News » News Lead

The Average Inmate

Think prisons are stocked with rapists and murderers? Meet Jabar Butler, shoe salesman and minor-league coke dealer.


The Lake Erie Correctional Facility is a campus of gray, one-story buildings in Conneaut. Shimmering rings of barbed wire surround what might be mistaken for a tidy corporate farm operation.

A Christmas tree and purple paint warm the prison's reception area. Visitors wait for incarcerated loved ones in a sunlit room with vending machines and female guards, who, were it not for their badges, could be coordinating the sniffling traffic of a pediatrician's office. A blonde in tight jeans holds a plastic baggie of small bills and playing cards for the inmate she is about to embrace.

The sound of locking bars -- the staple of prison documentaries -- is not to be found here. It's been replaced by the vacuum-sealed whoosh of refrigerator-like doors, as civilians enter the visiting room. A handful of inmates hold babies or a girlfriend's hands. Their smiles are big and natural.

Jabar Butler walks into a cramped room normally reserved for attorney-client meetings, wearing a short-sleeved blue shirt, navy pants, and futuristic Nike high-tops. He's more than six feet tall and skinny. The handshake and hello he extends are neither hostile nor friendly. He doesn't reciprocate small talk, but responds to questions with concise, self-aware answers. At 9:30 a.m. most other days, Butler might be strolling the yard until the lunchtime count. If he stands close enough to the fence, he says he can spit on Pennsylvania. It might as well be Mars.

"It's almost like we're put in an outside world," he says. "It doesn't feel like Ohio. It feels like somewhere else."

This is the 28-year-old's first time in prison. He didn't beat, rape, steal, or kill. He sold cocaine from his kitchen in Sandusky.

Butler was a neighborhood man. Buyers came to his house, paid $450 for half-ounces of coke, and left to sell it on the streets or stick it up their noses. Sandusky is a small town, and it doesn't take the Untouchables to figure out who's peddling. The cops wired one of Butler's buyers, so his attorney was left to whittle down the indictment to a manageable prison term. In April Butler pleaded guilty to two counts of trafficking cocaine and received a three-year sentence.

Butler is not a repeat offender, a tough guy leering into the mug-shot camera. His worst traits appear to be laziness and the inability to keep his pants zipped. He never finished high school. He has five kids by three different women. And he started selling cocaine because his lack of ambition trapped him in crummy jobs. He is the true face of the war on crime.

Ohio had 45,549 prisoners at last count. Another 18,000 are locked in county jails across the state. If the inmates filled a city together, it would rival Lorain in size.

In 1973, when Director Reginald Wilkinson joined the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) as a volunteer coordinator, Ohio had 7,922 inmates. Today, there are 7,861 guards. "It's not going unnoticed or unchanged," Wilkinson says, "but it's a travesty, in my estimation."

Butler joined a cast of thousands when he reported to prison. Last year Ohio locked up 5,719 drug offenders. One out of three new inmates is a drug seller or user. A third of the 5,719 were traffickers, like Butler, but the majority are sent up for merely abusing drugs. The reality is, prison looks more like a detox clinic than a gladiator academy. Less than 2 percent of the class of 1999 killed someone, and 6.5 percent committed a sex offense. Even in the big house, murderers and rapists are abnormal.

"Our prisons are predominantly occupied by people who have been involved with drugs and abused illegal drugs," says Ronald Edwards, a DRC regional director who has worked at six Ohio prisons over 26 years. He is a whippy man with an upbeat tilt, named Warden of the Year by peers for his service at the reception center in Orient. "I don't think people understand how the influx of drugs has affected prisons."

Much has been written and said about America's predilections for prisons, for the numbers are staggering. In 1998 there were 1.3 million people in state and federal correctional facilities. Add the jail population, and it's estimated the U.S. crossed the 2 million barrier this year -- even though violent crime rates have been falling steadily since the early 1990s. Another 4 million are on probation or parole. Russia is the only other industrialized country to rival America's incarceration rate.

