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‘A Trap for the Unwary’: The Power and Paradox of Parole Boards

Part Three of the “Violation” podcast examines America’s opaque parole system and how Jacob Wideman prepared to argue for his release.

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Imagine the worst day of your life, when you did the one thing you are most ashamed of. Now imagine having to convince a panel of strangers — who suspect you might be lying — how sorry you are. After years of preparing for this moment, you get only minutes to make your case. And the stakes couldn’t be higher: The rest of your life depends on whether or not the strangers believe you.

This is how people seeking parole often describe the experience. Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University, describes parole hearings as “a trap for the unwary,” where those who are mentally unprepared for the emotional complexities of the process can find themselves at a grave disadvantage.

Every year in the United States, tens of thousands of people appear before parole boards asking to be released from prison. These boards play an outsized role in the criminal justice system — how much time someone actually spends in prison, or in some cases, whether they get out at all, is often decided not by a judge or jury, but by a parole board. And yet, few people understand how they work.

Sandy Kane, an older White man, speaks at a podium.
John Wideman, a Black man, spoke at a podium to a group of people in a meeting room.
Judy Goldman, a White woman, spoke at a podium to a group of people in a meeting room.

Sandy Kane, father of Eric Kane, who was killed by Jacob Wideman, holds up a cellphone so that a family friend can speak against paroling Wideman, at a parole board hearing in Phoenix in 2011.

John Wideman spoke on behalf of his son, Jacob, during Jacob’s parole hearing in 2011.

Judy Goldman, mother of Jacob Wideman, spoke on his behalf as well.

Part Three of the “Violation” podcast, “Life Without Parole,” examines parole boards, largely secretive institutions that operate in many states with few rules and little oversight. These panels are supposed to be independent, but often do their work under pressure from the politicians who appoint them. In the best of circumstances, parole board members are assigned a virtually impossible task: to predict what human beings they barely know are going to do in the future. And they have people’s lives and the public’s safety in their hands.

What happens at parole boards is a huge part of Jacob Wideman’s story, and his story tells us a lot about the parole system in America. After serving 25 years behind bars for killing his summer camp roommate, Eric Kane, Wideman went before a parole board in Arizona for the first time. Starting with his first hearing in 2011, he was denied parole over and over.

Except for one time.

Listen to new episodes each Wednesday, through the player at the top of the page, or wherever you get your podcasts. The “Violation” series will also be available on The Marshall Project’s site and on Here & Now from NPR and WBUR.

Additional materials:


Beth Schwartzapfel: Hey there, just a heads up: This episode contains a brief mention of sexual assault. It also mentions suicide and suicidal thoughts. If you’re dealing with this issue, help is available. You can dial 9-8-8 for the national suicide and crisis lifeline. Take care of yourself and here’s the show.

Last time, on “Violation”:

John Wideman: Robby was a fugitive, wanted for armed robbery and murder. The police were hunting him and his crime had given the cops license to kill.

Beth Schwartzapfel: And now Jake — Robby’s nephew, John’s son — was also on the run. Also in connection with a murder. Just two years after “Brothers and Keepers” had been heralded as an important book.

Jake Wideman: No. There was no way that I could remain on the run indefinitely. I needed to — to figure out what I was going to do.

Beth Schwartzapfel: After a week on the run, what Jake did was turn himself in. And that was the beginning of a long fight over what to do about a kid like Jake.

Patty Garin: So they were always holding the death penalty over him to try to force a plea.

Beth Schwartzapfel : And many years later, when Jake began appearing before the parole board, he not only had to face the parole board members who would determine his fate. He also had to face the Kanes again. And the Kanes would push the boundaries of the way parole normally works.

Sandy Kane: I am neither an angry nor a vengeful man. I’m instead asking you to force him to stay where he is in order to prevent another father from feeling my pain and loss at his hands.

Shawshank Parole Board Member: Your files say you’ve served 40 years of a life sentence. You feel you’ve been rehabilitated?

Ellis “Red” Redding: Rehabilitated. Well, now let me see. You know, I don’t have any idea what that means.

Beth Schwartzapfel: For most people, if they’ve ever thought about a parole board, it was for about one minute during the scene in the “Shawshank Redemption” when Morgan Freeman tells a White guy in a suit that “rehabilitated” is a bullshit word, and the suit, apparently moved by his honesty, stamps “approved” on his file.

