POINT PLEASANT BEACH, N.J. — The question was simple enough: What famous person would you like to meet, and why?
Devin Roughan’s answer was sophisticated. The Point Pleasant Beach High School junior responded to the Asbury Park Press’ Student Voices essay contest by choosing Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.
“A genius serving eight life sentences without the possibility of parole. Why throw it all away?” she wrote, later adding, “I would like to find out what drove him to the point of no return. He committed unforgivable acts, but such criminals must be studied and remembered in order to interpret motives and avoid repeating history.”
Roughan won the contest, and APP.com published her essay Dec. 19.
“I didn’t think anything else would come out of it,” she said.
Two weeks later, a handwritten letter arrived at the school. It came from Bob Hood, who for three years served as warden at the United States “Supermax” Penitentiary — where Kaczynski is incarcerated.
“I want to commend you for writing an exceptional article,” Hood wrote. Thus began a dialogue that culminated in a rare opportunity for Roughan and some of her classmates: A 45-minute videoconference with Hood about criminal justice, the Unabomber and life in the world’s most secure prison.
Turns out Hood is a 1969 graduate of Point Pleasant Borough High. He’s retired now, living in Colorado, but he receives email alerts of news stories that reference the Supermax. He took particular interest in this piece from his old stomping grounds.
“I read it four or five times over and thought, is a high school kid writing this?” Hood told the Asbury Park Press. “Some of the things she put in that are so mature. I don’t see people doing that kind of balance, even reporters sometimes.”
Hood video conferenced with the students in Point Beach’s AP English Language and Composition class. The teacher, Stephanie Woit, had assigned them to enter the essay contest.
“I use it as an opportunity to teach kids it’s cool to think outside the box,” Woit said. “Clearly, Devin thought outside the box for this question. Our big thing was, her words were able to impact in a way that nobody in the room would have expected.”
Not only is Hood from Point Pleasant; he was high school classmates with Woit’s mother, JoAnn Spearer (now Hilling). They sat next to each other in English class.
“Our worlds collided,” Woit said.
Hood went on to attend Ocean County College and Glassboro State. He started as a prison teacher, experience that helped when he arrived at the Supermax (also known as ADX) in Florence, Co. in 2002. The 490-bed ADX houses the America’s most dangerous criminals. Current tenants include Kaczynski, shoe bomber Richard Reid, Oklahoma City accomplice Terry Nichols and Soviet spy Robert Hanssen.
Inmates are kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, with one hour of recreation in a bigger cell. For at least the first three years, prisoners are not allowed contact with any other prisoner. The average sentence is 42 years.
Hood said he made it a point to speak with every prisoner each day.
“My job isn’t to punish these guys; they’re already there for the rest of their lives.” he told the Press. “It’s not to make their lives miserable, as TV might suggest. It’s to make sure they don’t harm my staff and do harm to themselves.”
The best way to ensure that, he said, was to forge a connection. That’s where his teaching experience came in handy.
“Once you connect and have discussions with these guys, they don’t become your friend, but you get to understand the person a little bit more,” Hood said. “The conditions of confinement, it’s not supposed to be pretty, but why not try to figure out what makes them tick? That’s what was so powerful about Devin’s article.”
Hood said many Supermax prisoners were eager for human interaction. Kaczynski was not.
“If you actually met Kaczynski, you would find a very quiet, very recluse person who knows multiple languages, and most of his days are spent reading books in various languages,” Hood said. “I tried to figure out what connection I could make with him. Beyond saying, ‘Good morning warden,’ he’s very distant. Many of them will spend the whole day talking to you because they’re lonely and they’re locked up. Kaczynski is in his own world.”
As he told the class, Hood eventually broke through on the subject of running. Hood was a marathoner, and Kaczynski liked running — he would spend his recreation hour running in circles. It became common ground that helped Hood understand a little more about one of his most notorious prisoners.
He’s shared such insights with other wardens and criminal justice experts, and that’s why Roughan’s essay hit home.
“It’s powerful when she says, ‘we can learn from this, so history doesn’t repeat itself,'” Hood said. “I never brought up their crimes, because I’ll never understand it. But I saw every inmate every day, and I used my teacher background when I did that.”
Roughan was surprised by the “grandfatherly” nature of the ex-warden.
“I didn’t expect him to be so nice,” she said. “I thought he would be a really strict, aloof type of person because he was the warden of the most secure prison in the world.”
She appreciated his insights, and learned something about the reach of good writing.
“It shows you the impact of your voice,” she said. “You never know what’s going to come out of it.”
Hood’s message to the students: Keep asking questions and looking for answers.
“As hard as we try as educators, it’s difficult for us to create an experience like they had with Bob Hood,” Woit said. “They may remember 25 lessons that I do in 180 days, but I know that what happened between us in that room will be something every one of those children remembers and carries with them. It was really unique.”
Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, http://www.app.com