Love and the Carceral State: One couple’s journey through the labyrinth of Oregon’s justice system
Leni hasn’t seen her fiancé in over a year.
He’s not missing. The opposite, actually: she knows exactly where he is.
He’s currently locked up in the Mill Creek Correctional Institution, a minimum security prison five miles southeast of Salem, Oregon. She speaks with him regularly on the phone at the rate of 16 cents per minute. One thing is clear: they are very much devoted to each other.
Two years ago, the man who is now engaged to Leni was sentenced to just over three years in prison for his alleged role in a property crime in Lane County.
Since then, Leni–who asked for anonymity in order to protect herself and her fiancé–has fought an uphill battle against the Oregon Department of Corrections for the same basic visitation rights typically afforded to inmates in state penitentiaries. And those efforts to exert those basic rights have plunged her into the labyrinthian bureaucracy that is the prison system.
In the two years since her fiancé’s sentencing, she’s spoken to corrections officials from Baker City to Salem, none of whom seemed able–or willing–to help her, all of whom passed on her complaints to some other official in some other department.
No matter who she demanded an answer from–whether the clerks behind bulletproof glass in Mill Creek or the head of the Department of Corrections–the answer was always the same.
There are few people with spirits strong enough to overcome the bureaucratic brick wall that Leni has and will continue to face until her fiancé is freed from prison. But, despite the overwhelming resistance she’s faced from Oregon’s legal and prison systems, the pressures of raising a child on her own while her partner is incarcerated, and the unspeakable pain of losing a second child just months after he was locked-up, Leni has not given up.
She didn’t give up after being barred from seeing her beloved for reasons she has yet to understand, she didn’t give up after the COVID-19 pandemic turned prisons into state-sanctioned death traps, and she didn’t give up when the threat of historic wildfires forced her fiancé into overcrowded conditions inside the state’s most brutal maximum security prison.
She never gave up, because she knows he’s innocent.
She knows this, but she hasn’t seen her fiancé in over a year because the Oregon Department of Corrections won’t let her.
In 2018, Leni’s fiancé, Joseph K–whose real identity I’ve withheld due to fears of retaliation from state prison officials–was charged with three felonies stemming from an alleged property crime in Lane County. A fourth charge for unlawful possession of a firearm was tacked on because Joseph K had a prior felony conviction. Felons are prohibited from owning guns. Together, these charges carry a maximum sentence of around 23 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. Joseph K’s defense attorney settled for a plea bargain and got him a reduced sentence of just over three years in prison.
But Leni’s nightmare began long before Joseph K even set foot in a state penitentiary.
Since Joseph K was first arrested, Leni has been working to clear his name because, according to her, they weren’t even in Lane County at the time the crime was committed.
The two of them and their young son were on a trip to Walla Walla, Washington at the time, and Leni has the receipts–notarized and handed to her by the hotel manager–prove it.
The hotel was booked under Joseph K’s name, using his credit card, for which he himself signed. Leni, for her part, drove the five hours to Walla Walla to collect the evidence herself. It was a small price to pay for proof of Joseph K’s innocence.
But when Leni presented this evidence to Lindsey Fowler, Joseph K’s defense attorney, the lawyer was hardly moved. According to Leni, Fowler believed that the evidence was “pretty weak” and would’ve preferred video evidence to a hotel receipt.
It wasn’t until after she had filed a complaint against the Lane County District Attorney’s Office that Leni discovered that Fowler hadn’t even bothered to submit the hotel receipt as evidence of her client’s innocence.
According to Leni, Fowler had already accepted a plea bargain with the prosecutor and wasn’t interested in trying to clear her client’s name as much as she was trying to get the case over and done with. It wasn’t even her case to begin with–she had inherited it from another lawyer who could no longer represent Joseph K for unknown reasons–and was ready to wash her hands of it.
Lindsey Fowler declined to comment on her role in Joseph K’s plea bargain, citing “attorney-client privileges.”
According to Lane County court records, Joseph K did, indeed, plead guilty to four of the seven charges leveled against him. In exchange, the other three charges–which carried a maximum additional sentence of 25 years and 30 days–were dropped.
Despite evidence that would have otherwise exonerated him, Joseph K became a statistic. Studies have found that 95 percent of felony criminal cases are never tried in court, regardless of a defendant’s supposed innocence or the severity of their alleged crimes.
The Innocence Project has found that 11 percent of defendants who enter guilty pleas are later exonerated through DNA evidence–a number that is likely “a small fraction of the real number.” And, once someone enters a guilty plea, it’s virtually impossible for them to challenge that conviction, regardless of their actual guilt or innocence.
