Death row's computers link up inmates and law

Md. is first state in nation to offer high-tech access

March 30, 2001|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

On death row, deep within the brick fortress of Maryland's Supermax prison, Steven H. Oken taps away at a computer he hopes will save his life.

"Most everybody in here has learned to use the computer to research the law," says Oken, 39, who in 1987 murdered three women. The killings included the execution-style slaying of a White Marsh newlywed he abducted and raped. "This is all we do, sit here and pick apart our cases. This is our life."

Oken and the other 13 inmates on Maryland's death row are in the spotlight as state legislators consider a two-year moratorium on executions. But behind the bulletproof Plexiglas that guards their tier of heavy iron cell doors, they also have quietly become the first condemned prisoners in the nation to be allowed to use computers.

While their fates are being debated in the General Assembly, some of the state's most notorious murderers are spending as much as five hours a day using four personal computers to scroll through law libraries on CDs in the sterile, barely furnished area they call "the Death House."

The idea of a cyber death row is evidence of how technology is slowly creeping behind prison walls and into the mainstream of penal life. Through a program at the maximum-security Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Maryland is also among the first states to allow felons the chance to earn college degrees through controlled online connections.

"Prisons are in many ways the final frontier for computers and the Internet," says Alice Tracy, assistant director of the Correctional Education Association, a national group of prison educators. "People are concerned about how it will come about, and security is on a lot of people's minds. But a lot of interesting things are going on with technology in prisons."

The death row computers don't have Internet connections. But even without e-mail and public access, they enable inmates to reach out - and hit the raw nerves of relatives of those they killed.

"I wish my daughter could have learned to use a computer," says Betty Romano of Millsboro, Del., whose 20-year-old daughter, Dawn Marie Garvin, was the first victim killed by Oken in November 1987. "There's justice that needs to be done. It's a miscarriage of justice to be giving a bunch of computers to horrible killers on death row so they can nit-pick about ways to delay the punishment they deserve."

State officials ardently portray the computers as a way to ensure that inmates facing capital punishment have every chance to defend themselves - and therefore have less cause for legal appeals. They also argue the law disks are no different than law books, which inmates have been free to study as far back as Maryland's first recorded execution Oct. 22, 1773, when four servants were hanged in Frederick for slitting the throat of their master.

Until 1913, public executions were commonplace in Maryland, and there was little mystery surrounding death row, at that time usually a simple line of barred cells around the corner from the gallows. But for most of the last century, the state's death row has been shrouded from public view - until a recent visit by a reporter and photographer provided a glimpse inside.

Today's death row is actually two "pods," Plexiglas-enclosed areas about 60 feet long and 25 feet wide with about a dozen cells each. In the middle of each pod is an imposing iron staircase leading up to a second tier. The cells do not have bars, but thick doors electronically controlled by a lone officer in a guard station. Every so often, a murderer's eyes appear in the small rectangle of Plexiglas in the cell doors.

With three white plastic tables in each pod, death row looks much like a high school study hall, other than the green iron of the cell doors and the cold metal floor. It is exceedingly quiet, save for the sound of a few of the condemned typing on keyboards in the corner.

A TV hanging from the ceiling plays talk shows all morning, a staple of death row that prompted one-time inmate John Thanos to describe the experience as "slow death by Oprah Winfrey." Thanos chose to forgo all appeals and was executed by lethal injection in 1994.

Inmates here don't wear the orange jumpsuits characteristic of other inmates. They're free to wear shorts, sweatshirts, slippers, bandanas and T-shirts. Because they make up a special unit inside Supermax, they can go outside their cells more than an hour a day, the limit for other prisoners. If death-row inmates break prison regulations, they're subject to the "one-hour-a-day" rule.

On the computers this afternoon are Oken and Anthony Grandison, the infamous Baltimore drug lord who paid a hit man in 1983 to kill two federal witnesses scheduled to testify against him. His victims, one of whom was the sister of the intended target, were shot 17 times at point-blank range with a MAC-11 submachine gun.

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