The newsletters provide chatty updates on the wholesome pursuits of a civic-minded club: barbecues, toy drives and backpacks filled with school supplies for children in need.
The group spearheads an annual holiday gift giveaway, ensuring that those without families of their own don’t feel left out.
Its members oversee a six-figure fundraising juggernaut that any PTA president would envy.
But this is no Rotary Club.
It’s the Lifers’ Unlimited Club at the Oregon State Penitentiary where only convicted killers need apply. And now it’s in trouble.
Oregon Department of Corrections officials this week confirmed they have halted club activities while they investigate “discrepancies” in its finances.
They also have put a prison employee, Jaime Rodriguez, on paid leave after learning of potential problems with club “oversight,” said spokesperson Jennifer Black. Rodriguez, a recreation specialist at the prison, declined to comment when reached by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
The department has suspended the other 10 clubs at the state penitentiary while the inquiry continues, Black said.
The agency has declined to release details about how much money the Lifers’ Club takes in – mostly from other prisoners – and what members do with it. The state also has so far declined to turn over internal audits of the group.
A source with direct knowledge of the investigation said it was a recent change in leadership at the penitentiary that led to the review of the 50-year-old club, one of the few of its kind in the nation.
Longtime superintendent, Brandon Kelly, resigned early this year amid an unrelated personnel investigation and corrections officials subsequently discovered potential discrepancies related to the punch card program used by the Lifers’ Club. Prisoners could use the cards to buy food and goods sold by the club.
The state penitentiary in Salem has long stood out not only for its robust culture of prisoner-led clubs but also for the unusual autonomy they enjoy.
This is the same prison where in recent years another club convinced officials to allow the installation of an elaborate Japanese garden in the shadow of an imposing cellblock.
Over the years, the Lifers’ Club transformed into a thriving business enterprise, selling meals, snacks and personal items like toothbrushes and raincoats to prisoners and using the proceeds to pay for perks, like a coffee machine in the visiting room and improvements to the 18-hole mini golf course on the prison grounds.
It also acted as a philanthropic organization, doling out thousands of dollars every year to local causes.
The Oregonian/OregonLive obtained nearly two years of newsletters and detailed accounting updates published by the club that provide a window into its fundraising prowess.
Club treasurer, Jeff McCarty, convicted in 1996 of aggravated murder in the beating death of 32-year-old Dana Baker in Bend, reported in one update that the club raked in an estimated $100,000 in revenue in 2020. He noted that the club had spent most of the money on its various projects.
The club’s large orders of food, goods and even microwaves put a dent in the agency’s revenue from commissary sales. It’s unknown how closely prison managers monitored the spending, the source said.
Concerns about the potential for exploitation and abuse of the prison’s clubs had circulated among some agency officials for years.
In U.S. prison culture, lifers tend to represent a stabilizing force in a volatile environment, said Christopher M. Campbell, associate professor in the Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice at Portland State University.
“Lifers are typically understood as model prisoners, people who abide by the rules,” he said. “They try to be role models for other adults in custody. They are not going out of their way to snitch on anybody, but they don’t like it when people make life difficult for them.”
But like any organization, including those beyond prison, he said: “There is the potential for nefarious people to rear their heads every now and then, but with the appropriate oversight and checks it is less likely that that occurs.”
‘Important part of prison life’
Before the pandemic disrupted prison activities, the Lifers’ Club met regularly in the penitentiary’s activities hall, a massive space lined with metal cages that serve as offices for social clubs.
Sometimes members brought in guest speakers or prisoners would put on their own presentations, like tips for a successful parole hearing.
“We cannot change the past,” reads its mission statement, “however we believe through rehabilitation … we can create a more productive future.”
Its goal: Improve the quality of life for “those inside and outside of these walls.”
Also a member: Keith Hunter Jesperson, 67, known as the “Happy Face Killer.” Jesperson has claimed to have committed more than 100 murders; authorities have confirmed eight killings of women in Washington, Oregon, California, Florida, Nebraska and Wyoming.
About 955 people are serving life sentences in Oregon. That includes men and women sentenced to life without parole and others who will at some point be eligible to pursue release. The state penitentiary is home to the largest number of them: 302, roughly 18% of the prison’s population.
According to the Corrections Department, 119 men belong to the Lifers’ Club; the group’s constitution caps membership at 150.
The club’s newsletters say its money goes to a variety of enhancements at the prison, like a 40-inch television for a common area, microwaves for a recreation building and a holiday gift giveaway.