A guilty plea, no matter how it arrives, closes a case–and that’s good enough for a State that is more concerned with clearing cases than it is about dispensing justice.
But a guilty plea was only the beginning of Leni and Joseph K’s trials at the hands of the criminal justice system.
In November 2018, Joseph K went to prison–before the pandemic, before The Uprising, and before the term “abolition” re-entered the English lexicon becoming a buzzword for political theorists and street protesters.
But when Joseph K was thrown into Powder River Correctional Institution outside of Baker City in far Eastern Oregon, Leni began to experience that which millions of families had already learned about the realities of incarceration.
It began with basic excuses from the guards in charge of visitation rights.
One time, Leni wore an outfit deemed “inappropriate” by the guards–they could make out the outline of her tank-top beneath a black t-shirt–and asked her to change, eating up valuable visitation time. Then, she was turned away for attempting to bring in an ultrasound photo of their unborn son through the mail, which a guard thought was a Polaroid–which are not allowed in prisons because, apparently, they can be used to smuggle drugs.
Eventually, she was simply no longer allowed inside the prison, and no one would say why.
“It turned into this complete round and round and round and round and round,” Leni said.
“First they told me that this person denied it, and so I’d call that person and they’d say ‘Well, we didn’t deny it, this person denied it. And after doing that for several weeks, I guess they got frustrated and upset about it. There was no real reason. They just have the authority to do that, without reason.”
According to Leni, she spoke with everyone she could about her unjust situation, from low-level prison staff all the way up to Collette Peters, the Director of the Oregon Department of Corrections.
She even contacted the office of the DoC Inspector General Craig Prins, who revealed that the department had, at one time, opened an investigation into Leni–who herself used to work for the State of Oregon. Though they didn’t tell her what the investigation was about, they had no qualms with using it as reason to bar her and her son from visiting Joseph K.
“I think they just got frustrated with me. I was very polite, because I know how that works. If you make them mad, that’s the end of it. I know, because I worked with them. That’s how it works–they’re the Powers That Be.”
Eventually, the DoC told Leni that she was barred from visiting Joseph K for five years–even though her incarcerated fiancé was only sentenced to three.
“I was just merely going up the chain of command. I kept a notebook with all this information, with all the letters I got and everything I was told. Finally, the [Inmates Services Supervisor] in charge of all of this just got so angry and so frustrated and told me that I wasn’t going to get a visit at all… If they feel like you’re trying to challenge them on anything, they will dominate you just to prove a point.”
Up until then, she had followed every rule and done everything by-the-book, and she was still barred for reasons no one could explain to her.
“I mean, [the Department of Corrections]’s own page says that they’re committed to breaking down the barriers for families having interactions,” Leni said.
“They have research that shows that the more support [inmates] have, the more likely they are to succeed when they get out. They say they want to break those barriers down, but all I see them doing is building more.”
I reached out to DoC Director Collete Peters’ office for comment. They told me that any complaints regarding inmate visitations are handled by the Inspector General’s office. But when I called the Inspector General’s office, they told me that they couldn’t comment, and that I should instead contact the Director’s office.
It wasn’t long before desperation set in. Love will make a person do crazy things, and the love between Leni and Joseph K was no different. Just a few months removed from being able to see her beloved in the flesh, Leni found herself going to extremes just to see him through plexiglass.
Faced with no other choice, Leni found a sympathetic soul who just happened to look like her and asked to borrow her driver’s license.
She used that ID to gain access to the visitation room to see the man she loved–a risky move that carried, at the very least, the risk of suspension of visitation rights, if not outright criminal charges. But she was already being barred from seeing Joseph K, and so she felt like she had nothing to lose. Seeing him was worth the risk.
“So, I will admit, it was not the best idea,” Leni said. “But you know, I’m a mom, and my kid needs to see his dad. I mean, I do too, but at the end of the day, [my kid is] what I’m really concerned about, because this has completely deteriorated their relationship. [My kid] was barely turning three when [Joseph K’s arrest] happened, and now he’s five, and now all he gets to do is hear him on the phone.
And for kids that age, that’s hard for them to do. So my worst fear has come to be now. He’s five now, he’ll be six before he gets out, and when [Joseph K] calls it’s just ‘Oh, hey dad.’ and that’s it. Sometimes he doesn’t even call him Dad–he just calls him by his first name. Like, what the hell is that?”
It worked twice.
But on the third visit, a guard somehow became wise to Leni’s plot. Her brief and desperate experiment was over.
When Leni told me this, she began to break–not from the sadness of not being able to see the man she loved, but because she was reliving what it was like to experience even a tiny amount of empathy from someone within the prison system she had been struggling against for years.
