I have no idea why I was moved to do a Google search just now on a convict who was sentenced to life in prison for a 1972 murder.

Well, maybe I do, at least a little bit. For better or worse, little bits of the past tend to cross my mind when I least expect and am paying even less attention. When the name Jouett Arney flashed across the great blank screen that is my subconscious, I was in the middle of preparing dinner and since I had a few minutes before the rice boiled and the the pork loin was done to perfection, I sat down here and entered it in the Google box.

Three decades ago, Jouett Arney sent me a letter. I am vague on how he had my name or address but my best guess is that it was not originally sent to me but to an independent movie producer with whom I was working on various projects. Arney was in the Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas, serving a life sentence for shooting and killing a resident of Kansas City in 1972.

He said he was innocent and, over the next several months that we corresponded by snail mail and two telephone calls, he tried to convince me of that.  He sent a steady stream of documents which he claimed supported his accusation of being railroad. They were impressive enough that I followed up with the Department of Corrections and State Attorney General to ask questions. Their answers left a few questionable areas but generally deflated his case.

I am no expert on convicts and their behavior but, assuming that a generality used in crime fiction and TV shows has some merit, I also noted that his documentation showed that he had a tendency to feel betrayed by those he asked to argue his case in relatively short order if he got no results. That was the way our relationship ended as well, when he sent an angry letter instructing me to turn over all his papers to a Filipino woman in New York he claimed to be engaged to.  I met her for lunch in Philly and gave her the documents and that was the end of it.

This, dated December 2003, is what I found tonight when I did that Google search:

Convicted murderer Jouett Edgar Arney, whose 1977 petition protesting prison conditions led to federal court oversight of the Kansas penal system, died Monday. He was 71.

Arney died in the clinic at the Lansing Correctional Facility, where he was serving a life sentence for a 1972 killing in Kansas City, Kan. He suffered from persistent health problems, but the Department of Corrections will not know the exact cause of his death until it conducts an autopsy, agency spokesman Bill Miskell said.

In a 1989 interview, Arney said he had picked up most of his legal knowledge from one book in the Lansing prison library when he banged out his six-page petition on a typewriter. He filed it in U.S. District Court, representing himself.

Consolidated with other cases, Arney’s petition led the state to sign a 1980 consent decree promising to improve prison conditions and relieve overcrowding. Seven years later, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report on conditions in Lansing, and U.S. District Judge Richard Rogers intervened.

The following year, Rogers ordered nearly 800 inmates released from Kansas prisons. The judge eventually set capacity limits for each institution and did not close the case until 1996. Because of Rogers’ orders, the state built a maximum-security prison outside El Dorado and a mental health center for inmates in Lansing.

William Rich, a Washburn University law professor who represented inmates and met with Arney regularly over 15 years, said Arney’s efforts eventually made the state more sensitive to prison conditions.

The interesting thing about all this, assuming there is any interest at all except to me, is that there surely might have been a small film or TV drama built around how his life worked out in the end, a convicted murderer who help reform his state’s prisons.


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