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‘Dope and handball’ and other prison tales

Steve Lundeberg

When the world was a less digital place, the newsroom received in the mail a steady stream of soon-to-be-released books.

These days, as the promotion business is a lot more electronically oriented, they show up with much less frequency, so when a book arrives in the mail it provides something of a jolt.

And one that arrived last week was more jarring than most: “Images of America, Oregon State Penitentiary," by Diane L. Goeres-Gardner and John Ritter.

The penitentiary is one of those terrifying-looking places, much like the old Oregon State Hospital, where “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was filmed, that I find myself drawn to look at it even though it unnerves me to do so.

I’ve only actually been to the penitentiary, which dates to 1872, once — for a parole hearing for Hank Dufort, the former Children’s Farm Home director who’s serving a 48-year sentence for 26 counts of sodomy, sex abuse and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

As I prepared to leave the newsroom for the penitentiary that day, photographer Mark Ylen said, “You know they won’t negotiate for you if you end up getting taken hostage?

Reporter Alex Paul added, “If anything happens to you, can I have your motorcycle?”

Checking in at the prison, I learned that what Mark had said was true; I think I even had to sign something saying I understood the non-negotiation policy.

And I know some of you work in lockups, or have had other occasion to be there, and thus are maybe sort of inured to such circumstances, but the menacing clang of metal doors behind me triggered an uneasy feeling I haven’t forgotten.

My only other known brush with the penitentiary was a somewhat indirect one. One afternoon many years ago, I was trolling the wire for a story to fill out an inside page when I stumbled across a Los Angeles Times article bearing the slug line (subject line) of “Ex Convict.”

The success story resonated with me because I knew the subject, Ken Layton, though I was unaware of his past until reading the article.

I twice played against Ken in handball tournaments. The first time, which is when I met him, I was a very novice player and he beat me something like 21-10, 21-13.

By the time our paths crossed again a couple years later, I had improved quite a bit and figured I owed him one; I jumped on him early and never let up, prevailing something like 21-3, 21-2.

I never thought about him after that until seeing the LA Times story, which outlined a long criminal resume that included shooting a man while fleeing a holdup.

His last stop as an inmate was the Oregon State Penitentiary, and as the story said:

“He believed (it) to be safe: ‘This is gonna be a breeze. Dope and handball.’

“By the time, in 1977, Layton, 34, was 6 feet 2 inches tall, a tattooed and muscled 200-pounder who wore sunglasses and a stocking cap pulled to his eyebrows. Larry Roach, then administrative assistant to the warden, said, ‘He was the fiercest man I had ever seen.’”

I didn’t seen any photos of Ken in the new book, which is historical in nature. Plenty of other pictures were intriguing, though; among many other images were those of a gas chamber, gallows, riots and even salmon and steelhead caught inside the prison when Mill Creek used to run through the grounds.

The book is part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, which “celebrates the history of neighborhoods, cities and towns across the country.”

It goes on sale Monday for $21.99 at conventional and online bookstores and at arcadiapublishing.com. (sl)Fo

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Follow Steve Lundeberg on Twitter, @AnyGivenLundy, or email him at steve.lundeberg@lee.net.

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