug offenses and their sentences are getting longer.
Eight out of ten women were locked up for non-violent crimes and for many of them, it was their first offense.
Al Letson:So Robyn’s story, the woman we just heard about, fits that profile?
Ziva Branstette:She does. And there’s another thing we learned. I looked at which counties sent the most women to prison. At the top of the list are mostly rural counties. Stephens County where Robyn Allen is from ranked third.
And Robyn was right about her long sentence. It was nearly twice as long as the average sentence in the state for women convicted of trafficking.
I went to visit District Attorney, Steve Kunzweiler at the courthouse in Tulsa. And he has this theory. He says rural counties are harder on women because everybody knows everybody’s business.
Steve K.:Everybody knows who that lawbreaker is. And so, there is an expectation that at some point, get this person off my street because I’m tired of them breaking into my barn or breaking into my out buildings. It’s hard to convince a community that you need to wrap your arms the very person that you’re all cognizant that is probably going to go out stealing stuff.
Ziva Branstette:While this explains why more rural women in Oklahoma are going to prison, it doesn’t explain why their sentences are so long.
I went to see the Director of Oklahoma’s prison system, Joe Allbaugh, to see if he could answer that.
His office is on the campus of a minimum security prison in Oklahoma City.
Joe Allbaugh:Are we rolling yet?


Ziva Branstette:Allbaugh’s got a flat top haircut and wears cowboy boots. He’s used to managing crises. He directed FEMA under President Bush. But Oklahoma’s overcrowded prisons are a different kind of challenge.


Joe Allbaugh:Judges say, “You know, you been before me five times Susie Jones and there won’t be a sixth time. I’m going to send you to prison so you can get some help.” Practically, there is no help in prison. We’re very limited on our programs and there just is the belief that we ought to lock them up, throw away the key. And it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work.


Ziva Branstette:Oklahoma spends about $500 million a year on its prison system. It costs the state about twice as much to lock a woman up as it does to provide drug treatment on the outside. Allbaugh says the state needs to reverse the trend. More treatment, less locking up.


Joe Allbaugh:94% of our population returns to society. And what do we want? We want better neighbors. The way we’re doing things and approaching things in our criminal justice system when it comes to prisons, we’re just a warehouse organization, that’s all we are.


If we don’t do something different, our population with women will increase 57% over the next 10 years.


Ziva Branstette:57%. That’s a huge number when you compare it to other states like Texas, Utah, Georgia or Mississippi. They’re all conservative states like Oklahoma-


 Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 – 00:10:04]
 Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 – 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Speaker 1:Georgia or Mississippi, they’re all conservative states like Oklahoma, but they’ve chosen to reform their criminal justice systems and reduce their prison populations. Kris Steele runs a non-profit helping former prisoners find jobs. Before that, he served in the Oklahoma legislature for 12 years, the last two as House Speaker. He’s a rare breed of Republican in this red state because of his support for prison reform. When he became Speaker he was shocked when he realized how much money Oklahoma’s prison system was gobbling up.


Kris Steele:Our state’s second-fastest growing expenditure so it stands to reason the more money we spend on incarceration, the less money we have to spend on education, on health care, on issues, services for kiddos in at-risk situations, for people in nursing homes or any other service that would be an important function of government.


Speaker 1:One way to bring down the number of women in prison is to help them get off drugs while they’re still behind bars. The state does have some treatment programs. We visited one at [inaudible 00:11:12] Prison in the northeast part of Oklahoma. A group of women were marching in formation around the yard. They were in a special bootcamp program aimed at replacing bad habits with discipline and structure.


Susan Watkins:I have come a long way. I got married at 14 years old.


Speaker 1:One of the inmates was 52-year-old Susan Watkins. She’s from McAlester, Oklahoma. Before we hear the rest of her story, you should know it deals with abuse and isn’t appropriate for all listeners. Susan said she’s been homeless, eaten out of trashcans from McDonald’s, and meth has destroyed her life and her health. Susan’s lost all her teeth so she’s a little hard to understand.


Susan Watkins:My mom and dad, they drank all the time. I got raped when I was five years old.


Speaker 1:I’m so sorry.


Susan Watkins:The things that we had to do, watch my mom … She made us watch her have sex with other dudes. If we didn’t, she put booze in our baby bottles. She didn’t want us. This is my third time in prison. I got very lucky.


Speaker 1:Susan was lucky because instead of serving her whole 10-year sentence, she was offered bootcamp and a reduced sentence of only a year. Think about that. Instead of 10 years in prison, just one. Besides the military discipline, Susan gets therapy and a chance for a basic education. She’s learning how to read and has another plan for when she leaves.


Susan Watkins:Once I get out, I’m going to get my teeth.


