[Ppnews] Sara Jane Olson: A Life on Hold in California Prison

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Aug 14 12:20:51 EDT 2006


<http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-olson14aug14,0,957861,full.story?coll=la-home-headlines>http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-olson14aug14,0,957861,full.story?coll=la-home-headlines
 From the Los Angeles Times


COLUMN ONE




A Life on Hold in California Prison

Sara Jane Olson has gone from SLA fugitive to 
suburban mother to low-key inmate. Now, in 
'enforced idleness,' she awaits her 2009 release.
By Jenifer Warren
Times Staff Writer

August 14, 2006

CHOWCHILLA, Calif. ­ Shortly after 8 each weekday 
morning, Inmate W94197 reports for work on the 
prison yard. She earns 24 cents an hour emptying 
trash cans and tidying up. She is grateful for the job.

Caught in 1999 after living as a fugitive for 23 
years, she was convicted of murder and other 
crimes stemming from her link with the Symbionese 
Liberation Army, a violent band of radicals best 
known for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.

Then Sara Jane Olson went to prison, and turned invisible.

At the Central California Women's Facility here, 
Olson ­ whose name was Kathleen Soliah in the 
heyday of the SLA ­ is now a white-haired woman 
of 59, serving out her seven years.

Her experience, related in letters and a series 
of conversations, reveals much about punishment 
and survival in a state system that holds 11,730 women.

She fears falling ill and landing in the prison 
healthcare organization that experts say claims 
one life a week through malpractice or neglect.

She laments the absence of anything meaningful to 
do. She craves privacy. And she tiptoes nervously 
through each day while awaiting that moment in 
2009 when she'll go home to her husband and daughters in Minnesota.

To be famous is no advantage. The savviest 
convicts strive to be unremarkable, undeserving 
of concern. Olson does not discuss her past, and 
few women living alongside her in this San 
Joaquin Valley town are aware of it. There is, 
inmates say, an unwritten rule behind bars: You 
do not ask an incarcerated sister what she has done.

Still, there are rumors, the marrow of prison 
life. Prisoners often peer into Olson's face and 
insist they know her. One said she'd heard Olson belonged to Al Qaeda.

Amid the crowd, Olson's posture is 
nonthreatening, a semi-slouch. Her expression is 
blank. To show emotion is to attract unwanted 
attention ­ or, worse, risk causing offense.

Anonymity is best.

*

A Fugitive Is Caught

Olson's entry into California's criminal justice 
system began June 16, 1999, when her minivan was 
pulled over by police near her home in St. Paul, 
Minn. After more than two decades, she had been 
found, living openly as a doctor's wife and 
mother of three girls in an ivy-covered Tudor home.

"I had a really good life," Olson recalled. She 
acted in community theater and taught citizenship 
classes. She volunteered for groups aiding 
African refugees, the poor and other causes, and recorded books for the blind.

Friends were stunned to learn that she had been 
associated with the SLA, a short-lived group 
whose slogan was "Death to the Fascist Insect 
That Preys Upon the Life of the People." Many, 
however, rallied around her, raising $1 million 
in 10 days to win her release on bail.

Olson had been on the lam since 1976, when she 
was charged with conspiracy to murder Los Angeles 
police officers by planting bombs beneath their 
squad cars the previous year. The bombs did not 
explode and no one was hurt. The eldest of five 
children from a middle-class Palmdale family, she 
was indicted ­ and then disappeared.

While accounts of her involvement with the SLA 
vary, she and others say her link was forged 
after a close friend and five other SLA members 
were killed in a shootout with Los Angeles police 
in 1974. In previous interviews, Olson said she 
then provided shelter, food and other aid to SLA 
members hiding from police but never planted any bombs.

After Olson was returned to Los Angeles for 
trial, prosecutors amassed 23,000 pages of 
documents, fingerprints and other evidence 
against her, and lined up 200 potential 
witnesses. The trial promised high drama ­ the 
saga of a fetching high school pep-squad member 
turned fugitive ­ and a revisiting of the social tumult of the 1970s.

Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and 
Olson decided not to take her chances in court.

"For the first time," she recalled, "people 
started referring to me as a terrorist."

Instead, she pleaded guilty to attempting to 
explode a destructive device with the intent to 
commit murder. In another plea agreement in a 
separate SLA case, she and three others were 
convicted of second-degree murder stemming from a 
Sacramento-area bank robbery in which customer Myrna Opsahl was killed.

"We were young and foolish," Olson said at the 
time in a letter to the court, and "in the end, we stole someone's life."

Today, she doesn't want to discuss the events 
that landed her in prison, but she has expressed 
remorse more than once in the past.

"I'm incredibly sorry," she told the state parole 
board in 2002. "Of course, I can't take it back, 
so I have to take responsibility, and that's what I'm doing now."

