How much punishment is enough? In Wisconsin, a proposal by Gov. Jim Doyle to allow early release for some nonviolent offenders has come under serious attack, with critics like state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen alleging that it puts the public at risk. Is everyone in prison a threat to society? Does prison serve to rehabilitate? This week and next, Isthmus presents stories about inmates from Madison.
There's something hard and unusual about Geoff Oyler.
Even before you learn that he can't go anywhere comfortably alone, or that he only carries money in his right sock, or that a four-inch buck knife always rests in his pocket, it's obvious. You can feel it.
Geoff's a powerfully built man of 22 years with thickly gelled auburn hair and contradictory mannerisms. His eyelids droop, but the orbs underneath never stop moving. He smiles easily, but tightly. He declines alcohol, but guzzles cup after cup of black coffee.
Today, it's odd that Geoff and I even know each other. More than five years have passed since we went to Edgewood, Madison's oldest private high school. Five years. That's a long time ordinarily. But between the ages of 18 and 23, it's an eon. A lot can change. A lot did.
In March 2006, Geoff was convicted of counterfeiting money on a large scale and sentenced to 21 months in prison; he also pleaded guilty to fifth-degree forgery for doctoring pill prescriptions on a separate charge. He served the sentences concurrently, at two institutions, and was released two years later. Sadly, that would not be the end of Geoff Oyler's troubles with the law.
At the time of Geoff's conviction, I knew nothing about it, having lost touch with him. But in the fall of 2007, while working as a staff writer at The Gazette, a 70,000-circulation paper in Iowa, I came to the newsroom one day to see his name on the return address of an envelope on my desk. It had been sent from Oxford Penitentiary, a federal prison in Oxford, Wis.
One of Geoff's cellmates was from Cedar Rapids and subscribed to The Gazette, and Geoff had read a column of mine, prompting, in his words, an "irresistible urge" to write me.
For a long time I was fixated by the letter, reading and rereading the words. I wasn't sure whether to write back. Eventually, curiosity won. I wanted to understand what had led him to prison.
Thus began our correspondence, more than a hundred pages of letters. Me, from my desk; Geoff, from prison. This is how I learned Geoff's story, the devolution of a boy who seemed to have everything: intelligence, good looks, loving and middle-class parents. And I learned of the man he had become, someone still subject to his shortcomings: greed, disloyalty and impulsiveness.
But there was something more - a capacity for deep introspection and repentance, as in the letter he wrote me on Oct. 22, 2007:
I look back at my own life, and all that has happened to me, and all of the drastic turns it has taken, realizing that I do not fit the stereotype; that I have [gone] so far outside of my upbringing's comfort zone. Essentially going to hell and back as an "Edgewood kid." And I am astonished that I have survived, that I am alive to tell my story.
I was 14 when I met Geoff. His hair was tinted bleach-blond, his speech curse-laden and his behavior irreverent. We had English and math classes together. Most class periods he straggled in around 15 minutes late, reeking of cigarettes and marijuana.
One day, he asked me to get high with him during lunch. We could go to the adjacent parking ramp right next to the cafeteria. I was 15 and wanted to fit in. But ultimately I said no. Geoff, looking disappointed, went off without me. I saw him 20 minutes later in geometry class, staring vacantly.
Years crept. Tests, passed and failed. Geoff got to know the dean well. He was written up for ditching class, smoking cigarettes on campus and receiving oral sex in the school parking lot, an offense that forced his departure months before graduation.
Geoff had always gotten into trouble, recalls his mother, an educator at Madison's Cherokee Middle School. He was kicked out of day care. He left Toki Middle School for Cherokee after seventh grade because, she says, "things weren't working out." He dropped out before graduating from Memorial High, after being ousted from Edgewood. He was high when he took his ACT, scoring an 18 of a possible 36.
"In the back of my mind, I knew where I was going eventually," says Geoff during an interview in early spring. "But coming from Edgewood, we always had lawyers to get me out at court. You know: 'A slap on the wrist, this kid goes to Edgewood.' A slap on the wrist, always a slap on the wrist. I didn't have the mannerisms that would let on that I was engaging in criminal activities."
Geoff, says his mother, has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which makes him impulsive. He was raised by divorced parents in two very different households, one rigid, the other lax.
And then there were the drugs. He went from recreational to habitual use, marijuana to painkillers, painkillers to heroin. As he wrote me in December 2007:
I did a lot of drugs, and I mean a lot of drugs. I was a pharmaceutical specialist by the age of 16, strictly self-study. Hands on, no books required. Do you remember that Skittles commercial? Well, I definitely tasted the rainbow. It was fun until I found something I really liked. Painkillers.
