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IM CRIME FILES: Life Sentences
I’ve been patted down, fingerprinted, and told to watch for fights over toilet paper. A self-professed murderer asked if I was scared to be teaching at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Why should I be scared?
Editor’s Note: The following originally appeared in the March 2011 issue and is included among IM’s Best-Ever Crime Stories. It was recognized by the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for Best Criminal Justice Reporting.
Just after class one day, a student approached my desk, looked me in the eye, and offered a surprising revelation: “I helped arrange my ex-husband’s death,” she said.
The statement was shocking, but not for the reasons one might assume. I teach English at the maximum-security Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis, commonly known as IWP, which holds some of the worst female offenders in the state—robbers, drug-traffickers, and more than a few murderers. So tales of heinous crimes are commonplace. What’s unusual is to hear someone actually take responsibility.
Backstories of these crimes work their way into the papers I grade, and the subtext is always the same. Someone set me up. Someone else did it. And that someone is usually a man. Virtually every woman’s story here hinges on a fateful decision to get involved with a bad man. A lover put me up to cooking meth, or a boyfriend goaded me into molesting a 13-year-old, or some guy got me high and had me rob a convenience store.
So at first, when Lois Thacker walked up and confessed to her crime, it was difficult to determine whether the blunt admission was a gesture of friendship or a threat.
Students don’t come with dossiers. But Thacker’s exploits are well-known. She is only the second woman to be sentenced to death under Indiana’s present death-penalty statute. That fact alone had served to shake the false bravado I’d armed myself with—and since then I have had many classroom encounters with other students of lesser offense that have justified my unease. I’ve seen so many unremorseful, world-weary women clad in khaki walk through my classroom door that I’ve lost all faith in the idea of criminal rehabilitation. I’ve been changed by my hitch in prison, to be sure, and my mind has been changed about quite a few things, not always to the good.
On the other hand, after weeks of silently sitting in class, Thacker decided to open up to me. Her death sentence was reduced to prison time—time that is, in fact, almost up. This momentous turn of events is clearly causing her as much anxiety as elation, and I am her only link to that mysterious outside world. “What’s it like to touch money?” she asks me. “How do you decide what to have for dinner? How do you talk to people who are better than you?”
By its very nature, prison sucks the individuality out of a person—and not just the inmates. Among my first tasks, when I was hired in 2007, was to read and sign a document that essentially described me as an adjunct to the security staff. According to another document I received, the prison’s top goal was “to provide a safe and secure correctional environment.” Way down on the list was “to provide opportunities for self-improvement.” I realized with a sour thud in my stomach that I had signed up to be a glorified prison guard.
I should not have been surprised. My fellow teachers and I had already passed a mandatory self-defense class. Even when these prisoners might seem normal, we were told, they all have a criminal mindset: Do not be lulled into complacency.
With those baleful instructions ringing in my ears, I was “processed in” to IWP. I showed up at the same time as a batch of incoming inmates—dead-eyed females slumped on a bench wearing hospital-type gowns. They were awaiting a strip search, one indignity I was not subject to. All I was required to do, beyond getting a tuberculosis test, was be fingerprinted. I looked at those prisoners looking at me and felt their disdain reflecting back. Then, as now, I had no particular insights into the criminal mind, no dewy hope that a class in writing essays was going to change anything. I cling to no gauzy notions about discovering the next Sylvia Plath moldering away in prison.
The state of Indiana maintains three women’s prisons. About a year ago, the 500-plus-prisoner IWP facility moved across town from its longtime site in a grim near-eastside neighborhood to this former Juvenile Center on the far-west side, near Clermont. Before moving, IWP was thought to be the oldest adult institution for females in the United States, established in 1872. A sepia photo from that era shows inmates in ankle-length skirts tending chickens and hoeing vegetable gardens. The on-site laundry was a booming enterprise, washing soiled linens for Indianapolis housewives and businesses. Even today, to most Hoosiers, prison life is still a distant parallel universe, with its own inscrutable cultures, codes, and procedures.
At the gate, I was patted down by a female guard who paid particular attention to my underwire bra—a common spot to stow contraband. I displayed the soles of my feet to show I was not smuggling anything in my shoes. Offenders are issued khaki pants and shirts. Denied the individual expression that clothing represents, the women focus intensely on a teacher’s attire. Per directive, I carry no cash, no cell phone, nothing to tempt theft. I enter carrying only a sack lunch and a copy of the textbook.
In class, a walleyed 19-year-old redhead made a show of inserting a broken-off tooth from a comb through a piercing in her tongue. Then, making sure I was still watching, she wove the tooth through a double hole in her eyebrow. When that didn’t unnerve me, she tried to engage me in conversation, talking about plans for her “next crime,” including vague meanderings about a boyfriend who ratted her out and retaliation. She claimed she had been convicted of four murders in Northern Indiana. She asked if I was scared to be teaching at a prison.