Ohio's prisons used to be run by the antique-sounding Department of Mental Hygiene. It's a much different system now than when the old Ohio Pen lorded over downtown Columbus as a stony threat to would-be scofflaws. Today, the business of corrections is carried out mostly beyond view -- which is not to say it isn't a hulking enterprise. The DRC is a $1.5 billion operation of 35 prisons, everything from boot camps to the space-age supermax in Youngstown. To help spread the costs, Ohio lets private companies run two facilities. Utah-based Management & Training Corp. has a two-year, $23.2 million contract to house Lake Erie's 1,380 inmates, including Jabar David Butler.

Carole Butler is wearing snow boots, a blue parka, and a white stocking cap with a pink headband. Framed by winter gear, her face is all eyeglasses and vanishing chin.

A light rain wants to flurry as she drives along Hayes Avenue in Sandusky. Outside the passenger window is Delphi Automotive, the factory where she worked before chronic fatigue syndrome put her on sick leave. The job allowed her to raise Jabar and his sister, Tiffani, after her divorce from their father.

Her first stop is the credit union to withdraw cash to send her son, so he can buy deodorant and toothpaste. In between the credit union and the post office, she stops at Burger King for a Whopper Junior and a Coke. She doesn't normally eat fast food, but she can feel her blood sugar plummeting. At the post office, she converts the cash into a money order and slips it into an express pack bound for Conneaut.

"I'm starting to get the routine down," she says as she pulls out of the parking lot.

Spend time with Carole Butler, and it's difficult to feel sympathy for Jabar's plight. While Erie County might not have been the easiest place for a young black man to find his way, he grew up in a stable, working-class home. Carole still lives in the neighborhood where she raised Jabar and his older sister. Their house was the one where children congregated to play video games. "It's always been a house full of boys," she says.

Carole describes little Jabar as a charismatic, athletic kid. She sent Jabar and his sister to Christian school to surround them with the right element, spiritual and worldly. At 14, Jabar got the masculine itch and went to live with his dad. After two years, he returned to Mom and enrolled in public school so he could play sports, baseball especially. Scouts came to watch him play.

The years between puberty and domestication are reckless ones for young men, but Jabar's proved to be especially foolhardy. Dyslexia is blamed for his lack of academic success in high school. He dropped out, moved out, and officially joined America's teeming underclass. He sipped the pleasures of adulthood, but accepted few of its responsibilities. He started having babies. He worked dead-end jobs at Big Boy and Meijer. He eventually sold coke.

"He just got in over his head," Carole says. "I think he thought this was the easy way out."

She sat in a courthouse pew when her son was sentenced. Her heart hadn't felt that heavy since she buried her mother. She felt the tear of separation and a mother's guilt when a child stumbles. "I think I should have been harder on him," she says. "He wanted things. He just didn't want to work for them."

Jabar Butler's fingernails are bitten down to flaky nubs. When he speaks, creases bunch on his forehead, and a gap between his large front teeth appears. His life, he says, started to edge foul when he was in high school. Mom worked second shift at the plant, and he ran wild in her absence. "I had from three o'clock in the afternoon until four in the morning. Sometimes I'd get in five minutes before she got home at four. I thought I knew it all then."

His experimentation with hard drugs is limited to a hit of acid when he was 16. Alcohol, weed, and women were more his speed. "My biggest mistake was dropping out of school," he says. "Even though I have three beautiful children by her, getting with Denise was a terrible mistake. I didn't get married for love. I got married to get out of child-support payments."

Denise is Butler's ex-wife. They hooked up when he was 17; she got pregnant the next year. Their first child, Leah, was born in 1991. A boy and girl followed. In between, Butler fathered a daughter by another woman. He worked as a cook when the babies were small; Denise collected welfare. Because they weren't married, the state considered Butler a deadbeat. To erase the $9,800 in child support he owed, 40 percent of his meager paychecks was sliced to the state. "When it was said and done, I'd end up with $125 a week. I couldn't support a family on that."

His drinking didn't help matters. Butler's mother put him into treatment in 1993. He stayed sober nine months, then started drinking again after he and Denise moved to Columbus. They were married in 1995, when he was 22 and she was 26, and moved back to Sandusky. He watched friends sell cocaine, fattening their wallets with what looked like minimal effort. "They'd more or less do it to party," he says, "buy outfits and go dancing." He wanted the money to keep his family afloat. Selling cocaine, he says now, is just as addictive as using it.

