At 3:30 a.m. on January 15, 2001, three prisoners held in Oklahoma State Penitentiary's "Super Max" underground security prison pried the toilets loose from their cells and crawled through the plumbing system. Running across the grounds in the cold air, they threw their makeshift grappling hooks pipes attached to shredded bed sheets over the first of the razor-wire fences. Nathan Washington, known to other inmates as "Moon," got tangled in the razors and turned back. The other two kept going. That night, convicted kidnapper Willie Lee "Worm" Hoffman and convicted murderer James Robert Thomas became the first prisoners ever to escape Oklahoma's H-Unit the prison within the prison. The tower guards were allegedly distracted by crossword puzzles.
The first thing I noticed was the stars," Thomas recounts in a letter -- his only means of communication with the world -- "Millions of stars, clear and bright. It was close to six years since I had last seen the stars." Three days later, Thomas and Hoffman were recaptured in a nearby town. Their stolen car was found abandoned just a few miles from the house in which they were hiding. He has not seen the stars again.
Thomas is still in Oklahoma's prison in the underground A/S-Administrative Segregation-unit. Divided into eight "pods," each with eight "high max" cells, the unit houses 200 inmates, most of whom are on Death Row. "Actually, there are only eight high max cells," Thomas notes in one letter. "One is converted and part of the execution chamber." He will spend the rest of his life in one of these cells, equipped with a toilet/sink combination, a concrete bunk, two concrete shelves and an eight inch by eight inch window that enables the guards to look in on him. For one hour a day, five days a week, he gets to go "outside" into another underground cell with 40 foot-high walls. "You can't see anything except the sky and clouds -- maybe a bird sometimes," he says. Yet within the darkness of a life buried inside a box, hope seems to flourish within James.
A discarded bicycle in a front lawn, dogs barking from back yards and running up and down the fence, birds singing in the trees flush with life, smoke gently rising from a chimney -- these are the images James remembers from his three days out of prison, and these are the images that remind him of his childhood.
He was actually a fairly average youth. He was good-natured, he shared everything he had with his sister. He was even a cub scout. But when his family moved to Oklahoma City, he changed. "I missed my friends and going fishing and the freedom I had in the country," he says. "By the time I was in the 6th grade, I was an "F' student, into drugs and getting into trouble."
Suspensions and expulsions marked his next few years of school. He got into fights with students, he ditched, he hit a teacher. The police knew him by name. After he dropped out of the ninth grade, his stepfather packed his things and dropped him off in front of the Jesus House, saying only, "I hope you find what you're looking for in life."
By 1993, Thomas was 17 and living in a tool shed behind an abandoned house. "I was on crack cocaine and nine hits of L.S.D. when the crime happened," he says now. A December 1, 1999 Court Mandate says that, according to his own testimony, Thomas was helping his neighbor, Jessie Roberts, hang curtains when he hit her over the head with a hammer, then strangled her with a telephone cord. The defense argued that Thomas was under the influence of drugs and he neither intended to nor remembers killing his 81-year-old-neighbor, who had once paid him to mow her lawn. The prosecution admitted he had a drug problem, but maintained he was sober during the killing. He was apprehended in a drug rehabilitation clinic in Kansas.
Thomas was charged with Roberts' murder and rape, although he maintains that he never raped her -- he claims that he couldn't get an erection because of the drugs. "I never did, although I tried. The doctors testified that there was no sign of rape, but the forensic scientists found pubic hairs. And since I did kill her and the state was trying to give me the death penalty, the rape wasn't a big issue my lawyers fought." Thomas was sentenced to life without parole for the murder and 400 years for the rape. Depressed and angry, "I wanted my mom more than ever," he says. He went through drug withdrawal alone.
Thomas kept fighting in prison. "I started getting the idea that I'm facing the death penalty. What is anyone going to do to me that the state isn't trying to do? I'm facing the death penalty -- FUCK YOU!" In 1998, he was paired with a cellmate, David L. Horner, who pulled a knife on Thomas, allegedly saying, "There's gonna be blood on my knife or shit on my dick. You choose." Thomas immediately attacked and killed him. "In hindsight, I should have tied him up once he was unconscious and got the guard, but things were moving too fast." He was charged with manslaughter and an additional 25 years was placed onto his life sentence. According to The Oklahoman, an Oklahoma City newspaper, the case was sealed in his private institutional file and never released to the public.
When he was placed in solitary confinement for killing Horner, James had an AM/FM radio in his cell, but the batteries soon wore out. He found, however, that he could talk to the inmate in the adjacent cell by speaking into the air conditioning vent. "He was an oriental guy and a leader of an Asian gang. I asked if he had any books to read and he said all he had were some Buddhist books. I passed, but a day or so later I asked for them, being bored and not having anything else to do." He has spent the last decade -- minus the three days he escaped -- studying magic, religion and philosophy with the help of pen pals from various religious organizations like the Buddhist organization Shambhala Prison Community.
Margot Neuman, one of the cofounders of Shambhala Prison Community -- and this reporter's mother -- has corresponded with James for the past three years. SPC, as she describes it, is a non-profit educational foundation dedicated to the needs of inmates wishing to learn about meditation and Buddhism. "When he first wrote me," she explains, "he said he could do things like knock over a teacup with his mind. And I wrote to him telling him that he had to work with reality. He wrote back thanking me for saying that, so it immediately became apparent to me that he was willing to come down to earth, that his state of mind was workable."