After spending 25 years behind bars for killing Eric Kane, Jake Wideman went before Arizona’s parole board for the first time, in 2011. Since that first hearing, he’s been denied parole over and over. Every time he’s had a parole hearing, he’s been denied. Except for one time. What happens at parole boards is a huge part of Jake’s story and Jake’s story tells us a lot about the issues with parole in America.

So, before we go on with Jake’s story, and his experience with Arizona’s parole board — how that experience, the outcomes and details of his many parole hearings that might surprise you — I need to tell you more about parole boards in general.

Parole boards go by different names, and their duties vary from state to state, but one of their fundamental jobs is to decide who should get out of prison and when. And the reality is: parole boards are often just as arbitrary as in the movies.

In 2020 I interviewed Jack LaSota, who sat on Arizona’s board from 2010 to 2014. I talked to him in a crowded restaurant in a high-end mall in north Phoenix.

Beth Schwartzapfel: So, you as a board member, just really have to go with your gut and your instincts and —

Jack LaSota: That’s all you got.

Beth Schwartzapfel: Sometimes you hear people describing parole as “getting out early” but that’s not quite right. In most states, for at least some crimes, a judge sentences you to a range of time: three to five years, say, or, as in Jake Wideman’s case, 25 years to life.

Once you’ve served the minimum number of years, whether you get out right away, is not decided by a judge or a jury. How much time you actually spend in prison or — in some cases whether you get out at all — is decided by a parole board.

For people like Jake, trying to get parole is like walking a highwire. It’s a trip full of pitfalls, politics and in some cases straight up wrongdoing.

I’m Beth Schwartzapfel. From The Marshall Project and WBUR, this is “Violation.” A story about second chances, parole boards, and who pulls the levers of power in the justice system.

Daniel Medwed: It is very much a trap for the unwary.

Beth Schwartzapfel: This is Part Three: “Life Without Parole.”

The first thing you need to know about parole boards is that in almost every state, parole board members are appointed by the governor. In most cases they’re paid. In some cases, they’re paid well.

Jack LaSota: I was appointed by Governor Brewer.

Duane Belcher: I worked under a lot of governors. Governor Janet Napolitano. I worked under Governor Symington.

Beth Schwartzapfel: Who appointed you?

Sandra Lines: Governor Ducey.

Beth Schwartzapfel: Governor Ducey, okay.

Sandra Lines: Right.

Beth Schwartzapfel: Those are former Arizona board members Jack LaSota, Duane Belcher, and Sandra Lines.

At best, this system means that the board is accountable to elected leaders and therefore responsive to the community’s values. At worst, a seat on the parole board turns into an appointment for party patrons and those with political connections who may not have any relevant experience at all. It also means that board members may be vulnerable to political pressure.

Now, the parole board is supposed to be independent. The law in Arizona, as in most places, says they must use their “sole discretion” to make decisions. But stories about governors meddling in parole decisions — whether with a wink and a nod or more directly — are not uncommon. In Arizona, I have documents and interviews from half a dozen former board members who reported feeling pressured to vote a certain way. I also have a letter from one governor’s top attorney urging the board to deny parole in a particular case.

Katie Hobbs is the new Governor of Arizona.

Katie Hobbs: Good morning, Arizona!

Beth Schwartzapfel: It’s too early to tell how she’ll handle the parole board — but she’s made some early moves towards transparency and reform in corrections.

One thing we do know about Arizona? It’s got a political landscape in some ways still influenced by its early settlers. Here’s former parole board member David Neal.

David Neal: My dad’s dad — the first thing I tell anybody that wants to know about him — I said “Well, he was a mule skinner.”

Beth Schwartzapfel: I didn’t even know a mule skinner was a thing, outside of that Dolly Parton song. Maybe Dolly can help figure out why it matters that a former parole board member had a mule skinning grandpa.

Beth Schwartzapfel: I mean Dolly always helps. But David explained mule skinners were actually mule drivers from like 100 years ago. David’s grandfather and his mules helped to dig the canals when the city of Phoenix was first built, he said. I thought of him when we were talking to Jake’s new attorneys, Josh Hamilton and Carol Lamoureux about the attitudes in Arizona’s justice system.

