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What awaits Jason Van Dyke in prison, according to experts, ex-cop who did time

a prison cell block

What awaits Jason Van Dyke if he's sent to prison? The Sun-Times asked experts — including a white Oklahoma cop imprisoned for killing a black man. | AP file photo

He was a white cop who killed a black man.

He was convicted of the shooting, and demonstrators picketed outside the courthouse.

And his racially polarizing case drew national attention.

That sounds a lot like Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago cop now facing a prison sentence for shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times.

But Robert Bates, a former Tulsa County, Oklahoma, volunteer sheriff’s deputy, also fits the bill. Bates served 1½ years in prison in the 2015 death of 44-year-old Eric Harris.

Bates says he thought he had reached for his stun gun when he shot Harris with a handgun during a drug sting. Even now that he is out of prison, he still insists Harris died of a heart attack and not from his bullet wound.

Bates, who got death threats for the shooting, was placed in protective custody in prison.

“That’s one of the worst things that can happen to you,” Bates says. “You are locked up most of the time. I worked my way into being let out.”

Experts interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times about what awaits Van Dyke in prison say he, too, is likely to remain in protective custody the entire time he is incarcerated.

Former Oklahoma cop Robert Bates (right) on being a white cop imprisoned for killing a black man: “You are locked up most of the time. I worked my way into being let out.”

Former Oklahoma cop Robert Bates (right) on being a white cop imprisoned for killing a black man: “You are locked up most of the time. I worked my way into being let out.” | AP

“Cops almost invariably cannot make it in that situation,” says Cameron Lindsay, a former warden of federal prisons and privately owned correctional facilities across the country. “In my humble opinion, the Illinois [Department of Corrections] would take a ridiculous, reckless chance if they put this individual in general population.”

Van Dyke, 39, faces six to 20 years in prison for second-degree murder and potentially decades longer for a total of 16 counts of aggravated battery in the 2014 killing of 17-year-old McDonald.

As he awaits sentencing later this year, Van Dyke has been spending 23 hours a day in a small cell at the Rock Island County Jail, with one hour of recreation. He doesn’t have any interaction with other inmates.

The Cook County sheriff’s office moved him to the 329-bed facility in western Illinois for his safety and to preserve order in the Cook County Jail.

Jason Van Dyke mug shot | Rock Island County sheriff's office provided photo

Jason Van Dyke jail photo. | Rock Island County sheriff’s office

Van Dyke’s lawyer Daniel Herbert has said solitary confinement is “hard on him,” but the alternative — placing him with other inmates in the general prison population —  would make him a target for violence.

True, Bates says. But, after a while, he says he was able to leave his prison cell for hours at a time because he gained the trust of the guards. About four months into his stint in a central Oklahoma prison, he spoke with other inmates from his cell and started buying medical supplies they needed — items like aspirin and diarrhea medicine.

He says that helped win him friends among the prisoners. The guards let him out to talk with fellow inmates, some who were in protective custody because of mental illness.

Bates says he bought coffee for gang members who protected him from other inmates who wanted to harm him.

“These guys respected me,” he says.

Bates says he finished his time at another prison in western Oklahoma, where the guards let him out of his cell up to four times a day — even though he was officially supposed to be in his cell around the clock.

The price for that temporary freedom from his cell, though, was having to stay constantly vigilant.

“My head was swiveling, doing 360s,” he says.

Bates, who had owned a successful insurance business, ended up serving less than half of his four-year sentence because he was credited with “good time” in prison. When he got out, he moved to Florida to get away from his enemies in Oklahoma.

Tulsa attorney Clark Brewster (left) accompanies his client Robert Bates as he arrives at the Tulsa County Jail on April 14, 2015.

Tulsa attorney Clark Brewster (left) accompanies his client Robert Bates as he arrives at the Tulsa County Jail on April 14, 2015. | AP

His attorney, Clark Brewster, says prison wasn’t easy for Bates.

“When he went in, it was very, very difficult for him,” Brewster says. “He was not a very well 72-year-old man when he went to prison. I was truly surprised at how well he acclimated.

“He was very well-liked. We got letters from inmates who adored the guy. He was considered a giving and generous person. He was able to be protected but at the same time have communication and interaction. And he was able to get people help and support people.”

Still, Bates might have fared better at a prison outside Oklahoma. Brewster thinks the same is true for Van Dyke. The Illinois Department of Corrections “might consider sending that guy to an out-of-state prison where he may not be as well known,” Brewster says.

As Bates puts it: “The best thing he can do is grow one hell of a beard, change his name and records and get into the federal correctional system in the shrubs where they won’t know who he is.”

A spokeswoman for the corrections department says 46 Illinois convicts are housed out of state under an “interstate corrections compact agreement.”

“Offenders are generally transferred out of state due to administrative or safety and security reasons,” says the spokeswoman, Lindsey Hess. “To protect the safety and security of IDOC offenders who are housed in other states, their names cannot be released.”

She says there’s no additional cost to Illinois for housing inmates in other states “because this exchange is mutual and balanced.”

A judge can recommend an inmate be housed in a different state, but the final decision is made by the Illinois corrections department, Hess says.

She would not confirm whether any inmates being held out of state are former law enforcement officers.

Roy Oliver, a former Balch Springs, Texas, police officer convicted in the fatal 2017 shooting of Jordan Edwards, 15. | AP

Van Dyke’s situation is rare.

There have been 14 cases nationally involving cops who faced charges in recent years in the shooting deaths of black people. Three of those officers — Bates, Roy Oliver and Michael Slager — went to prison. Four were acquitted, four are out on bail awaiting trial, one’s case was dismissed after two mistrials, one got probation, and Van Dyke is awaiting sentencing.

In August, Oliver, 38, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for murder for firing his AK-15 rifle five times into a car that was leaving a Dallas-area party last year. Jordan Edwards, 15, was shot in the head and killed.

Jordan Edwards was shot to death in 2017 by a Dallas-area police officer, Roy Oliver. | AP

Oliver is now in the Ramsey state prison outside of Houston.

“We prepared Roy that he would be placed in aggravated segregation,” says his attorney Miles Brissette. “That’s 23-hour lockdown with one hour out of their cell.

“To put a convicted police officer in the general population is to sign their death warrant.”

Brissette says his client has to do at least 7½ years in prison before he is released.

“He is resigned to getting back to support his family,” he says. “If that’s staying on lockdown for 23 hours, that’s staying on lockdown so he can get back to taking care of his autistic son.”

Former prison warden Cameron Lindsay. | Provided photo

Lindsay, the former prison warden, expects that Van Dyke will face similar circumstances in prison.

“I would cell him singly, in isolated fashion, until we could analyze the security situation,” says Lindsay, who ran correctional facilities that held former cops including New York Detectives Stephen Caracappa and Louis Eppolito.

Sentenced to life in prison for committing eight mob-ordered executions, they were placed in protective custody.

“They were potential targets — likely targets,” Lindsay says.

He says some former law enforcement officers have survived in the general population of a prison but that they were in minimum security, held with low-level drug dealers and white-collar criminals.

He doesn’t think that will be the case for Van Dyke.

“Look, he is a former police officer, he shot a juvenile 16 times, and the juvenile was a minority,” Lindsay says. “There also is a high publicity factor. I don’t know how you could not have heard about this case. He may feel he wants to be on the yard or in general population, but that wouldn’t matter to me because I would not want him to be there.”


• Jason Van Dyke reading, writing letters from Rock Island as he awaits sentencing

• Complete guide to the Laquan McDonald case and Jason Van Dyke trial