Speaker 1:There’s another program in Tulsa County that tries to make sure women don’t end up in prison in the first place. Women in Recovery began in 2009. When a woman pleads guilty, the judge can choose to send her to the program instead of prison. At a ceremony earlier this year, more than a dozen women received graduation certificates from Women in Recovery. [Rona 00:13:16] Stone spoke to a crowd of supporters and friends. She told them how she’d lost a son to gang violence and was sentenced to the program after years of addiction and selling drugs.


Rona Stone:I have been trying for 27 years to fight this disease on my own, and it didn’t get me anywhere. Coming to Women in Recovery saved my life.


Speaker 1:Their stories were painful, but the graduation was a celebration. A judge who had sentenced several of these women handed out the certificates as their families cheered the ladies on. The numbers show Women in Recovery is having an impact. The number of women going to prison from Tulsa County is dropping while numbers from other counties continue to rise.


So if programs like Women in Recovery work so well, why aren’t they used throughout the state? Two reasons. One is a lack of state money. Women in Recovery is funded by Oklahoma oilman and billionaire George Kaiser’s foundation. Another reason is pushback from powerful prosecutors who don’t favor reducing charges and rely on a lock-them-up attitude. Even district attorneys in urban areas such as David Prater from Oklahoma City believe in tough prison sentences. He invited me into his office. A conference table in the middle of the room was strewn with papers and folders.


David Prater:Well I’m supposed to be eating lunch right now, but since you’re here-


Speaker 1:In 2016, Oklahomans voted to reduce sentences for drug possession. In public forums, Prater spoke out against the changes. He says without the fear of going to prison, drug addicts won’t change their ways.


David Prater:I’ll tell you, I can’t even give you a number of people that have told me “David or MR. DA or whatever they want to call me, you have no idea, but you saved my life when you sent me to prison.”


Speaker 1:In a report earlier this year, a state taskforce recommended 12 changes in state law including cutting sentences for drug crimes in half. Most of the changes never became law. Prater explains that change comes slowly to Oklahoma where religion and tradition are powerful forces.


David Prater:We’re in the buckle of the Bible Belt. You would think that women wouldn’t be viewed as property, but many times they are. If you want to look at what starts all of the things that we’re talking about that really leads to the incarceration issues, it’s these massive social issues that are just going to take a dramatic cultural shift in Oklahoma.


Speaker 1:Susan Sharp, a retired sociology professor at the University of Oklahoma agrees. She’s researched the state’s high female incarceration rate and wrote a book about it. It’s called Mean Lives, Mean Laws.


Susan Sharp:I think the general population of the state feels that a woman and particularly a woman who has children who uses drugs violates all the norms in a way that they find unacceptable. They would rather see those children grow up in foster care than to be with a mother who had a drug problem.


Speaker 1:The majority of women in Oklahoma’s prisons have a child being raised by someone else. In some cases, women receive more time than men for the same crimes.


Susan Sharp:Women are supposed to be the caregivers. They’re supposed to be responsible for the children no matter what in the eyes of the general population. Men, while their drug use is viewed as bad, it doesn’t have that same connotation of being a bad mother.


Speaker 1:Incarceration doesn’t affect just one woman. When you send a woman to prison, it affects generations of Oklahomans.


Susan Sharp:You can sometimes find in the Department of Corrections three generations of a family incarcerated at the same time. For example, a mother, a grandmother, the daughter so three generations.


Speaker 7:Three generations. It’s like a domino effect on families in Oklahoma. Robin [Allen 00:17:22], the women we met earlier, fits that pattern. Allison Herrera picks up the rest of her story.


Allison Herrera:It’s been a couple months since I talked to Robin. She’s now several years into her 20-year sentence. I called her up to see how she’s doing.


Speaker 9:This our global [inaudible 00:17:40] prepaid call from Robin Allen, an offender at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center.


Allison Herrera:Hi, Robin. How are you?


In June of 2016, Robin’s daughter [Cherise 00:17:54] violated her probation. She was sent to the same prison as her mother. On that day, Robin watched anxiously, looking at each woman who walked into the day room.


Robin Allen:I kept watching these girls, looking for their faces. I haven’t seen my daughter in two years. She looked over at me and I waved at her [inaudible 00:18:16]. I threw up the “I love you” sign.


Allison Herrera:Robin wasn’t allowed contact with her daughter because they were serving time for the same sentence. If Robin got caught, she could be sent to something called the SHU, a segregation cell that’s basically the size of a shower stall.


Robin Allen:She was like two, maybe two arms lengths from me walking. I was sitting at a table.


Allison Herrera:A guard was nearby but happened to turn away.


Robin Allen:The guard started talking to another inmate, and so I told her “Cherise, I love you.” Then she said “I love you too, Mom.” She said “Please don’t cry.” That’s the last time I got to see her.


Allison Herrera:While she’s at a halfway house in Oklahoma City, Cherise is working on rebuilding her relationship with her own daughter who’s now seven. Her husband brings her to visit once a week. Cherise will be released in 2019. Robin will be eligible for parole that same year.