While he doesn't deny he sold drugs, Butler displays a con's evasiveness about how much coke he moved. "Really, not a lot," he says. "Just enough to basically live." At times he sounds like a defendant still arguing his case. He was indicted on five counts. Two charges, he says, were prosecutorial sleight-of-hand. "Out of the other three times," he says of the audiotapes police made, "only once can you be sure a buy was made."

Told his mother blames herself for his unruly ways, Butler answers, "Naaah. She did everything she could. Like I said, I threw it all away."

One legacy of the War on Drugs is that even communities like Sandusky have their own task force. Curt Muehling, a retired Sandusky cop, commands a staff of five detectives and a budget of $190,000. A federal grant picks up 75 percent of the tab; local municipalities kick in the rest. The task force spends most of its time chasing the cocaine that snows in from Detroit, Toledo, and Cleveland. Erie County Assistant Prosecutor Roger Binette took 100 drug cases to court last year.

Muehling says Butler sold 8 to 10 half-ounces of cocaine in a typical week -- usually powder, but he'd rock it up on request. "He was a neighborhood man in one of our major organizations," Muehling says. The "organization," when Muehling is pressed to describe it, has brought 10 to 20 kilos of cocaine into Sandusky each week since 1995.

The task force first knew Butler by his initials. According to police reports, on September 26, 1997, Alyson Young called police from a Howard Johnson and told them she wanted to turn in crack she had been given. Detective Mel Burns met Young at Ho Jo's. A friend, Young explained, had been kicked out of a shelter, and a tall, slender black man in his 20s, known as J.B., had put them up in the hotel. J.B., Young said, was nice to her and gave her five rocks to sell. Burns bagged the rocks and set about determining the mystery man's identity.

Nine months later, an informant met with Burns, another Sandusky detective, and an agent from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation. He told the cops that J.B. -- now known to them as Jabar Butler -- had a source who was expected to make a delivery. Detectives searched, wired, and provided the informant with $450 in serialized bills to buy a half-ounce of cocaine. (Cleveland police say coke sells for $100 a gram on the street today. Butler's price works out to $32 a gram -- a hefty volume discount. "That does seem rather cheap," Muehling says.)

On June 25, 1998, the wire provided the evidence.

"How much for a half?" the informant asked Butler.

"Four fifty," he replied. "Do you want me to do it up?"

"I'll just take the soft," he replied, meaning that Butler needn't bake the powder into crack.

Butler weighed the coke on a scale in the kitchen. "Fifteen grams," the informant said, obviously for the benefit of the wire.

They made the exchange. The informant said he might be able to rid himself of the coke quickly and asked about getting more. Butler said he had one package remaining. Over the next three weeks, detectives initiated two more buys.

Butler had known the informant, Kyle Porter, for 20 years. Fresh off a year in prison for trafficking, Porter was charged with two counts of felonious assault in the spring of 1998. An ex-con with new charges is vulnerable to police persuasion, and Butler paints his former friend as desperate and weak. "He dug himself a hole," Butler says. "He got a lot of people. It wasn't just me."

The police waited a full year to confront Butler about his dealings. In the meantime, Butler maintains he quit selling in January or February of 1999. At the time, he was separated from Denise and living with a woman named Patty. He credits Patty with convincing him to forget the coke and rely on his square job as a shoe salesman. "Every night she talked about what would happen if I got caught and had to be away from my kids. So I said, 'The hell with it.'"

This, however, would not cleanse transgressions past. Butler wasn't taken down by a swarm of ninja-suited drug agents, weapons drawn. In July 1999, Detective Burns paid a visit to Patty's house and left his card when no one answered the door. Butler called the detective later that day and drove himself to the station. He signed a waiver and was advised he would likely be charged.

Burns wanted Butler to name his source. Butler refused. He was arrested a month later.

