Lindh Begins Sentence at Prison in Victorville

Times Staff Writer

John Walker Lindh -- the spiritual seeker who became one of the new century’s most vilified Americans for fighting alongside the Taliban -- has a new identity: inmate number 45426083.

Lindh was secretly flown to this high-desert community of 64,000 late last month to begin serving a 20-year sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty to aiding the enemy and to an explosives charge.

In a strange way, Lindh’s arrival at the medium security installation that sits on a bluff on the tumbleweedy edge of town represents the end of a kind of full-circle journey for the former Marin County youth. Pulled filthy and bedraggled from a desert prison in Afghanistan, the 21-year-old has now been deposited inside a vault of secrecy in another desert.


The federal Bureau of Prisons declined to answer any questions about Lindh’s life behind bars, beyond noting that lights go on at 7 a.m. and go out at 10 p.m. In between, inmates spend their time at jobs such as plumbing, painting and grounds-keeping. They can relax in the TV room. And, as at all federal prisons, there is a library from which Lindh can check out the Koran, the holy book of Islam.

Though visits by the media have been banned, several of Lindh’s attorneys have visited him at the three-year-old prison in recent days. They also refused to answer questions about how their client is getting along. “We just can’t comment right now,” said Kerry Efigenio, a spokeswoman for the Bay Area law firm representing Lindh.

One likely reason for the determined secrecy is fear for Lindh’s safety. When he was captured in Afghanistan, emotions were still running feverishly high in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Further inflaming public passions, a CIA agent was killed during an uprising in the prison where Lindh was being held.

Bush administration officials talked about seeking the death penalty, saying Lindh’s behavior had been treasonous. The government accepted the lesser sentence only after Lindh agreed to tell everything he knew about the Taliban and the terrorist operations of Osama bin Laden.

Lindh’s legal team had hoped he would be sent to a California prison, where he could spend his time learning a trade. Training programs at Victorville include instruction in computer work, construction and auto service.

Supporters say that Lindh’s lighter sentence, placement in a California prison and the opportunity to take trade classes are all indications that his cooperation satisfied federal investigators.

But the government’s acquiescence to a plea agreement might not prevent other prisoners from harboring a grudge. Men behind bars are often vocal patriots, prison experts note.

On the other hand, Lindh might have some loyal friends. A man whose girlfriend is serving a sentence at the adjacent women’s prison camp said Lindh has been welcomed and embraced by Muslim inmates.

The Bureau of Prisons refused to say what security arrangements have been made to make sure Lindh is not attacked. Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman in Washington for the bureau, acknowledged only that “the security needs of the inmate” are one factor in picking a prison.

At Victorville, said Dan Dunne of the Bureau of Prisons, inmates are housed in three groups: general population, administrative detention or disciplinary segregation. Disciplinary segregation is for inmates being punished for breaking the rules. Administrative detention is for people determined by authorities to have special security needs.

Dunne said those in “special housing” might spend much of their time in their cells. But he refused to say to which group Lindh belongs. As a medium security prison, Victorville grants more freedom of movement to its population than do lockups for hard-core prisoners.

But from the outside, the prison looks very much the traditional cement stockade. There are guard towers, and the area is enclosed by double fences, with concertina wire between. The facility houses 1,656 inmates and requires 362 full-time staff members to guard them and serve their needs.

News of Lindh’s arrival leaked out shortly after his plane landed at Southern California Logistics Airport, across the street from the prison, on a Saturday in late January.

The desire for secrecy in Lindh’s case was so strong that the government let local politicians know only 24 hours ahead of Lindh’s arrival, city officials said.

So the Bureau of Prisons was incensed when a San Bernardino Sun reporter, Vince Lovato, who has friends who work at the prison, broke the story. Prison employees were called “on the carpet,” Lovato said his friends told him.

One factor that might lead administrators to assign a high- profile inmate to Victorville is the ease of transportation. The 960-acre prison is on the grounds of what used to be the George Air Force Base, so an inmate can be flown in and taken to the prison without ever leaving the grounds. The base was closed in 1992, leaving behind an eerie military ghost town.

Although the high desert moonscape might remind Lindh of some of the less barren parts of the Middle East where he tramped in 2001 in search of a pure Islamic state, the social dimensions of this region could hardly be more different. You can drive on both Dale Evans Parkway and Roy Rogers Road. Highway signs urge you to let Jesus show you the way. And old Route 66, that asphalt ribbon celebrating the gas-gulping dinosaurs that once ruled the American road, passes not far from the prison.

If it looks like a conservative, pro-business sort of place, looks are not deceiving, said Jeff Mitchell, the city editor at the Daily Press newspaper.

“The high desert is very supportive of defense operations,” said Mitchell. “There is no doubt this is a very conservative area.”

For decades, a cornerstone of the local economy was the huge limestone and granite deposits used in cement manufacturing, though, as the town grows, the local paper receives more letters decrying the despoiling of the landscape by drillers and blasters.

The prison opened in June 2000. Mayor Terry Caldwell said the primary impetus for bringing the facility to town was economic, but that “the prison has been embraced locally.” The warden attends Chamber of Commerce meetings.

“We’re glad it’s here,” Caldwell said.

News that Lindh had come home to California galvanized the national media. When a Los Angeles Times writer asked for a tour of the facility, a federal prisons official joked: “You and 10,000 other reporters.” But in Victorville, according to Mitchell, the story landed “with a thud.” After Lovato’s story and a Daily Press piece on Jan. 30, the story died. Nobody in town, it seemed, was much interested in the new local celebrity.

Folks are more concerned in the traffic snarls on Bear Valley Road.

Dolores Villa, owner of the Pizza Factory in Adelanto, said there’s no more reason to be afraid of Lindh than of any of the killers and bank robbers locked up at the prison.

“I have confidence in the guards,” she said. Villa continues to deliver to the prison her handmade pizza pies. (Her slogan: “We toss ‘em -- they’re awesome.”)

The guards tell her Lindh is nothing special. Just another resident of the high desert.


Times staff writer John Glionna contributed to this story.