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Life behind bars

Bob Browning, former Forest Grove attorney, talks about two years he spent in prison

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - When other inmates seemed at the end of their rope, Browning tried to comfort them with the idea suggested to him by his pastor, Jennifer Yocum of the Forest Grove United Church of Christ: 'Who knows? Maybe you're there to help somebody that needs help.'
In prison, Browning says, he built up a certain amount of goodwill with other inmates by proofreading their paperwork and explaining legal terms related to child-support problems, post-conviction relief and other legal issues.Bob Browning’s first cellmate, a heroin dealer, laid out the harsh reality of prison life: If you run into trouble, nobody’s going to help you — and if you’re smart, you won’t help anyone else.

As a municipal court judge for Gaston and a longtime land-use lawyer, Browning had been in courtrooms and visited the Washington County Jail plenty of times before May 31, 2013.

But on that date, the Forest Grove resident entered Oregon’s correctional system as an inmate.

Browning pleaded “conditional no contest” to 13 counts of criminal mistreatment in the first degree (a Class C felony) related to financial transactions involving his mother and mother-in-law, who had both died by the time the case came to court.

Although the plea acknowledges there was enough evidence for him to be found guilty, Browning maintains prosecutors misunderstood the family dynamics behind those transactions and is appealing the interpretation of the charges’ wording. It could be another two years before the state Court of Appeals makes a decision, meaning Browning’s plea could be thrown out long after he actually served time for it.

Initially sentenced to 40 months in prison, Browning got time off for good behavior. Not counting two days in the Washington County Jail, he served a total of two years, three months in four different state correctional institutions: Coffee Creek in Wilsonville, Deer Ridge in Madras, Two Rivers in Umatilla and Columbia River in Portland.

In addition, he was suspended from the Oregon State Bar and later resigned so can no longer practice as an attorney.

Browning, 70, got out of prison Sept. 2 and is living with his daughter until he gets back on his feet. He sat down with the News-Times last week to talk about what a white, middle-class, college-educated, male senior citizen learned in prison and whether the advice from his first cellmate proved correct. The conversation has been edited for clarity and space.

News-Times: How scared were you of going to prison before you actually had to go in?

Browning: I had some anxiety the first two nights in prison. I didn’t want to go before but I was more concerned about what my family, friends and clients would think of me. It was self-centered. I’d like to think that if prison taught me anything, you have to think of other people first.

Once I got there and got to chatting with the guys a little bit, I figured out that most of them were as anxious as I was. A lot of them were less educated, less sophisticated, less person-of-the-world, less mature, less able to cope than I was. That gave me hope and that gave me power ... I only felt like I was in prison three hours a day. All the other hours went to daily life activites: I can sleep anywhere, I can watch TV anywhere, I can read a book anywhere, and I still gotta have three meals a day, whether in prison or not.

And you’re saying those times didn’t feel like prison time?

To me they didn’t ... other than sometimes having a little hassle with who’s going to be at what table. Or sometimes it’s awful noisy during the night. Sometimes guys are screaming. I mean, one of the nights I was in the jail, we had one guy who laughed 24 hours a day. Like crazy laughter, 24 hours a day. Thank God I was only in the pod for two nights.NEWS-TIMES FILE PHOTO - 'Theres only three groups of people: Those who love me, those who hate me and those who haven't met me yet,' says Bob Browning, who'd like to think the first group is biggest but acknowledges there are 'people who despise me, who think I'm a loud, nasty, obnoxious phony. And there's not much I can do now that will change their opinion of me.'

I’m curious what kinds of stereotypes you had going in to prison and what surprised you?

I just spent two years, three months with paranoid, sadistic, arbitrary, capricious, relatively-low-level-of-intelligence people — as well as about 7,000 inmates.

You’re talking about the corrections officers?

Many CO’s are crazy. Every correctional institution has a different culture as far as the management goes. Every institution has a different set of rules, which in many cases bear no relationship to what they’re supposed to do. They’re arbitrary.

So the corrections officers were the biggest surprise to you?

It’s probably like a quarter of them are just really professional, good, helpful, doing-their-job kind of folks. Half, like everybody else, are just leading lives of quiet desperation, trying to make enough money so their kids can go to college, keep a little food on the table. But the vehemence of some of those in that quarter of the ones I felt were crazy really surprised me — how nasty, sadistic ... one inmate I knew told me he and another fellow got into a fight, they were put into segregation, put into the same cell, and the corrections officer uncuffed the other guy and left the guy I knew cuffed up. He got beaten to shreds.

Don’t some corrections officers step in when there’s inmate violence?

Most of the COs don’t want to do the paperwork so they don’t worry about it .... that’s why they don’t want anybody killed. You know how much paperwork it takes when somebody dies?