It was the first time she had witnessed someone experience a true, genuine feeling on her behalf, someone who saw her as a human being.
In her mind, she understood that the guard was merely following orders, even though she believed that the guard knew that the order was wrong.
“I think he was a dad,” Leni said, her voice breaking over the phone. “I know he was a dad, because he really struggled with whether or not to make me go. But he knew he had to. He had no choice.”
Despite her growing exasperation with the system–with the brick wall that seemed to block her every attempt to exercise her basic rights, with the fundamental idea of incarceration–she still managed to see the good in the heart of the one and only prison guard who showed her leniency and mercy.
But regardless of the guard’s empathy, that was the last time she saw Joseph Kin person–in April 2019. Her battle against the DoC continued for another few months, even after he was transferred to Mill Creek in September of that same year.
Then, the pandemic hit.
Leni could no longer fight for the chance to see him. There was nothing she could do except hope that some mercy might be granted for the prisoners, that maybe the State might show some leniency and do something to prevent a mass casualty event inside the prison system.
No such mercy came. According to Leni, the inmates weren’t even told the full story about what was happening outside of the prison walls. As America retreated into isolation in the spring of 2020, Leni was the one to break the news to her fiancé over the phone.
“[Joseph K] was like ‘Is it really that bad?’” Leni said. “And I told him that they’ve had us all on lockdown and that we’re quarantining. I remember, because all he said was ‘Oh my god.’”
As the case counts ticked upward, all Leni could do was watch in horror and hope that there was no outbreak of the disease that was ravaging the planet inside Mill Creek.
Due to the circumstances, she also had to grapple with the fact that every phone call with Joseph K, every brief chat with the man she loved, could be the last.
According to The Marshall Project, there have been over 147,000 cases of COVID-19 and over 1,200 deaths from the disease inside US prisons. Oregon institutions have reported 1,184 cases as of Oct. 15—14 of which were fatal.
On Oct. 12, Lane County Mutual Aid reported “up to 13 positive cases of COVID-19 in the last four weeks” inside the Lane County Jail in downtown Eugene, despite “official” reports that denied an increase in cases.
According to state records, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 inside Mill Creek Correctional Facility to date. But the Oregon Department of Corrections hasn’t updated their public-facing COVID-19 tracker since on Sept. 30–just over two weeks after inmates from three different prisons, including Mill Creek–were stuffed into the maximum security Oregon State Penitentiary to escape the raging wildfires.
Joseph K was one of the inmates transferred into the OSP.
According to Leni, she didn’t know he was moved out of the path of the wildfires and into OSP until he was already in the maximum security prison.
By the time he was finally able to reach her, he had already been exposed to some of the most harrowing conditions in the nation.
“So finally I got a phone call,” Leni told me. “And he tells me he can’t talk long because there’s a bunch of guys waiting in line. He says there’s three hundred [inmates] in an area that’s only meant for 100. He says he’s still wearing the same clothes and that they haven’t eaten in over a day. And I’m like, ‘What do you mean you’re at OSP, they have active cases!’ And he says ‘I know. It’s kind of tight. And there are no masks… when I lay down at night, I can cross my forearms across my chest and still touch the back of the guy in front of me.’”
Those wildfires–which are still burning as I write this, over a month after they forced the evacuations of thousands of Oregonians–threw the entire state prison system into chaos and unleashed unspeakable horrors on inmates.
Since the Department of Corrections was unwilling to release any inmates, those in the immediate path of the flames were transferred into OSP, where they were put at risk of contracting COVID-19 in horrendously overcrowded conditions. And, even if the inmates managed to avoid getting sick, many of them were put at risk of physical and sexual assault.
Leni told me about one inmate who was assaulted three times, according to Joseph K, during his two-day stay at OSP; other sources inside the prison report a litany of violence that has yet to fully subside.
But for Leni, who at one time worked for the State and spent countless hours inside correctional institutions in Oregon and Washington, none of that is news.
She knows what goes on inside of prisons, and she knows firsthand how brutal they are to those trapped inside them. In her work, she was able to separate herself from them, if only to keep her own sanity.
It wasn’t until someone she loved was caught in the cogs of the criminal justice system, that she began to view the system she thought she knew in a new light–through the painful, sobering light of first-hand experience.
Even then, she wasn’t prepared for the public’s reaction to the plight of inmates like Joseph K.
“I know most of society, most of the general population, they don’t care about the inmates, they don’t care about the prisons,” Leni said.
