The interview of a lifetime:
Spending a day behind bars at Bedford Hills Correctional Facilty
By: Brian McElhiney
© Copyright 2007, Keene Equinox
In the gray pre-dawn, two black SUVs with tinted windows rolled out of Elliot Hall's parking lot, bound for a maximum security prison three states away. They were ready to visit Pam Smart.
All 12 Keene State College students were equipped with the prison's regulations, wearing nondescript shirts or sports jerseys and holding the only two things visitors take to prison - a photo ID and either a roll of quarters or dollar bills.
Interview questions were rehearsed out loud, points of information divided up, this was no practice journalism this time. No pens or pencils. Everything said, everything seen, had to be remembered, at least long enough to walk across the prison parking lot and then spill it on paper.
Walkie Talkies linked the two vehicles as copious amounts of caffeine fueled the freeway chase through New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and then New York.
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, previous home to Jean Harris, Kathy Bodine, Amy Fisher and for over a decade, Pam Smart. Past the village of Bedford, which looks like the inside of a snow globe. Past these amazing brick edifices with names like fox and brook tastefully displayed. One of them is Martha Stewart's.
And there it was, around the next turn.
Where to look first - at the massive coils of barbed wire with lots of spiky things on thick fences ringing the prison's property, or, the buildings, lots of them. What appeared in short supply were people.
Time to start the drill. Spill out of the vehicle looking as least threatening as possible. Mingle lightly until it was time to go in. Groups of four only and if asked the visit's reason, say, "I'm here as a friend of Pam Smart."
The sun's shadows fell in barbed points onto the sidewalk from the metal processing cage to the visiting room where the day's assignment awaited.
--Marianne Salcetti, Ph.D.
The anticipation is killing me. The streets of Keene at 7 a.m. are empty as the sounds of passing cars and the cool fall air calms my nerves. Today is the day I've been pining for over a semester, the chance to interview Pam Smart.
After a poor attempt to choke down a muffin, I rendezvous with the rest of the group. We're on our way, sucking down coffee, Red Bull, fruit Gushers and with a plethora of junk food. Making light of the intense and weighty day ahead, we discuss the differences between shiving, shanking and pillaging as well as the true definition of a "Mama Luca" while Johnny Cash plays in the background.
We drive by the prison and further into Bedford Hills. Offsetting the depressing and cold prison are mansions, horse farms, charming shops and boutiques. The high society lifestyle that oozes from Bedford Hills is a sharp contrast to the stripped down life for the village's other residents behind bars.
After a short debrief, I'm back in the SUV and on my way to the prison. We are greeted warmly by Officer White. As we calmly fill out the paperwork, he taunts our nervous appearance and offers some reassuring words.
"Imagine the worst thing you could think about prison," White said. "You won't see it because you're not on the inside." Then he tells us that the show "Oz" is the best portrayal of prison he's seen.
The visitor's room is reminiscent of a high school cafeteria, same chairs, paint and tables. An inmate plays the game "Trouble" with her young son, touching him at every opportunity as he moves his piece around the board. Scenes equally as heart-wrenching are unfolding at every other table.
Finally, Pam walks into sight wearing a white Ralph Lauren sweater, prison-issued pants, brown high heels with her hair slightly curved towards her face. She greets us and makes sure we didn't have trouble getting in to see her.Time passes quickly as Pam answers our questions. My mind is on the verge of collapse as I try to soak up as much of the interview as I could muster. I realize our time is up. We say goodbye to Pam and retrace the paths and gated doorways.
The instant I leave the prison facility, a sense of relief pours from my body, but an eerie feeling still resonates when I realize Pam will never feel what it's like to be outside of prison. I start scribbling madly. The group's back-and-forth banter refreshes my note scribbling. The hard part of the day is done. The anticipation didn't kill me, nor did anything I encountered in prison.
Scared in the sense of freedom. I wasn't initially nervous knowing I was going to a maximum security prison, but that changed rapidly when we circled the prison grounds, along with what was I going to say to Pam Smart?
What do I say to someone who's been in prison for 15 years? Was she going to be nice? How would she react to a group of college students who have been reading information on her life in and out of prison for the last year?
There was a tall tower at the front gate and everything on the grounds was gray.