“At Christmastime they sit down and put together baskets for every inmate at the Oregon State Penitentiary,” said Roger Martin, a longtime prison volunteer, whose steadfast support of the club earned him the title of honorary member. “A lot of those guys get no contact with anybody.”
He said some of the club’s members have shown they’re more capable of rehabilitation than others.
“The Lifers’ Club is made up of lifers, some of whom are good guys and some of whom are horrible guys,” said Martin, a former Republican lawmaker and lobbyist who represents the Oregon Catholic Conference.
The group also engages in charity, raising money for various causes, from blankets and meals for people living on the streets of Salem to donating about $2,500 toward local relief efforts after the historic 2020 wildfires.
Last year alone, club accounting records show it donated $600 to the American Legion to be used to support a Boy Scout troop, sent $1,500 to a camp for children with incarcerated family members and spent another $9,000 on 1,000 backpacks and school supplies for area students.
The club’s record of charitable donations “speaks to caring about other people that you would not expect from somebody who did something so harmful that they got life without parole,” said Lauren Kessler, a professor emerita at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications and an author who led a writing group at the state penitentiary.
The group teaches leadership and cooperation skills and has become “an important part of prison life” at the state penitentiary, said Kessler, who has written about prisoners in two books, including her latest, “Free: Two Years, Six Lives and the Long Journey Home.”
“It does create a kind of, I hesitate to use the word normalcy,” she said, “but it does create a kind of camaraderie.”
Pop-up barbecues, snow cones
The club newsletters represent a sort of Reader’s Digest for the incarcerated.
The editor is Robert P. Langley, 62, convicted of killing Anne L. Gray, 39, and Larry R. Rockenbrant, 24, in separate attacks 34 years ago.
Rockenbrant’s body was found buried in a cactus garden on the grounds of the Oregon State Hospital where Langley was a patient; he had received permission to plant the garden as a way to relax.
The bulletins have featured poems, self-help advice, tips on meditation, news about potential sentencing reforms and updates on topics like COVID-19 vaccines and prisoners’ eligibility to receive federal stimulus checks.
A running series suggested 100 “books to read before you die.” On the list: “Murder on the Orient Express.”
The updates reflect the club’s entrepreneurial side with promotions for fellow prisoners to buy Starbucks coffee beans ($10 per bag), Ghirardelli brownie mixes ($4) and maple-flavored saltwater taffy ($6 per pound).
The Lifers’ Club has even proven to be a powerhouse seller of Girl Scout cookies, according to one of its financial reports. Records show $3,108 in cookie sales in 2020.
The bulletins have touted upcoming events, like snow cones in the recreation yard — “priced barely above operating costs” at $1 — and “pop-up” barbecues, which grew so popular that the club installed a freezer to stash larger volumes of meat.
Photographs from one of the barbecues showed men tending a grill, a tall guard tower looming in the background.
Prisoners can make purchases using money they get from family or from their own earnings. In Oregon, people are required to work while incarcerated. According to the Department of Corrections, monthly pay ranges from $8 to $82, depending on the hours and nature of the assignment.
Like any business, the club’s leaders have had their eye on the future, hoping to develop “new and sustainable revenue streams,” one recent newsletter noted, like a coffee cart in the recreation yard.
“It’s our goal to continue to build on the relationships that we’ve established with local businesses in order to offer (prisoners) a variety of fundraiser options at reasonable prices,” Langley wrote.
Former lifer, Anthony Pickens, 39, credited the club with showing him what altruism looks like.
Pickens was convicted of murder and sentenced to life with a minimum of 29 years in prison for killing Chad Render, 20, in 1997. Pickens was 15 at the time.
He said club leaders regularly collected donations for various community causes and many men were eager to chip in.
“When you are exposed to what it looks like to give back, the human side of the individual wakes up,” said Pickens, who was released from prison last fall after receiving a commutation from Gov. Kate Brown. “Growing up, I didn’t see that kind of stuff.”
Amid the grim reality of prison, the club was seen as a positive force, he said.
“There are a lot of guys who have been there 15, 20, 30 years and aren’t going anywhere,” Pickens said. “They are making the existence there a little more comfortable and keeping the violence and altercations down because altercations don’t help those who live there.”
Whether the club ends up a casualty of its own success remains to be seen.
A Department of Corrections official said Friday the agency does not have a timeline for completing the inquiry.