Monday, April 23, 2012

Colton Harris-Moore, The Barefoot Bandit's Maximum Issues

There's been a lot of news action recently, with John Henry Browne talking to an AP reporter about Colton being locked down in maximum security. It's worth me doing another post to update the one I wrote on March 30th about Colt and the chances he'll spend a considerable amount of time in max.

The facts are that Colton Harris-Moore is now in the Washington State Penitentiary  at Walla Walla and is being held in their IMU – Intensive Mangagement Unit. IMU is high-level maximum security, which includes the worst and most-dangerous adult offenders as well as inmates on death row.

In IMU, Colton gets five hours outside of his solitary confinement cell, and three showers per week. He doesn’t mix with other inmates, and his only human contact so far has been with prison guards and officials.

Prior to this, Colton was held at the Washington State prison in Shelton, which serves as a sort-of induction center where inmates are given medical and mental tests to determine where they’ll be sent. Apparently they don’t learn enough there, because officials at Walla Walla are saying they need another seven weeks, which Colton will spend in solitary at their IMU, to evaluate where they’re going to put him next. It’s not an uncommon practice for prisons to segregate new prisoners before assigning them a permanent unit, but this double evaluation within the Washington State DOC seems redundant.

After his capture in the Bahamas, Colton was held in solitary at SeaTac Federal Detention Center for at least six months. Interestingly, he requested he stay segregated even after he was deemed eligible to move into the general population. As I detail in The Barefoot Bandit: The True Tale ofColton Harris-Moore, Colton did not do too well juvenile prison. As once source who served time with Colt in County told me, “There were a lot of guys who had trouble with him, but didn’t go after him only because they didn’t want to go on lockdown.” However, a prison buddy from his time at the Greenhill juvenile state facility told me about a number of times where Colton was chased into his room and beaten after getting into arguments with other boys.

Colton eventually did move into general population at SeaTac and by all accounts did fine. There’s often a big difference between the kinds of inmates you find in a federal facility and a state prison, especially maximum security. Feds house a lot of swindlers, fraudsters and other white-collar crooks. Murderers, rapists, gang-bangers and other violent and dangerous felons: you’ll find them in state prisons.

One class of people you’ll find in all prisons, but especially at the local level, are the mentally ill. It’s estimated there are at least 350,000 mentally ill people in US prisons, a number that skyrocketed after the wholesale closings of state hospitals in the 80s and 90s. Huge numbers of the mentally ill were pushed onto the streets, and many now simply revolve through the prison system time and again.    

Two issues that come up with solitary confinement are physical safety and mental well-being. Colton is, of course, a big guy at 6’5”, but by all accounts he’s not a fighter and nothing in all of my research says he’s confrontational or violent. He will be physically safe in solitary unless he got into a confrontation with guards, which seems extremely unlikely given his history.

The mental issue, though, is critical. Special advisors to the United Nations have testified that solitary confinement “can amount to torture.” Those prisoners with mental issues are particularly prone to damage since often part of the segregation means that along with little human contact and extremely limited opportunities for fresh air and exercise, the inmates in IMU are not given the same access to education and counseling opportunities, or even the distractions of TV and radio, as the general population.

We all know the argument that these are prisoners and they deserve to be locked away and not given a cushy existence. And yes, Colt is a criminal who committed dozens of felonies and deserves to spend years behind bars. However, the short-sightedness that I see in our justice system is that it leans way too much toward retribution than rehabilitation, and often seems to forget that these people are coming back to our communities one day. Do we want them to come back simply as better crooks, having gotten their masters degrees in Criminal U? Do we want them to come back with their mental problems worse? Do we want non-violent offenders turned violent because of what they’ve had to do to survive inside or simply because they’ve lost all hope in a “justice” system?

Colton will be out of prison and back in society at age 25, with a long life ahead of him. People that I’m talking to in our communities in the islands – the ones most affected by Colton Harris-Moore’s crimes – are very concerned about what Colt will be like when he gets out. They’re hoping for second-chance Colt, a man who takes  advantage of the educational opportunities and specialized counseling (being paid for by friends who’ve  known him for years and who see him as eminently salvageable) to help him move beyond the challenges he still faces due to the lingering effects of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, the traumas of his childhood, and his own poor record of decision-making.

What they fear is a Colt who’s been further beaten down by yet another “system.” A Colt who has whatever optimism for a functional life further beaten out of him or driven out of him by too much time alone in a box, and who winds up simply learning to become a better, and perhaps more dangerous, criminal.              

A number of letters have been written to the governor – including some by victims who had their homes on Camano Island burglarized multiple times by Colton. The letters have asked for her to intervene, to get Colton Harris-Moore out of maximum security and into a facility where he can start the serious work on his rehabilitation. Colton’s defense team has been working behind the scenes for the same thing. By John Henry Browne taking this issue public, it’s safe to say that those efforts have failed – so far.


  1. This is appalling. No way should someone like Colton be in this situation. He has a completely non-violent history, and should be in a place where he can have a real chance at education and rehabilitation, and become a productive member of society when he gets out.

    Bob, thank you for providing this information. I hope you will contact experts such as Lindsay Hayes of the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives. He is an expert on the effect of solitary confinement on the mental health of inmates, and has researched mental health problems in some prisons in Washington state. I think he could help a whole lot in improving Colton's chances of receiving humane rather than inhumane treatment, and a much better chance for a positive outcome.

    What on earth are prison officials thinking when they put someone like Colton in such a hellhole? It certainly seems like retribution and revenge, not common sense and fairness.

    It's like they're holding a grudge against him for remaining free for such a long time and making fools out of sheriffs who tried unsuccessfully to catch him up on the islands.

    I hope Colton will stay strong throughout this ordeal, and will take comfort in the support of so many good people who are trying to help him. He's young and has his whole life ahead of him, and deserves the fair chance he never had when he was growing up.


  2. Bob...and Beth...and Everyone: The Washington DOC site indicates that Colton has been moved BACK to the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton! This seems to have happened within the past 24 hours. Can anyone confirm this?

    Is it possible that an appeal to the governor, or negative publicity, changed someone's mind???


  3. Current as of 4/30/12: Colton is now at Stafford Creek, in Aberdeen.

    Colton Harris Moore #356118
    Stafford Creek Corrections Center, H2
    191 Constantine Way
    Aberdeen, WA 98520

  4. Where is Colton? Still in Aberdeen? That area is enough to make me want to steal a plane just not to have to drive thru it when going to Oregon. Just kidding. But, I live in WA state on the NW Coast and know how damp, dark, dank, and depressing this place can be.
    I hope he survives this chapter in his life, and that all of us that cheer for his release will see a great guy who does so much to show us what he can do that doesn't involve theft, etc.
    He needs to fly with the eagles. I am looking forward to all of the great new planes he designs and builds...good luck, Colton. And, great book, Bob.

  5. Do you know if Colton responds to letters from strangers?

  6. He has responded to some of the letters he gets from strangers, yes.

  7. Non violent crimes. But the crimes chm committed will have lasting psychological effects on the victims. Most of them YOUR community members. U stated itself in ur book that Colton carried weapons because he didnt want to be taken alive. That sounds violent to me.

  8. I've followed Colton's story, and would like to write him-- is the address as of 04/12 still current?