Inside those prison walls was Pam Smart, someone who will remain in prison with her life sentence without parole unless a miracle happens.
Walking through the entrance, I get nervous. I begin to fill out the paperwork and hand Officer White my driver's license. I don't like being told what to do generally and being told by a prison worker made me even madder. My hand started to shake and Officer White told me "everything was going to be ok." Somehow I don't believe him, I just want to leave and not interview Pam Smart anymore.
More gates, more visitor logs to sign and we're in the room. A blonde-haired woman walks in, flanked by two guards. She introduced herself and began talking and answering questions we asked. Let the story unfold.
For months we had been investigating the Pam Smart case but the time had finally come to visit her in prison. The idea to visit her in prison was a good one, but it never seemed real until we pulled in. I'll never forget it.
It was finally real, we were about to walk into a maximum security prison and talk to one of the most notorious criminals in the state of New Hampshire.
When my time came to meet Pam Smart I became nervous. I walked up to the prison guard and handed him my paperwork. He could smell my fear and said, "Don't worry, you're coming back." His comment lightened my mood and suddenly my fear became focus, It was time to do the interview of a lifetime.
As my classmates and I sat down with Pam Smart, another feeling came over me. This time it was normalcy. After everything we'd researched and all the anticipation, interviewing Smart felt natural and no different from any other interview. Perhaps I was in the zone.
I was so intent on following prison procedure and doing so without making a fool of myself I filled out the form saying I lived in my KSC dorm full time. I had forgotten one important thing, to think about the task at hand. Luckily for me and my classmates, the guards were very understanding and humble.
The visitor's room was brightly decorated with drawings posted on the walls. The prison officials probably wanted to create a cheery atmosphere for the visitors so they wouldn't experience the grim atmosphere back where the cells are.
Pam greeted every group. I was also surprised, shocked even, of how down-to-earth she was. She was positive and understanding. Smart answered our questions very respectfully, as she understood our purpose for doing the project was to get the truth. Visiting Smart in her maximum security prison took a mental toll on me, but was an experience of a lifetime.
Entering the visiting area, our group of four students were detained for 45 minutes while "the important guys" said they had to figure things out. Two important-looking men in white starched uniforms asked the purpose of our visit and then said Smart had to approve it.
Finally, it was a rush of "this is it" pulsating through my head. We waited at the assigned rectangular table. Pam came to the table . For someone so prominently shown on television, she is very petite in person. Her hair was done and so was her make-up and she definitely looked beautiful, considering the circumstances.
She was cordial and shook our hands and said it was a pleasure. Then the two officers we'd met outside came to the table . After our group leader vaguely explained our intentions, she signaled her approval to the guards and they left.
As we asked our questions, she was very interested and gave us all respect. She looked us square in the eye when she answered and fully explained everything. Everything about her came across as intelligent and kind. You can see that she's earned her master's degrees in literature and law.
After we finished up our questions, she shook our hands. Walking out, it felt bizarre. Althoughit wasn't as emotional as some may have felt, it's definitely an experience I haven't had.
With my palms sweating and heart beating, I managed to make it through the visitor check-in. As the guards ushered us into the next section of the confine, I found myself in a cage no bigger than 8-feet by 8-feet surrounded by barbed wire and waiting to get buzzed to the next place. The door swung open and we proceeded to make our way into a situation that would forever leave a mark in my memory.
There she was, Pamela Smart, the woman we had come to know so much about. "The Ice Princess" as the media dubbed her, but she was nothing of the sort. I was immediately made comfortable by her carefree attitude. After an hour of convivial conversation, I was forced back into the unforgiving walls of the facility. This was reality.
As I walked out the door there was not a fragment of me that was anything but empathetic. Empathetic, because here was a remarkable woman forced to live out her own death sentence in a world she did not belong.
For a brief moment I understood the feeling of freedom, because I got to walk out, back into a life that those inside can only dream about.
I volunteered to drive one of the SUVs, while James Steelman manned to the other one. The vehicle, a new charcoal-colored Chevy Tahoe with third row seating, a 5.3 liter V-8 engine and a 4-speed transmission with automatic overdrive. I was very familiar with this vehicle. I was confident we'd get to the prison in one piece.
