A Sentence That Never Ends -- Inmates Know Monotony

Benjamin Ng sleeps alone in a cell about the size of the back of a pickup truck. His toilet and sink are here. His clothes. His worldly possessions.

He stays fit by pacing up and down inside the cell, stretching out on the cold concrete floor, taking walks in the Big Yard.

He stays abreast of what is happening on the outside by reading newspapers and watching television. He eats three meals a day. He is a member of a social organization, does maintenance work, takes a few classes. He even has a few friends.

Not the best life. Not the worst, either.

Especially when one considers that Ng, 28, faced the death penalty for killing, over the span of a few brutal minutes, 10 people. His death sentence has been commuted into life without possibility of parole - a sentence that has been given to 78 criminals in Washington state since it was established in 1981.

Ng was 19 when he shot and killed 10 of the 13 people who died in the Wah Mee massacre in Seattle's International District on Feb. 19, 1983.

His demeanor, his build, his voice, his eyes belie the brutal crimes he committed. He seems to be at peace with himself, and too gentle to have murdered.

In his mind, those murders occurred a long time ago; a time he now says he's afraid to remember.

"It's (a) pretty ugly thing in my memory bank. Pretty ugly. It's there. I can't erase it. But what's been done, been done. It's like when you get into (a) car wreck; when it's happening, you block it out. It's like a bad dream."

To others, Ng's bad dream is a societal nightmare.

For while he no longer remains a physical threat to the state's citizens, he and other lifers without loom as significant financial threats to the economic well-being of Washington's future generations.

They also pose a unique challenge to the state's penal system, which must learn to handle an entire class of dangerous inmates who have no reason to behave and no hope of ever leaving.

It's 5:55 a.m. A Tuesday. Bruce Bushey, a convicted killer and two-time loser in the state's judicial system, lies asleep in his cage on the lower level of his state-owned bunk bed. His cellmate, Loren Pearce, also a convicted killer, is asleep across from him. A guard walks down the shiny waxed floor. He raps hard on the steel bars. Bushey rolls over and yanks the bedspread over his head. The guard raps the bars again and calls out:

"Gotta see some skin."

In Walla Walla, inmates are not allowed to simply say, "I'm here." They have to show the guard some skin, which means their face. It's the only guarantee the guard has that the inmate asleep under the sheets is not a substitute for an inmate who's escaped.

Bushey slowly rolls over and sits on the edge of the bed, his head bowed.

This is where he spends at least 12 hours of each day. Inside this 108-square-foot cage, behind these cold steel bars are the basics of his world: A state-owned stainless steel sink, a state-owned stainless steel toilet, a state-owned steel bunk bed, a state-owned steel foot locker, a state-owned plastic-glass mirror, a state-owned wooden table.

Bushey is one of the state's most dangerous criminals. In the darkness of this early morning his slow-motion movements and the strain on his face reveal what he is also fast-becoming: A tired man who appears much older than his 41 years.

His yawn is non-threatening, the early morning stir of a man half-awake. When he stretches his arms there is no danger, and his bowed head doesn't appear to be searching the darkness of the cell for a victim.

He is simply gathering himself - trying to prepare himself for another long, monotonous day.

Slowly, it becomes clear that this man, whose anger and rage and uncontrolled passions left others victimized and vanquished and, ultimately, dead, is disintegrating from the consequences of those brutal actions. It is also clear that this man, at this early-morning hour, is simply preparing himself for a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

It is very likely that Bushey will awaken behind these bars with the words - "Gotta see some skin" - penetrating his eardrums for the rest of his life.

The slow, second-by-second routine of another slow, second-by-second, routine day dominates Bushey's mind. He - and other lifers without - rarely think of the weeks, months and years ahead.

To look too far into the future is to look too far into their limitations. It is to risk having to face this fact: Walla Walla is going to be their world forever.

"It's hard to deal with the concept that I'm going to be here for the rest of my natural life," Bushey says, puffing on a cigarette inside his cell. "It's hard to conceive in my mind the kind of time that I'm looking at. I have no reference points."

In the harsh world of Walla Walla, time is indeed relative. For lifers without, it is final and irrevocable. And lifers without - people like Bruce Bushey and Benjamin Ng - understand this damnation of time like no others.

"All of us lifers without parole sit here day after day with a sentence that doesn't have an end. I can go on living for 10 years, 20 years, 30 or 40 years," Bushey says.

His voice rises. A sudden twitch appears above the left side of his mouth. Beads of sweat dot his forehead. He takes a long drag on his cigarette and, without looking, flicks the butt into the stainless steel toilet inside his cell, inches below his stainless steel sink and only a few feet away from his steel bunk bed.