Earlier that year, Olson ­ who had formally 
changed her name after her arrest ­ had been 
dispatched to Chowchilla, 260 miles north of Los 
Angeles. Her community now is a warren of squat, 
sand-colored buildings circled by an electrified 
fence. Beyond the barrier, almond groves stretch 
for miles, colliding at the horizon with a sky of blinding blue.

*

A Steady Diet of TV

Olson's days pass in a locked, 18-foot-by-18-foot 
dorm-like cell shared with seven other women. She 
spends hours on her metal bunk, writing on yellow 
legal pads to 30 friends and relatives. She also 
watches more TV than she ever has before.

The concrete room is sterile, with shower and 
toilet doors that have cut-outs at waist level so 
inmates are always visible. Prison rules forbid 
homey touches, save for pictures of family taped here and there.

While she can expound for hours on current 
events, history and myriad other topics, Olson 
prefers not to talk about herself. She has inmate 
friends but says that, aside from the many women 
who form lesbian relationships, prison is not a place for sharing confidences.

"There is some sort of sisterhood in here, I 
guess," she said. "But people really can't trust 
each other
. You can only throw so much on other 
people, because they are dealing with their own isolation from their lives."

Olson's straight hair falls just below her jaw. 
Thick bangs top a narrow face bearing a thatch of 
wrinkles and bright blue eyes behind large oval glasses.

A lifelong runner, she remains lean with arms 
tanned dark, the result of working outside in a 
place where the sun slams down hard from dawn to 
dusk. She is 22 years older than the average woman behind bars in California.

In the beginning, Olson went through a period 
many newly incarcerated people describe ­ 
wondering whether she could survive. Some scream 
and yell; others stare out the window day after day.

"I grabbed a shovel and dug and hoed and raked on 
the yard for a couple months," Olson recalled. 
"Some people thought I was crazy, but the old-timers understood."

Surviving in prison meant accepting what she 
called "enforced idleness," with one monotonous 
day sliding into the next. The noise is 
ceaseless, the facility packed to twice its intended capacity.

"We live on top of each other," she said. 
Anything private "has to be done inside your head."

To escape the din and pass the time, she walks 
obsessively ­ hour after hour, loop after loop around the prison yard.

Her custody status is "Close A," meaning she is 
among the most intensely supervised inmates. She 
has challenged the label because it limits 
privileges, prevents her from joining certain 
prison programs, requires her to be counted seven 
times a day and eliminates any chance of transferring closer to home.

So far, those appeals have been denied. Her 
attorney, David Nickerson, said corrections 
officials view her as an escape threat who would 
be a danger to society if she got out. A prison 
spokesman described her as a quiet inmate who 
caused no trouble, but would not comment further.

About 10 times a year, Dr. Fred Peterson journeys 
from St. Paul to Chowchilla to see his wife of 26 
years. An emergency room physician, Peterson 
tries to bring at least one of the couple's three 
daughters each time, though family finances, 
depleted by Olson's legal bills, are stretched thin.

The rules allow one kiss and one hug at the start 
of each visit, and a second round of affection at the end.

"We make the most of it," Peterson said. "Visits 
are what keep everything going, so we consider 
ourselves exceedingly fortunate to be able to go."

The future, Peterson said, is a favorite topic, 
although plans are vague. Nibbling on food from 
the visiting-room vendor, Olson receives a 
run-down on her husband's work with the Inmate 
Family Council ­ a group that meets regularly 
with the warden about prisoners' concerns ­ and 
enjoys detailed reports on her daughters, 
including their latest boyfriends, jobs, hopes and disappointments.

Her oldest, 25, graduated from college this year 
and is talking about law school. The youngest is 
19 and a budding actress, while the middle 
daughter, 24, is a student and singer, with a regular gig at a jazz club.

"It was very hard on all of them," she said of 
her girls, "in different ways and for different 
reasons. Being cut off is the worst thing. Everything else you just deal with."

*

Politically 'Invigorated'

While she keeps her past private inside prison, 
Olson said incarceration has "invigorated" her 
politics and led to an addiction to talk radio. 
In one conversation over several hours, her 
topics skittered from the Iran-Contra scandal to 
theater, poverty, African politics, the future of 
the Internet, bankruptcy law, the music industry, 
the war on drugs and the civil rights movement.

In the privacy of an interview, away from guards 
and other convicts, the quiet inmate's voice 
becomes lively, her manner almost merry. Her 
hands flutter to and fro, punctuating speech that 
reflects an avid reader with a wide vocabulary. 
After a monologue of several minutes, she stops 
and lets out a loud, ringing laugh, apologizing for "standing on my soapbox."

For a year, she served on the inmate advisory 
council, organizing special events and bringing 
grievances to the warden. She said the experience 
amounted to "mostly beating one's head against a wall."

