SUSANVILLE, CA – In a move that blurs the line between metaphysics and criminology, the Lassen County District Attorney’s Office filed escape charges against a High Desert State Prison (HDSP) inmate who admitted to having had an out-of-body experience, or OBE. The decision to prosecute based on an OBE is the first in U.S. history. While a successful conviction would likely set a precedent and close what some corrections experts are calling a loophole, an acquittal could spell a win for many prisoners seeking a way out their confines.
Robert Stroud – currently serving a 25-year sentence for hit-and-run and felony evasion – shared his experience with High Desert officials at his annual classification review, during which staff members evaluate behavior and other variables to make determinations on appropriate housing, privileges and program options. Stroud thought that the committee would be pleased to hear that he was improving himself through study and meditation. But he was wrong. “When I told them that I was studying astral projection, their expressions went from stone-faced to outright scowls,” Stroud recounts, shaking his head in disbelief.
Astral projection is the term used to describe the intentional “projecting” of one’s conscience or spirit into the non-physical realm. Practitioners believe that, through relaxation and deep meditation, one can have an OBE at will. It’s a concept studied by mystics and neuroscientists alike. However, prison officials are less enthused. HDSP warden, Samuel Norton, says that he and his officers enforce a zero-tolerance policy on escape in any form. “If an inmate or any part of the inmate leaves this institution without authorization, we are required – by law – to deal with him severely,” states the former U.S. Marshall.
“It’s kind of a gray area,” explains Douglas Freeman of the Lassen County Public Defender’s Office. “In once sense, you’re there, but in another you’re not,” he adds, throwing his hands up in perplexity.
For D.A. Martha Clarksdale, the case is quite clear. “The defendant – by his own admission – was outside of the prison, at count time no less,” she says with an exasperated sigh. “There was no lawful excuse for that, making it a crime,” she quips while rummaging through a manila folder.
Stroud disagrees. The 67-year-old has suffered from clinical depression since adolescence. With no self-help programs on the yard and scarce access to counseling services, astral projection provided the only means stave off frequent thoughts of suicide. Unfortunately, the suicidal thoughts have returned, as Stroud has been placed in administrative segregation with restricted access to reading material. To some, the extra measures taken to prevent Stroud’s escape might seem unnecessary.
Not so for officials at HDSP. Warden Norton slides a report across the desk and points to a sentence stating that Stroud took police on a lengthy foot pursuit nearly two decades ago. When reminded of the fact that, since then, Stroud has lost a right leg and much of his eyesight to diabetes, Norton simply shrugs. If convicted, the ailing senior could face up to ten additional years behind bars – many of which would likely be spent at the super maximum Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay. According to Stroud, that outcome would be tantamount to a death sentence. “I’m prepared to take it all the way to the Supreme Court, if need be!” the trial-hardened vet exclaims.
But what would the 67-year-old do in the case of a loss? “I’d probably take up Zumba,” he answers with a hearty laugh.