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Brothers took divergent paths to opposite sides of the cell door

Email|Print| Text size + By Thomas Farragher
Globe Staff / December 11, 2007

They were raised in a home with a fridge full of booze, drugs on the coffee table, and violence that tore through the night.

A pit bull named Teddy stood guard outside; friends knew better than to pay late visits to the Walker brothers.

Robert and Thomas Walker bounced from home to home in Worcester and Maine. They stood together against bullies in schoolyard fights. They visited their mother in prison. They comforted each other after a stepfather's assaults.

But the brothers drew sharply different conclusions about the abuse, addiction, and drug-dealing they saw play out routinely in their living room.

Bob saw trouble.

"I had my bike stolen, so when kids went off to steal bicycles, I said I've got homework to do," he explained. "I'd be like, man, if you do that you go to jail. Mom went to jail. I'm not going to jail."

Tom saw opportunity.

"I thought it was OK to do what you do as long as you don't involve women and children," he said. "I started selling drugs when I was 16 - crack cocaine."

There was another difference between them: Tom is mentally ill, diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

And by 2005, he was being held in the Massachusetts prison system's most secure unit, locked up 23 hours a day in a fortresslike bunker in MCI-Cedar Junction reserved for the "worst of the worst." In the summer of 2005, he tore the place up, smashing windows and destroying sprinkler heads.

His brother, older by 16 months, was back in Maine, collecting an award as correction officer of the year, a wooden plaque that hangs on the wall of his office at the Waldo County Jail. Sergeant Walker runs the place.

And today, as they trace the paths that have placed them on opposite sides of the cell door, the brothers have a keen appreciation for the dangerous tension that is produced when mentally ill, out-of-control inmates collide with a culture in which custody and control are paramount and treatment is a decidedly subordinate concern.

"You don't have to be a hard-ass to work in this place," said Bob Walker, 34, who supervises 31 correction officers in Belfast, Maine. "These guys are human. They make mistakes, and you just got to deal with them."

Neither brother diminishes the depth of Tom Walker's criminal past nor his tumultuous disciplinary record since he was sentenced to prison in 2000 for invading a home and firing a gun, the result of an LSD deal gone bad. He got what he deserved then, they agreed.

But the time has long since come, they maintain, for the state prison system to craft a more humane treatment for mentally troubled inmates like 33-year-old Tom Walker than locking them in solitary confinement, where a desperate cycle takes hold. Their mental condition deteriorates. Their misconduct worsens. Their stay in "the hole" lengthens.

Interviewed behind thick plate glass in the Departmental Disciplinary Unit, where he has been for more than two years for a series of offenses, including assaulting a correction officer, Tom Walker says his violent behavior and series of suicide attempts are symptoms of his mental illness and cries for help amid an atmosphere of hopelessness.

"They look at us as a hassle," Walker said. "They just want to punish us for our actions. They don't want to deal with the reasons we do these things."

Nearly 200 miles away in coastal Maine, Bob Walker leads a tour of the squat, red-brick jail that he supervises, and points to a pockmarked cell wall. It marks the spot where he used a sledgehammer to destroy a series of small hooks that could be used by at-the-brink inmates to anchor a cord and hang themselves.

He said locking up mentally unstable inmates for 23 hours a day in solitary confinement contradicts sound correctional policy - and common sense.

Interviewed at his home in Belfast, while his young son played quietly nearby, he said: "I put this 2-year-old in a corner. After five minutes what happens? He does not know why he's there. I think they're wasting their time. I mean you can only leave somebody in lockdown for so long. And then what? What are they learning? Are they trying to work these people back into society? You've got to get them into a big room before you can throw them out on the street. So, to me, leaving somebody in a 23-hour lockdown doesn't work."

When Tom Walker is released from prison, his brother hopes he'll move to Maine where he will help him rebuild his life.

But he worries whether his brother will leave the DDU alive.

"The thing that allows me to keep some kind of sanity is that I can see both sides," Bob Walker said. "And sometimes I really hope that he's just telling his side. I'm praying that these people are listening. I mean there's a duty - isn't there - for human beings? There's got to be.

"It sickens me to think that a whole department would ignore somebody saying, 'Look, I want to kill myself today.' And they'd be like, 'Yeah, OK, whatever.' Well, that's the one who's going to get it done today."

The Department of Correction says it is moving toward a solution. It has secured about $1 million toward high-security units needed to treat violent and mentally ill inmates like Walker.

"There are inmates that we have within our segregation units, especially at MCI-Cedar Junction, that are very disruptive and create a lot of damage to the infrastructure as well as assaulting staff and other inmates," said James R. Bender, deputy correction commissioner. "And some of those inmates exhibit mental health issues, and that certainly compounds the issue. . . . It certainly is a problem that is on our front burner that we're trying to address."

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