Why should I be scared?
Lois Thacker frightened me by reputation alone. A quick scan of her record and a bit of library research did nothing to assuage that fear.
Thacker grew up in Paoli, Indiana. In 1985, the 27-year-old was convicted of recruiting friends and family members to kill her second husband. In Notorious 92, a book about infamous murders in each of Indiana’s 92 counties, author Andrew Stoner writes that “Lois Thacker was at the head of this ragged band of scoundrels,” which had its eyes on insurance money. Thacker’s mother insists to this day that the prosecutor in the case was “just trying to make a name for himself.” That notwithstanding, to further justify Thacker’s mastermind label, the author points out that this wasn’t the first husband she had killed. (Thacker was also responsible for the shooting death of her first husband—though she escaped prosecution by claiming self-defense.) For the second spouse’s demise, the judge issued the death penalty—a sentence that was modified to 60 years in prison in 1990, due to insufficient evidence.
My self-defense instructor had warned me that I would be dealing with “master manipulators.” But Thacker did not strike me as a cold-blooded killer. The dark-haired, tightly permed 53-year-old is small, trim, and all but mute—a stark contrast to many of her raucous fellow offenders who have grown fat on the starchy prison diet. Thacker wears pink Lucite eyeglasses—compliments of the state—that magnify her dark eyes.
Further, through her written assignments, I pegged her as a conscientious student—despite the fact that she only recently learned to read. She is terribly self-conscious about her dyslexia, fearful that the other offenders will torment her. “Please don’t call on me in class,” she pleads. It’s not clear whether she sees the bigger handicap it will create in the real world.
With her release imminent, Thacker began to cling to me more insistently as her transitional object. I was reminded of the awkward requests for Facebook friending I sometimes get from former students who are now out of prison. But even though she opened up to me, Thacker was still slow to bring down her guard completely. She talked tough about her crime and her sentence. She claimed that the prospect of being put to death hadn’t fazed her. “I was at peace sitting on Death Row,” she says. “I never did believe they’d kill me; I was never scared.”
One of my primary duties at IWP is to teach what’s called a five-paragraph essay. It is the most basic of literary structures, a foundation for written composition and communication. But it proves maddeningly elusive for some of these women. We spend countless hours trying to grasp the concept of a thesis statement, which to some is as remote as quantum physics. And of course, it can’t seem like a priority in here. The psychological games, the conflicts, the tantrums—these take precedence.
I had been warned at the outset to expect “fussing, bickering, gossiping, holding grudges.” While male prisoners slug it out and move on, women, it seems, simmer and seethe and never let go of an argument. Once a student came to class in tears, sobbing that “everyone who says I’m a sociopath is wrong.” Tears are fairly common during class, usually based on frayed nerves and real or perceived insults. I ask my students to observe “academic courtesies” in the classroom. But I am not a disciplinarian; it is my biggest weakness as a teacher/prison guard. I let an inmate sleep through class, head on desk. Another read her entire presentation with her back to the class. Many of these women have never given a speech or written a paper and are intimidated. Others are simply disrespectful of authority. I have learned to pick my battles carefully within the prison environment.
If the room is reasonably calm and some learning seems to be going on, I let slide more than I would on the outside.
It’s clear that the majority of these offenders are far from dumb. For the most part, they are simply undereducated. One offender seems physically unable to remain alert during class, confiding that she was kicked in the head so many times by her husband that her brain is mush. Yet I also have a pretty, whip-smart offender who told me she has a master’s degree in finance. Somehow she seems to maintain equanimity in a setting where no one has any privacy and everybody is subjected to the constant head games of their fellow inmates. She wound up in prison, she says, because her husband turned her on to drugs, and her life stumbled into the gutter. I am fascinated by the handful of offenders who come from upstanding families and carry themselves with a soupcon of refinement. One particular woman is the product of a wealthy Indianapolis family that worked intensely with high-powered lawyers to ensure her release. I frequently remind myself that the women I’m teaching are the cream of the corrections crop, manifested by their mere enrollment in the college program. But I still get behavior issues. A row of young toughs talks loudly among themselves in the back during class. Arguments break out. So does romance: canoodling and hair-grooming, right there in freshman comp. I assume that much of this is done in an attempt to fluster me, as the offenders “profile” me to test my steeliness or the limits of my tolerance.
That said, lesbianism is not uncommon here. Some of these women would identify as gay on the street; others choose to be “gay for the stay.” Having a partner can increase status and gives you a valuable ally. In the old facility, my fellow instructors and I were required to accompany students to the bathroom down the hall for fear they’d engage in restricted activities. In the current building, classrooms are equipped with bathrooms—a big relief for me.
The latest obsession is toilet paper. It seems to be in short supply, which makes it coveted. The inmates are given a weekly ration, but it runs out. There is great commotion made over who is stashing theirs where. Everything here is subject to drama.
