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Jewish World Review Sept. 4, 2001 / 15 Elul, 5761

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

6-year-old boy won't be ordered to sleep in prison -- NEBRASKA Gov. Mike Johanns used careful, measured words late last week as he explained why he is changing the state's rules about children sleeping in prisons — and why the 6-year-old son of double murderer Kimberly Faust will not be ordered into prison for sleepovers with her.

"There is an obvious problem," Gov. Johanns told us when we spoke, "when someone commits a murder . . . and then a child is turned over [to the murderer in prison] for an overnight visit. There is something inherently troublesome in the state's participation in that situation."

What the governor's measured words translated to was this:

He looked at what the state of Nebraska was about to do by sending a 6-year-old into a locked prison to sleep twice every month with a brutal murderer, and he realized that it was insane.

It was not defensible — even though his office had been attempting to defend it for most of last week.

Gov. Johanns' office had said the governor had no intention of becoming involved in a case that was in the courts. Kimberly Faust had gone to civil court to demand that her son be delivered to her in prison for the sleepovers.

But the child had been charged with no crime — and no judge in a divorce court, or in a contracts court, has the right to send to prison someone who has not been charged with and convicted of a crime. Certainly not a 6-year-old boy.

That is the essential mistake Gov. Johanns' office was making earlier last week. Kimberly Faust — serving two life sentences for the murder of a woman she believed was having a relationship with her estranged husband, and the murder of a man who tried to save the woman Kimberly Faust had stabbed and set on fire — had taken her former husband, Bruce Faust, to court in Otoe County, Neb. Mrs. Faust was demanding that Bruce Faust be held in contempt of court because he was reluctant to honor a divorce agreement she said they had made.

Bruce Faust had promised her overnight visits with their 6-year-old son, she said. He argued that he didn't realize this meant the boy would be locked in prison twice a month. A judge in Otoe County told Bruce Faust that he could go to jail if he didn't deliver the boy to prison.

This is the court dispute that Gov. Johanns' office at first said he was powerless to do anything about — and thus powerless to help the child. But the Nebraska prison system was not a party to any divorce agreement, and was not bound by any divorce agreement. If a couple in a divorce agreed that their 6-year-old child must spend every Thursday in classes at the University of Nebraska, the university would likely say: No. We decide who is admitted here. A divorce court doesn't.

Yet for much of last week, Gov. Johanns' office acted as if the Nebraska prisons were required to lock up anyone a divorcing couple said had to be locked up. It's not true — and the governor appeared to figure that out by the end of the week.

His decision was that any prisoner with no chance for parole would no longer be eligible for overnight prison visits with children. The reason for the prison sleepover program is so that women serving relatively short terms can maintain their connection with their children, so when the women get out, the family unit will be intact. Gov. Johanns said that for women who will never get out of prison, especially those convicted of violent crimes, there is no logical reason to send the children into the prison to sleep. If the children want to make certain their mothers are alive and well, they can visit in the daytime, during supervised visiting hours. Faust's children, including the son she wanted to sleep in prison, can still do just that.

(If you're asking yourself whether a male double murderer — or any male prisoner — is eligible to have his children brought to him for sleepovers in a Nebraska prison, the answer is no. Harold Clarke, director of Nebraska's prison system, told us: "Men [in prison] are not situated equally with women, the courts have found.")

Kimberly Faust is not in prison because she is a woman — she is in prison because she murdered two people, one of whom was only trying to rescue someone Faust had stabbed and set on fire. Faust's own defense attorneys, at her murder trial, said that she did not appreciate the consequences of her actions, and that she reacted poorly to stress. Gov. Johanns — after, according to the Omaha World-Herald, more than 1,200 of you contacted his office — decided to personally take a close look at the case. As soon as he did, he knew there was no way to defend what the state of Nebraska was doing, because it was simply wrong.

So the 6-year-old can grow up without being ordered to shuttle between a state prison and his home, friends and school. Meanwhile, there is new and numbing information in Nebraska about how some children are being treated. Tomorrow, we will report on this new case of apparent torture.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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