Josh Hamilton: I do think that there may be some elements of Wild West justice that’s sort of written into our laws.

Carol Lamoureux: There’s a bit of this rugged, individualistic streak, a little bit of libertarianism, but our punishment is severe. So it’s like if you, you know, if you get hit, you’re going to get hit with a hard punishment.

Beth Schwartzapfel: A hard punishment and a lot of political pressure to stick with it. The first thing I discovered when I first started reporting on parole boards in 2014 was that my million questions were not going to be easy to answer. Unlike our court system, parole boards are largely secretive institutions. If I were reporting on a trial or a court hearing, I could just walk in and watch. They’re public. Not so for many parole boards.

So in an effort to learn as much as I could, I gathered the resumes of every parole board member in almost every state across the country. (Here’s looking at you Wisconsin, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Indiana for refusing my records requests.)

The second thing I found out once I got information from states around the country is that there’s not a clear standard, from state to state, about who should be on parole boards. In some states, the majority of board members were former cops and prosecutors, whose job it was to put people in prison and who may be more inclined to keep them there. In other states, board members had no experience in criminal justice whatsoever. Across the country there was a farmer, an automotive broker and a personal fitness trainer. Arizona is more of a cops and prosecutors state.

I should note here that technically, Arizona abolished parole in 1993. It was one of about a dozen states plus the feds who did that in the tough on crime era of the 80s and 90s. It was all part of a wave of laws known as “truth in sentencing” intended to ensure people served all or most of the years in their sentence. That’s why in Arizona it’s called the “board of executive clemency” — really one of the only avenues for people to get out of prison before the end of their sentence anymore is to ask the governor for clemency, and these days one of the board’s central jobs is making recommendations to the governor on clemency applications.

But anyone, like Jake, who committed his crime before the law changed in 1993 is eligible to be considered for parole.

Patty Garin: When we started doing parole hearings, it seemed like, of course, he’s going to get out on parole.

Beth Schwartzapfel: Jake’s longtime attorney Patty Garin.

Patty Garin: He committed the crime as a juvenile, he’s been in 25 years, he’s had virtually perfect behavior in prison for 25 years, he’s done everything everyone’s ever asked of him. And then to just get denied year after year after year was just — it was very, very disheartening, very bitter.

Beth Schwartzapfel: Starting in 2011, Eric Kane’s family was at every single parole board hearing. Arguing over and over that Jake should never get out.

Louise Kane: When Eric was so brutally and violently murdered, it robbed all the children of Clarkstown, the town where we lived, of their innocence. That is not something that can just be swept aside.

Beth Schwartzapfel: Was the Kanes’ testimony part of why the board kept denying Jake parole? What did he have to do to prove to the board that he was ready? That’s the thing. He didn’t really know. Not only was Jake walking a highwire, he was doing it blindfolded.

Kristen Bell: Parole candidates don’t really have a good understanding of what it is they have to do to get granted parole. Nor do victims have a good understanding, I think.

Beth Schwartzapfel: This is Kristen Bell. Not the actor. This Kristen Bell is more of a celebrity among law professors who study parole boards.

Kristen Bell: I am an assistant professor at the University of Oregon School of Law.

Beth Schwartzapfel: What professors and other experts like Kristen have shown is that in a world where sunshine is the best disinfectant, parole boards members in many states are using their very wide discretion in the dark. There aren’t many rules and very little oversight.

The dangers of this lack of sunshine became clear in Missouri in 2017.

St. Louis Public Radio: A Missouri parole board member who reportedly admits to playing a word game during parole hearings has resigned. The Missouri Board of Probation and Parole accepted Donald Ruzicka’s resignation…

Beth Schwartzapfel: Missouri’s board is one of the most secretive in the nation, so it took a long time for the public to find out what was happening at these hearings.

St. Louis Public Radio: Ruzicka and an employee played a game during parole hearings in which they earned points for incorporating song titles and unusual words such as “manatee” and “hootenanny” into their questioning. The report says the officials awarded themselves an extra point if they could get the inmates to also say the words.