That includes students’ personal stories. A common storyline, which frequently emerges as the subject of their papers: “I had to kill him because he was molesting my children.”
Prison sometimes provides vastly more stability and security than the prisoner’s life on the outside ever did. Lois Thacker was born into a troubled Southern Indiana family in 1958. Her father, she says, was an illiterate alcoholic but held a job in a chair factory. “We didn’t have much growing up,” she says. “There was no time for individuals with six kids in the family.” None of her siblings can read, although when I spoke to her mother, she claimed that she, herself, is a stellar reader. One of Thacker’s brothers did time in prison. “I don’t remember that much about my childhood,” she says. “At school they didn’t pay no attention to me. I would act up and then I was either sitting in the principal’s office or the hallway.”
At 16, Thacker married a man her mother says would not get a job. “So I worked as a waitress at French Lick hotels,” says Thacker. “I couldn’t read the menus so I worked a lot of banquets.” Thacker remembers that “people looked at us like trash. I had to steal food and clothing ’cause I had no other resources.”
That first marriage ended with Thacker killing her husband, claiming self-defense. The ruling allowed her to collect insurance. Thacker’s second husband was a man whom she says she had first slept with when she was 13. “He was abusive to my children,” she says. “He molested my 4-year-old daughter.” But she did not do the deed.
“My cousin is who killed him,” she continues. “Nobody was ever given no money. And I was not there when he was killed. I was passed out from painkillers from a hysterectomy.” As the story goes, the plan involved placing a log in the road, which forced Thacker’s husband to stop his truck. He was shot when he got out of the vehicle.
Even after she was removed from Death Row, Thacker was condemned to dwell within the walls of IWP for 60 years.
I taught Thacker English in prison. But she gave me a quick lesson in prison math. Sentences are routinely reduced for good behavior, truncating Thacker’s 60-year sentence to 30. Offenders can receive an additional three-year cut for earning academic degrees. The net result: After 27 years in IWP, Thacker is on the verge of the coveted work-release program.
I attend Thacker’s graduation ceremony. She and 26 other matriculators don cap and gown in the prison gymnasium. I meet her family: unmoored, uncomfortable, uncommunicative. I also meet Thacker’s husband. Yes, she has married for a third time, to a man who is evidently not intimidated by her history of marital, um, dysfunction. Now 80, he is older than her father. Their marriage consists of weekly visits in the cavernous, linoleum-floored visiting room—when his health allows it. They are planning to live together when she gets out. Thacker met him on a tip from a fellow inmate after seeing his picture. “His eyes attracted me,” she says. “So much sadness in those eyes. I wanted to take it away.”
Thacker says she has children in Heaven and on Earth. She has lost both unborn and adult offspring, though two of her children survive. A 35-year-old son with acute diabetes is unable to work and lives with Thacker’s mother. He has served time in prison for car theft. Thacker’s 20-something daughter, Tammy, was also incarcerated at IWP, convicted of drug offenses. Like Lois before her, Tammy cannot yet read but is enrolled in GED classes. One of Tammy’s daughters was in a car accident at the age of 3 and later lost a leg as a result of her injuries.
In general, the world is not kind to ex-cons, even those with college degrees. Thacker’s vocational hopes include doing “something in business or accounting or office work” when she gets out, or perhaps find work “at a place like Walmart.”
Men. Although there are few on the prison grounds, they are all the more present by their absence. I don’t believe too much of what I hear around here, but I do tend to believe the tales that involve men. Men are the fulcrum. Throw in alcohol and drugs, and prison becomes merely the next inevitability. The epic takeaway—my thesis statement, if you will—is to use better judgment in choosing men.
In part, I think, because men lead to families, or whatever it is you would call what these women have. Virtually every offender here, it seems, has children, usually being cared for by the offender’s own mother. Some prisoners receive regular visits from family; some do not. Asked where she is from, an inmate might say something like, “I was caught out in Muncie” or “I caught my case in Muncie.” I come to understand that this means Muncie is the city where she was arrested and where her case was tried. Where else could matter, anymore? A couple of students say they have no hometown and no family at all.
After teaching at IWP for several years, I have developed a senseof futility concerning not so much corrections, as they call it, but higher ed. I cannot begin to hope that its benefits might overcome what the ravages of abuse and neglect do to human potential. In every class, I see played out before me the aftershocks of choice. In between disquisitions on thesis statements, I squeeze in little lecture-ettes about the power of choice. But I am afraid it may be hopeless. No, I am certain of it.
And seeing that, feeling that, has changed me, too. I no longer quake in my boots upon entering the gates of IWP. I’ve gone from being a rookie quivering with fear to, essentially, just another seen-it-all prison guard, now just part of the system.
Illustration by Russell Cobb; photo by Tony Valainis.
This article appeared in the March 2011 issue.