When we got to Bedford Hills, my heart raced. Now it seemed like we were jumping through hoops, parking vehicles as a bus station and visiting the prison in groups of four.
We all saw her coming. Pamela Smart, the infamous convicted murderer. I remember that her perfume smelled like the kind my mother wears. She was a nice lady and didn't mind what questions we asked her. The prison was cold she said, her hair dryer was constantly on for heat. I still felt like I had to walk on eggshells in the prison.
I still can't decide on a guilty or not guilty verdict. But this was the chance of a lifetime. Other people of more importance than my class have been denied the chance to question Pam Smart.
I walk into the prison to the small check-in room and find myself detained. Everyone is silent and I decide to chat with Officer White to see why we are being held up. Our friendly banter seems to ease the tension that is seeping into the room.
Finally, a bald lieutenant with a dragoon tattooed on his arm speaks to us. The prison knows we are journalism students. We are searched, asked to remove the contents of our pockets and I joke with Officer White that I have a love letter in there for him. We take our shoes off.
Finally, we receive the security hand stamp for numerous black light clearances. We are suddenly surrounded by fences and I feel trapped. We follow a garden path to where the prisoners are kept. Another bar door opens and we sit at Table 49. I stare at the cracks in the table when I see her out of the corner of my eye.
This tiny little frame and this beautiful blonde hair comes towards us. She is wearing a turtleneck, green prison pants and brown-heeled boots. There is a gold chain around her neck with a sort of anchor on it. She sticks her hand out and says, "Hi, I'm Pam Smart." Immediately she put us at ease.
She confesses to us things about her life and the whole time she talks, I am amazed. She is well-spoken and looks at you with these big eyes that demand to keep your attention. I barely notice the young couple holding hands nearby, or the father who came to visit his daughter.
I notice the way Pam sits with ease and I try to copy her style. I keep reminding myself to be a sponge and absorb everything she is telling me. But it is so hard when you are trying to hang onto every word. We have a few laughs and before I know it, my group has to go.
I had another wave of grief come over me and my eyes filled. I get to leave and she doesn't. She sat all alone at Table 49 and smiles and waves. I lean towards my professor and she says, "It's okay to feel that way."
We get back into the SUV and I am stunned. I wrote down anything I could think of the whole way home and every now and then, something would come to me.
What the hell am I doing here? That was the first and only thing on my mind as the SUV rolled up to the Bedford Hills prison. Excessive amounts of junk food, coffee and cigarettes clouded my brain, and more importantly, my aching stomach. This is definitely not what I had in mind when I signed up for the journalism department at Keene State College.
As I lit another cigarette, an overwhelming sense of dread settled in. I'm at a prison. What in God's name am I doing?
I just so happened to be in the last group of people going in to talk to Pam Smart. It worked for me. Who the hell volunteers to be the first person to walk into a prison and talk to a convicted murderer? That's like willfully jamming long, pointed objects into your eyes. We have instincts for a reason.
But the longer I waited, the worse I felt. Bathroom breaks occurred nearly every hour on the hour as my nerves slowly began to destroy me from the inside out. The only bathroom to speak of was a little grocery odds and ends store across from the lot where our suspicious black SUVs were parked. Every passing motorist in the city of Bedford Hills seemed to do a double take followed immediately by glares which in no way suggested a welcoming committee to their quiet little town.
Visiting hours stopped at 3:30 p.m. My group left for the prison at 3 p.m. Of course when we got there, we couldn't get in. It was too late.
But my so-called journalistic instincts managed to perk themselves up through the haze of cigarette smoke and cheap caffeine. Now I actually wanted to go in. I was willfully jamming those sharp objects into my eyes by the handful, and I was loving every minute of it.
We made another venture to the prison a couple weeks later, and this time I got to speak with Smart. I wish I could say that it was the best interview I've ever conducted. I wish I could say that I left the prison feeling enlightened, riding high on a wave of accomplishment. I can't.
What stands out in my mind is the faces of those passing motorists. The Sponge Bob Square Pants posters plastered in the waiting area for visitors to the prison. The chase is greater than the catch, I suppose. I anticipated so much that when Smart turned out to be just an ordinary person in a very sad situation, it was kind of a let down.
But I will say this. I'm never setting foot in a prison again (if I can help it).
© Copyright 2007 Keene Equinox