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Category Archives: Politics
Bob Shell: Letters From Prison #27
Letters by Bob Shell, Copyright 2018
Photography by Julie Chu, Aja Butane, Katherine Jania & Zoe, Copyright 2018
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage.
We’ve all heard that old saying, but where does it come from? It’s the beginning of the last stanza of the poem “To Althea, from Prison” written in 1642 by Richard Lovelace, while imprisoned in Gatehouse Prison. His crime? He had petitioned to have the 1640 Clergy Act annulled. Today, no one knows for certain who Althea was, or if she was even real, but she lives on in that romantic poem. BTW, the full stanza goes:
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.
If you want to read the whole poem, it’s on Wikipedia. Someone set the lyrics to music, and Dave Swarbrick does an excellent version on Fairport Convention’s album Nine. I was fortunate enough to be photographing Dave on stage during my music photographer days and lost all interest in photography when he launched into the fiddle intro to Althea (I say fiddle, but I believe Dave was playing a viola that night). I learned years later that Dave was struggling with hearing loss, probably from all those years on stage in front of giant amplifiers. I’m partially deaf today in my right ear, the one that was usually toward the amps when I was on stage right. Fairport was opening for Traffic on that early 70s tour, and, for my money put on a better show.
But back to poor Richard pining for Althea through his bars. Let me tell you something, Richard. Stone walls (or concrete today) do a pretty damned effective prison make!
Modern prisons are modular structures made of interlocking precast concrete slabs. The slabs are lifted into place with cranes during construction. You may find signs that the slabs were lying flat at one time in the form of muddy boot prints going across walls that no one bothered to clean off. These “build a prison kits” go together quickly, almost like building with Lego blocks. Once finished they generally are T-shaped buildings, with each arm of the T being a “pod” with cells on three sides, plus showers, and a flat concrete floor with stainless steel tables with attached seats anchored to the floor. Cells generally are about 8 x 12 feet on the inside with the door on one of the 8 foot walls and a small window on the other. Except that the designers of the prison I’m in right now decided to omit the windows. Inside each cell are two bunks attached to the walls, a very small table attached to a wall with one or two seats, also attached to the wall, and a one-piece stainless steel sink/toilet, also attached to a wall. Nothing movable! I’ve been in four different Virginia prisons in the last ten years, and they’re pretty much the same with minor variations. Storage space for personal belongings in cells is very limited, usually an under-bed locker, either welded to the bottom bunk or sliding on the floor so it can be pushed under the bottom bunk. Speaking of bunks, they’re steel slabs. We are given “mattresses” for comfort, two-inch thick foam pads that are more like yoga mats than real mattresses. I used to have a “medical mattress” prescribed by a DOC doctor, but the DOC eliminated them several years ago. It was about six inches thick and very comfortable. I guess they don’t want us to be comfortable. I’m certainly not. I’m writing this at four in the morning, unable to sleep, an all too common problem here. For towels or whatever there are two “hooks” on one wall. These are straight metal rods about three inches long with a ball on the end that fits into a socket attached to the wall. The ball is a friction fit into the socket, so if you put too much weight on it, it collapses. Why? “We don’t want no hangings.”
I really don’t understand what anyone thinks they’re accomplishing by warehousing people this way. They no longer call these places prisons. Now they’re “Correctional Centers.”. I guess the word “prison” has become non-PC. But I can tell you from personal experience that damn little correction takes place. Oh, they have programs and classes, they will tell you. I’ve “been down” ten years as of last September and have yet to be offered a seat in one of those programs or classes. I’ve certainly not been rehabilitated! Nor did I need to be. I was doing just fine, making a good living from photography and writing, and at the peak of my career. And the state brought my whole life crashing down over events that never even happened except in the imagination of an incompetent quack of a medical examiner. I’ve posted details at www.bobshelltruth.com under News Updates.
About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. Shell was recently moved from Pocahontas State Correctional Center, Pocahontas, Virginia to River North Correctional Center 329 Dellbrook Lane Independence, VA 24348. Mr. Shell continues to claim his innocence. He is serving the 11th year of his sentence. To read more letters from prison by Bob Shell, click here: http://tonyward.com/bob-shell-whats-wrong-with-the-american-justice-system/
Bob Shell: Letters From Prison #26
Letters by Bob Shell, Copyright 2018
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE AMERICAN “JUSTICE” SYSTEM?
Everyone who reads this can hope fervently that they never get caught up in the American “justice” system. It’s badly broken, and has been for quite some time.