Speaker 7:Ziva Branstetter and Allison Herrera brought us that story. As we just heard, Oklahoma’s beginning to send more people to drug and alcohol treatment programs instead of prison, but not all rehab is created equal. Next week on Reveal, we find out how some people are ordered to work for free in chicken plants as a part of their treatment. Coming up, the story of a man who says his fate rested with just two people, the prosecutor and the defense attorney.


Speaker 11:I’m like “Man, I just met you. You’re talking about a plea deal. What are you talking about?” He was like “Listen. You need to hear me out.”


 Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 – 00:20:04]
 Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 – 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Rodney Roberts:He was like “Listen. You need to hear me out.”


Al Letson:One man’s accidental journey into the heart of our criminal justice system when we come back on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


Z Branstetter:Hi. I’m Ziva Branstetter, Senior Editor here at Reveal. In the time Allison Herrera and I spent investigating Oklahoma’s prison system, we really got to know Robin Allen. That’s the woman who got 20 years in prison for trafficking meth. We learned how her drug use was in part a reaction to being sexually abused as a child. That part of Robin’s story is the subject of a short documentary we produced. It’s over on our website, I’ll be honest; it’s devastating, but it shows how some prisoners’ stories are a lot more complicated than you might think. Again,


Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. On a gray Monday last spring in Newark, New Jersey, Rodney Roberts picked up his older brother, Michael, in his Toyota Corolla.


Michael Roberts:This is my first time riding with Mr. Rodney Roberts.


Al Letson:Oh, yeah?


Michael Roberts:Yeah.


Al Letson:You wouldn’t know it from his easy laugh and baby face, but Rodney had been behind bars for 18 years. Just to drive his brother around Newark, their hometown, he had to relearn the city.


Rodney Roberts:I got lost when I first got out. A lot of buildings, landmarks that I was used to seeing was gone. Stuff that I grew up with, buildings I grew up with were no longer there.


Al Letson:While he was locked up, his father died, the high-rise housing project where he was raised had been demolished, and everyone he knew had gotten a smartphone.


Rodney Roberts:I had to get used to changes. It was a lot that I had to get used to.


Al Letson:But this story isn’t about how hard it is to adjust to life after prison. This story is about one man got stuck there longer than anyone intended. Here’s Reveal’s Stan Alcorn.


Stan Alcorn:Growing up, Rodney Roberts had a hero.


Rodney Roberts:I thought Evil Knieval was-


Speaker 6:A man from Butte, Montana.


Rodney Roberts:… the greatest man on Earth. I mean I tried to do everything he did.


Stan Alcorn:This is TV footage of Evil Knieval about to jump over 14 Greyhound buses on a Harley.


Rodney Roberts:We laid garbage cans flat on the ground and jumped over like two or three garbage cans to see if we could make it.


Speaker 6:He’s not hesitating. He’ll go.


Rodney Roberts:I got a few scars to this day. It was the courage of it. When I was older, me and a friend, we went half on a motorcycle.


Stan Alcorn:Rodney says in the mid-90s he and his friend each put in cash for a black and yellow Kawasaki.


Rodney Roberts:When I came to ask “Let me ride the bike for a little while,” he had became possessive. “Well no, I need it. I can’t give it to you right now.” I’m like “What do you mean? I want to ride the bike. This is me and your bike.” I got upset.


Stan Alcorn:This fight over a motorcycle started a chain reaction. Rodney says he called the police, but the title was in his friend’s name.


Rodney Roberts:I’m like standing there saying “This is my bike too,” but I had no proof. I had nothing.


Stan Alcorn:The police arrested Rodney and eventually brought him to a holding cell just outside the courtroom where Rodney thought he’d be charged with theft.


Rodney Roberts:When I got there, they were telling me that I had more charges. “You’ve been charged with kidnapping, sexual assault.” I was like “What?”


Stan Alcorn:Kidnapping and sexual assault of a 17-year-old girl. Rodney knew exactly how serious these charges were because a decade earlier when he was 19, Rodney was convicted of sexual assault and served seven years in prison. He and two other men had stolen a 32-year-old woman’s car and raped her. Even though Rodney knew he was innocent of this new crime, he thought the moment he walked into that courtroom, everyone would assume he was guilty. Instead, he decided to stay in the holding cell.


Rodney Roberts:I had refused to go in the courtroom because I wasn’t going to dignify these charges with my presence in the courtroom.


Stan Alcorn:Instead of physically dragging him in front of the judge, Rodney says they just opened the courtroom door and the judge shouted so Rodney could hear.