Beth Schwartzapfel: Let’s take a moment and sit with that. This is a crucial decision both for prisoners who have waited decades for this chance the law provides, and for the public who relies on the board to decide who is safe to release.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that all or even most board members are so cynical or contemptuous of the process.

But even those who are trying in good faith have a task that is quite literally impossible: predict what human beings they barely know are going to do in the future. And if they let someone out who by all indications seemed like a good bet, and that person goes out and does something terrible, their jobs are on the line.

Many parole board members make decisions with this in the back of their minds. I mean, how could they not? There’s no risk to them to keep people in prison. The risks all come with letting people out.

You might remember the story of Willie Horton. It was a centerpiece of the 1988 election campaign of former president George H.W. Bush.

George H.W. Bush: And so I am not going to furlough men like Willie Horton…

Beth Schwartzapfel: Bush ran a lot of campaign ads like this one.

Clifford Barnes: Mike Dukakis and Willie Horton changed our lives forever. He was serving a life sentence without parole, when Governor Dukakis gave him a few days off. Horton broke into our home. For twelve hours I was beaten, slashed and terrorized. My wife Angie was brutally raped. When his liberal experiment failed, Dukakis simply looked away.

Beth Schwartzapfel: In 1987 Horton went AWOL during a furlough from a Massachusetts prison and later turned up in Maryland, where he was arrested and convicted of kidnapping and sexual assault. Most states at the time had furlough programs where with good behavior over the course of years people could earn a few hours or days outside of prison to work on building relationships and getting ready for release. But George H. W. Bush used the story as a sledgehammer against his opponent in the 1988 presidential race, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. That story still haunts politicians who might otherwise be open to criminal justice reform.

George H.W. Bush: No more furloughs for people who rape, pillage and plunder.

Beth Schwartzapfel: Horton was on a furlough, not on parole, but the idea is the same. Every few years, one out of the thousands of people released on parole does something terrible. There’s no good data on this, but experts say situations like Willie Horton’s are extremely rare. But when they do happen, politicians, looking for someone to blame, point a finger at the parole board, as if they should have known.

And then for years afterwards, those boards take this as a sort of object lesson, and parole way fewer people than they used to.

This story played out in Alabama, in 2018. When a man out on parole killed three people, the public called on the governor to fire the board.

Archival TV News: They need to be gone. They need to be removed because they’re not qualified.

Beth Schwartzapfel: It played out in Ohio in 2013, when a man who had been out of prison for just a few months shot and killed his girlfriend’s daughter.

Archival TV News: It’s shameful. They should take the responsibility for their decision and their poor judgment.

Beth Schwartzapfel: The Ohio board was excoriated so thoroughly in the press that they began showing these news accounts as part of a workshop for people in prison, as a way of explaining why they would probably not get parole.

And in Massachusetts in 2010, a man who was released on parole tried to rob a department store and got into a fatal shootout with a police officer.

Meghna Chakrabarti: This is Radio Boston, I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. a major shakeup in the state’s parole system today, as five members of the parole board resign amidst questions over their decision to release a violent offender who allegedly went on to murder a Woburn police officer in December.

Beth Schwartzapfel: In that case the board had voted unanimously to parole the man, who had done very well in prison after serving decades for a series of assaults and armed robberies. You could say, as the Woburn Police Chief did at the time…

Philip Mahoney: We lost a police officer here because of their actions. It’s my belief he never should have been out.

Beth Schwartzapfel: Or you could argue that if a state is going to use a parole board, the board should have clear rules and guidelines about how they make their decisions. And their jobs should be protected if they make level-headed decisions according to those rules.

But of course, it’s a very unusual state that operates that way. And it doesn’t seem to work that way in Arizona, either. Which is part of why Jake’s up on that highwire with a blindfold on, trying to put one foot in front of the other.

We’ll be right back.

Beth Schwartzapfel: In 2015, 29 years after he killed Eric Kane, Jake Wideman was back before the parole board for the fifth time. Here’s Ellen Kirschbaum, who served on Arizona’s board, at Jake’s parole board hearing that year.

Ellen Kirschbaum: The Arizona Board of Executive Clemency is provided with a significant degree of discretionary authority with respect to parole decision-making…

Kristen Bell: Everything is case by case basis.

Beth Schwartzapfel: Parole expert and professor Kristen Bell again.

