Forgotten Behind Bars
American Justice and the Case of Jens Söring: How many hours are a life sentence?
(by Karin Steinberger, article appeared on January 5, 2007, in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s highest-circulation newspaper, with the title "Vergessen hinter Gittern", translated by Jens Soering)
A love affair, two murders, and many unanswered questions – for twenty years a German has been fighting to be released from prison, but the system has shown no mercy.
Lawrenceville, in January - There he sits, inmate 179212. The visiting room in Brunswick Correctional Center is three meters by three meters and is framed by salmon-colored bars; in the middle there is a table. In his arms 179212 holds three books. If one asks him how long he has been in prison, he says, “I was arrested in England at 5 in the afternoon. So it’s been 20 years, 7 months, 4 days, 19 hours - no, 21 hours. Not counting the time difference.”
Then number 179212 smiles. His fellow prisoners think it’s amusing that the German is still counting. In the building in which he now lives, he is a kind of fledgling. In the honor building are the old ones who no longer act up: few fights, few rapes, few escape attempts. The good bad guys. In the past they would have been the first to be considered for release. But what does that matter now? Here there are men who have been in prison for 36 years. They have adjusted to a life without a future. Only number 179212 has not stopped counting. Jens Soering, whom they call the German nigga - German and white, an outsider twice over.
He counts the hours, perhaps, because he never stopped hoping.
For someone who is serving double life, that is relatively naive. Jens Soering knows the numbers and the facts; he has collected them arduously, in an existence without a computer. He has had them mailed in by letter, four pieces of paper per envelope. Newspaper articles, studies, cut up, pasted together, copied. Research as an aid to survival. He knows that in the U.S. prisons are an enormous business, often privatized and highly profitable. The government spends $60 billion per year on 2.2 million inmates. No other nation on earth keeps so many of its own citizens locked up. 130,000 lifers. “130,000 people who will die in the custody of the state,” says Soering. It’s been a long time since a lifer in Virginia was released by the parole board. Soering says it was at the end of Governor Jim Gilmore’s term of office in 2001. His democratic successor made an issue of this during the campaign. It’s not popular to let murderers go free.
So the chances were low when Jens Soering’s case came before the Virginia Parole Board again in August of 2006, after three years. “We all know that we don’t stand a chance. We hope anyway - maybe we can make it, maybe become one of those two percent. With that tiny hope, they keep 7,000 inmates under control,” says Soering. And so it chased him down again, that damned hope. He couldn’t resist the idea that this time, the parole board would see through the errors in his trial and believe his protestations of innocence. He dreams of seeing the grave of his mother just once. He doesn’t dare to hope for more.
Twenty years, 7 months, 4 days, 21 hours. He thought the time had come to give him another chance.
On August 9 a member of the parole board met with two of his advocates in a red brick building in Richmond. One of them was Gail Marshall, the former Deputy Attorney General of Virginia. She says that in her 35 year career, Soering’s case is only the second in which, after studying all the evidence files, she became convinced that the accused is innocent. No eyewitness, no fingerprint, no DNA - and the central piece of evidence was a footprint that was much too small to have been left by Jens Soering. “Confessions are sometimes false, and juries sometimes make mistakes,” she says to the parole board. She could have saved herself the effort. During the deliberations over Jens Soering’s life, the parole board member keeps drifting off to sleep. So there is a little scandal, a few newspaper articles, another hearing.
It was a day without water when Jens Soering learned the decision. A water main was being repaired at Brunswick Correctional Center. It was September 26 when he was given the letter from the parole board. Parole denied.
In one year, the case would be reviewed again, according to the decision. Not in three years. The cynicism makes him sick. “The only reason for that is to pretend that they deliberated carefully this time. But there is no more rehabilitation. What is being done to us is a delayed execution.” Twenty years, 7 months, 4 days, 21 hours, never in all those years had he done anything wrong, not a single infraction of the rules. 179212 is a model prisoner. But that doesn’t matter. For him, it’s death by incarceration. The only reason no one protests is because there is no electricity being applied to a human body. “But a life in prison is no life. This is a shadow world where nothing is real. There are no real friendships, no real food, no real hope, no real work. It feels like the death penalty.”