Rodney Roberts:“Rodney Roberts!” That’s how it sounded like, like somebody shouting your name in the wilderness. He was like “These are your charges you’re charged with.” I could hear he’s agitated. He said “How do you plead?” I said not guilty. Then they closed the door. I was so afraid. I was like “Wow” because I had no money so I couldn’t get a lawyer. I didn’t know what was going on. I was pulling my hair out because I was panicking. It was a catastrophe.


Stan Alcorn:The court gave Rodney a public defender, but Rodney says his lawyer had bad news.


Rodney Roberts:He was like “Look. This is what’s going on. I need to let you know that the victim is out in the courtroom right now ready to testify that you are the guy.”


Stan Alcorn:He told Rodney the victim had picked his mugshot out of a photo lineup.


Rodney Roberts:I said “Man, that’s a lie.” He’s like “Man, listen. You’re about to spend the rest of your life in jail.”


Stan Alcorn:But then his lawyer gave him a way out. The prosecutor would throw out the sexual assault charge and the possible life sentence. Rodney would get just seven years in prison and, with luck, be out in two. All he had to do was plead guilty to second-degree kidnapping.


Rodney Roberts:I’m like “Man, I just met you. You’re talking about a plea deal. What are you talking about?” He was like “Listen. You need to hear me out.”


Stan Alcorn:This is what usually happens. Despite what you see on TV, only a tiny fraction of American criminals are convicted by a jury. More than 94% trade their right to a trial for faster, lighter punishment. As the Supreme Court put it in a 2012 decision, plea bargaining is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system. Rodney took the plea bargain.


Rodney Roberts:They seemed to have had all the chips in their favor. They seemed to have had everything lined up. I really thought I was doing myself a great justice by not letting them send me to jail for the rest of my life. In my mind, I thought I was saving my life.


Stan Alcorn:That thought lasted until Rodney went before the judge who asked “Did you hold an individual aged 17 against her will with the intent to assault her?” And he said yes.


Rodney Roberts:I just felt like I betrayed myself in a way that can’t be measured. I just gave up my life for a crime I didn’t commit, and I plead guilty to something I know I didn’t do. I was so angry at myself. I really was feeling so small. If I jumped off the curb, I would leap to my death. That’s how small I felt.


Stan Alcorn:Before his arrest, Rodney had been a paralegal. At the maximum security prison in Rahway, New Jersey, he put his legal skills to work trying to undo his guilty plea. He spent so much time in the law library, he says the prison gave him his own desk, but nothing he tried worked. He served all seven years of his sentence. The last day was a spring Sunday in 2004. Rodney and the other prisoners scheduled for release waited by the gates while the guards called their names and let them out one by one.


Rodney Roberts:But they didn’t call me. I’m standing by myself. I’m like “Hey, man. Y’all forgot somebody,” because they opened the other gate and they’re leaving now. I’m still standing there. I’m like “Yo, y’all forgot me. What’s going on? I maxed out today.” They’re like “Man, they got a hold on you. We don’t know what it is. They say we can’t let you go.”


Stan Alcorn:This is where Rodney’s story leaves the black and white world of crime and punishment and enters a gray zone. The prison guards put shackles around Rodney’s waist, ankles, and wrists, put him in a van, and drove him three hours to what looked like another prison.


Rodney Roberts:I said “What is this place? Where am I at?”


Stan Alcorn:They told him he was at New Jersey’s Special Treatment Unit.


Rodney Roberts:I ain’t ever heard of a special treatment unit. “Like a special treatment? What do you mean?”


Stan Alcorn:The Special Treatment Unit is a prison building staffed by prison staff, but the state doesn’t consider it a prison. It holds men against their will but it calls them residents, not inmates because like Rodney, they have already served their sentences. They’re being held now in what’s called civil commitment. It’s more commonly used to hospitalize people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but 20 states use civil commitment to hold sex offenders that psychiatrists have deemed mentally abnormal and likely to commit sexual violence again.


Rodney Roberts:They was like “Well we got to hold you because we have a chart. This chart determines if you’re going to commit a crime in the future.” I’m like “Wow. If you got a tool to see in the future, why are we wasting it on this?”


Stan Alcorn:The chart turns a criminal history into a score. One point for a sex offense, another point if the victim is a stranger, and so on. Rodney’s number marked him as a high risk, but the evaluation didn’t end there. He was interviewed by a whole series of psychiatrists. He remembers one asking what he would do if Martians tried to abduct him.


Rodney Roberts:I said “Well


 Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 – 00:30:04]
 Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 – 00:40:04]
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Stan Alcorn:Asking what he would do if Martians tried to abduct him?


Rodney Roberts:I said, “Well, I would shoot them with my ray gun.” He was like, “Where would you get this ray gun from?” I said, “Well, the same place you get your Martians from.” So-


Stan Alcorn:This joke did not go over well, and neither did him saying, “I didn’t do it.” Not only did psychiatrists not believe him, they saw his denial as proof he wasn’t ready for treatment, treatment he needed in order to be released. He was trapped, and the worst part was he felt like he’d set the trap himself.


