A few years ago, Mike and I completed the requirements to visit some of the five Wisconsin men in prison. But we didn’t follow through with the visits. This was mentioned in an article my friend Kathleen had read. Kathleen’s son was in prison at the time on a drug charge. She understood how important it was to her son when she’d go to visit him. When I saw her, she asked me, “Why have you not gone to visit these men? It means so much to have that outside contact.” It sparked a bit of shame in me.
At the very least, it was not a smooth process to get onto an inmate’s visitor list. It involved contacting the men, having them request the necessary forms and mailing them to me. When I first received them, I filled them out and sent them to the appropriate address. The men then received confirmation that we were approved.
But having our names on their list took away from the possibility of obtaining other prospective visitors. An inmate can only have 10-12 people on their list at any given time. We simply dismissed the fact that this process had inconvenienced and dissappointed them. We should have been more thoughtful about my intent.
I considered what Kathleen had said and I broached the subject with my husband, Mike. I was grateful for his concern over me going alone to a prison, and that he agreed to go on these visits with me. I initiated the process once again. We decided to start with one visit and see how it went. We made it through the approval process again and received confirmation for visiting Keith Kutska. Now it was time to follow through.
While celebrating his 64th birthday, Keith has spent twenty of those years in prison. Through Keith’s revealing letters over a four year span, we felt we knew him well and we both looked forward to meeting him. Saturday, February 21, 2015 was the big day. But we both felt uneasy about going to the prison. After reading the endless restrictions regarding dress code and the dos and don’ts listed on the instruction sheets that came with the visitor forms, who wouldn’t be? We decided to use the two and a half hour drive time wisely, to mentally prepare for the experience. We decided we’d make it a positive one.
We entered a small building and were greeted by a guard who was helpful in explaining the procedure. We felt at ease and even exchanged light banter with him. We put our belongings into a small locker and returned to the receiving area. We then passed through the metal detector. We had heard that these ones were highly sensitive and we’d been told stories about people who were denied admission by setting them off multiple times. We had three to be exact before being sent on our way. We were successful and breezed through on the first try! The guard even commended us. We were in!
As we walked to the next building where the inmates were housed, I don’t remember feeling especially frightened or worried even when doors unlocked and re-locked as we navigated our way to the visitors lounge. Upon arrival, I marveled at how normal everything and everyone looked. Each table was occupied by one inmate in drab green garb and a few family members and/or friends. According to the instruction sheet, as many as 12 individuals could visit during one session. Although strictness about touching were clearly stated on the instruction sheets, children were sitting on the laps of the inmates and we saw lots of hand holding. The atmosphere was as normal as any deli on the outside and we were pleasantly surprised at the relaxed feeling in this room.
I stepped up to a desk where a guard was sitting. “You’re at table number seven,” he said. Mike and I sat, observing our surroundings. After ten minutes, Keith entered a far door. We recognized him at once and we waved so he could see us. He waved back and motioned to us that he had to show his badge to the guard at the desk. When he approached us, we shook hands and embraced. As we sat, Keith’s face beamed. But he didn’t try to hide an overwhelming bout of emotion that followed. Tears formed as he spoke about a February 11th visit with Steve Kaplan, his new attorney. Steve had visited Keith on the same day as I had attended an exoneration hearing for Mario Victoria Vasquez in Green Bay. During their visit, Keith and Steve had lightheartedly discussed concern over my bold presence at the Courthouse, given my public role in the Monfils case. But Keith was deeply touched by my support for Mario. I hoped Keith could see he was not alone on this sentimental journey and that the emotions he felt were shared by us. There was much to gain in this friendship because knowing Keith gave us valuable insight into the perseverance of the human spirit. I felt that ours was a bond strong enough to transcend time.
As expected, Keith was not shy and our conversation never waned for two hours-the amount of time allotted for weekend visits. In that time, we covered everything from current activities in the Monfils case, Mario’s exoneration, politics, human behavior, the stars, my latest writings, more human behavior and the future. Both Mike and Keith had many common interests. At one point, I sat silent as they solved every problem imaginable. Once in a while I was able to insert a new thread into the conversation. I even managed to divert their attention long enough to have photos taken! I chided Keith for not smiling in this photo but he laughed and said, “I’m a prisoner, I’m not supposed to smile.”
Mike and Joan Treppa with Keith Kutska. Photo courtesy of Jackson Correctional
The guard stopped by to inform us that we had five minutes left. It was then when Keith said things that will always stay with me. As tears fell Keith said,”Between the span of time in 2010, when the Wisconsin Innocence Project had failed to secure a new trial for Reynold Moore and the onset of legal representation by Steve Kaplan in 2013, your letters had kept me alive.” My heart sank. I was speechless. Keith continued and reminded us that the letter in my birthday card to him two years ago had contained the announcement about the law firm getting involved. He would again have legal representation. It was just then that I remember comparing Keith to a big cuddly teddy bear-one that is typically a source of great comfort. But this one was in great need of his own solace. How desperate I was to provide that for him. But according to this admission by Keith, it was apparent I already had,
Keith’s emotional demeanor was and is a glaring expression of what these travesties of injustices can do to the toughest of souls. Witnessing the wasted years behind bars for a crime that never happened left me feeling angry and more determined than ever to see this mission through. Kathleen was correct in her assertion. Throughout this entire journey, it never ceased to amaze me the importance of reaching out to others and how little effort it actually takes to provide a simple but much needed connection or life line, no matter the situation. Any act can seem insignificant to us but can hold great value to its recipient/s, moreso than one could ever imagine.
Here’s a 90-minute interview on blog talk radio from Feb 25th, 2015.