When I was younger, I had hoped to be successful one day. Now, some would say I am a millionaire thanks to Wyoming taxpayers.
A year after graduating high school, I enlisted in the Army as a military policeman assigned to guard nuclear missiles. Upon discharging from the Army, I attended the University of Minnesota, where I was introduced to cocaine.
Like millions of other Americans in the early 1980s, I naively believed that cocaine was a benign drug, never seeing the $250-a-day habit coming until it was too late. I came to Wyoming oilfields to pay off my massive debt, and then, when the oilfields didn’t pan out, I made the desperate decision to rob a bank.
During my getaway, I was stopped by Stephen Watt, a highway patrolman – whom I shot – a horrific decision that would bring a lifetime of pain to Steve.
Having never been in trouble before, I requested a life sentence from my judge due to the Parole Board and Rawlins Penitentiary warden informing my attorney that, for the same crime in 1982, inmates served an average of nine years, nine months on a life sentence, versus 12 years if they had been sentenced to numbers such as a 20- to 30-year sentences.
I pled guilty to second-degree murder, and, early in my prison sentence, proceeded to make some bad choices, which included a failed escape attempt by bending my cell bars 2 inches, hitting an inmate with a stool and holding a hammer during a confrontation with another inmate. These rule violations preclude my ever being paroled. Now, I can only be released by governor’s commutation of sentence.
Prison officials eventually decided my positive efforts outweighed the negative choices I had made and, after serving 11 years, in 1993, they promoted me through the correctional system to the Honor Farm, a minimum-security facility in Riverton. At the farm, I was a model inmate who engaged in activities such as reading books onto cassette tapes for the blind.
The prison officials looked at my efforts for rehabilitation including the fact I am the first inmate in Wyoming history to earn a bachelor’s degree, I co-founded a youth outreach group and brought in private industry, which provided 100 jobs to inmates.
For a period of four years, I was continuously in the community without the supervision of a correctional officer. I volunteered to work at two Riverton churches, installing rain gutters, hanging sheet rock, painting and mowing grass – supervised only by pastors.
Along with another inmate, I moved furniture across town for the Riverton chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving – never seeing a guard all day. My volunteer services were requested for a week at the Central Wyoming College rodeo, where I worked for 10-hour stints at the roping chutes without uniformed supervision.
When Fremont County ranchers sold their alfalfa and needed the bales loaded onto semis, they came to the Honor Farm to get inmates and stack the trucks. Our only supervision was the rancher.
In 1997, the Wyoming Department of Corrections classification system changed, and I was regressed back to the Rawlins penitentiary with other long-termers. I had not broken any rules. For four years, the state accurately predicted that I was not a threat to the community, allowing me to walk freely about unsupervised.
Since my incarceration, in 1982, it has cost the state, adjusting for inflation, $1,779,375 to house me. For the amount of money the state has spent to keep me incarcerated, Wyoming could have paid the tuition for 383 Wyoming citizens to attend the University of Wyoming.
In 1992, Gov. Mike Sullivan agreed with prison officials and the parole board that I should be released when he commuted my life sentence to a 70- to 85-year sentence. Then, in 2001, Gov. Jim Geringer also agreed with prison officials and the parole board – indicating that I should be released when he commuted my sentence to a 60- to 75-year sentence.
I am a first-time offender who has served 32 years, yet remains incarcerated despite strong support for my release from my sentencing judge; the prosecuting attorney; my victim; the arresting officer; Wyoming legislators; two wardens; the parole board; correctional officers; and pastors.
Judge Kenneth Hamm informed the man I shot, Steve Watt, that he planned to sentence me to 20 years, which meant the probability of my being released after 14 years with good time. I have served 18 years beyond what Judge Hamm intended me to. I accepted a life-sentence plea based upon the premise the system would release me within 10 to 12 years.
Since 1985, Wyoming governors have routinely reduced life sentences through commutations, until Gov. Jim Geringer. Since Geringer’s term, the commutations have become almost nonexistent.
My victim, an ex-highway patrolman and three-term Wyoming state legislator, has met with Govs. Geringer, Dave Freudenthal and Matt Mead requesting my release.
When it comes to long-term inmates, the Wyoming corrections system no longer functions to discern who is a threat to society. Rather, it has morphed into a bonfire the taxpayers keep shoveling money into. Both the property and violent crime rate is about half of what it was in the early 1980s.
Some folks attribute the reduction in the crime rate to the 400-percent increase of people in Wyoming prisons. This perpetual myth – claiming that higher incarceration equates to lower crime rates — has been discredited by a 2014 Pew Study entitled “Most States Cut Imprisonment and Crime.” It reported all 33 states that cut their imprisonment rates also experienced a decline in their crime rates.
I am one among a multitude of the Wyoming Million Dollar Men – inmates who have served decades; men who are no longer a threat; men in their 50s, 60s and 70s who the Wyoming taxpayers continue paying for year after year … shoveling Wyoming tax money into that bonfire.
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My dad also a lifer in Wyoming torrington..same thing..been okd by everyone except tbe governor..he has been there for 31 years next month..almost 70 years old..
Tonight I met Mark, and I was honored to have met the million dollar man!!
Great Article & he makes good points. I am told that long lines of inmates line up in the morning & evenings for their daily medications at our expense. Many are 55 years old and up and have completed long sentences. Several are confined to wheelchairs. Statistically, the recidivism rate for those over 55 years of age is less than 2%. That is 2 inmates return to prison out of 1,000 in this age group. Far less than the younger inmates that are let out on parole. I should think that Governor Mead would want to consider granting Commutations to some of these older inmates so that the Parole Board, based on that inmates good record, could be let out on Parole thereby reducing taxpayer burden. Statistically, if these inmates were let out on parole, the money saved by the taxpayers of Wyoming would pay the instate tuition of 383 University of Wyoming incoming students for a year!
Next on the list, it is roomered, is to start shipping many of these long termers to prisions outside Wyoming to reduce our overcrowding. I wonder how much that is going to cost?