"Where does it all end? I can't say I'm getting out in the year 2023. And when you stop and think about a sentence, and it says 999 years, how can you relate to that? You can't."

So Bushey, like other lifers without, rarely thinks about his sentence. He thinks only of the moments. The minutes. His vision of the future is built on a delicately constructed psychological premise that one day he'll be released.

It's 8:30 a.m. A Thursday. David Jirovec sits on his bed. A pile of legal documents and religious pamphlets are next to him.

On his best days, Jirovec, 55, spends most of his waking hours slumped over a bunch of legal books.

On his normal days, he spends most of his waking hours preaching "The word" to robbers and thieves. He claims to have saved the souls of dozens of inmates.

On his bad days, the man of the Lord, convicted of hiring two hit men to kill his wife of 19 years for less than $30,000 in life insurance policies, languishes in a small cell crying himself to sleep.

A big man with brownish-gray hair, bushy eyebrows, puffy cheeks and a strong handshake, Jirovec has been housed here for almost four years.

He abhors the future and speaks with passion about the sentence he says is "cruel and unusual punishment."

But he also has come to grips with this solemn fact: Had he not received life without the possibility of parole, he would have been sentenced to death.

It is not a pleasant realization. But Jirovec's accepted it.

He also has learned to accept the inherent contradictions of living a "Christian life" in a world where Christians are few - and danger, possibly even death, is very real.

He's seen beatings and has been beaten. He's heard about sex crimes and claims he has observed guards on the take allow them to happen.

But not even his Christian faith - his commitment to the men he says he's trying to convert - compels him to share these circumstances with prison authorities.

"You learn by living in a jungle how to survive," says Jirovec, as he sat hunched over in his cell. "I might have to spend the rest of my life here, and the way you survive here is by keeping your mouth shut."

Like many inmates at Walla Walla, including those he prays over, Jirovec spends a lot of his time trying to understand how the system works. He might not challenge the hidden, destructive elements of prison life, but he works feverishly to seek ways to overturn his sentence of life without parole. And he's been known to help others.

At the state's expense.

Inmates call him the "legal beagle."

Prison officials, however, believe he's a dangerous and a desperate man willing to do anything to avoid spending the rest of his life behind bars.

It's 6:15 p.m. A Wednesday. Sherwood Kavay Knight, 32, is frantically turning knobs on the television inside the cage he shares with his "cellie." He has a lot on his mind and is itching to talk about it. But not enough to shut off his most visual link to the outside world.

His fingers stop when he hears and sees the news - a series of sound bites, pictures, discussions. A man is making speeches. People are raising questions. Is Mario Cuomo ever going to make a decision about running for the presidency? If so, could he defeat President Bush?

"Are people really interested in that stuff?" Knight asks aloud.

Knight has made the news himself. He killed his downstairs neighbor in Seattle, in what the prosecution said resulted from an evil, elaborate, well-thought out plot. A jury agreed.

That's why Knight is in Walla Walla. That's why he's been sentenced to life without.

He steps away from the television and plops onto his bunk bed. His prison number - 632020 - is visible on the inside flap of his sneakers, Converse All-Stars, which, just like him, are the property of the state.

"If I have to die here, I will just die here," he says. "I'll just have to accept that."

In the next breath, his words reflect the difficulty of acquiescing to such a fate; they show how a lifer without probes every crevice of his mind to find some kind of solace.

"They might have me here, but all they've got is the body. As far as the mind, it's still free."

Knight frowns. He's still got a lot on that mind.

"I was taught as a kid that nightmares begin when you close your eyes and go to sleep. But mine begin when I open my eyes and think about the future. This sentence is a living dead sentence. It's no two ways about it. At least with the death sentence, you know where you stand."

He doesn't understand that he is supposed to feel this way. He doesn't understand that this fear of the future is supposed to haunt him for the rest of his life. He doesn't understand that the hollow feeling he feels, the nothingness, is life without the possibility of parole: A slow, certain future to be lived in psychological agony behind prison walls.

Better than death?


Knight smiles. He still has hope. A plan. He believes he understands society better than it understands itself. He's banking on that. He's banking that society - the residents of Washington state - will break before he does. That's why he spends hour after hour at the prison law library. He is looking for the legal flaw and is waiting for the state to break.

Knight smiles again. He's got a secret to share.

"If they keep giving enough people life without parole, they're going to have to change the system because there are just going to be too many of us here for the state to support. Are they going to continue to pay (up to $25,000) each year to just warehouse us. I don't think so. Sooner or later, they're going to have to stop tossing us in here and throwing away the key."

It's 12:15 p.m. A Wednesday. Christopher Blystone surveys the chow hall.