But, like the study of meditation, Thomas' change has been a progression. He believes that Buddhism helped him identify the anger in himself that drove him to his current station in life. "Everyone is a mirror reflecting aspects of myself: if I don't like the reflection I'm seeing in someone else, I work harder to change those negative aspects within myself."
He now feels he has a grasp on the violence and drive behind the act of that 17-year-old. He once met an inmate who was gang-raped in the shower and was completely devastated emotionally. The rape had destroyed his sense of being, his sense of worth. He was even contemplating suicide. "I told him about my having a rape case and explained the fucked-up emotions and drive. I talked with him for months, and explained to him that the people who raped him weren't doing it to hurt him. He got past it. I tried all I could to help him in the time we were in contact."
Neuman has noticed changes over time. While he still speaks often of the difficulties in his life, Neuman senses the presence of resilience and adaptability. "No one's ever going to completely conquer all the difficulties of their life, even out here. You rise and fall, and sometimes your mind takes you on a ride, and the question is how far does the ride go and how soon can you bring your mind back and settle back into some sense of tranquility," she says. In early March of 2004, Thomas wrote to Neuman, saying, "It's all so meaningless, to what purpose is life when it all comes to nothing. I'm not even living. I only know where I've been in this life and don't know where I'm going and it doesn't matter."
Thomas' "days" are actually nights, "but when you're in an underground cell without any windows, it's all the same." Still, he maintains a schedule: He wakes up around 9:30 p.m. and paces his cell while he listens to the world news on his radio. Then he makes coffee and switches to a midnight talk show while he does his yoga and exercises. Afterwards, he paces the floor while he reads a book. He likes trilogies because they take longer. Sometimes he will read an entire trilogy without any sleep -- when his eyes finally give way to fatigue, he will dream about the characters. Breakfast comes at 6:30 a.m., followed by his schoolwork: "Really just grammar or my essay I'm working on." Sitting on his bed, which doubles as a desk, he pores over chapter after chapter of grammar, taking the tests repeatedly until he gets it right. After lunch he meditates or draws Tarot cards. He is asleep by 3 p.m..
The only contact he has is with the guards and prison personnel. While each guard tends to treat the inmates slightly differently, for the most part they are taught to be cold and removed from the prisoners. The guards who act friendly -- joking with the prisoners, commenting on the weather -- are criticized by other guards as "inmate lovers" and "not part of the team," according to Thomas. The warden of Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Mike Mullin, says that when it comes to prisoners, he has to be a generalist -- "I wasn't aware that Thomas had become involved in religion and I am very skeptical about his intentions if it is true," he writes. "However, I hope it is true because he would benefit from religious counsel. I believe a person can change, but they have to want to." The officials tend to see the man who killed an old woman; the man who killed his cellmate; the man who walked out of his cell under their very noses. They tend to frown on such actions. Mullin concludes: "Be careful in your dealings with Thomas." As much as he reaches out into the world for friendship, he also seeks to share his understanding with others.
But Thomas has learned to appreciate what he has, rather than dwelling on what he has lost. On his small AM/FM radio, he listens to the world news every day, and hears of people outside of prison whose lives are, he believes, decidedly worse than his own. "I've got more than thousands of people have," he says, "and I'm locked up. I can't bitch about nothing. I'm rich in comparison to a lot of people."
It's hard to tell whether or not this man has changed inside of Oklahoma's maximum-security unit. All you can see are the words carefully printed on the page he sends you -- the tiny scribblings of faces, sometimes laughing, sometimes stoic. You only have the words of a man who says he has stopped telling lies. Yet somehow, the words come to life. They take on a personality, and you trust them. "I stopped telling lies when I stopped lying to myself," he says. And you trust this. "He was a youngster when he went into prison," Neuman explains. "He had a lot of problems with drugs, and I don't know if he's that same person any more. You can see that in his letter, that his current heart is growing, his compassion is growing. Basic goodness remains at the core of everyone, and under the right conditions, is accessible to us."
He has felt changes within himself as well. "I think I'm a different person many times over, like layers of skin shedding each time a new truth or realization comes to me and I start applying it to my life."
Words continue to pour out of Thomas, filling page after page with his thoughts and emotions. His reading spills into his dreams, his dreams into his writing. It all becomes the same. When the pen ink runs low, the letters switch to pencil so that he can save the ink for his essays. But always he writes. He has written hospice centers and AIDS foundations requesting to write to people who are facing death alone. "I of course don't know what its like to have AIDS or cancer, but I think it's not much different than going to prison for a life sentence. You get cut off from the world -- gain a new perspective on life in general. I can imagine these patients feeling alone in the world ... like most prisoners."
I came in contact with Thomas in 2003, long after my mother started writing to him about Buddhism. In his correspondence he started expressing a desire to learn to write. In my first letter to him, I asked him to tell me a true story. He replied with an account of his escape. In that very first draft, however, the story was more about what he realized during his days of freedom than it was about a prison escape. He spent those days in the trailer of two sympathizers. Soft carpet beneath his feet, metal forks, glass cups, live plants -- they were nothing short of a treasure. "Maybe it's losing everything that has allowed me to fully appreciate everything I have," he says. "It makes me wonder how many people have seen the stars this week -- and have failed to notice"