Kristen Bell: They don’t have a standard that’s specific enough to say “I’m just — I’m applying the law here. Using my discretion, but applying law.

Beth Schwartzapfel: I talked about this with Duane Belcher, who was a member of Arizona’s parole board for 20 years — by his estimation he was the longest-serving parole board member ever in the state.

Beth Schwartzapfel: How did you know, you know, how much to weigh, one thing versus another thing? Was that purely a matter of your own conscience?

Duane Belcher: Yeah, that was because every board member that was put on the board or whatever, I mean, there was nothing to say, “Okay, here’s the information that you have to look at.”

Beth Schwartzapfel: He and I went back and forth about this several times. I kept trying to get a straightforward answer — but “How, then? How did you determine whether someone was appropriate to release?”

Beth Schwartzapfel: Did anybody ever say to you, “Here’s you know — if there’s a victim there, I want you to take that really seriously” or “If they do an amazing job in prison, like I want you to weigh that very heavily?” Like, did anybody tell you how..?

Duane Belcher: No.

Beth Schwartzapfel: So how did you decide?

Duane Belcher: We would hear the information and each board member would weigh the information…

Beth Schwartzapfel: One side of the argument here is that boards need this type of discretion. Every case is different, every person is different.

On the other side is the sense of frustration that comes from not knowing what exactly you should work towards or do differently in order to be granted parole.

Here’s Jake’s brother Daniel at a parole board hearing in 2013.

Daniel Wideman: I confess to being frustrated and confused by the outcome of each previous parole hearing. The board hasn’t offered a clear, concise and consistent rationale for denying parole that aligns with a statutory mandate. Further, and perhaps most frustrating, the board hasn’t provided a blueprint for Jake to put into action. It’s not that the goalposts keep moving. It’s that, from my perspective, the goalposts don’t seem to even be on the field.

Beth Schwartzapfel: The goalposts aren’t there for the Kanes either. Victims’ families are also navigating this process without any real clarity. It’s not that the parole board is breaking any rules here. In fact, there are very few rules that boards have to follow in deciding whether to release someone on parole. That’s because parole is considered a privilege, not a constitutional right. And Kristen Bell argues that’s just not fair.

Kristen Bell: The problem with passing laws that are very vague is that it gives officials who are in charge of enforcing the law essentially a blank check to enforce it at their whim, to do whatever they want with the law, rather than to actually have rules.

Beth Schwartzapfel: In 2019, Kristen published a statistical analysis of parole board decisions in California for juvenile lifers, like Jake. Even if they’d participated in lots of programs, or it had been years since they’d been in trouble, certain characteristics meant they were less likely to get parole. Some of which were definitely present in Jake’s case.

Kristen Bell: Things like race. Things like whether the person had money to hire an attorney.

Beth Schwartzapfel: Or things like whether a victim happens to be present.

Kristen Bell: Exactly. Whether the district attorney is present, whether they’re at a high security or low security prison. All these things have a very strong influence on the parole decision, so I did a regression analysis…

Beth Schwartzapfel: If someone has committed a crime and is sentenced to prison, and then is upset when they have to serve their full term, I can understand if you’re busy unpacking your tiny violin. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime, as the saying goes. But let’s take a minute to consider what parole is for.

The idea is that if taking classes and programs, staying out of trouble — doing well in prison — reliably led to getting out earlier, then more people would be motivated to use their time in prison wisely. Prisons would be safer, wardens’ jobs would be easier, and people would go home more stable and commit fewer crimes. And that’s the whole point, right?

In most other industrialized countries, life sentences are practically unheard of, even in the case of murder, and so prisons are set up to ensure that people get out in better shape than they went in.

Daniel Medwed: States that believe in the indeterminate sentencing model believe that it would incentivize people to really do well throughout their prison term.

Beth Schwartzapfel: This is Daniel Medwed, a professor at Northeastern University Law School. An “indeterminate sentencing model,” by the way, means the judge sentences you to a range of time, like 5 to 10 years. And Daniel has a lot of concerns about how parole boards operate. Because if it feels arbitrary who gets parole and who doesn’t, why bother trying?

Daniel Medwed: There is this reliance and I would call it an overreliance on contrition, on remorse and acceptance of responsibility. And it ties into this idea of penance. You have to repent for your sins.