By the time he was 17, drugs had pretty much taken over Geoff Oyler's life. Before long, he was living out of his 1991 Saab, having been booted from both parents' homes. He had stolen and pawned family possessions, even his mother's wedding ring.
"I'm a very organized person," his mother tells me. "I always know where things go. And if something turned up missing, my first thought was, 'Oh, Geoffrey must have taken it and pawned it.'"
She has always struggled to understand him. "He's not your typical white, middle-class kid. There's something that's not functioning right in his brain, and he has to learn that life isn't about immediate gratification." She pauses and looks away. "I love Geoffrey. I really do."
Geoff, it turns out, has also struggled to understand himself, as he acknowledged in a letter:
So, what happened to Geoffrey Oyler? I would love to say shit just happened, but it was all on a depreciating straight line. It's like one of those correlating graphs with the points and you can easily plot a line from start to finish. My life might have [gone] up and down here and there, but it definitely followed a trend.
In March of 2004, Geoff's parents checked him into Hazelden for drug rehab treatment. After completing the program, he was sent to St. Paul to live at a halfway house. His parents believed he had overcome his addiction. Geoff did too.
For a month, the predictions seemed right. Geoff was clean. And happy. Neither lasted long. His halfway house neighbor passed Geoff a meth pipe. He thought about it for a moment. Then he lifted the pipe, lit the crystals and inhaled.
Geoff moved out of the halfway house and in with a fellow drug addict several blocks away. One night in 2005, he walked down into a sub-basement of a two-story house on the outskirts of Minneapolis. The fluorescent lights above flickered. Three men stood silent around bizarre-looking equipment, watching him. Geoff refuses to identify the men, beyond calling them the "Mexican mafia," for fear of retribution.
"I think we could use your help with a technical, private matter," Geoff recalls one of the men telling him. And there was one more thing, imparted later: "If you fuck us over, we'll kill your family."
This began Geoff's introduction to counterfeiting. In one of his letters, he made it sound seductive.
Paper, watermarks, inks. The smell of hot rubber - the smell of the printing press. Old, but not archaic, it did its task well. A beautiful algorithm of parts and sounds, all working seamlessly toward a final product. Then came treatment and sealing so it would pass the pen test. Held up to the light with the "ghost," or watermark, looking back at you. It was a beauty to be seen.
All that money. A man almost felt God-like. Almost.
At my desk at The Gazette, I tore through Geoff's letters. Around me, keyboards clacked, phones slammed, scanners droned. Geoff's words seemed surreal. I couldn't believe someone I attended Edgewood with had gone to prison. In time, I discovered the theme of this story. Greed.
His entire life Geoff had adored affluence. In high school, he wore designer: Armani, Gucci, Perry Ellis. He drove a Chevy Trailblazer that his parents bought him. A gold chain hung from his neck.
"He's very materialistic," Geoff's mother says. "He wants so desperately to prove himself, to his father, his brother, that he can be successful. And you tell your kid, 'You need to go out and make money,' but I never meant in that way."
In early 2005, Geoff returned to Madison, trying to escape his lifestyle in Minneapolis. He moved into an apartment on Frances Street downtown. He was spending over $1,000 a week on drugs, more than could be sustained with the money he made throwing keg parties and leeching off his parents.
Soon he was putting some of the skills he had learned in Minnesota to use here.
The operation was simple, but effective. Always good with technology and computers, Geoff configured his desktop and another monitor with pirated software for designing currency. He bought a book on watermarking. Then, with a high-tech printer, he mixed the colors to produce the precise shade of olive green. Using equipment he borrowed from a UW art student, he cut the sheets.
Geoff says he sold his counterfeit $20 bills to a local drug dealer, who paid 40 cents on the dollar. But after several months, he got sloppy.
On July 19, 2005, according to police reports, Geoff was caught on a security camera at McTaggart's Market in downtown Madison using a fake $20 bill to buy a frozen pizza. The clerk called police after he left. While officers interviewed the clerk, Geoff returned for cigarettes.
The clerk identified Geoff, who was obviously high. Police searched him, finding syringes and $400 in counterfeit bills. He was cuffed, telling officers, "I don't know where all this money came from, man. I'm fucked. This is bullshit. I'm trying to get my life back together."
The Secret Service was alerted and searched Geoff's Frances Street apartment, finding prescription pills, syringes and counterfeiting equipment.
Geoff describes the episode oddly, as though it were on some level a loss not just of liberty but of innocence:
I would like to think that everyone goes out there and learns the hardships of the real world, but I felt so ahead of the game. Like something had been stolen from me so soon, and I couldn't just enjoy my ignorance like everyone else. The next week, I would only turn 19. What the hell is wrong with me?
It was a good question for Geoff to ask, especially given what happened next. After his arrest and release but while awaiting his sentencing, he was arrested for drug possession in northern Minnesota and later for forging pill prescriptions in St. Paul, drawing another felony charge.
