Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Victims' views mixed on prison proposals


The Iowa Legislature's debate over a $256 million plan to expand and upgrade the state's prison system strikes some raw emotions for Iowa crime victims.

Jennifer Bertagnolli, 38, discovered her father's body after he was stabbed to death in 1988 at his West Des Moines apartment. She said she's come to understand that many criminals deserve second chances.

But she wants to ensure that the two men who killed her father, Franklin "Ken" Eaton, a popular teacher at Brody Middle School in Des Moines, serve their life sentences without parole. The men convicted of first-degree murder for Eaton's slaying are Gary Titus, 38, and James Michael Green, 40, both of whom remain behind bars.

"I am not perfect, but I have never crossed the line and killed somebody, stolen from somebody or beaten them up," Bertagnolli said. "I feel that when they go to prison, it is not an easy life, but they get three meals a day, clothing, a bed, schooling, medical care and dental care. We as taxpayers are paying for that."

Bertagnolli was among several crime victims who said in interviews they have mixed feelings about Gov. Chet Culver's proposal to construct a new state maximum-security prison at Fort Madison and to expand and upgrade the Mitchellville women's prison. The package, which key lawmakers said stands a good chance of winning approval, also calls for expanding community corrections facilities in Des Moines, Waterloo, Sioux City and Ottumwa.

The crime victims said they feel uncomfortable spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to provide more modern prisons for Iowa's 8,700 inmates. But they also want to see that when convicts are freed, they have had drug and alcohol treatment, psychiatric services and other help to ensure that they don't commit new crimes.

Some of the proposed prison improvements are aimed at making the Fort Madison prison more secure and cost-effective to staff. Iowa taxpayers currently spend an average of about $26,000 annually on each state prisoner.

"What are we getting back for that $26,000?" asked Rodney Fritz of Des Moines, whose son, Cody, 19, died nearly three years ago in a traffic crash caused by a reckless driver. "I guess that's what the victims are wondering. Is the money being spent on programs that can actually help these people live a productive life and live in our neighborhoods? That's important to us."

Fritz is a strong advocate for restitution for crime victims, particularly because Benjamin Wiese, 25, the driver responsible for his son's death, didn't have insurance.

Wiese, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence at the Rockwell City state prison, was ordered by the courts to pay $150,000 in restitution to the Fritz family, plus other costs totaling thousands of additional dollars. But so far Wiese has been able to pay only a small fraction of the restitution - checks from prison ranging from 25 cents to about $35.

"I have to tell you that when I received that first check I was stunned. I was floored," Fritz said. "I let that check sit on my table for weeks before I could finally come to pick it up and touch it and finally put it in the bank. To think that my son's life was worth so little an amount of money."

Fritz said one positive thing is that he became a close friend of John Lyons of Burlington, an ex-prisoner who had nothing to do with his son's death. Lyons is an artist who drew a portrait of Cody Fritz for the Fritz family at no cost. "Words cannot describe the healing" the artwork has provided, Fritz said.

Sherry Knox of Des Moines, who was raped in 1993 by a man who is now dead, said she gets a little angry that Iowa politicians seem to worry so much about the perpetrators of crime. Victims' assistance programs are offered through government agencies, but many victims never report the crimes committed against them, and more should be accomplished to help them, she said.

"I don't see anyone going and saying, 'You know, here is a rebate for the victim because she suffered for 20-some years or longer,' " Knox said.

Knox now works for Polk County Crisis and Advocacy Services to help prevent senior citizens from becoming victims of sexual assault.

She remarked that when legislators spend money on new prisons, they should spend an equal amount for elementary schools "to teach our children that we could do other things than hurt each other when something is wrong."

Victim Bertagnolli, a mother of five children, feels the same way. Somehow, the cycle of societal failure that has led so many people to enter Iowa's prisons has to stop, she said.

"I suppose it starts at home with me saying to my children, 'This is the wrong choice that you made and this is what is going to happen to you,' " Bertagnolli said.

Michelle Coles of Des Moines, an activist with Polk County Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the justice system gives more consideration to victims of drunken driving crashes now compared with the past. But she is still troubled that drunken driving isn't seen by some Iowans as criminal behavior.

"I am sorry, but when a repeat offender with alcohol gets into a car, it is just as dangerous as a loaded gun. He can wipe out himself. He can wipe out a family," Coles said.

The Iowa Department of Corrections operates victim and restorative justice programs to provide victims with support, information and opportunities to participate in decisions concerning an offender's liberty. The Iowa attorney general's office administers several victim programs, including crime victim compensation, sexual abuse examination and victim services grants.

Betty Brown, a victims advocate and a Department of Corrections administrator, said she has come to realize that many Iowa prisoners, perhaps as many as 80 percent to 90 percent, were victims of abuse when they were children.

This could include physical abuse, sexual assault, emotional abuse, neglect and other harm, she said.

"The No. 1 question that victims ask is, 'Why me? Why my house? Why my car? Why did it happen?' " Brown said. "So I go back to the offender and ask why and all of this childhood stuff comes out. It is never, ever, an excuse for criminal behavior because there are lots of people victimized as kids who don't hurt other people. But these offenders did hurt people. and we want it to stop. So we try to get community people wrapped around them. We need to get people interested in supporting them, helping them to make decisions."

Reporter William Petroski can be reached at (515) 284-8547 or

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