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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Going to Prison

My husband, Steve, and I went to Varner Super Maximum Security Prison yesterday, Friday, October 25, 2013, in Grady, AR, just south of Pine Bluff. The purpose of our trip was a "friend" visit to Zachariah Marcyniuk. You can Google his name and the whole history of the murder in March 2008, subsequent trial, etc., will pop up. You can read whatever you choose about it. While it is perfectly reasonable to be sympathetic to the murder victim, Katie Wood (as I am also), my husband and I can't help but also feel some concern for Zach and especially his family as well.

But, why did we wake up at the ungodly hour of 3 AM to be on the road at 4 AM to visit Zach in particular at our appointed time of 8:30 AM, you wonder? We do have tenuous ties to this case. Way before the murder happened, my husband worked with Zach and his dad at Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse #432 at Zion Rd & College Avenue in Fayetteville, AR.

Being an English major myself at the University of Arkansas at the time of the murder five years ago, Katie, an English and Art major, was in some of my classes. I don't want to pretend that Katie and I were friends, because I never got the chance to know her. I was intrigued by her and I meant to get to know her, but she was murdered before I had the chance.

To me, Katie reminded me of Olive Oyle. She was thin and petite and had alabaster skin, dark brown hair and big eyes. She was quiet, maybe shy. But, when she spoke up in class, she was pithy! I like that in a person! I knew she was intelligent and thinking, not just taking up space in class. I thought, "One day, I'm going to go up and introduce myself and get to know her." Well, this is a classic example of why you shouldn't put things off.

But, back to Zach. It is obvious that he has some social difficulties. There is a pronounced social awkwardness about him and he also has anxiety issues. Probably the most profound thing that people would notice is that Zach finds it hard to look people in the eye for any period of time. He said yesterday that he finds that aggressive and so it's hard for him to bring himself to do that towards others. He's always been this way, though apparently this didn't stop him from being a popular kid in high school because he describes hanging out with lots of friends during that time.

He also converses in a very linear fashion, which can be conceived as a little "OCD" or obsessive. He also is very careful to include a lot of detail. My husband, when they were shooting the breeze over lunches at work, found that he had to let Zach talk his way through to whatever his point was or you could get hopelessly mired in tangents and minutia and never find out what he was trying to say.

What I've learned about Zach in his letters from prison and now our talk is that it is very important, despite the murder, that he perceived himself as remaining an honorable person. The truth is very important to him. He admits he killed Katie. He is not one of those convicts who goes around pronouncing his innocence when it's obvious that he is guilty of the murder. He avoids posers and users in prison, preferring to keep to himself than get pulled into that kind of melodrama. For someone in solitary confinement, that is a powerful statement. Solitary confinement messes with your head and at some level most people crave human interaction on any level just to break up the aloneness. Yet, he prefers to be alone than to deal with people he feels are less than honorable.

Yesterday, Zach also stated that there is a certain mental illness that seems to run in his family (he didn't specify and I didn't ask), but this was not brought up at trial and it might have had a significant bearing on his case, especially on his sentencing. This makes it a matter of life (in prison) and death (the impending execution should he run out of appeals). This is some serious stuff and it's about someone my husband and I know to some degree. It's not about someone else somewhere else. This makes it more real to us.

Also, as difficult as it is, my husband and I decided to write to Zach and visit him out of support and respect for his parents. As parents ourselves, we could not help but put ourselves in their shoes. Through something beyond their control, something tragic happened that seriously altered the trajectory of their and their son's lives. Zach will be inextricably tied to Katie Wood forever and his parents will always be the parents of someone who murdered someone else.

Can you imagine the psychological impact of such a thing? How the media would skewer you and your son and how many of your friends and maybe even family would just vanish? I'm sure being the parents of a murderer would not make you a popular person. And I'm not making an indictment on the people who may have abandoned the Marcyniuks in their time of need. Just like people not knowing what to say in the event of someone's death or other awkward situation, it's natural to avoid the situation entirely. That's how our society has evolved to be. Why face something unpleasant head on when you can just have a glass of wine and push it out of your mind? Turn on the boob tube and watch some mindless reality show. Numb yourself in your social product of choice and nothing changes in your life. And maybe you will never have to feel the pain.

