Billy Dekle was a Florida boy who loved to fly. He could fly anything under any conditions. For a time, he dusted crops for his family’s business. When he was older, he flew south and lived the Jimmy Buffett dream, flying loads of marijuana into the United States.
In the ’70s and ’80s, smuggling was a dangerous lifestyle, but for Billy, it was an adventure. He got arrested several times, but the end arrived in 1990 when he was indicted and found guilty b the jury of conspiring to import marijuana.
Billy had never been violent, even though he had navigated dangerous situations that required all his wits. He went to trial and on June 7, 1991 was sentenced to life without parole as a nonviolent marijuana offender. He is one of more than a dozen non-violent marijuana offenders serving life without parole sentences in federal prisons. Many others are doing life without parole sentences in state prisons.
Billy adjusted to life in federal prison while nourishing his sense of humor and maintaining his optimistic nature. He realized that his sentence was life, but there was hope that laws would change, parole would be restored, and clemency could become a viable and frequent act. He filled his life with work and decorated his cell with pictures of the vintage planes that he loved.
In May of 2012 when he had served 22 years of his life without parole sentence, the last 14 incident free, Billy was removed from his cell and taken without explanation to the SHU. (Solitary confinement for those unschooled in prison protocol.) He had been a responsible and productive inmate for years, a dependable and skilled worker for UNICOR with a great prison resume. He had been fortunate enough to have been moved from a high-security penitentiary to a medium security federal prison. This new development would assure that his life would change dramatically. He would be returned to a high-security penitentiary.
The reason for this change in status was unexplained. Billy was told that he would be transferred back to a USP because the warden wasn’t comfortable with him in the facility. This transfer would change his life: he would be sent to a high-security facility and he would no longer be close to friends and family. No explanation was given – no questions were answered.
After being in the SHU for five months, this nonviolent marijuana offender was able to piece together the reason for this oppressive loss of freedom. This is the story:
Inmate X was a man who boasted responsibility for multiple murders, a kidnapping, rape, and torture. To memorialize this status, his tattoos were tombstones bearing the names of his victims; “Do not resuscitate” unfurled across his chest; A Grim Reaper tattoo was part of his body art. Inmate X had recently been fired from his UNICOR job for a serious infraction. He now had ample idle time and nothing to fill it with. Bob decided his medication was inhibiting his thought and decided to stop taking it. (Inmate X is just one of the multitudes of mentally ill who fill our prisons living among what can only be called our most vulnerable population.)
Billy’s cellmate had previously lived with Inmate X and Inmate X now hatched a plan. He no longer cared about his life, but he still wanted to extract revenge for the cellmate who deserted him and the inmate who had become his confidant.
On May 29, 2012, Inmate X killed himself in his cell and, through this action, he let the world know he had nothing to offer — the note he left took care of the revenge he sought. In the note, he advised the warden that Billy and his old cellmate were planning an escape from federal prison.
Remarkably, Billy’s vintage plane photos would play a major role in the decisions made about his future. The investigation concluded that vintage plane memorabilia proved that the ranting of a mad man could be true. Billy’s life was changed, and he would spend five months in solitary then be returned to a high-security prison far from his family and support.
William Ervin Dekle, 64, now resides at the United States Penitentiary-Sandy Springs in Inez, Kentucky.
The stigma and lack of choice in high security is just the beginning of the hardship for these often peaceful and nonviolent men and women. The real horror is the realization that they must always be alert and their safety and well-being depend on diffusing, cajoling, mediating, and pacifying the truly violent who are the unknown among them.
Mentally ill inmates are legion in the prison system and the majority of them will be released without treatment. Nonviolent marijuana inmates like Billy will die in federal prison, possibly chained to a hospital bed.
Does that sound fair?