"You've got here what we call the wolf and lamb syndrome," he says. "The wolf survive and the lamb are prey. There are a lot of guys you can intimidate right out of their food."

"Blystone! You want this?" an inmate asks, his right index finger pointing toward the meat on his tray.

"Sure," Blystone replies, a soft smile on his face.

The inmate rises from his table 10 feet away and brings the meat over to Blystone.

"Thanks," Blystone says, a boyish smile etched on his face.

Blystone is regarded by other inmates as a man to beware of.

"I guess you can say I did a reconnaissance - some information gathering from people I'd met in the (Spokane) county jail - before I arrived," Blystone says. "I wanted to know what is was like before I got here."

When he arrived among the other orange-clad new arrivals on the "duck chain," he got hoots and hollers from veteran inmates.

"We went through the chow line and a whole line of guys were blowing kisses at me."

That didn't last long. Blystone's cell is sometimes called "Murderer's Row." All four of the men in it have killed.

Consequently, the concept of murder is different within it. Murder is not an abomination among lifers without. The word is used by Blystone and his cellies with the same regularity that the words breakfast, lunch or dinner are used in the real world.

On the outside Blystone and Bushey are murderers, and the word murder symbolizes what and who they are. On the inside, in the cavernous cells of Walla Walla, the word only represents what they did.

It's 8:55 a.m. A Tuesday. Bruce Bushey stops suddenly at the door of the main office in the education building at Walla Walla. He points toward a window about 15 feet away, then steps over to it, with energy and purpose, and gazes out.

A civilian clerk picks up a ringing phone. A group of four women, who'd been meeting, begin to disperse. There is work to be done. There is no fear of Bushey. He has worked with them in close quarters for months. They've watched him stand at this window before. Now, he is simply background.

He stares out the window into the wide-open space, where the blue skyline to the east frames the landscape, and the distant Oregon hills stand to the southwest.

His mind is overwhelmed by the trees swaying in the wind, his heart pounds with excitement and sadness as he observes the distant cars traveling on the highway.

Bushey the murderer is also a man who lived much of his destructive life embracing nature. The air, the trees, the mountains have always been dear to him.

The change of seasons, a bright sun and full moon have special places in his past.

Now it is only this plate-glass window at the education department of the state penitentiary - a few doors down from where he works at the bookstore - that enables him to receive a panoramic view of the outside world he cherishes the most.

"I come here whenever I can," he says. "It's my only chance to really see outside."

Not quite.

On some days, when the sun shines brightly, Bushey bends down on his knees at the far end of his darkened cage. He positions his head on the lower half of his bunk bed, and stares upward toward the one spot on the 10 stained windowpanes across from him, where a little light slivers through.

It's 10:22 a.m. A Wednesday. Christopher Blystone shares his cell with three other inmates - one serving life without parole, the other two serving life sentences.

Two of these inmates, Larry Sullens and Steve Matthews, are the cornerstones of Blystone's world. Sullens, the other lifer without, is his protector-friend, a martial arts expert who once managed his own gym. Matthews is his educator and confidant, a former stockbroker who quotes Plato one moment and rants about the injustices of the state legal system the next.

These three lifers - along with another lifer, who also shares their cell - are always together.

"We could make a helluva military attack team," Blystone says jokingly, glancing at Sullens and Matthews, who laugh.

Sullens, 28, shot and killed a husband and wife in Okanogan, and also tried to kill the slain couple's daughter, then tried to destroy the evidence by setting their house on fire.

The daughter survived.

Matthews, 36, stabbed the owner of a Shoreline coin shop store several times in what one King County judge called "a senseless, heartless and cold-blooded taking of life."

In Walla Walla they call Matthews "Wall Street." That's because he claims to have earned up to $80,000 a year selling and buying stocks and coins.

He is also known as the resident intellectual.

It's 4:10 p.m. A Tuesday. "I try to do what most lifers do," Bushey says, puffing on a cigarette inside his cell. I try to get somebody living with me that's going to be around awhile."

Right now, his cellie is doing a life sentence (a far cry from life without parole) and could be out in less than 20 years. That troubles Bushey, but he feels it's better than the alternative.

"When you're a lifer without parole, you don't want a weekender in your cell. And anybody who has got to do 10 years or less is a weekender. I could do that standing on my head."

When they first arrive, lifers without desperately attempt to escape their fate, prison officials say.

They fight the system. Fight other inmates. Fight themselves.

Blystone has been placed in isolation. Bushey has been restrained in other ways.

But in time, most of them lose their resolve, accept their fate and reach some kind of reconciliation, prison officials say.

It is never easy. But these are not easy men.



Family ties strained.

The controversy of conjugal visits.


The suffering of the victims' kin.

Putting lifers to work, for pay.