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Saturday, January 18, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Off the hook from death row, Illinois inmates now face new fears

The Washington Post

CHICAGO — Shortly after outgoing Gov. George Ryan's dramatic announcement that he would spare the lives of 167 inmates on Illinois' death row, Andre Jones, a convicted double-murderer who has faced a death sentence since 1980, telephoned a retired Lutheran pastor who has been visiting condemned prisoners in the state for 20 years. Jones, 46, a short, slightly built man whose hair has begun to gray, was frightened.

"He said he doesn't know if he can do the rest of his life off of death row in a maximum-security institution," Jack Nordgaard said. "It's just because you're always watching your back."

The convicted murderers whose sentences were commuted last weekend no longer are facing death. For many of them, though, day-to-day life will be much rougher and possibly more violent.

Isolated from each other and from the general prison population, Illinois' death-row inmates have led a life at once more restricted, but also more physically secure, settled and sedate than that of thousands of other maximum-security prisoners.

On death row they have been confined behind bars 23 hours a day, deprived of work and educational programs and shackled hand and foot when meeting visitors.

But they also have private cells, meals delivered by guards, and reasonably good access to art supplies, reading material and telephones. Many are ministered to regularly by an array of churches, religious groups and organizations opposed to the death penalty. And virtually all enjoy the comfort of knowing that prison enemies cannot easily knife, beat, rape or intimidate them. Much of that now will be lost as they face life terms without parole in overcrowded, hellishly hot prisons.

"There is a kind of security in death row which is uncommon," Nordgaard said. "I mean, they'll have their lives, but those new lives are in a maximum-security prison, which I wouldn't want to be in for 24 hours, to tell you the truth."

The state's prison officials, caught off guard by Ryan's blanket clemency, say it will take at least a month before they determine what to do with the inmates.

Many of the 94 formerly condemned men held at the 132-year-old Pontiac prison, 80 miles south of Chicago, are likely to be transferred to another institution because Pontiac lacks facilities for ordinary maximum-security prisoners. But other death-row inmates, such as the 59 at the 125-year-old Menard prison in the state's southern tip, conceivably could stay put — but have to make room for cellmates in the 4-foot-by-11-foot chambers each has had to himself until now.

That probably would mean tighter restrictions on documents, books and other personal effects, which generally are limited in regular maximum-security units to one small box that fits underneath a bunk. On death row, inmates are allowed two boxes.

"Don't make the assumption the (death-row) cells will be emptied out and we're putting these places in mothballs — maybe it'll create more space in the prison system," said Brian Fairchild, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Corrections.

He acknowledged that a transfer from death row may be an ordeal for many inmates. "Look at it from an inmate's perspective," he said. "The best thing that can happen for an inmate is not to have a cellmate."

In recent days, Fairchild said, prison authorities have doubled the number of psychiatrists and psychologists on duty in death row; they are on the alert for mood swings and to prevent suicides.

Fairchild said he expected some death-row inmates, fearing for their lives once they are integrated into the general prison population, to seek protective custody.

Illinois' death-row inmates, about two-thirds of whom are black, have existed in a kind of suspended animation since Ryan, a Republican, imposed a moratorium on all executions three years ago.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat who was inaugurated Monday, said he will extend Illinois' moratorium on executions for now, even as he criticized Ryan's commutations.

For many inmates transferring from death row, daily routines are about to change substantially. Rather than eating all their meals alone in their cells, they will take lunch and dinner in cafeterias with scores of other prisoners. Telephones no longer will be brought to their cells; they will have to line up for pay phones like other prisoners, sometimes for long waits.

However, many will have a good deal more freedom of movement. If maximum-security prisoners are well-behaved, they may be eligible for work details that allow them to move around the prison and GED courses in which they could work toward a high-school diploma. When they receive visitors, they will not have to wear handcuffs and leg shackles.

"The ability to hold a job is very important to many of them," said Tricia Teater, who has worked with death-row inmates for years in her capacity as a Buddhist chaplain. "It's a way to contribute and stay active mentally and physically."

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