I’ll illustrate from my personal experiences, starting in 1969. At that time I was living in Richmond, Virginia, sharing an apartment in the “fan district” with some friends. One morning the Richmond Vice Squad showed up in our apartment. That’s right, IN our apartment. I was in the kitchen eating a bowl of cereal when this man just walked in and put a gun in my face. No one identified himself as police, so I had no idea what was going on. They’re supposed to knock on the door and identify themselves, but not this bunch. They got in by climbing onto a balcony and coming in through the balcony door, which was unlocked because it was a third floor balcony and not easily reached. One must have climbed up and let the others in the front door. Oh, they did have a search warrant which they eventually produced — a warrant for a different address! They proceeded to search the apartment, and us, and found one marijuana “joint” in one man’s pocket, a man who was just visiting and didn’t live there. But that didn’t matter to them, they arrested us all for possession of marijuana, a felony in those days with possible 30 year sentences. Our lawyers pointed out the wrong address on the warrant and that only one person actually had any marijuana. None of that mattered, we were all convicted and given three year sentences.
Thankfully, the judge suspended the sentences and put us on three years of probation. That was a complete joke. The first time I went to see the probation officer, he saw what I was convicted of, went around his desk and locked his office door and pulled out a joint, lit it, and we shared it. Needless to say, I never had any trouble with him. But, with my father’s help, I petitioned the Governor and was pardoned, so the conviction wasn’t on my record and all of my rights were restored. I lost three months of my life, the time spent in jail prior to my trial, plus $ 300 to the lawyer, which was a hell of a lot of money in 1969.
Fast forward to 2003. On June 3, I returned to my photo studio from eating a quick dinner at Sonic in the next block, and found my girlfriend/model/studio assistant Marion Franklin passed out and unresponsive. I did what any concerned person is told to do and called 911 and performed CPR until the EMTs arrived. I won’t go into detail here about it all, but was told several hours later by a detective that Marion had died at the hospital. My life collapsed. Those interested can read the details on my website, www.bobshelltruth.com. On June 7, just after returning from Marion’s memorial service and wake in North Carolina, I was arrested.
The next four years were a nightmmare. The medical examiner told the police that Marion was dead, and had been dead for some time, in the last photos I took of her that day. I ended up charged with second degree murder plus three sex charges based on the theory that Marion was dead the last time I had sex with her and I just didn’t know it! I was also charged with having my mother’s medications. My mother had died and I had lots of her things and hadn’t gone through it all and gotten rid of the meds. The charges were flatly absurd, but I soon found out that nonsense accusations can be the hardest to defend yourself against. I’ve had proof since 2009 that the medical examiner’s testimony that Marion was dead is hogwash, but once you’re convicted the conviction becomes an entity unto itself, and the system will do anything not to let go of it.
Between my arrest and my trial, which began August 20, 2007, more than four years passed. For the first year I was on house arrest, permitted to leave my property only to go see my lawyer or a doctor. After that I was restricted to the City of Radford for a year, and Virginia the rest of the time. When Marion’s best friend got married and wanted me to come to her wedding, the judge would not allow me to go because it was in North Carolina. When I wanted to attend the Photo Marketing Association trade show in Las Vegas in March of 2004, the Commonwealth’s Attorney (Virginia’s equivalent of a District Attorney) told my attorney and me he had no objection, then after I’d bought a nonrefundable air ticket, made hotel reservations, and replied to several RSVP party and dinner invitations, he showed up in court and denied he ever said that! I was out the cost of the airfare and had to back out of invitations, some from Japanese who look upon that as loss of face. It caused me many problems.
My friends and associates in the photo industry never took the charges against me seriously, and I continued to write for several magazines and wrote four books during this time. But, since I couldn’t leave Virginia, there were many good assignments I couldn’t do. That was very frustrating and hard on my cash flow.
The trial, when it finally came, was a farce. The medical examiner once again testified that Marion was dead in those last photos. The state’s digital imaging “expert” took the stand and spouted sheer nonsense. I could not have independent tests done on the autopsy samples even though I had hired a topnotch lab to do so and the judge had ordered the samples sent to them, because the medical examiner had destroyed the samples without telling anyone or considering that the case was ongoing. There’s much more, but most is on my website, particularly on the NEWS UPDATES page.
So I am still in prison. I’ve been locked up 11 years as of September 1, 2018, for something that never happened. I did not kill Marion, I would never have harmed her in any way. I was in love with her, and she with me. When we produced a stack of emails from Marion to me as evidence, the prosecutor alleged that they were fake.
