By Verna Wood
Lexington, OK – Is there anything worse than being innocent and in prison, locked away from the free world and from your family? Can a person who is already in prison be punished further? Yes, he can. Being locked up in solitary confinement and losing the few privileges a person is allowed can make life even more painful. These sanctions are usually punishment for some type of misconduct such as possession of drugs or cigarettes or some type of weapon. Fighting and other forms of violence are also reasons for loss of privileges. Before an inmate loses his privileges he goes through a hearing process during which he must be found guilty as charged. He can appeal the hearing verdict if he is declared guilty. The appeal is not based on guilt or innocence but on whether proper Department of Corrections procedure was followed during the hearing.
On Monday, June 4, 2007, Reno Francis received a message upon arriving back at his cell from work that he should go to unit 5 and speak with Mr. Sims, the unit counselor. At that meeting Mr. Sims informed him that he had been under investigation since December 2003 for “use of the mail to conduct illegal business”. He was also told that he (Reno) had sent a letter to a post office in Idabel, OK which allegedly was an address where money was sent by several people to purchase drugs. Reno was told that the Department of Corrections internal investigator, Tim Coppick, had three anonymous statements concerning the situation. Reno was not told who had given the statements or what information was contained in them. Mr. Sims made the comment that Reno was not given enough facts or information concerning the situation to even be able to defend himself. At the meeting Reno was given a write-up for misconduct and was told that he would have a hearing within the next seven working days.
The next day Reno’s attorney, Debra Hampton, visited him and briefed him on how to handle the upcoming hearing. Reno had not been given the usual paperwork whereby he could have asked that his hearing be taped as well as other requests. She looked over the only paper that had been given to Reno from Mr. Sims and advised him how to proceed.
According to DOC policy when an inmate is charged with a misconduct and has a hearing for that misconduct he is not allowed to have anyone present at the hearing, not even his attorney. He must face the charges and the “judge”, usually a DOC staff member, alone.
When an inmate is found guilty of a misconduct he loses many privileges. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections classifies all inmates according to a level system. Upon arrival in prison a person is classified as a “level 1”. Within approximately 60 days he can work his way up to “level 2” if he presents no behavior problems and stays out of trouble. After another 30-60 days he can work his way up to “level 3” and after the same amount of time with clear conduct he can arrive at the coveted “level 4”.
Not only does the inmate’s level classification affect the amount of money he can spend at the canteen weekly but it also affects his right to own certain items such as a television, or radio, or even a fan (a necessity in Oklahoma’s 100+ degree summers in non-air conditioned cells). At Lexington Assessment and Reception Center (where Reno is) a person on level 1 is not allowed to buy any food from the canteen but can only spend $5.00 weekly on hygiene items. And possibly the most painful part of having a low level number is that visits with family and loved ones are based on the inmate’s level. Level 4 people are allowed to visit from 9:30 until 3:30, the entire visiting hours, level 3s can visit from 11:30 until 3:30, level 2s visit from 1:30 until 3:30, and level 1s can only visit for 1 hour behind glass. A person on level 1 is allowed no physical contact with his family. If the inmate has been sentenced to time in lock-up he will be escorted to his 1 hour visit in handcuffs and shackles wearing red coveralls rather than his gray uniform. If sentenced to lock-up he will also lose 120 days of good-time credit. Each medium security facility functions a little differently depending on the warden at that institution. At Lexington all the level 1s live on the same unit. Therefore if a man loses his level he also loses his “house” and must move to the appropriate unit for his current level. If he has a job he will also likely lose his job while in lock-up. No one wants to suffer the consequences of losing his level.
Debra Hampton spent the next several days attempting to reach Mr. Coppick, the DOC investigator. Mr. Coppick, however, did not respond to any of her phone calls or messages. Dick Frye, a private investigator who has worked on Reno’s case for 4 years, also tried to reach Mr. Coppick to no avail. Mr. Frye suspected that someone was trying to cause problems for Reno, knowing that he was innocent of the charge. It didn’t seem right that the alleged misconduct had taken place 3 ½ years earlier and nothing had been said or done about it sooner. This was not normal DOC policy as questionable actions are usually investigated within a year. Why had it been brought up now after all this time? Could it have anything to do with the fact that Reno’s innocence is being brought to public attention and certain people in powerful positions are resentful of the fact?