Rodney Roberts:That I had to undo what I do what I did to myself. So, that was the passion that I had, “Man, let me get out of here. All right, I got myself here so I’m going to get myself out.”


Stan Alcorn:He spent years filing more motions and appeals and getting more lawyers to work on his case. In 2005 one lawyer tracked down the victim who said the story about picking Rodney out of a photo lineup, wasn’t true. She didn’t even know anyone had been arrested, but that wasn’t enough. What Rodney needed was something prosecutors claimed didn’t exist, a rape kit with the rapist’s DNA. Rodney eventually got a court order to force the prosecutors to do one last search.


Rodney Roberts:I got a phone call from my lawyer, he said, “Man, they found it.” I said, “10 years, they been saying they lost it. What are you talking about?” He said, “Man, they claim it was in the basement mislabeled.” For 10 years it was.” Nah, I couldn’t get passed that. I knew at this point that once they tested the material in the DNA that I was going to be exonerated. I had no doubt nowhere in my mind.


Stan Alcorn:Sure enough, when the results came back, it wasn’t Rodney’s DNA.


Rodney Roberts:That moment, I can’t even find the words to say how light I felt. I felt like I weighed zero pounds.


Stan Alcorn:Rodney was released on March 14, 2014, after spending 7 years in prison and another 11 in civil commitment. The American Psychiatric Association has called the process used to civilly commit sex offenders, “An unacceptable misuse of psychiatry,” and Rodney agrees.


Rodney Roberts:Yeah, how many more mistakes have you made? Who else have you just wrote these reports on and come to court and testify that “This guy is this,” and you wrong? Because they were adamant about their testimony with me and they were wrong.


Stan Alcorn:Rodney is suing the city, the county, the prosecutor, the cop who claimed to have done the photo lineup, and the public defender who negotiated his plea bargain. He’s seeking 36 million dollars in restitution. Rodney is on the way to becoming a lawyer, himself. At age 51 he’s in his second year of law school. He wants to be a criminal defense attorney to give others the help he didn’t have.


Al Letson:That was Reveal’s Stan Alcorn. Thanks to Atoine Goldet who first reported Rodney Robert’s story. You can read that and see Rodney’s story told in illustrations at Rodney Roberts didn’t go to trial, he took a plea bargain, like most people who end up in prison. To get a deeper sense of why that is, I called up Angela J. Davis, law professor at Washington College of Law at American University, and editor of the recently published book, Policing the Black Man. Miss Davis, thanks for joining me.


Angela J Davis:Thank you for having me.


Al Letson:The Sixth Amendment gives all Americans the right to a fair trail, but as we heard in Rodney’s story almost nobody exercises that right, they take please bargains. Why is that?


Angela J Davis:Well, the reason for that is prosecutors are, by far, the most powerful officials in our criminal justice system because they decide whether a person is going to be charged with a crime and what that charge or those charges will be. What prosecutors will often do is they will charge a person with multiple offenses because they can, even sometimes when they know they don’t have enough proof to, ultimately, convict them at trial. When a person is faced with multiple charges, each of which may carry long prison terms, you can see how even an innocent person would be compelled to plead guilty, because going to trial is risky business.


You never know what a jury’s going to do. If a prosecutor says, “I’ll drop all but one of the charges if you please guilty to one,” a person facing the possibility of being convicted of lots of offenses, might just take the plea.


Al Letson:Don’t the defendants have some power, too, that they can accept or reject the plea?


Angela J Davis:Sure, they can reject the plea, of course they can, but if you’re a poor defendant with an overworked public defender who’s got tons of cases, no resources to investigate the case, and even if he or she did have resources, is not given the time to do the investigation, I don’t see that as a position of power.


Al Letson:What would happen tomorrow if every criminal defendant said, “No, I’m not taking a plea bargain, I’m going to trial?”


Angela J Davis:If every criminal defendant said, “I’m going to trial,” the system would crash, for sure. There would not be sufficient resources to have all those trials.


Al Letson:How do we fix plea bargains?


Angela J Davis:If we had a fair system where prosecutors only charged the offenses that they knew they could prove beyond a reasonable doubt, if they gave full and open discovery to defense attorneys … By that I mean, “Show the defense attorney all of your evidence.” One of the main causes of wrongful convictions in this country is because prosecutors don’t comply to that, if they would give the defense attorneys time to fully investigate the cases before they decide whether to take the plea bargain. If all of those things were done, then it would be a fairer system, but that’s not the way it’s done. You have some jurisdictions where prosecutors, on day one, the day the defense attorney meets his or her client saying, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll give your guy a deal but he’s got to take the deal today or it’s off the table.”