Those emails, some with explicit sexual references, were genuine, as was a note Marion wrote to me saying how much she appreciated and loved me. The prosecutor couldn’t claim that was fake because it was in her distinctive handwriting. The prosecution insisted, in spite of all evidence, including testimony from our friends who knew about our relationship, that Marion and I never had a romantic relationship, that our relationship was pure business. That was just insane, since I was living part time with her and was paying the rent and utilities on our apartment, as well as sharing the same hotel room and bed in our travels. I’d even begun making arrangements for us to go to Europe together later that year to show her some of my favorite places. The prosecutor just couldn’t wrap his head around a much younger woman having a relationship with a man my age. Does he not know about Mick Jagger, Ron Wood, and others (actually he probably doesn’t!).
The only evidence we’d had sex that day was my own testimony. I’d volunteered that information when asked, seeing no reason to conceal it. The swabs the medical examiner took during the autopsy showed seminal fluid, but strangely, found none of my DNA, only Marion’s own, for which I have no explanation. The medical examiner said he saw no evidence of penetration. Did I imagine having sex with Marion that afternoon? I don’t think so.
The last photos and videos I made with Marion were very personal, and never intended to be seen by anyone but us. I had to endure seeing these very private images being projected to giant size on the courtroom wall, even though they had absolutely nothing to do with the case. To use a legal phrase, they were “prejudicial but not probative,” which means they prejudiced the jury against me but didn’t prove a damned thing. Since Marion was nude in most of the images, the jury of small town small minds would have convicted me of anything.
In Virginia prosecutors are elected, not appointed, and all aspire to become judges. Thus most of our judges are former prosecutors, so you know whose side they are on. And at election time the prosecutors running for reelection crow about their conviction rates. They lose sight of the fact that their job has two sides; to convict the guilty, but to not convict the innocent. They Marshall all their resources toward conviction. The citizen finds himself/herself up against all of the resources of the state. Under these circumstances only the wealthy who can afford the very best lawyers, investigators, expert witnesses, etc., can prevail. When I was first charged I called the best lawyer I knew of in the area. He told me that unless I could raise several million dollars I could not afford him. That’s the reality in America today.
If I’d been wealthy, I wouldn’t be sitting here in this prison cell tapping out this post on my little mini-tablet. Poor people stand little chance in a rigged system like this.
Now I wasn’t living in poverty, but I was not rich and it was hard for me to come up with the bail money. My bond was $ 75,000, which meant I had to come up with $ 7,500 in cash for the bondsman plus signing my car and property over as collateral. But you get it back if you don’t skip out on your bail, right? Wrong! The bondsman keeps the $ 7,500. That’s his fee. So, even if you win at trial, you’re out that money. I did get my car title and property deed back, though. Small comfort. The only reason I had the $ 7,500 was that when my mother died at the end of April, barely a month before Marion, and had left me some money. Otherwise I’d have had to stay in jail until trial. “Innocent until proven guilty,” yeah right!
Those interested in learning about how the legal system really works should read Prison Legal News magazine (www.prisonlegalnews.org) a monthly journal full of accurate stories. You can tell how good they are by how badly prisons and jails hate them and try to censor them. Every time a prison or jail tries to censor them, they file suit and win. The same people also publish Criminal Legal News, a magazine that deals more with the details of the law. Both are excellent and worthy of support.
After you’re convicted you automatically get to appeal. Most appeals are rubber stamp denied. Then you move on to Habeas Corpus, which can overturn your conviction. There is an absurdly short one year deadline on filing this. Since you have to hire your own lawyer for this, or, if like me you have no money to hire one, you must do it yourself. The process is complex, and no one can learn the details in less than a year. I got books on how to do it and wrote my own. My first submission was rejected for being too long, so I shortened it to meet the court’s requirements. Then it was turned down for omitting the stuff I had to take out to shorten it!! A no win situation!
So I’ve spent the years since then putting in every possible hour in our law libraries learning as much law as possible to find ways to overturn my ridiculous convictions. No luck yet.
Aren’t there innocence projects, the ACLU, etc., to help people like me? In theory, yes. In practice, no, because they’re all strapped for money and can only take a very few cases out of the hundreds who come to them for help. I’ve wasted uncounted hours, postage, copying costs, etc., trying to get help from these people. Most don’t even answer letters. As one federal judge said, there’s an epidemic of prosecutorial misconduct in this country today, and it his overloaded the system. But any politician who tries to do something to fix the system faces being labeled “soft on crime” by his/her opponent and losing elections.