Beth Schwartzapfel: Now, it’s not that remorse or acceptance of responsibility is a bad thing, Daniel says. Of course that’s important. The problem is that the performance of this remorse in a way that’s convincing to the board requires certain cultural cues — cues that people with similar backgrounds to the board members are more likely to have mastered.

Daniel Medwed: It is very much a trap for the unwary.

Beth Schwartzapfel: I also talked with Randy McDonald about the catch-22 of these board hearings. He runs a clinic at Arizona State University’s law school that helps people going before the parole board.

Randy McDonald: When there is legitimately sort of a dispute as to the facts of a case, oftentimes if our clients go in and try and set the record straight or say, “No, this didn’t happen this way, it happened this way, “the board comes back and says, “Well, you’re not taking responsibility. We need you to take responsibility.”

Beth Schwartzapfel: Then, as an added layer of mental gymnastics, many parole board members are on alert for a kind of performance, so although they want people to be genuinely sorry for their bad acts, they’re also alert for people who seem too sorry.

Jake Wideman: I was incredibly nervous. And when you’re nervous, the first thing that goes is really emotional authenticity, you know, because you’re just, you’re just your body is so tense and so wired and so focused on, you know, the setting that you’re in that it’s difficult to be emotionally authentic, you know? And over the years, I caught heck for that. I caught flak for that.

Beth Schwartzapfel: You’ve heard a lot from Jake already. And you’ll hear lots more from him still. And I’m sure in your mind you’re weighing whether you believe him, whether he sounds sincere. I mean, I hope you’re doing that. I want you to decide for yourself if you think Jake is credible. So you have a sense of what that’s like.

One thing I noticed in my first few conversations with Jake is that often, when he’s describing fraught emotional subjects, he doesn’t sound very fraught or emotional. He sounds like a man who has told his story many, many times: to therapists, attorneys, peer groups, parole boards, family members. To himself. Does that sense that his stories are practiced make the stories less real? Less sincere? How are you supposed to tell?

Everybody you’re hearing from in Jake’s family wants you to believe them. To believe that Jake deserves to be free and has been honest about his life and his actions.

But ultimately you don’t get to decide. So what Jake and his family really need is for the parole board to believe him. And if they don’t, he stays in prison for the rest of his life. That’s what the Kanes want.

Louise Kane: At previous hearings, it was noted by the board that the murderer had never shown emotion about his heinous and horrific crime.

Beth Schwartzapfel: This is Louise Kane, Eric’s mom.

Louise Kane: The professionals who interviewed Wideman in Flagstaff soon after he murdered Eric, also noted this. No emotion, no feelings, just a flat monotone. So in the January 2015 hearing he feigns emotion. After more than twenty-eight years he says, “I have to collect myself.” He’s trying to manipulate you with his acting. The board questioned the lack of emotion in previous hearings, so Wideman showed you emotion.

Beth Schwartzapfel: I have often heard people who have gone before a parole board describe it this way: imagine the worst day of your life. A day when you did the one thing you are most ashamed of, ever. And the history that contributed to you doing that thing are some of the most intimate, personal details of your mind and your heart. Now imagine having to convince a room full of strangers — most of whom think you might be full of shit — how sorry you are. And after years, and years of you preparing, they often hear your case in a matter of minutes.

Jake’s father, John, said no one would emerge from a hearing like that unscathed.

John Wideman: These were excruciating sessions. And in and of themselves represented a kind of trial. A kind of examination of a person. Of Jacob. That nobody, nobody should have to endure.

Beth Schwartzapfel: Part of the ritual of these parole board hearings is telling a coherent life story. So eventually, Jake would have to explain what was going on with him when he committed his crime and how he’s grown and changed. At the time, though, when Jake first went to jail, the last thing on his mind was how he would someday present himself to a parole board. He was 16 and had just confessed to killing Eric. While his lawyers were figuring out how to fight the first-degree murder charges, he was waiting in jail to find out what would happen to him. He had a sense of why he had killed Eric — he knew that he had been haunted by something since childhood — but he couldn’t name it and he refused to try.