Imagine the position that that puts the defense attorney in, of course the defendant in. It’s just sad that this is what is passing as justice in our criminal justice system today. The vast majority of prosecutors are local, elected officials. We need to hold them accountable. We need to ask them the hard questions. We need to educate ourselves as a community about how these issues work. Prosecutors don’t talk about their plea bargaining policies when they run for office. All they talk about is being tough on crime. Most of them run unopposed and when they have an opponent, the opponent talks about how he or she is tougher on crime.


There’s change, I think reform is coming about slowly but surely. I think prosecutors are now having to, I won’t call it a wave of new prosecutors, but I think sufficient prosecutors out there who are changing the way they’re doing business. I’m feeling hopeful about that and hoping that the numbers will increase.


Al Letson:Angela J. Davis, a professor at American Universities, Washington College of Law, and editor and the recently published book, Policing the Black Man. When people end up behind bars, one escape can be through words, putting them down on paper. Many inmates use a special see-through typewriter.


Speaker 5:If you notice, even our [inaudible 00:37:57] cassette is transparent because there’s room in there for pills and razor blades and whatever, so very important that everything be see-through.


Al Letson:It’s sometimes the only tool besides pen or pencil for pounding out prison memoirs, fiction, and jailhouse appeals. That story when we come back on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


Aaron Glantz:I’m Aaron Glantz, a senior reporter at Reveal and I’m investigating redlining. That’s discrimination in mortgage lending. If you think you or someone you know has faced discrimination of getting a home loan, I want to hear from you. Text HOME to 63735. That’ll send you to a simple form where you can share your story. Again, that’s HOME to 63735. Thanks.


Al Letson:Ladies and gentlemen, I have an announcement. I have a new podcast crush. It’s called American Suburb and it’s hosted by my good friend, Sandhya Dirks and Devin Katayama. You can find American Suburb on iTunes or anywhere you get you podcasts. Now, we all know that gentrification is transforming cities and displacing a lot of people but where are they going? Across the country, those people are being forced out and they’re heading to suburbia, so this new podcast follows them and it is so good. American Suburb takes place in one town that’s housing these economic refugees, Antioch, California, out along the Delta, 45 miles from San Francisco.


It used to be mostly white, but now it’s changing. You have to check this podcast out, superb storytelling. You can find it on iTunes or anywhere you get your podcasts. I’m telling you, check it out. And, now, back to the show. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. We’ve been talking this hour about the four


 Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 – 00:40:04]
 Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 – 00:52:28]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Al Letson:-reaveal. I’m Al Letson. We’ve been talking this hour about the forces that send people to prison. Now, a story about how some prisoners do their time and something that can open prison bars, at least mentally. Let me introduce you to Kenneth Foster Jr.


Kevin Foster:Why do I write, from within these concrete tombs, these collegiate catacombs?


Al Letson:Kenneth is a writer.


Kevin Foster:Why do I write from within these insane asylums called penitentiaries?


Al Letson:Kenneth is also an inmate at a state prison in Beaumont, Texas. Kenneth was party to a murder in 1996. He and some friends had been mugging people on the streets of San Antonio. Later that night, one of his friends shot and killed someone. Kenneth testified that he was 80 feet away when the man was shot and that he didn’t know his friend was going to kill any. Still, under Texas law, he was sentenced to be executed and that’s how Kenneth became a writer. One day on death row, he watched as prison guards dragged a fellow inmate out of his cell to be executed.


Kevin Foster:They gassed him. They pumped his cell with gas and when he still wouldn’t come out, they ran in and subdued him and dragged him out. I knew that I was in the same exact position as this man, lined up for an execution and it just really changed me.


Al Letson:Kenneth started writing to make sense of what he saw and because he didn’t want to meet the same fate, he began writing letters to attorneys and prison advocates. He started with pencil and paper.


Kevin Foster:You know, there were times when I was in cells that didn’t have a working light fixture. You know, at night time I would have to, kind of, scooch up to the door and write by the light that was, you know, breaking through the sides of the doors and things like that.


Al Letson:Eventually, Kenneth was able to buy a typewriter with money from his family. As he tapped away, his letters became more frequent and more professional.


Kevin Foster:And sitting on that little rinky-dink machine, you know, made me feel like I was somebody. Different worlds became available to me.


Al Letson:Kenneth Foster’s first machine helped him type up an application for clemency and, in 2007, just hours before he was scheduled to die, Kenneth learned it was approved. His sentence was commuted to life in prison.


Kevin Foster:So, why do I write? I write to be. To be alive in a world where I was once dead and nobody. Through my pen, I have found life. Through my pen, I am here, finally ready to answer all the why’s.


Al Letson:Since then, Kenneth kept writing: letters, poems, essays. A few years ago, his typewriter broke. He went to the commissary to buy a new one and discovered there was only one model available made almost entirely out of clear plastic. Reporter Daniel Gross went to visit the company that has a near monopoly on machines that help prisoners write.


