News: The Art of Survival

Thomas Condon gives a snapshot of prison life

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Thomas Condon

Unable to use his camera in prison, Thomas Condon has spent much of his time sketching life behind bars.

The trick to withstanding confinement in prison is to not let it jail your creativity, according to photographer Thomas Condon.

Since April, when Condon began serving a 30-month prison term for eight counts of gross abuse of a corpse — photographing bodies at the Hamilton County Morgue — he has produced about 300 sketches. Condon's work during his incarceration shows art isn't something that has to be created in a studio. It can be just as effective — maybe even more so — drawn on an index card in a penitentiary bunk.

Lessons from 'Burn Boy'
Condon phoned a reporter June 27 from the Noble Correctional Institution (NCI) in Caldwell, Ohio. About every three minutes or so a recording interrupted, saying the conversation might be recorded or monitored by the prison staff.

"I draw all day and read and try to keep up a very positive focus," he says. "I've met a lot of brilliant people that I've learned a lot from."

One is a 22-year-old man serving a three-year sentence for burglary and theft. At age 4 he suffered burns over 90 percent of his body.

He has learning disabilities. His mother is a manager at a Wendy's restaurant, and his father is a janitor. The man can barely read.

"He's completely harassed and shunned," Condon says.

Other prisoners have noticed his friendship with the man they call "Burn Boy" and tell Condon to stop hanging around him.

Condon had his sister call the man's public defender. He says the man didn't even know he had a public defender when he entered his plea. The public defender, Condon says, also didn't bother to tell him about the deadline for requesting shock parole, officially known as "judicial release."

"I've been helping a lot of inmates with their judicial releases," he says.

Mike, another inmate who befriended Condon, is serving 20 years for various thefts. One involved cutting through the roof of an auto parts store with a chain saw and stealing everything inside — down to the countertops and doorknobs. Mike is scheduled for release this week after 25 years of incarceration.

"He's scared to death," Condon says. "I spent all day just trying to tell him this is a good thing."

Mike has asked Condon to take him to the Cincinnati Public Library when he's released. He doesn't want to eat at a restaurant — he just wants to read.

Some prisoners use Kool-Aid and saliva to concoct makeup for their eyes and lips; they stretch their shirts to make skirts.

Sex among prisoners is rampant, according to Condon. Saying no to propositions isn't usually a problem, he says.

"Nobody's like violent about it," he says. "There's enough of it that it's completely open and given away."

Condon says one guard asked if he's had sex yet or "whacked off." When Condon said no, the guard suggested that this was his problem. Condon says he should have thanked the guard for his constructive ideas. But that would be insubordination — and that will land you in the hole.

'The details will emerge'
Meanwhile a host of politicians, artists, family and friends work to get Condon released.

Condon had hoped to attend a shock parole hearing July 1 before Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Norbert Nadel. But the hearing was held without him.

In a letter to the judge, Condon described the trauma of separation from his art, his family and his friends.

"This has caused me genuine mental anguish that I had thought possible never to experience," he wrote. "I now empathize with this emotional pain to be similar to the pain that was felt from the families involved with my actions."

County Commissioner Todd Portune wrote Nadel, asking him to grant Condon shock probation. Portune's letter mentions an audiotape of conversations between officials at the coroner's office that he says provides greater detail about what was known and was "expressedly or impliedly approved."

At trial, attorneys for Condon and his co-defendant, Dr. Jonathan Tobias, argued the two men believed the coroner's office had approved the morgue photography project. Tobias, a former assistant coroner, is free on bond pending an appeal of his conviction.

The tape referred to in Portune's letter was not introduced at trial and has not been made part of the public record. But new evidence of the county's role in the photo scandal will likely surface in a lawsuit, according to Portune. Relatives of the deceased persons Condon photographed are suing the county in federal court.

Condon never got to develop his photos. After a processing lab saw the depictions of corpses, it called police. Only after officers seized the photos and filed them with the clerk of courts did they become public knowledge, some appearing in TV news reports (see "Vile Images," issue of March 22-28, 2001).

"As you know, the harm suffered by the families was first exposed and exploited and then compounded through the public dissemination of the photographs," Portune wrote. "That act was not done by either Mr. Condon or Dr. Tobias. The parties who did that and their motivations have, inexplicably, not been examined. I expect, through the thoroughness of the civil discovery process, that a more complete picture of the details and the players will emerge. We need not unnecessarily compound the harm by insisting on one of the players serving additional time at a state penitentiary."

The theory of shock parole is some prisoners are so shocked by incarceration that they are unlikely to break the law again. Condon says he won't.

Condon says being in prison has deeply affected him.

"When is it enough?" he says. "Time is the only thing you can't get back."

Adjusting to life in prison was no small task for the man now known as the "Morgue Photographer." He fills his days drawing, meditating and teaching others to read.

In a letter to Nadel, Condon's mother wrote, "My son tells me that the C.O. often refers certain inmates to the end bunk, saying, 'Go see Condon. Maybe he can help ya.' He's become the Good Samaritan of his pod."

Timothy Kane of the Vulkane Co. wrote Nadel, offering Condon a job.

Vulkane fabricates furniture, lighting fixtures, ornamental detailing, trellises, fencing and garden structures from a wide variety of materials.

"He and his talents would be quite useful to us," Kane wrote. "Should you consider an early release, I can offer Thomas full-time employment."

Nadel agreed to a continuance so the defense can provide additional material for him to consider. He expects to rule next week.

Vikings and antidepressants
Prison offers constant reminders of the evil people are capable of.

"I was literally watching King of the Hill and right next to me is a guy who killed his fiancé and raped her 9-year-old daughter," Condon says. "There's some really horrible people — really horrible, vicious people who have absolutely no regard for human beings."

At Noble, inmates who don't bathe are called Vikings. The smell can get unpleasant when you're trapped inside with them without air conditioning.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODCR) is in charge of state prisons, but Condon says corrections has nothing to do with prison.

"The NCI facility mission is to function as a medium-security, adult male facility that operates as a safe, secure and humane component of the community, while offering substantial programming opportunities for offenders and staff," according to ODCR's Web site.

Every day in Noble there's a call for medicines to be dispensed. Prisoners line up, have their identification checked and go to the medical bay. Condon, like plenty of other Americans, takes an antidepressant.

Dispensing antidepressants in prison helps keep some inmates functional. But the guards scoff at the notion, according to Condon.

"There's this complete attitude of, 'OK, go take your crazy medicine,' " he says.

Many people leave prison as they entered — not knowing how to read or write and lacking job skills.

"At least be up-front with it and try not to deceive tax levies and senators into thinking this is a rehabilitative concept," Condon says.

Lack of privacy has been the hardest adjustment for Condon. Instead of cells, prisoners sleep in large rooms full of bunks. Take out a cigarette, and someone is at your bed asking for one. Card playing and bickering go on all night long.

"Essentially you have to completely shut down and show no emotion and just look mean at everyone all day," Condon says. "So many people just give up and get used to it. I will not get used to it." ©

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