When Arthur's Shoe Tree owner Ron Brandich learned of the arrest, he fired Butler. Brandich says there were two Butlers: the street player he didn't know and the worker he was sad to let go. "He was one of the best damned employees I ever had," says Brandich, who speaks of selling shoes as if it were a calling. "He took a real deep interest in it." When he eavesdropped on Butler's sales, Brandich could hear "the sincere, genuine concern in his voice."

Last April, Butler pleaded guilty to two counts of trafficking cocaine. Prosecutor Binette tried to offer Butler's mother a conciliatory smile at the sentencing. Please don't, she thought, I'm going to get hysterical. "I wanted to ask him, Why do you hate my son so much?" Carole remembers thinking. While she compares his incarceration to the challenge Jonah faced in the belly of the whale, she can't help but think the cops and prosecutors in Erie County give dark skin inordinate attention. "They did their job. I'm not mad . . . You just never see them anywhere else. You only see them in black neighborhoods."

His plea and sentence merited just three paragraphs in the local paper. He was allowed to delay his surrender until Patty gave birth to his fifth child, Jasmine. On May 17, he reported to prison. The same day, Denise filed for divorce.

Drugs alone are not what make Butler the average prisoner. He's a young black man who didn't finish high school. Men (94 percent), blacks (52 percent), and dropouts (55 percent) all constitute the majority.

Liberals look at the stats and shriek about race and class warfare. There's evidence of both, but calling it a conspiracy seems a stretch. Dumbass politics appear to be the greater culprit.

Thirty years ago, Stanford law professor Herbert L. Packer wrote, "We can have as much or as little crime as we please, depending on what we choose to count as criminal." Packer's point was that crime statistics speak less about the nature of the diabolical mind than about the arbitrariness of laws and their enforcement. The American system of justice is more interested in catching bad guys than preventing crime. An extra patrol car on the street may or may not stop someone from busting your windshield, but it will certainly increase the number of street-corner dealers who get pinched. Drug arrests have tripled since 1980.

Politicians like to hire cops. They also like to pass laws that allow them to play tough in campaign ads. Their efforts are usually rewarded by voters who get a taste for blood by watching and reading about the latest horror in the media. The cynicism feeds on itself. And once behavior is criminalized by statute, it takes a big eraser to get it off the books. Exhibit A: the sodomy and race-mixing laws of yore.

Ohio has actually avoided some of the problems other states encounter when campaign shouts turn the blowtorch on policy. Before they overhauled the criminal code in 1995, legislators were told to wait for a report by the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission. The commission laid out a plan that would imprison violent offenders for longer, set-in-stone sentences while diverting lower-level offenders into community-based programs. Hailed as a "truth-in-sentencing" law in 1995, Senate Bill 2 tossed raw meat to law-and-order types without exploding the prison population. The number of inmates today is about the same as it was five years ago. "I think that was the mission of Senate Bill 2, to provide some consistency," says Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Ron O'Brien. "If you're going to pay X amount of dollars for a cell, the right offender should be there."

Ohio's prisons now warehouse more dangerous inmates. A DRC study compared pre- and post-Senate Bill 2 groups. In the pre-SB2 sample, 3 in 10 had committed a crime against a person. In the post group, the ratio rose to 2 in 5. The post-SB2 group also has more extensive criminal histories, younger ages at first arrest, and higher indications of drug and alcohol problems, physical and sexual abuse, and mental illness.

Wilkinson has also noticed a change in inmates. They are "a lot more calloused, a lot more cold, a lot less remorseful. Many have less regard for pain and suffering. That's difficult to observe over time."

The numbers support this observation, but the fact remains that three out of five people being sent to prison are nonviolent offenders. Ohio Public Defender David Bodicker says "determinate sentencing," which offers no grace for good behavior or early release, reduces the unpredictability of parole boards. But he doesn't see Senate Bill 2 as an injection of fairness and common sense. "I don't think legislators sit there and think deep, profound thoughts about what we should do with these people."

Bodicker doesn't claim to have all the answers, either. Putting a rough sketch on the defendants his office represents, he says a third are occasional criminals, a third are real criminals, and a third, "who commit crimes the way you and I go to the bathroom," have IQs under 70.

