The Cost of Freedom
Story by Peter Jensen // Photos by Michael Leese
The gates in his mind crank open and memories flood forth: the tiny cells, the hour to shower, the hour outdoors, the fights with other inmates and the days spent in solitary confinement as a result. An alcoholic and drug addict, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison in 2001 for kicking in the door of his trailer on the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation and threatening to kill his girlfriend because he thought she was unfaithful. He stayed seven years, picking up more charges—and years on his sentence—because of the fights.
Now, 38-year-old Steven Ray Heddrick is a free but troubled man who has lived alone in a motel room since he was released in February 2008.
"When I got to prison, I had some real time to think about my life. I had my eyes closed," Heddrick says. "Prison opened my eyes to what life is all about."
More importantly for Heddrick, however, are the eyes that keep watch on him. As part of his sentence, the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) has a community corrections officer monitor and test him to ensure he is staying away from drugs and alcohol.
Heddrick is also a bipolar schizophrenic and cannot work until he has progressed enough with his mental-health treatment. His community corrections officer ensures he gets his antipsychotic medication injected every two weeks.
Heddrick is one of approximately 34,000 men and women in Washington under active DOC supervision. Although he will be watched for the next 16 months, he considers this a blessing because he knows who he was before prison. He has faced 40 criminal charges in his life—an average of more than one charge per year lived.
"When you look at my criminal history, I look like an animal," Heddrick says.
More people are going to prison in Washington than ever before. In 2006, almost 18,000 people were incarcerated in state prisons, which is 10,000 more inmates than in 1986, according to DOC statistics. While the increase of inmates is not exceptionally based on per-capita rates, it does pose a troubling problem for the state government. The state must either build more prisons, change the laws that send people to prison or change the people who get out of prison.
Yet, as part of the state's massive spending cuts to balance its budget, the Washington state Legislature cut $48 million out of the DOC's budget for community supervision in April 2009, forcing the agency to lay off about 250 community corrections officers. Money for offenders' social services has also dried up in the poor economy.
Now that Heddrick is a free man, the government that arrested, convicted and imprisoned him provides the best chance for him to break free of the criminal justice system, says his community corrections officer, Eric Petersen.
However, the odds are against his success. According to DOC estimates from 2006, of the more than 8,000 offenders released from prisons in Washington every year, a little less than half will return for a new conviction within five years.
If Heddrick is monitored and has access to mental-health treatment, his chances of success in his new life improve, according to a 2006 study from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. The study found that when mentally ill offenders were given monitoring and treatment, the number returning to prison on new convictions dropped by 20 percent. "They need that supervision otherwise they would be cycling back to the system constantly," says Nathan Bajema, a community corrections officer in Bellingham.
The story of Steven Heddrick's life outside of prison intertwines hope, an unlikely love with another mentally ill offender on DOC supervision, and her brutal murder.
A carpenter by trade, Heddrick has hope for the future but guards it with worry over the poor economy. He once owned a contracting company on the Muckleshoot Reservation, Heddrick's Hammer Construction, but lost it when he went to prison. He would like to get it started again, and is saving money to purchase the tools he would need.
"I'm worried about what's going to happen," Heddrick says. "I have this big, eight-year hole in my resume. The problem is that the economy's so bad right now. There aren't a lot of jobs out there."
Heddrick gets anti-psychotic injections at a clinic on Sunset Drive twice a month, and he hates it. The injections make him anxious and cause him to pace around his motel room. As much as he hates the medication, he acknowledges its important role in his new life.
He went to prison believing he was not mentally ill. Heddrick says he went crazy in prison, fighting younger inmates he believed were threatening him and were part of gangs. Although the medicine makes him nervous, he says he is less prone to violence.
"It gets me a real bad feeling. It doesn't mix with my system," Heddrick says. "But you never know, maybe I do have some kind of mental disorder."
Determined to stay clean and sober, Heddrick shuts himself in his motel room and ventures out only to go shopping, smoke cigarettes or go to meetings and treatment sessions. Along this strip of Samish Way, drug use comes with the neighborhood.
"There's a whole lot of drinking and drugging around here," Heddrick says. "I pretty much stay to myself."
Yet, Heddrick allows one outside presence into his life—women. With a hint of pride audible in his voice, Heddrick counts off the women he has dated since being released from prison: Sue, Rachael, Wendy, Shannon. He pauses after saying Shannon Lathrop's name, and his brow furrows once more.
Each girl moved away, he says, but not Lathrop. After she moved into the Aloha Motel in March 2008—when she was released from prison—Lathrop and Heddrick dated off and on until mid-July, when she went missing. Her body was found on the Lummi Reservation a week later. A fire intentionally set to destroy evidence of her murder mutilated her body so badly it took months to identify her.
As Heddrick stands outside his motel room smoking a cigarette and looks at where Lathrop would walk up and down Samish Way for money, he allows himself to reflect.
He thinks of the walks they would take to Fairhaven and back, the meals they would cook on his hot plate in his room and the plans they had to watch the Fourth of July fireworks at Boulevard Park that she did not keep.
"She was a really lovable girl even though she was crazy," Heddrick says. "It just made her seem more vulnerable. Shannon was like everyone's baby."
And with that, Heddrick's troubled mind cranks forward and he begins talking about tools, jobs and his future once he leaves DOC supervision.
Forty-eight million dollars—that is how much the state government will save taking its eyes off of people cycling through its criminal justice system. To Eric Petersen, a Western graduate who has worked with the DOC for 12 years, laying off community corrections officers is offensive.
"[They] look great on paper," Petersen says. "But it's going to hammer the local communities. We see the people who would be cut loose. In my opinion it's going to be a major community safety issue."
Lathrop never had the chance to experience life outside the criminal justice system. She was at the cusp of finally breaking her life free of the system, but someone intervened and cruelly ended it.
Heddrick is determined to return to the life he had before he went to prison. His aspirations are simple: he would like to marry, have children and have some place to call home that is not a motel room.
"I'm just looking for that house with a white picket fence," Heddrick said. "Before I went to prison I had big, high hopes. I don't really see it as a new beginning. I'm just really trying to start off where I left off."