To me, that's not living! The whole reason why you appreciate the amazing sunsets or the sweet smell of fresh cut grass is because you've been stuck inside some office or classroom for most of your waking day or have driven past a chicken processing plant at some point in your life. It's exactly the bad stuff in life that makes us appreciate the good.

There are times that I come home late at night and go and stand at the edge of my field and almost cry at the beauty of the stars in my night sky, a sky that Zach might not ever see again because of one tragic moment in his life. He will probably never have the pleasure of looking at a menu and choosing what HE wants to eat. Am I saying that he doesn't deserve to be in prison for what he's done or that he shouldn't be denied these luxuries? Not at all. I'm just commenting on ALL that he has forfeited. There are a thousand little decisions that we have the freedom to make every single day that he doesn't have, though I will say, as cold as it was yesterday, my husband and I were a little envious of the state issued thick thermal underwear Zach sported under his white coarse linen prison jumpsuit. And when we got home to our drafty old house, we thought, well we're free, but I wouldn't say our conditions are better, LOL (but that saga is another story that I'll probably start writing more about as well).

My other motive or interest in the Zach and Katie story is to film a documentary about it, probably for my Master's thesis in Journalism at the University of Arkansas (where Zach attended as a non-traditional part-time Art student and as I mentioned, Katie was an English and Art major, very close to graduating). Zach and I have discussed this at length in his letters, which is what lead to this first "friend visit." I've been very above board about this project because he has to trust me or he can refuse to participate and that would be a much less compelling story. I'll be writing more about this as it starts unfolding. My first major hurdle is to gain permission to get the cameras into the prison system, where they are patently not allowed. This ought to be fun (not).

So, here are my impressions of yesterday in a kind of stream of consciousness form:

Steve and I drove down the Pig Trail in the dark, glad that we had no run ins with any spunky deer. The traffic was mercifully light until we hit Pulaski County (close to Little Rock) and approached the beginning of their rush hour traffic, though we were through "The Rock" by just after 7AM, just a little apprehensive of the crazy drivers in that neck of the woods (high speed in-and-out weavers!). After Little Rock, traffic was lighter again and we drove across miles and miles of long, flat terrain, questioning whether we were still on the right path and how much further we had to go. We were apprehensive of entering a super maximum security prison.

When we arrived, we observed a tractor towing long flatbeds of prisoners in white (no stripes) going out into the fields, we were guessing to work in the fields. The flat beds were flanked by armed prison guards mounted on horses. The surreal appearance of the situation made Steve quip, "Oh, so they get to go on hayrides here!" I'm sure it's better than working in the prison laundry, but it's not to make light of their situation either. I can see the benefits of this both physically and mentally, no matter how many chain gang images come to mind. This also made Steve start quoting his favorite movie, Cool Hand Luke.

We went through security which involves taking off shoes and belts, jewelry, etc., and placing wallets and other items into a tray, just like the airport. You put it into the x-ray machine while you step through the metal detector. Then you get patted down (I joke that they get to first base if you're female because you can hide a lot of stuff in a bra!) in front of everyone and have to kick up your heels so that they can see if anything is stuck to the bottoms of your feet. Then you get redressed. You can only bring in up to $20 in cash (for the vending machines), an ATM card, a driver's license, and various baby items like bottles, etc. Anything else you have to pitch in the trash or take back out to your car. Then you stand in front of a camera while you are electronically finger printed and they scan your driver's license. They issue you a pass that has your inmate's picture and info on it as well as our pictures and info. Hall pass!