“I’ve seen comments on news stories [about prisons being evacuated] from people that are like ‘They should just be left to burn.’ And sometimes, I want to tell them: ‘Well, I’ve got a little boy right here if you’d like to tell him that to his face. Let me get you on FaceTime with him, so you can tell him right to his face that his dad deserves to burn over nothing.’
And even if he had done what he got convicted of–it’s a fucking property crime. You’re gonna tell me that this man deserves to die because of that?”
There’s no neat ending to this story.
Joseph K is still languishing in prison and Leni won’t be able to see him anytime soon.
It’s entirely likely that she won’t see him until he’s finally released from prison in 2021–and that’s assuming that nothing goes wrong between now and then.
As a mother raising a school-aged child with a partner in prison, she doesn’t have the luxury of taking to the streets and agitating for the change she wishes to see in the system. She has many opinions on what that change may look like, but she’s come to hold one truth as self-evident.
“There’s no question–no doubt–that the prison [system] doesn’t work,” Leni told me in one of our final conversations.
“If it worked, we would be doing a lot better as a society. There’s nothing positive that happens in there. They’re not forced to take classes, they’re not forced to do anything to better themselves. In most cases, you just take these younger guys and you make them into better criminals!”
“Like, come on–there’s gotta be something! Like, why not have these guys go in there and immediately start working on their savings or something? Why not? They’ve got time. No pun intended–but they do, and they might as well help them make the best of it. They might as well make it so that when they get out, they’re at least a little bit better off than where they were.”
Those with a literary bent may recognize the names I used to protect the identities of my two sources for this story. They both come from Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” his (mostly finished) novel about a man ensnared in the tendrils of an absurd-but-all-seeing bureaucracy.
This is intentional. The woman I dubbed Leni for this story used the word “Kafkaesque” when describing her ordeals with the Oregon Department of Corrections.
Despite having never read Kafka’s work, she is one of the only people I’ve ever met that has used that word correctly in a sentence.
Kafka’s book has many interpretations, but it’s hard not to see his sick, sad, and strange novel as a painful allegory for those unfortunate enough to find themselves caught in the web of the bureaucratic carceral state. And it was all-too-enticing to lend my sources–who are caught in the midst of the eerily similar machinery that Kafka wrote of in his novel–the names of two of his book’s most prominent characters.
The novel has a tragic ending that is heart wrenchingly bleak in its abruptness–likely because Kafka never finished it. This story–the story of Leni and Joseph K–is also unfinished, but unlike their counterparts in The Trial, they can derive hope from their story being incomplete.
Theirs is a window into two lives that are still being lived, into lives that are still in the midst of suffering at the hands of a carceral state that has outgrown its original mandate. Theirs is not a complete biography, but a chapter within one that has yet to be finished.
Leni knows that the path forward is fraught and littered with obstacles almost specially designed to funnel people back behind bars.
“You do your crime, you do the time, then you get out and you continue to pay over and over and over again,” Leni said.
“You lose your rights to vote. You can’t have a gun regardless of what the felony is. You can’t work at a lot of places. You can’t live in a lot of places. And then I see people say ‘Oh, well you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get yourself going.’ But how do you do that when someone takes away the bootstraps? They say to put in that hard work. Okay–give them the bootstraps then. They can’t pull themselves up without them.”
Leni, despite her tenacious battle against the state’s prison system, understands that there is little she can do right now to fight for Joseph K rights, much less her own.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered virtually all traditional channels for appeal and recourse, and she understands that she will be helpless until the pandemic subsides–assuming that it ever does. And even after the pandemic, she knows that her struggle against the Oregon Department of Corrections is a game where only one side knows what the rules are–and can change them at any time.
“[The DoC] is their own entity,” Leni said, reflecting on what she learned in her time battling the carceral state. “They are the judge, the jury, and everything in between. It’s not like they’re required to get all these approvals from other places–they can do that all themselves. They can do whatever they want–literally, whatever they want. It’s all at their discretion.”
And to Leni, it’s that discretion that the ODoC reserves for themselves that she finds the most frustrating.
“There are some rules in place so they can fall back on them should they need to… but in reality, there’s an exception to every rule, there’s nothing steadfast or concrete in anything that they do. Everything can be done differently, they can make any exception that they want at any point. Or they can do the opposite and completely shut you down just because they feel like it.”
But Leni hasn’t yet surrendered in her absurd fight against carceral bureaucracy–she sees it as a ceasefire.
She’s vowed to continue to fight against everyone she’s come up against: the Department of Corrections, the District Attorney’s office, the defense attorney that set this entire saga in motion by negotiating a guilty plea that didn’t need to be entered.
The fight is what gives her hope. And, these days, hope is all she can ask for.