For a child who had never been in trouble with the law before — a kid raised in a bookish home with English Department picnics and board games and jazz concerts, this entry into the adult system was bewildering. Jake was the only juvenile, which meant that to keep him separate from the adults, he was held by himself. It wasn’t technically solitary confinement, but as a practical matter, he was isolated.

Jake Wideman: When I was in the county jail and did almost two years, almost two consecutive years, locked down in a cell, except for maybe going to the exercise area three times a week and getting the shower every other day. But other than that, it was 24 hours by myself.

Beth Schwartzapfel: It wasn’t until 2015 that the UN released a formal finding that solitary confinement is torture. But even in the late 80s, the damaging effects of even a few days in a room by yourself were already well-known, and the evidence has only gotten more powerful since, especially for young people.

Jake Wideman: It was much worse because, number one, I was 16 and full of teenage energy. But also because there just wasn’t anything to do. There was a library there. The librarian would bring around a maximum of three books per week, and most of the books were those little “Louis L’Amour” novels, hundred pages, 150 pages, which I could read in an hour if I wanted to. And other than that, I just kind of sat there and stared at the walls.

Beth Schwartzapfel: He attempted suicide more than once, slashing his arms with broken pieces of whatever he could find. One file, from 1987, read, “at shift change, 1500 hours, Jake requested inmate relations officer Bruce Archer to shackle him so he would not hurt himself or tear up the cell.”

Reporter Ted Bartimus remembers the cops who were usually full of gallows humor about the shlubs in their lockup, treating Jake as if they felt bad for him.

Ted Bartimus: You know, ​​there’s always the locker room humor you know, this cynicism about suspects and that. But I felt something different from these cops about Jacob Wideman. It was something tragic like this kid. What is it? What would make a kid — I think a lot of them were parents themselves — it’s like, what would make a kid do this?

Beth Schwartzapfel: This time was painful for his family, too. This is a passage from Philadelphia Fire, a 1990 novel by Jake’s dad, the influential writer John Edgar Wideman.

John Wideman: The phone rings. You pick it up and listen. It is my son and he speaks softly from far away. His voice is changing. He’s at that age. He is my lost son on the phone and I must answer before I don’t have the power to say a single word. Nothing is more painful than the phone ringing and finding him there at the other end of the line, except finding him not there.

Beth Schwartzapfel: For long stretches of time, Jake says, he cut his family off. He didn’t call them, told them if they tried to visit, he would refuse to come out of his cell to see them.

Jake Wideman: I couldn’t face the people that I loved. At one point, I tried to fire my attorneys and request the death penalty.

Beth Schwartzapfel: Remember how prosecutors and the Kanes wanted Jake to face the death penalty? There were times that he was so ashamed and filled with self-loathing that he wanted that too. And then, things took an unexpected turn, when Jake did something that would haunt him at parole board hearings for years in the future. He picked up a phone at the county jail and called Flagstaff police…

Jake Wideman: I did murder Shelli Wylie.

Beth Schwartzapfel: A year after Jake killed Eric, he confessed to another murder. Next time, on “Violation.”

If you want more information about Jake’s case, additional documents, photos, and related stories, head over to, and,

“Violation” is a production of WBUR in Boston and The Marshall Project.

Editing of the show comes from Geraldine Sealey, who is also managing editor of The Marshall Project, and Ben Brock Johnson, executive producer of WBUR Podcasts. Additional editing, project management and web production from Amy Gorel. Quincy Walters is our producer. Mix, sound design and original music composition by Matt Reed and Paul Vaitkus. Fact checking help from Kate Gallagher at The Marshall Project. Illustrations for our project come from Diego Mallo.

I’m Beth Schwartzapfel, your reporter and host. I’ll talk to you next week.


Reporter & Host: Beth Schwartzapfel; Managing Editor: Geraldine Sealey; Executive Producer: Ben Brock Johnson; Producer: Quincy Walters; Editor: Amy Gorel; Production Manager: Paul Vaitkus; Sound Designer: Matt Reed; Fact Checker: Kate Gallagher; Illustrator: Diego Mallo

Beth Schwartzapfel Twitter Email is a staff writer who often covers addiction and health, probation and parole, and LGBTQ+ issues. She is the reporter and host of Violation, a podcast examining an unthinkable crime, second chances, and who pulls the levers of power in the justice system.