So we walked out the door and through the first locked gate, and the security guard explained to the guard tower that we were not going to general population visitation (where the majority of people go), but rather to the Maximum Security area. We waited to be buzzed through a 2nd gate for a long time, like she forgot about us? Not sure, but we finally got buzzed through. As we approached the 3rd gate, we observed that while it appeared closed, it was actually a little bit ajar and we were going to walk through, but she buzzed it anyway. It didn't close behind us. Steve joked, "Hey Zach. We found an escape route for ya!! Quick! Run like the wind, Bullseye!" This was another moment of surrealness. How secure IS this place if the gates don't lock like they're supposed to?

We kept to the path and walked behind the building to the back door. The buildings themselves were very unimposing, favoring many schools, all one story. Central High School in Little Rock and the Graduate Education building on the UA campus look more imposing than Varner does. Of course, there's all the electric fencing and razor wire, but still, it doesn't produce a lot of anxiety as I had thought it might.

As we approached the back door, we could hear some prisoners being very loud to the right. One of them pushed on the door a little ways to the right of the visitation area door, like he was testing to make sure it was locked? Making a futile gesture? Who knows? We stood outside the visitation security area for probably 10 minutes (hard to say for sure since you're not allowed to bring watches or cell phones in with you) in the cold, but we were finally let in by a very young and pleasant guard. He apologized for the wait. We did not have to go through security again and were ushered into the visitation area, being told that the prisoner was already waiting for us.

We selected the items from the vending machines that Zach had indicated that he would like if we were so inclined. It is one of the perks of getting visitors (one non-legal visit of up to 4 people at a time is allowed per week), having the chance to eat microwaved pizza, cheetos, etc. that he doesn't normally get. I thought it was the least I could do. If you aspire to nasty vending machine pizza, then you may have it! Being a foodie, I'm trying not to pity him!

We were led into the visitation area, where Zach was handcuffed to the thick metal bars of the cinder block room. We were ushered inside and then he was uncuffed. You could tell that he was embarrassed, but we got past it by shaking hands with him and getting through the greetings. He wasn't sure that we were coming because my postcard had not reached him yet, so it was a complete surprise. They just woke him up and said to hurry up because he had visitors.

This was a "contact visit" in which we were locked in a room with him for 3 hours to just shoot the breeze, which we did. There were no barriers, no monitors, no glass. It was just him, a convicted murderer, and us, sitting around and talking like old times. Steve and Zach spoke of the folks and situations at Lowe's and Zach and I spoke of our times at the University of Arkansas and the Art Department (I just ended my employment with the department he had majored in and so I was able to give him news of his past professor's retirements, etc.).

Zach asked if I wanted to talk about the documentary and the trial, etc., but I declined because I know that when it comes time to film him, should I get the chance to, that his responses won't be as spontaneous. We did wind up talking about it and the whole capital punishment thing at least a little bit, but it wasn't the focus of our visit. This was more of a getting reacquainted type of visit and one in which Zach would probably make up his mind once and for all if he trusts me enough to move ahead with the project. The prospect of being (his words) "at my mercy," makes him feel very vulnerable. Yet, the fact that he has never been able to tell his story does eat at him. He said that if the worst happens (execution), that when he is strapped to the gurney, he thinks that he would deeply regret not participating in this project. He wants people to know his story.


  1. Thanks for sharing this experience, and I look forward to reading more!

  2. Wow, Cat, this is really something. I have had a sort of curiosity/sympathy/prayerfulness for prison inmates for many years. I look forward to reading more about this journey.

  3. Excellent blog, Cat. I look forward to learning and hearing more about your project.

  4. Thanks! I really appreciate it. :)

  5. I know Zach too, he kidnapped my niece at gunpoint and fled the state with her, a restraining order was issued but no charges since they had dated previously. He moved to Washington state to chase her, then back to arkansas again chasing her. And the day he murdered Katie he went to my niece's house to kill her too before fleeing. There was blood on her door when she came home. So I don't have much sympathy.

  6. Just saw this, glad for the perspective.