In the meantime Reno racked his brain trying to think of any person he might know in Idabel. But he knew of no one in the town or even in the area. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had had no dealings with anyone or even any contact with anyone in Idabel.
The days passed slowly for Reno and his family as they waited for the fall of the axe that would cut Reno’s level to 1 and reduce his Saturday visits to 1 hour behind glass. They were unable to eat or sleep.
On Friday June 15 Reno had his hearing before Barbara Wilson, a counselor at Lexington Assessment and Reception Center. At first Ms. Wilson seemed reluctant to proceed with the hearing stating that she didn’t have much to go on and she was considering postponing the hearing. Before postponing it she called a department of corrections attorney to discuss the situation with him. After getting off the phone she stated that she would proceed with the hearing. She told Reno that she had no evidence but she still found him guilty of “using the mail for illegal purposes”. Reno asked, “if I am supposed to be guilty of writing a letter to that post office box I would at least like to see the letter”. Ms. Wilson responded, “We have no letter”. He asked her why she was finding him guilty if she had no evidence and her response was, “I have to”. She then told him she hoped he would “appeal all the way” because she thought he could win the appeal.
Reno and his family were devastated at the thought of losing their visits and confused at why he would be found guilty of a charge of which he was completely innocent. It reminded them of how he was sent to prison 37 years earlier for a crime he did not commit. Reno expected to receive his paperwork on Monday or Tuesday stating that his level had been dropped, making it official that his next family visit would be for only 1 hour and it would be behind glass – no hug for his son or kiss for his fiancée, not even the touch of a hand for comfort.
Debra Hampton called the prison early Monday morning asking to speak with Lexington warden, Randy Workman. Warden Workman was out of town and Debra’s call was directed to assistant warden Jayne Stanfield who was acting warden in his absence. Ms. Stanfield told Debra after hearing Reno’s story that she too was concerned about the situation, that she would speak with Barbara Wilson and would look into the case. She told Debra she would get in touch with her after completing her investigation, probably in about two days.
When she had not heard from the assistant warden in 48 hours, Debra called her office. Ms. Stanfield apologized for the delay in contacting her. She told Debra that she was dismissing the misconduct charges against Reno! She stated that she was not saying that Reno was not guilty but that there was no evidence against him and the whole incident was not pursued in a timely manner by DOC. Considering those things and Reno’s good conduct record, she decided to dismiss the charge. (Reno has been level 4 the entire 11 years he has been at LARC and for many years previously, he has worked at OCI for 10 years where his job involves many responsibilities, his work record and his 120 day reviews are always excellent).
The US Observer Oklahoma commends Ms. Jayne Stanfield for her commitment to justice in continuing the investigation into Reno’s misconduct even after he had been found guilty and for her courage in dismissing the charge. We only wish the same commitment to the truth had been evidenced in the earlier stages of the investigation. Why after 3 ½ years was the alleged incident even brought up? Why was Reno charged with “use of the mail to conduct illegal business” when the charge was completely untrue? And why was he found “guilty” when there was absolutely no evidence (by DOC staff admission) against him?
We are very disappointed in a system that would take away a man’s privileges, especially his visits with his family with no proof against him. But kudos to Ms. Stanfield for her fairness. Would that the Oklahoma Department of Corrections was always equally fair.
Some people have much to lose when a person who has been incarcerated for many years is proven to be innocent. Such a situation shines a bright light on the justice system and illuminates many of its’ faults. Perhaps there are those who feel the system cannot stand such scrutiny and who would like to prevent the public from having an intimate look at a justice system which may not bear up well under such illumination. Could this be the case with Reno Francis? Is someone trying to discourage those who are bringing his case into the light and showing how wrong the system was in locking up an innocent man? Only time will tell. In the meantime we are thankful that Reno is as free as he can be while locked away in prison.