Daniel Gross:The headquarters of the Swintec Corporation is in a one story building in Moonachie, New Jersey. It’s almost empty when I arrive, Ed Michael, the prison sales manager, directs me to a Swintec 2146. It’s the size of a big shoe box and the clear plastic casing reveals the guts of the machine, a green computer chip and bundles of colorful wires.


Daniel Gross:Will you show me how it works?


Ed Michael:Yeah, sure. The piece of paper. Power on and it should go through a felt-testing process.


Daniel Gross:Ed feeds a piece of paper through a black roller. This is an electric typewriter, so when he starts tapping on the keys, a little ball with letters on it starts spinning. The spinning ball is what presses each letter onto the page. Ed says Swintec sells a range of office equipment from cash registers and counting machines to typewriters, but when computers came along, nobody wanted to buy typewriters, except in one place.


Ed Michael:We didn’t think about the prison market until the early 2000s. Prior to that, we had no sense of the amount of business that was available through prisons.


Daniel Gross:Most prisons ban computers. The usual explanation is that prisoners could use computers to hide contraband or improvise weapons. So Swintec did some research. They realized they’d have a leg up if they built their typewriters out of clear plastic. Making it impossible to hide anything inside.


Ed Michael:Now if you notice, even our ribbon cassette set is transparent, because there’s room in there for pills and razor blades and whatever, you know, so its very important that everything be see-through.


Daniel Gross:Now they sell several thousand clear typewriters per year. Ed is proud of his companies machines.


Ed Michael:Prisoners have a lot of time on their hands. If they can fill their time doing something creative, instead of thinking of something bad to do, you know, like this, it’s good for them. Good their mind.


John J. Lenin:So my name is John J. Lenin and I’m a prison journalist currently at Sing Sing.


Daniel Gross:John J. Lenin has been incarcerated in New York since 2002. I wanted to know whether he agreed that, that Swintec typewriters have a positive effect in prisons.


John J. Lenin:When I came to prison, I was pretty much a full-fledged loser. I mean, I had a ninth-grade education and was a convicted murder. I had pretty much sucked as a person and my mother used to remind me over the phone that how good of a writer I was in seventh-grade.


Daniel Gross:One day, at Attica Prison, a fellow inmate saw John reading and told him about the Attica Writer’s Workshop. It was taught by a professor from Hamilton College. John joined the workshop and with money from his family, he bought his first Swintec.


John J. Lenin:My writing, myself hunched over for hours, on an upside-down bucket. Typewriter on my bed, but the bucket was kind of low and I’m leaning over the bed with a typewriter, so my lower back is killing me. Sometimes I’ll be stuck there for hours, because I’ll be in a zone. So that’s why I get up and I’ll pace with my headphones on.


Daniel Gross:The basic Swintec model costs $225, but John chose a model with memory, so the typewriter cost him about $350. When I visit John at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, where he is housed now, he tells me that his Swintec empowers him. He even has a typewriter tattooed on his arm. John’s Swintec helped him become a professional writer. A few years ago, he typed a story about his experience with buying a gun illegally.


John J. Lenin:It was swift and cowardly. Defenseless, distracted by music, Alex sat in the passenger seat of the rental as I made my way to the trunk. I remember Frankie’s words, “It’s loaded, cocked, and the safety is off. All you have to do is pull the trigger.” At that point in our lives, Alex and I, both in our early 20s, were gun-toting thugs immersed in gangster culture.


Daniel Gross:When the story was finished, John mailed it to magazines. It was published on the website of the Atlantic. John now makes a modest income by reporting stories behind bars. One of his upcoming stories will be in Esquire magazine, but he also says that his typewriter is out of reach for most prisoners.


John J. Lenin:$350 isn’t a lot, but my peers, obviously, can’t afford that.


Daniel Gross:Last time John was transferred between prisons, his Swintec cracked in half and he had to get a new one. And every typed page costs money, because Swintec ink ribbons often run out after a dozen pages or so.


John J. Lenin:So the cartridges are really expensive to get into the machine itself. The ink cartridges, I think, are something like $8 for each cartridge.


Daniel Gross:$8 per cartridge, which translates into several hours of low wage prison labor per page. John eventually found a work around. He types on carbon paper and that allows him to write without ink. Kenneth Foster Jr., in Texas, has some complaints about his Swintec too. He wrote me a letter that said, “Buttons stop working, centering goes off.” A few times Kenneth has spent $225 to replace his machine. “That’s a ludicrous price to pay for such junk, but for a person that produces as much material as myself, it is absolutely necessary.”


I ask Ed Michael, the prison sales rep at Swintec, why a plastic typewriter would cost as much as a cheap laptop computer. In one prison sales catalog, Swintec typewriters are the most expensive item. More expensive than flat screen TVs.


Ed Michael:We don’t feel that our machine is overpriced. We think its a fair price for the technology that we’ve developed.