Jens Soering sits there, blue shirt, crewcut. In the middle of this salmon-colored world of bars. He is 40 years old. Of course he asks himself what it now looks like, the world out there. When he was arrested in the spring of 1986 in England, his mother was still alive. Back then there were still two Germany’s. He laughs. “It’s crazy, if you think about it. I received the last Spiegel [Trans: a German newsmagazine] in 1996, and I saw photos of what Berlin looks like now. Never seen the internet. Never seen an iPod. What am I supposed to think about the world out there? I don’t know it.”
That is also one reason why he stopped listening to the radio or watching TV in 2001. Because he couldn’t stand it. The pictures of a life that continues. The constant love songs. “Love, that doesn’t have very good associations in my life. For me, it’s more like this: love, electric chair, love, electric chair, love, electric chair.” Says it, and doesn’t stop. Then he catches himself. He knows he only has two hours. Two hours for this crazy life that began on August 1, 1966, in Thailand. The classic life of a diplomat’s son. When Jens Soering was 11 years old, the family moved to America. In 1984 he enrolled in the University of Virginia and met Elizabeth Haysom.
“The mistake of my life,” he calls this woman.
It was a complicated relationship from the start. She: the daughter of a South African and a Canadian, attractive, dominant, screwed up. He: two years younger, shy, intelligent, glasses with lenses as thick as bottle bottoms, infatuated with the girl. They had not known each other long when she showed him photos, nude photos that the mother had taken of her daughter. She didn’t want to talk about it. If he is guilty of some thing, says Jens Soering, it is that he didn’t take his girlfriend to a psychiatrist, abused as she was. “Maybe the chain of events would have been broken,” he says.
He only confessed to the other thing to exculpate his girlfriend, because he’d been told that his father’s diplomatic status would protect him.
The other thing is what the police found on April 3, 1985, in the Haysoms’ house in Lynchburg, Virginia. The father, Derek Haysom, lay on the floor, the body covered with dozens of stab wounds, the throat cut, the face disfigured. A bear of a man. In the kitchen lay his wife in a sea of blood. Both had been drinking, both did not appear to have been surprised by a stranger. When the questioning grew too keen, Elizabeth Haysom and Jens Soering fled to Europe and Thailand; when the money ran out, they went to London, where they were arrested. First they both confessed, then they accused each other. He has not seen her since. His first and last love. Sentenced to 90 years in the woman’s prison.
Jens Soering leafs through the books. They are his books. He wrote them. Three of them. In prison. He carries them through his world as if they were children. The blood, the murder, the love, all that is far away. He tries not to think of the past too often. About the damned coincidences: that he met this woman, that he covered up this crime, that it didn’t happen in Germany, where the prosecutor would have requested at most eight years under juvenile laws, that his lawyer in America was a drunkard and a fraudster who later lost his license. That it’s a case without DNA, a case without evidence.
Fifteen years he occupied himself with the same questions, 15 years he only thought about the case, about his innocence.
He smiles. Then he freezes. He’s uncertain, doesn’t want to appear too teary, but also not too cold. It didn’t go over well when he sat grinning in a courtroom in England. Arrogant and conceited, this little son of a German diplomat, is what the court reporters wrote. Without remorse, a double murderer, of whom it was said that he danced in the blood of his victims. They wanted a beast, so they saw one.
Soering says he could not have stood it all otherwise. The smile was his fear, his protective shield. He was young and had just had the worst 4 years of his life behind him. It was a 4 year long wait on the death penalty. While in England, he appealed all the way up to the European Court to prevent his extradition to America. To prevent the death penalty. Four years of uncertainty. In the beginning he was 19, at the end 23 years old. It was a time when his grandmother visited him in prison and said, a gentleman wouldn’t do this to his family, he would kill himself. It was a time when his father still stood behind him and his mother was slowly drinking herself to death. Because of him.
And his attorneys sent him documents. Evidence of the inhumanity of the death penalty. He read every line. He read about people in the electric chair whose heads caught fire, about eyeballs that burst out of eyesockets. He read and read. And gobbled up Twix. Forty pounds is what he gained during this time. When he sees the candybar’s wrapper in the vending machines of the visiting room in Brunswick Correctional Center, he thinks to himself: “That was my death row diet.”
But in the courtroom they only saw his grin.
When he finally came to America, they were already waiting for the German who could not be sentenced to death, but to everything else. Boonsboro is a wealthy suburb of Lynchburg. An area with big wooded lots. The Haysom case was a sensational event back then. When Jens Soering could finally be tried in America, people brought their lunch into the courtroom so they wouldn’t lose their seats.
