This section picks up after Jason has heard himself sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 1993 murders of three children in West Memphis.
On that Saturday, March 19, 1994, when Judge David Burnett sentenced Jason to life in prison, the teenager's 17th birthday was still more than three weeks away. The following Monday morning, guards cuffed and shackled him for the three-hour ride from the jail in Jonesboro, in Arkansas's northeast corner, to the Arkansas Department of Correction's Diagnostic Unit in Pine Bluff, about 150 miles south. Carrying his Bible and $35 from his mother and friends at the jail, he climbed into a van with six other prisoners.
Three hours later, the van approached a big brick building surrounded by barbed wire: the prison system's Diagnostic Unit. "My heart starts beating really hard now," Jason said, "and my breathing speeds up. I see the guard towers. We pull up to one and the officer driving speaks to another officer up on the balcony, and he says he's got seven from Craighead County, and yes, Jason Baldwin is one of them.
"At the sound of my name, my heart just stops. This is really happening. I am going to prison for murder. Everything seems to be happening in slow motion. The officer in the tower lowers a milk crate on a rope and the officers up front drop their guns in the basket and it is hoisted away. Then the little bar in front of the van is raised up and we enter the grounds of the prison."
Jason felt the free world slipping away as he moved toward the building. "I am led out, the shackles biting into my ankles," he said, "the chains dangling from my waist to my handcuffs. I hold onto my paper sack that contains a few letters from my mom and brothers, my Bible and the little bit of money that was given to me, and I walk through a gate. Into the building I go. I set foot into prison. It is dark, but my eyes get used to it."
Adaptation, while essential to prison survival, does not assure it. Jason's eyes adjusted quickly. Intuitively, he knew that the challenge ahead would be to discern where he could adapt — and to decide where he would not. "An officer comes and takes the cuffs and shackles and chains off. I am told to wait in line with the other guys to be processed. I wait, and eventually I reach an old man who takes inventory of all that I have. He takes my money and tells me it will be put onto my account. 'My very first account,' I think to myself — so different from what I had planned.
"Then I am in a room standing in front of three people sitting in front of a table with a bunch of papers in front of them. It's some type of hearing board. They are all sharply and nicely dressed. I am conscious of my orange jail jumpsuit. They tell me to get naked. I must not have heard them right. This time it is an order: 'Get naked,' they say. So I take off my clothes until I am in my underwear. 'All of it,' they say, so I take them off too and stand there in front of them and their hateful stares. One of them says, 'You think you're tough, don't ya?'
"I think to myself, 'Yeah, I've got to be tough to survive all of this.' I've got to be and my mantra is born: 'I am tough.' I say that out loud. And then one of them says to the others, 'He won't be tough for long,' and they all laugh. It is humiliating.
"Someone told me to hold out my arms. I couldn't even see who was talking. I know there was one rude voice. He sounded like he probably hates everybody who comes through there. He told me my number — 103335 — and told me not to forget it. Then somebody came over and pretty much looked at everything, looking for tattoos, birthmarks, scars — that kind of thing.
"They asked me my name and my charge and how much time I'd been given. They asked me, 'Did you do it?' I had no way of knowing if this was part of their job or if they were just curious or what, but it was the same at the jail. Everybody always asked that — the inmates, the guards, everybody.
"Then, an old white man, an inmate, comes to me and tells me to hold out my hands, and he pours a foul-smelling liquid into them and tells me to put it everywhere I have hair. It is delousing shampoo, he says.
"Then he points me to a shower spigot in the corner and I am to shower there in front of all of them — the board's hateful stares and now this old man's hungry-looking one. I tell him not to look at me — and I stare directly into his eyes. He bows his head and turns around and I learn then that I will survive.
"After I have showered the old man gives me a clean towel and points to a bench where some clothes are neatly folded: a white prison jumpsuit, some boxers and socks. I dry off and try to put the boxers on and I can't even get them over my hips they are so tight. The old man is looking at me again and smiling that dirty smile.
"I tell him he better get me some boxers that fit and do not play any games with me because I do not play. I was warned of people like him from the guy at the county jail — sexual predators. I tell him I am in here for murder. He asks did I really kill someone. He says that I do not look like a killer to him.
"I tell him that is what I am in here for so he better not mess with me. I wasn't lying. It does not matter that I am innocent; I begin to see that now. It works, and he gets me some boxers that fit. I soon learn that I should stop being shy about getting naked in front of people because it is nothing for an officer to tell you to take off all of your clothes for a strip search."
Entering prison is a form of death — removal from civil society — so it's fitting that a prisoners' initiation includes being stripped naked, cleaned, inspected and finally clothed in white. Prisons themselves have much in common with cemeteries. With walls and gates and rows of cells like graves, they are places set apart from normal life. Prisoners, like the dead, are expected to shed their corrupted pasts.
To leave prison — if they do — they must be legally resurrected, to begin life anew. Like many aspects of law, it reads better than it works.
Part of the entry process included a meeting with a department psychologist. "She tried to put me on some medication which I refused," Jason recalled. "My reasoning was that there wasn't anything wrong with me. The only thing I was experiencing emotionally was because of what I'd been through. There was nothing to be medicated.
"She wanted to put me on Zoloft, which was experimental at the time. She said, 'I want you to take it and tell me how you feel." She said, 'Your family has a history of mental illness and suicide.' But I'm like, 'No. I'm not suicidal in any way, shape or form.'"
Jason reasoned that if he complied with the order to take antidepressants, administrators could claim he was being treated for depression and place him in the Suicide Prevention Unit, or SPU, where he would be under closer supervision. He decided that that was not going to happen.
Before his arrest, Jason had seen the film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" starring Jack Nicholson. And already, in his short time at the Diagnostic Unit, he'd observed men from the SPU walking down the halls, doing what inmates called "the Thorazine shuffle." He didn't want Zoloft because, as he put it, "If they put me in SPU, I had no idea what could have come next."
Sure enough, members of the classification board asked Jason if he would like to stay long-term at the Diagnostic Unit, on the SPU ward. "They told me that Jessie was already there and that I would have my own cell and everything. They tried to make it sound really nice. I didn't trust them.
"They told me that if I didn't go to the SPU, their only alternative would be to send me to the Varner Unit. Then they proceeded to tell me how horrible that unit was and that if I were to go there I would not survive. They told me Varner was Gladiator School.
"It did not sound like a happy place, but I would go if I had to. I'd already heard enough about SPU to know that I did not want to go there. They were already trying to dope me up so I wouldn't be able to think clearly. I could only imagine what they would do if I were in a psyche ward.
"'No,' I said, 'you can send me to Varner if that is what it has come to. I refuse to be so doped up that I cannot even think about fighting for my freedom.' "
"Dark Spell: Surviving the Sentence" will be released early this summer. Sign up at maraleveritt.com to be notified when the book goes on sale and the mock trial video is placed online.