The administration doesn’t seem to care much about inmate abuse: ‘They’re just criminals, what difference does it make?’

The lack of overall consistency and coordination from top to bottom in the Department of Corrections really surprised me.

Were any of the CO’s abusive to you?

Yes. Not physically abusive but psychologically.

In what way?

Really looked down on me because I had been a judge and a lawyer. There’s a real hierarchy in prison, both among the inmates and among the correctional staff, with serial killers at the top ... If you’ve killed more than one person you tend to get a lot of respect. Not that they’re necessarily the meanest. Some of ‘em are real wimps.

And then clear down to the bottom, which the lowest of the low is probably cell thieves — guys who steal from their cellies (cell mates) — snitches, sex offenders.

What’s interesting is when I was in the gang unit, I was in my cell by myself for a week and a half and then they assigned a cellie to me, a sex offender. And I chatted with him and I chatted with the other sex offenders and I realized that generally they were more intelligent and interesting than the independent whites I’d been hanging out with.

Why do you think that was the case?

I strongly believe a third of them are innocent. Of 150 SOs I ran into during my time in prison, I’d say 50 of them were wrongly convicted.

Innocent in that they did not do it?

I don’t believe they committed the crime they were convicted for.

Or the kind of thing where they’re boyfriend-girlfriend in high school, but there’s a three-year age difference and one of them is 18?

Oh, I saw a bunch of those, too. They were ‘guilty’ but there was no way they should have gone to prison. That’s a different class.

Did you run across other people there in prison you

were convinced were not guilty?

Absolutely ... and I would say that 50 percent of the people in prison are not guilty of what they’re there for. But the district attorneys — especially in recent years — the DAs so overcharge, and the public defender service has gotten so overwhelmed, so just about everybody ends up taking a plea (i.e., pleading to a lesser charge, even if they maintain their innocence, because there’s too much risk of a devastating sentence if a jury were to convict them on the more serious charge). {img:85999}

The average John Doe Citizen has not a clue to the abuses in the system.

Were there any moments of kindness or courage you saw from people?

All the time, but little stuff. Somebody would trip and fall and somebody would reach out their hand and help them get up. But other guys would walk by and step on their hand. Weird little acts of kindness all the time in situations you’d never expect, where people who were otherwise big, bad bullies would do or say something that was just actually kind. Like saying ‘Good morning.’ Nobody says ‘Good morning,’ you just say ‘Morning’ because ‘Don’t tell me what kind of morning to have!’

I had COs who would actually get pissed at me because I said ‘Good morning’ to them. It was just bizarre.

Did the prison system do any good for people? Do they come out of prison with an education?

Go on to DOC’s website. They’ll talk about the kids who get their GEDs. They’ll talk about the kids who go through the Drug and Alcohol treatment. But I cannot think of a single person out of the thousand people I had interaction with at some point or another, where being in prison has done anything for them. The system doesn’t work.

Were there good things about your own prison experience?

In a negative way, yes. Before prison, I was diagnosed with diabetic dementia. I was losing track of where I was going in my life. My first wife, Judy, passed away in 2006. And the second wife left me. I sold my Cadillac. I really had nothing. In some ways, the taxpayers of the state of Oregon contributed about $325,000 (including medical costs for several life-threatening health issues) for my care for 27 months that I would not have been able to support and care for myself. It was better than living under the

west end of the Gales Creek bridge.

Anything else?

Being 45 pounds lighter is a good thing. If I hadn’t gone to prison that would not have

happened. I actually lost 75 pounds in the first 100 days. Down to 220 from 295. I can bend over now. I can pick up things.

Do letters from outside make a difference?

Oh. Oh. Huge difference. I mean, Forest Grove United Church of Christ, I mean they made it bearable. Got the newsletter monthly. Got from one to three letters a week. Gave me something to come back to.

Is that unusual?

Very. I felt unbelievably blessed to have that many people who cared that much.

How has the re-entry period been? What was it like walking into the UCC when you got back?

Oh, my God. Wasn’t quite enough Kleenex.

Overall, how has prison changed you?

I had to accept my shortcomings, my faults. In fact, one of the guys in prison said, ‘I’ll miss you’ and I said ‘Why?’ and he said, “When you screw up, you admit it.’ So many

people are so unwilling to do that.

Also, I won’t pretend I’m born again, but I am more willing to acknowledge in public the spirituality I’ve always felt I had. And I was able to share my support with other inmates in need.

How would you change the prison system?

The first two things I’d have them do is that the COs would learn to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and that they would refer to the inmates, not as ‘Browning, get your ass in here,’ but ‘Mr. Browning, would you please come in here.’ Some people say ‘Well, that’s just phony.’ Maybe it’s phony, but it’s still polite. It’s simple, it’s little, its’s nothing, but it would be a start.a