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A Life on Hold in Prison

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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A Steady Diet of TV

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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“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.”

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Back story

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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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