Studies have shown that our current mass incarceration program has had no effect on crime rates. Countries that don’t have this practice generally have lower crime rates. Isn’t it time for the U.S.A. to stop being the “Incarceration Nation?”
About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. Shell was recently moved from Pocahontas State Correctional Center, Pocahontas, Virginia to River North Correctional Center 329 Dellbrook Lane Independence, VA 24348. Mr. Shell continues to claim his innocence. He is serving the 11th year of his sentence. To read more letters from prison by Bob Shell, click here: http://tonywardstudio.com/blog/bob-shell-old-age-and-taxes/
Bob Shell: Letters From Prison #25
Letters by Bob Shell, Copyright 2018
Photography by Tony Ward, Copyright 2018
OLD AGE AND TAXES
Taxes: we all hate ’em, but we all pay ’em. Right? I’ve recently read an article about Sweden, where they’re getting rid of property taxes. They’ve reasoned that as long as the state can force you to pay property taxes, and take your property if you don’t pay them, no one can really own property. I’ve always felt that way. Once I buy and pay for something, it should be mine, period! Well, now it’s darned nice to find a country’s government agreeing with me.
I’ve watched too many poor rural people forced to sell homes and farms that have been in families for generations because of “yuppification” of rural areas and great increases in property taxes. And cities and towns are the same. Taxes on the house I bought in the early 90s are now more than five times what they were when I bought the place. To me, that’s just unreasonable. Of course, as long as I’m in prison I pay no taxes on property, but when I get out I’ll get a whopping bill for back taxes! A bill I sure won’t be able to pay.
The state, by prosecuting me, destroyed my thriving photography and writing business. I lost my studio and other things too numerous to count. When I get out I’ll have no business, no income. Sure, I’ll get Social Security, but that won’t be much, since I’ve been removed from the workforce for ten years. I don’t know how I’ll live, much less pay taxes. I hate to play the age card, but I’m 71 now. Maybe after a certain age people should be exempt from paying taxes. Or at least old people who are forced to try to live on Social Security and other government benefits. Is that unreasonable?
Unfortunately, the article I read didn’t say how Sweden plans to make this work. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more details.
When you think about it, property taxes are a throwback to the old feudal system where the king or lord owned everything and the serf paid dearly for the right to scrabble a living from a little plot of land. So long as the local government can take your property for nonpayment of taxes, you don’t own that property, they do!
I saw a more honest version of all this when I was in Malaysia. I asked one of our hosts how expensive it would be to buy property there, because I’d noticed that a lot of British retirees lived there (it used to be a British colony). She looked at me like I’d asked an incredibly stupid question, and explained that it is impossible to buy land there, because all belongs to the King. When she saw my puzzlement, she explained that you get a 99 year lease from the government or buy out an existing lease. Sounded very strange until I thought about it and realized that their system really isn’t that different, just more honest.
I loved Malaysia, and had considered retiring there before my legal nightmare began. Unless things have changed a lot since I was there, you can live well very cheaply.
In fact, I’d looked into several countries for inexpensive retirement locations. I bought two books: Living Abroad in Belize and Living Abroad in Costa Rica, and studied both. Belize has the advantage of having English as its official language, and a very English culture (it, too, used to be a British colony, British Honduras). But Costa Rica is home to a large expat American population, so both have their appeals. It would seem that I could live comfortably in either on my Social Security and the occasional writing or photography gig. If I ever get out of here, I’ll look into these options more seriously.
But back to taxes. In the years when I was running a portrait and wedding studio combined with a camera shop I was forced to collect sales tax. I hated that, because I had no desire to be a tax collector and considered being forced to a violation of the constitutional protection against involuntary servitude. One year, sick and tired of doing the state’s work for them at far below minimum wage, I sent them a bill for my services as a tax collector. Man, that got them upset! They sent me threatening letters, one after another. I just ignored them, and in time they stopped bothering me.
About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. Shell was recently moved from Pocahontas State Correctional Center, Pocahontas, Virginia to River North Correctional Center 329 Dellbrook Lane Independence, VA 24348. Mr. Shell continues to claim his innocence. He is serving the 11th year of his sentence. To read more letters from prison by Bob Shell, click here: http://tonyward.com/bob-shell-car-reviews-in-a-photo-magazine/