Geoff's counterfeiting case was transferred to the 8th U.S. District Court for Minnesota. On March 21, 2006, after weeks of confinement at a county jail, his federal sentencing arrived.
Guilty. Twenty-one months. Federal prison. Maximum security. His parents were present; both cried.
A month later, Geoff was back in court, this time on state charges of forging prescriptions. He was sentenced to another 12 months in prison, but the judge allowed Geoff to serve both sentences concurrently.
Geoff was ordered to serve the first portion of his term at a Minnesota state prison in St. Cloud and the second in federal prison at the lower-security Oxford Penitentiary in Wisconsin, where he began writing me.
Incredulity hangs from every word Goeff writes of his first experiences in prison at St. Cloud, a level-four maximum-security prison:
The first thing I saw was the wall. A huge 20-foot-tall wall of solid granite blocks, at least 10 feet thick - and God knows how long. The wall seemed to go on forever until we reached the gate. A double gate with two containment areas. You get into one and the fence locks behind you, while the second one opens. Did I mention all the razor wire? On every surface you can imagine.
I got to my cellblock and this looked just like the movies, only bigger. There was hooting and hollering. That fucked me up, but I didn't show it. I just walked to my cell and made immediate contact with my cellie. He told me to be ready, my people - the white guys - would be coming for me.
Days later, while Geoff walked the yard for the first time, they came, eight white, heavily tattooed men. Without a word, he says, they began punching. Geoff fought back, but fell. The pummeling continued: 15, 30, 45 seconds.
When the melee ended, Geoff lay dazed. Then a bell sounded and he was taken back to his cell, where he wept into his pillow. Would everything be as random and violent and pointless?
The next morning, three of his attackers appeared at his cell. One had a black eye. They asked to see Geoff's "paperwork" - the police records that every convict's handed before incarceration. To "regulate their race," they wanted to ensure that Geoff wasn't a snitch; he had passed their test in fighting their attack.
Geoff says afterward they gave him a radio, shower shoes and Ramen noodles as gifts to ease the transition to prison life. But they also gave a set of rules: Never fight anyone without obtaining permission from the gang. Never disrespect the gang. If he did, the "Aryans," as they called themselves, would yank his protection.
Geoff for once abided by the rules and sank into a new routine. But as months passed, he began to realize he wasn't like other prisoners.
"I've seen so much meanness," recalls Geoff in an interview. "There are people in there, you look them in the eye and you see nothing. They don't care whether you live or die. And if you get in their way, they will kill you. And for what?"
Geoff was released from federal prison in Oxford on March 25, 2008. His mother, who visited him biweekly and says she cried every night he was away, picked him up. They hugged and drove home to Madison.
The day Geoff was released, I thought of calling him, but didn't. I still don't know why. He had shared so much with me in his letters, so much pain and disappointment. I felt we had somehow grown close even though we hadn't been before his incarceration. I'm sorry now that I didn't call.
At some point in our correspondence, he told me not to throw away the letters. He said he'd come for them one day so he wouldn't forget everything he'd been through.
After his release, Geoff felt like he had returned from a war zone. He began taking anxiety medicine to combat insomnia and intrusive thoughts. Still, things began to fall into place for him.
Geoff became engaged to a 22-year-old woman named Amber-Lynn Grenfell, who loves him completely. A software company brought him on their payroll as a salesman, and he excelled.
What's more, he swore - to me, Amber-Lynn, his mother, anyone who would listen - that he would never go back to prison. He had changed, matured; he was ready for a new life.
As he wrote to me in January 2008:
You see, I can never be innocent again, Terry. That was lost in the state max joint. What I can be though, is somebody. I can push myself to achieve.... I was never comfortable with myself, so I sought external sources to help me. Prison has allowed me to dig deep and find myself. To reconnect with my family and set goals again for my life. It is weird, finally getting aspirations in prison. But I tell you what, it feels good.
First, he had to complete his probation, and Geoff Oyler could not. Like more than one-fifth of all inmates released from federal prison between March 2008 and March 2009, he failed on the outside.
Two weeks ago, on May 20, Geoff was sentenced at Madison's federal courthouse to six months in federal prison for parole violations that included failing a drug test and tampering with another.
Those who love Geoff say he yearns for a decent life, but his addictions keep getting in the way. So they'll wait on his potential once more.
At last month's hearing, Geoff's mother hardly cried; she isn't sure whether she'll visit him in prison. This time, Geoff may need to conquer his insecurities, failings and addictions alone.
"Now," Amber-Lynn said while leaving the courtroom, "he'll have to start all over again."
Next week: A Madison resident tells his story, from within his prison cell.