A three-year effort by inmates and their 
relatives to win permission to plant a vegetable 
garden is one example. The project would give 
inmates something to do, said Olson, one of a 
handful of prisoners promoting the idea, and the 
harvest would be donated to local food banks.

A prison spokesman said the warden was still 
evaluating the suggestion but that if approved, 
the garden would be limited to flowers. Fruits or 
vegetables could be sneaked in and used to brew 
pruno, a crude alcoholic beverage some inmates concoct behind bars.

At ground level, Olson says conflict with fellow 
inmates is best borne silently. Let harassment 
roll off your back, because responding could lead 
to an argument, followed by a disciplinary citation to mar one's record.

The wild card is the presence of so many inmates 
who are mentally ill. "They have no idea how to 
behave, no ability to get along," she said. "It 
just adds to the anxiety of the place."

Some guards are helpful, some not. "Some staff 
want to be reasonable, you can see it in their 
eyes," Olson said. But within the officer corps, 
it doesn't pay to be inmate-friendly. "It's seen 
as weak. Still, everyone knows who you can get a kind word from now and then."

Before she arrived in prison, Olson thought the 
experience would be "educational." She recalled 
that Father Philip Berrigan, an activist priest 
from Baltimore who was arrested more than 100 
times before his death in 1993, once suggested 
that all middle-class people should spend time in jail to "know what goes on."

Today, Olson said, "I can still see his point, 
but I wouldn't wish this experience on anyone."

California's correctional system, she says, 
treats all incarcerated females as if they are 
"violent predators" and puts them in 
high-security lockups. Yet the majority ­ about 
66%, according to state figures ­ are serving 
short terms for nonviolent crimes.

In her frequent writings for newsletters and 
other publications, she elaborates: "Develop 
programs that place female lawbreakers in 
communities where we can maintain strong ties 
with our families and our homes. Help us to learn 
to become assets to our society, not its outsiders."

In January, the Schwarzenegger administration 
offered a model anchored in that sort of 
philosophy, proposing that 4,500 nonviolent women 
be moved out of prison and into private, locked 
facilities in their own communities.

The plan has not found enthusiastic support in 
the Legislature, but it will be debated this 
month as part of a special session on corrections.

Olson worries most about the growing number of 
older women in prison. Younger inmates prey on 
the elderly, stealing their belongings, extorting food and favors.

Prison medical care, recently seized by a federal 
judge and placed in the hands of a receiver, is another concern.

In 2003, Olson said, her mammogram showed a 
suspicious lesion, and a follow-up biopsy was 
ordered. Months later, the test still hadn't been 
done. Olson was not given a reason for the delay 
and did not consider it unusual, given the waits 
routinely faced by prisoners with more serious diagnoses.

Back in Minnesota, her husband fired off an 
e-mail to then-Gov. Gray Davis. That cleared the 
way; the biopsy was done and all was well. Prison 
officials would not comment, citing the confidentiality of inmate records.

*

'That's the Old Life'

Olson says she does not stay in touch with her 
co-defendants, only one of whom ­ her 
brother-in-law, Michael Bortin ­ has been 
released from prison. Two others ­ Bill Harris 
and Emily Montague, his former wife ­ are due to 
be released from other California prisons within a year.

As for the SLA days, Olson says: "For me to come 
forward with some kind of spiel about what I did 
in those times, and what was happening from a 
political perspective, it's just not a discussion 
for public consumption right now. That's the old life."

Has Sara Jane Olson changed in prison? The 
question prompts a pause. Hard to say, she 
finally responds, "because I don't see myself reflected on the outside.

"I'm older ­ oh, who am I kidding, I'm old ­ and 
I've become really paranoid," she said. "I've 
also become very good at masking my emotions. It 
scares my daughters, when they see my face, but 
in here, it's just what you do to survive."

*

(INFOBOX BELOW))

Back story

The Symbionese Liberation Army was a paramilitary 
group of self-styled radicals that attracted 
international attention for crimes that included 
the murder of the superintendent of the Oakland 
schools and the kidnapping of newspaper heiress 
Patty Hearst. The SLA's leaders took the name 
"Symbionese" from the word "symbiosis." It was 
meant to describe the group's concept of "living 
in deep and loving harmony." The SLA had only 13 
members, according to multiple reports. One was 
Kathleen Soliah, now Sara Jane Olson. She was 
among the five group members who robbed a 
Sacramento bank in 1975, killing Myrna Opsahl, a 
mother of four. SLA member Emily Montague 
admitted to holding the shotgun that killed 
Opsahl but claimed it went off accidentally. In a 
letter read in a Sacramento courtroom in February 
2003, Olson admitted entering the bank and wrote 
of Opsahl: "If we had foreseen her killing, we 
would never have robbed the bank."

Source: Times staff writer Joe Mathews


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