I couldn’t go out the front door. Not anymore. Cameras were everywhere, but the exits would be especially impossible to make it through. I slipped past Mendley’s office and hustled down the hallway. Against every instinct that told me to go back the way I’d come, I did the opposite and made my way away from the administrative offices and into the secured portion of the prison. I took long strides to the old laundry wing on the second level. Under the tall concrete ceilings the garish lights sizzled as they spewed puke green light against the walls.
My senses were acute in that moment, my mind clear. I burst through the door at the end of the hall into a cold sodden room with traces of mold climbing up the walls. It was a place that had barely been touched for the past thirty years. I’d never seen it except on floor plans I’d reviewed during meetings as we searched for security holes in the building. There was an obvious potential security flaw there that all of the guards knew about, even though none of us had ever seen it. The Warden wanted to hire a team with fiber optic cameras to scope it out but he never put it in the budget. Instead he just locked the door.
There was a trash chute at the end of the hall that used to empty into the incinerator. When the laundry had been in use the chute was locked and supervised, and besides, the incinerator at the end made it a poor escape route. But when the old furnace system was removed, the incinerator went with it. Now it was just a hole to nowhere in a locked laundry room that no one used.
I rushed acrossed the room, and I yanked open the door to the incinerator. I looked down that hole, and I contemplated the odds. I contemplated my situation. I contemplated blind faith in a myth.
They call the London Correctional Institution “The Shithouse” because when its construction began in 1910, Mortimer Hugo Jefferson, descendant of Thomas Jefferson and first Warden of LCI, forced inmates to handcraft every brick from actual cow and horse and human shit, and then forced them to haul these baked bricks by nothing more than the strength of their own backs. It was a slightly more evolved method of digging your own grave. Mendley was a sweetheart compared to Jefferson.
The story goes that to spite the malicious Warden, an intelligent, amiable and wrongly accused young man named Robert Bone came up with a meticulous plan to build into the foundations of the prison an underground railroad of sorts. Lucky for Bone and his fellow prisoners, everyone—convicts, guards, law-abiding citizens—hated Mortimer Jefferson with equal ardor. It was men like Mortimer Jefferson who inspired authors like Steven King to write books like Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.
With the cooperation of a growing force of the Warden’s discontents, from architects to survey men, the square footage on the blueprints was simply “adjusted.” The railroad began imperceptibly somewhere on the second floor of the prison. The passage then meandered through the prison, lower and lower until it led to the basement and an underground tunnel that ran a half mile away from the prison complex in an unknown direction into the forest that surrounded the complex in 1910. And from there, freedom. Or so the story goes.
Apparently Robert Bone and a few associates controlled the outflow of escapees. No rapists, no psychopaths or sociopaths. No one could use the tunnel until Bone told them where the hidden second floor access point was. Bone waited ten years before he took his turn.
The secret was incredibly maintained for sixty-two years, during which time an average of three inmates per year vanished. Most of the escapees were never recaptured, and of those who were, not one opened his mouth.
It should be noted that each one of the escapees (including Robert Bone in 1936) maintained his innocence leading up to the day he disappeared from the face of the earth.
Some argue that the book, Robert Bone: Real Warden at the Ohio State Penitentiary, prompted the 2007 renovations, which began the year after it was released. The Warden made it top priority to find and seal any “extra” space in the prison infrastructure. I don’t read many books but I pored through that one and took notes. It’s not often you read a book about your own backyard.
Spending ten years inside the prison, you hear the rumors, the stories of bodies hidden in walls, and treasures like gold watches and diamonds safely stashed up inmates’ asses. You hear about the corruption in your own ranks, and you wonder how the degenerates and scumbags can know more about the outside than you. But they do, and they also know more about the inside. What you hear as members of the staff pales in comparison to what you hear as an executioner when a man’s existence is about to be snuffed out.
In those last moments of life, some death row inmates clam up, close their mouths and await their final moments in trembling silence. Others can’t stop talking, as if the longer they ramble, the better chance they have of saying something that will save them. As if the universe is waiting for them to divulge some secret before it will balance and the magical Governor’s pardon will come through the phone line.
I made a habit of waiting around outside of the holding cell, the one where they sit and look at their hands, touch their eyes obsessively, and wait for the time when they’ll be led into the chamber and strapped to the table. Some of them have a chaplain in there, or a lawyer, sometimes both, but a lot of them are alone, just waiting, listening to the clock tick away their life.
Maybe I felt redemption, maybe it was a guilty pleasure, but there was something good about being there to listen. There was no point in my talking, there were no life lessons that would do these guys any good, but it became almost a last rite that I could offer, the opportunity to be heard.
In those final minutes I learned of the happiest moments and the cruelest defeats. I listened to sexual encounters, at times unbearably vivid, bitter words toward scorned family and friends, and, most of all, I learned about secrets like those at LCI. I first heard that the access point to the underground railroad was hidden in the incinerator chute in the spring of 2005 from a man convicted of stabbing his mother-in-law to death and then murdering his wife when she discovered his crime.
“You want to know?” Elmore Hitchens said to me twenty-five minutes before midnight. He had a high-pitched, whiny voice that didn’t match his lineman-like stature. “This is solid,” he said. “Solid.” He thought I’d be rewarded for passing this information on to the higher-ups. I thought Hitchens was nuts—most of them were—until I heard the same thing from Larry Hines, a serial rapist who dabbled in murder, two years later.
I never verified these stories, never reported them either. I didn’t report any of the crazy shit those guys told me. Moments before death are when a man is at his weakest. Some things are best to be buried along with the body.
Mostly I figured that this was a story invented by sociopathic convicts to convince freshmen inmates to dive headfirst into the incinerator chute.
But as I looked down into the blackness, I knew I didn’t have any options but to believe the lie until it worked out to be true. At least there wasn’t an incinerator at the bottom, just a closed room that could only be unlocked from the outside. But blind faith in the dead wasn’t all that sent me into that chute, I also heard the lock-down siren wail. I guess they stopped arguing long enough to figure out I wasn’t showing up at the Warden’s office. Or maybe Arnie pulled the alarm, it had a way of creating more chaos than it stopped—maybe he was buying me a little more time.
In any case, it didn’t matter. I hopped up onto the chute, swung my legs in and let go.
Thank you for enjoying this seven chapter sample of Capital Offense. The complete book was released to the web through February 5, 2014.
The book is now available nationwide. Find links to purchase the book and continue reading.