[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
From the Los Angeles Times
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
. 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."
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."
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
The Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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