Jens Soering has spent the biggest part of his life in America. Most of it in prison. He spent 11 months in Wallens Ridge State Prison, which he calls “hell on earth.” It is one of the notorious high security facilities, a supermax prison, of which ever more are being built even though ever more studies prove that this kind of punishment does not make people better, that it only raises the recidivism rate. They are places in which one spends 23 hours a day in a single cell and 1 hour in a single cage in the fresh air. For years, total isolation.
Soering was shot in prison, he was put in “the hole” for 43 days in Brunswick Correctional Center after publication of his second book. There he met a boy who has been vegetating there for years because he does not want to cut off his Rastafarian dreadlocks. “He’s sitting down there,” says Soering and points to the floor. They are all pawns; he saw a rapist put in a cell with a boy who had been sexually abused. The boy did not survive long. To be new in prison is always the most dangerous time. And then there is the arbitrariness, which he experienced himself in 1997, when they forbade him to read German newspapers and magazines. A more strict director, new rules, just like that. The German embassy intervened: A prisoner abroad should not be denied his language too. It didn’t make any difference. His German Bible was all he was allowed to keep. Sometimes he searches for words in German, when he wants to tell of “the other guy, my cell partner, my lodger, I don’t know what the German word is. The one who hanged himself from my bed.”
Then came 2001, the pivotal year. It was the year in which the U.S. Supreme Court ended his appeals. It was the year in which he broke with his father. It was the year in which he discovered the power of God and began to write.
Soering says, the books, they were the alternative to suicide.
First he wrote a book about his new faith. Just for himself. The manuscript got into the right hands and was published. Then he skidded into his next project, collected facts about prison reform in the U.S., and wrote a book about the nonsense of America’s politics of punishment. The title: An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse.
Not necessarily the sort of thing that makes release from prison more likely.
He wrote it anyway. Because he does not understand why, in a country where there are ever fewer crimes, ever more people land behind bars, just because there is an industry at work that considers people like him profitable. Every meal costs 61 cents. He points at the sweets on the table. “That’s three and a half days worth of food.” They need prisoners, so even drug addicts and the handicapped are sucked into the prison business, and ever more prisons are built in remote areas. Far from friends who might visit. Virginia, with 7.2 million residents, has almost twice as many prisoners as Canada, with 30 million. Schools are being closed as prisons are opened. “That doesn’t lower the crime rate. You have to ask yourself, why do they do that?”
This spring Soering’s fourth book will be published. It is about Adam and Eve who stole apples, about Moses who killed a slave driver. It’s about Jesus, who knew forgiveness. And then the same thing as last year: “The parole hearing in August, the denial in September. Then 3 years till the next hearing, because no one will be interested in the case anymore. Because no one will fall asleep.”
Soering knows that he will never get out unless something truly extraordinary happens. He knocks on the table. “Bark. For some reason, I would really like to touch tree bark just one more time.” There are days when he nearly goes crazy at the thought that he will never again touch a tree. Never again eat a steak. Never again have sex. Just at this time, when he had nearly forgotten these things, when the words had grown empty and stale after all the years. Just at this time, they had to come along with their parole board and their tiny bit of hope.
Tree bark. Rugged, rough, unreachable. “One forgets such things. Thank God,” he says.
This isn’t Germany, there are no furloughs and no visitors who can bring presents. Here visitors have to spit out their chewing gum at the entrance. Soering has seen so many vice consuls of the German embassy come and go, and always the new ones tell him how beautiful the town of Lawrenceville is. “We’re in the United States, o.k.? I’ve never seen the town,” he shouts. Here even the trees stand at a safe distance; not a single one stands on the prison grounds. Because here punishment is punishment, and most people don’t think much of mercy or concessions to people who have sinned.
But how can one give up hope in a place like this? How can he forget that a repatriation petition is on its way to the governor at this time? It seems so easy. In Germany he would be free; here he is only an expense. What difference would it make to the governor? Governor Tim Kaine, who doesn’t know what a 61 cent meal tastes like, who has trees and steaks, and who has just decided to spend $100 million for new prisons in Virginia. “He doesn’t want to repatriate me, he’s building me a new home,” says Jens Soering, inmate number 179212.
April 21, 2019