Daniel Gross:The vast majority of American prisoners are indigent, but Ed says that even prisoners who don’t have any financial support can save up for one.


Ed Michael:Prisoners they work, they can earn money. They can make anywhere from $0.19 to $0.20 an hour.


Daniel Gross:A quarter an hour, that’s $2 for a full days work. I did the math. A prisoner who’s making a quarter an hour would need to spend a thousand hours working before they could buy a Swintec, which could take years. And that’s not including ink ribbon cassettes or the cost of replacing a broken machine. There may be another reason why Swintec typewriters cost so much.


Ed Michael:A lot of states will mandate that their inmates can only buy those types of machines.


Daniel Gross:There’s almost no competition, because nobody else makes clear typewriters. I ask Ed Michael whether he knows about prisoners like Kenneth and John, prisoners who have depended on Swintec typewriters to access the outside world. He tells me that he does get letters and phone calls from inmates and their families and occasionally he hears stories that surprise him.


Ed Michael:We had a person in California, who was a gang leader, and he was in death row. He wrote a children’s book why not to be in gangs. And I’ll bet…


Daniel Gross:On a Swintec?


Ed Michael:On a Swintec, yeah. And they even nominated him for a Nobel Peace Price for his work.


Daniel Gross:Ed is talking about Stanley Tookie Williams, who killed several people in Los Angeles. The story does seem inspiring, until he tell me how it ends.


Do you know what happened to him?


Ed Michael:He was in death row, so they finalized the sentence. They did it. Yeah, so he’s not there anymore.


Daniel Gross:Tookie Williams left behind 11 published books. One of them is called “Redemption”.


Al Letson:Daniel Gross is a writer and reporter in Boston. He wrote a version of this story for the website of the New Yorker. You can read Kenneth’s poem “Why” and see a picture of John J. Lenin’s typewriter tattoo on our website,


This week’s show was produced by Ziva Branstetter, Allison Herrera, Stan Alcorn, Amy Walters and Mahinda Hacey. Our editor was Deb George. Our lead sound designer and engineer is Jim Briggs. He had help this week from Claire Mullig, Catherine Ray Mando, and Kat Shooknit. Music this week from Romteen Erabluly. Amy Paul’s our editor-in-chief. Susanne Weaver is our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by camarado [inaudible 00:51:42]. Support for Reveal’s provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. And Katherine T. McCarthur Foundation, the John S. And James Ounight Foundation, the Hising Simon’s Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a corproduction of the Center of Investigative Reporting in PRX. I’m Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.


 Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 – 00:52:28]

Hannah Young is the former the Director of Audience at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, leading Reveal’s digital and social efforts. Using human-centered design, she and her team work to find new ways to expand the reach of Reveal’s journalism and engage more meaningfully with audiences across platforms.

Previously, Hannah was a Butler Koshland Fellow at Reveal focusing on creative engagement approaches in public journalism. Before that, Hannah worked at Code for America, where she led the Brigade program and grew it to a network of more than 50,000 civic tech volunteers in more than 80 cities across the U.S. During her time there, Brigade was responsible for nearly two thirds of total growth in the civic tech community in the country.

Emily Harger is a filmmaker and photojournalist with a passion for documenting social and economic issues in rural America. She recently graduated from Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication with a focus in photojournalism. She has interned at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Kertis Creative, where she produced storytelling campaigns for Kentucky nonprofits. She is a regular contributor to Fly Over Media, a cultural education nonprofit that produces content for rural and underrepresented communities. In 2015, she was a finalist in the Hearst Journalism Awards’ National Photojournalism Championship news and feature category.

Olivia Merrion is a producer and documentary filmmaker who has produced online videos for NPR, PBS, Recode, the Associated Press, Discovery Communications, and Slate, among others. She attended James Madison University, where she earned her degree in digital video and cinema. Her capstone film received honors from the Broadcast Education Association and won the Audience Choice Award at the Virginia Student Film Festival. After graduating, she worked in Washington, D.C., as a freelance shooter and editor for NPR and other media outlets. In late 2015, she joined the creative studio collective 1504 as a contributing producer.

Stan Alcorn is a former senior reporter and producer for Reveal. His radio work at Reveal has won awards including a Peabody Award, several Online Journalism Awards, an NABJ Salute to Excellence Award, and a Best of the West Award, as well as making him a finalist for a Livingston Award for Young Journalists. He previously was a reporter for Marketplace, covering business and economic news – from debit card fees levied on the formerly incarcerated to the economic impact of Beyoncé's hair. He has helped launch new shows at Marketplace, Slate, and WNYC; contributed research to books by journalists at Time and CNBC; and reported for outlets including NPR, PRI's The World, 99% Invisible, WNYC, FiveThirtyEight, Fast Company, High Country News, Narratively, and Digg.