Butler isn't typical of Ohio's inmates, in that he doesn't have a windy record of arrests and failed probations before exhausting the system's patience. (His lone conviction prior to incarceration: a disorderly conduct charge.) Sixty percent of inmates have prior felony convictions. Indeed, most rap sheets are adventures in stupidity, one bad decision piled on top of another. Mix in a narcotic of choice, and simple morons become criminals. Half of all inmates were stoned or drunk when they did their deeds.

Butler was fortunate to plead to second-degree felonies, Binette says, because he sold crack, which the law treats as especially vile, and his home was across the street from a middle school -- another no-no. The maximum sentence on all five counts was 30 years and $57,500 in fines. "I still think that, with the amount he was dealing, and especially with the school, he got off pretty easy."

If Wilkinson were made legislator for a day, he would try to distinguish the drug dealers -- the professionals -- from the drug sellers, who peddle dope to support their own habit. Wilkinson also sees a disparity in the sentences for crack and powder cocaine. A bill introduced in the Ohio House in 1999 sought to equalize the penalties, but it wouldn't have helped Butler. He might, in fact, be staring at more time.

Instead of reducing crack sentences, the bill would, on average, increase the punishment for powder by 17 months. Because it costs $17,484 a year to house an inmate, the DRC would need another $10 million a year to handle the extra load. The bill awaits inspection by the Senate Judiciary Committee after passing the House 95-0.

"I've been in control since I was 17," Butler says. "Now, you eat when they tell you to eat. I go to my bunk when they tell me to go to my bunk. It really humbles you."

He shares a pod with 229 other men -- too many for the room to ever fall quiet. "They have a saying: If you wanted to sleep, you shouldn't have come."

He's also kept awake by his mistakes and missed opportunities. The lights go out, and he's left to replay the spool of his bonehead moves. "He's definitely learned his lesson," Carole Butler says. "He told me he's never going to even jaywalk."

"I guess it's a growing process," Butler says. "I could never see myself coming back -- except someone messing with my babies. Then I'd come back happily." Butler has seen but one of his children, Jasmine, since he's been incarcerated. The baby fell asleep 15 minutes into the visit. He's only seen her smile in pictures.

He's working through his resentments. When he first arrived, he imagined taking his revenge on Porter. Those thoughts don't consume him as they used to. He and Patty once talked of marriage; he considers her 11-year-old daughter his own. But she's found someone else. He expected it. A lot of couples think their relationship will persevere; then months pass, and the release date doesn't seem any closer. He last spoke with Denise a month ago. "That's still a touchy subject. The way everything went down, I think she had a lot to do with this."

He attends classes on electronics in the afternoon and passes the evenings watching TV, reading the Bible his mom sent him, or playing chess. When he feels depressed, he goes to AA meetings, even though not everyone in the fellowship is determined to stay sober. "I'm not trying to be hypocritical, but there are lot of guys in here who go to look good for the judge," he says. After reciting the Lord's prayer, they go back to the pod and swill prison hooch.

Butler wishes his electronics training were more advanced, so he could get a job in a factory or wiring houses when he gets out. He sees himself leaving Sandusky for a bigger city. If he wishes to remain, Brandich says he would consider taking him back at the shoe store.

His sentence ends March 29, 2003. He already has plans for his first hours on the outside. "Marco's pizza," he says. "Then I'm going to get all six of my kids and disappear. That's all I want -- a Marco's pizza and my kids."

Because she finds the long drive so exhausting, Carole Butler hasn't visited her son since June. They spoke on the phone at Thanksgiving. She asked him what he had for dinner, and when he said the prison chow hall served "regular old food," Carole thought she was going to die.

"I won't be able to take Christmas," she says. "I don't know what I'm going to do."

The best-case scenario is that Butler will miss this and the next two Christmases. But he may be looking at more charges and more years in prison. The feds are expected to seek a round of indictments relating to the "organization" that provided Butler with his cocaine.

The neighborhood guys never seem to get away.


We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Cleveland Scene. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Cleveland Scene, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at [email protected].

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club for as little as $5 a month.