How do you build a meaningful life in prison, knowing you might never be free? What if whether you might one day be free hinges on your ability to build a meaningful life in prison? In Part Four of the “Violation” podcast, we follow Jacob Wideman’s decades-long journey through the Arizona prison system and hear how he prepared to tell his life story to the parole board.
Two years after he murdered Eric Kane, Jacob was transferred from county jail to the Arizona Department of Corrections to begin serving a life sentence. At 18 years old, he was thrust into a world where the only way to feel safe was through physical aggression and bravado. He had many years of practice pretending he wasn’t suffering from mental health struggles in his youth, but now, Jake had to push those struggles even further out of sight as he faced a series of challenges in prison, each more difficult than the last.
“Heart test” is prison shorthand for proving yourself when you first arrive in the facility — standing up for yourself and not snitching to guards after you’ve been assaulted, for example. But the physical heart tests of Jake’s early years would give way to heart tests of a different kind: a slow and painful journey to identify and manage his mental health problems, and a search for love, even through prison bars. Eventually he would have to stitch all these experiences together to tell the parole board a compelling life story, in the hopes that they would one day find him worthy of release.
Listen to new episodes each Wednesday, through the player at the top of the page, or wherever you get your podcasts. The “Violation” series will also be available on The Marshall Project’s site and on Here & Now from NPR and WBUR.Additional materials:
Beth Schwartzapfel: Hey folks, just a heads up. This episode mentions suicide and suicidal thoughts. If you’re dealing with this issue, help is available. You can dial 9-8-8 for the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Please take care and here’s the show.
Last time on “Violation.”
Patty Garin: When we started doing parole hearings, it seemed like “Of course, he’s going to get out on parole.”
St. Louis public radio excerpt: Ruzicka and an employee played a game during parole hearings in which they earned points for incorporating song titles and unusual words such as “manatee and hootenanny” into their questioning.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Like, did anybody tell you how..?
Duane Belcher: No.
Beth Schwartzapfel: So how did you decide?
Duane Belcher: We would hear the information and each board member would weigh the information.
Louis Kane: At previous hearings it was noted by the board that the murderer had never shown emotion about his heinous and horrific crime.
Jake Wideman: I couldn’t face the people that I loved. At one point, I tried to fire my attorneys and request the death penalty.
Detective in microcassette recording: Can you give me any details about what happened to that particular murder.
Beth Schwartzapfel: This is a recording made almost 40 years ago on a microcassette that the county attorney’s office found at the bottom of a box.
Detective: …and where it took place, and what were the circumstances that occurred?
Jake Wideman: I can tell you that I did murder Shelli Wiley.
Detective: Okay, what is your name?
Beth Schwartzapfel: Did you catch that? I know it’s kind of hard to hear. It’s 17-year-old Jake telling a police officer, “I did murder Shelli Wiley.” Wiley was a 22-year-old University of Wyoming student who was killed in 1985.
Detective: Where did you meet Shelli, then?
Jake Wideman: At a basketball court in Laramie.
Detective: At a basketball court in Laramie.
Beth Schwartzapfel: At a basketball court in Laramie? No. All the stuff Jake is saying in this old tape is bogus. He’d never even met Shelli Wiley, let alone killed her. He’d just read about her murder in the newspaper while he was in high school. So why would Jake confess to a crime he had nothing to do with? Jake now says he was so self-destructive, so suicidal at the time, that he thought confessing to another murder would increase his odds of getting the death penalty. And it might have.
Jake Wideman: That was the whole purpose is I wanted my life to end and I figured that one or the other of the states would give me the death penalty if there were two crimes hanging out there.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Let’s take a minute to remember where Jake is at this point. He killed Eric Kane in 1986, when they were both 16. He spent a few months in psych hospitals and juvenile detention, before ultimately spending two years in the county jail, while his lawyers fought the charges. While he was there, he spiraled into a deep depression and, at 17, attempted suicide by confession.
Prosecutors in Laramie initially tried to extradite Jake to Wyoming for the Wylie murder, but over the next few years, that case fell apart when Jake recanted his confession and few of the details matched the evidence. Which makes sense, since he made them all up.
By 1988, at age 18, Jake pleaded guilty to Eric’s murder to avoid the death penalty. His sentence? Twenty-five years to life.
Jake Wideman: I was 18. I was about 18 and a half when I finally got to prison. And I didn’t know anybody. So, it was just a — it was a terrible time for me trying to — struggling to not become a target, to not be exploited, to not be extorted.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Now, we’ve talked a bit about the parole system — how someone like Jake can spend years trying to prove to the board that he’s served enough time and he’s ready to be free. How there’s no real criteria for being ready, just this vague sense that you’re sorry enough and changed enough from who you were when you committed your crime.
So, you have to make a coherent story out of your time in prison. Convey, somehow, who you were then, and what went wrong to lead you there. And who you are now, and how you got to be that person.
Over the course of many years, Jake says he worked hard to understand his own story — both for his own healing, and also so he could someday tell that story to the board.
Here’s that story. The story of how he began to grapple with his mental health; of the diagnosis that finally made some sense — at least to him; and of some surprising relationships Jake developed on the inside.
Beth Schwartzapfel: I’m Beth Schwartzapfel. From The Marshall Project and WBUR, this is “Violation.” A story about second chances, parole boards, and who pulls the levers of power in the justice system.
This is Part Four: “Heart Tests.”
Just before Jake arrived in prison at 18, guards at the county jail had warned him: the only way to protect yourself in prison was to project a sense that you are not to be messed with.
Jake Wideman: I had to go through what other new inmates had to go through at that time, which was testing and testing involved physical encounters, fights, that kind of stuff, just to see, as they called it in prison lingo, a ‘heart test’ to see if I would stand up for myself, to see if I would go and snitch and, you know, tell the officers that I had been attacked after afterwards, you know. And so I went through that. And that was something that I had never experienced, of course, in my life, that kind of that kind of testing, having to live by that kind of code.
Beth Schwartzapfel: The records from Jake’s time in prison list very few disciplinary infractions, but what trouble there was came almost entirely in the late 80s and early 90s, as he faced down those so-called “heart tests” and tried to project an air of bravado: disobeying orders, using obscene language, getting in the middle of a fight. This dynamic of constantly trying to prove yourself contributes to a culture of violence and toxic masculinity in prison that’s hard to escape, especially as a young person.
As a result, Jake spent a year in a special detention unit. And there, he bunked with an older man named Tank — Jake never learned his real name. Tank told him he was childish. Told him he needed to start taking some responsibility for himself. Asked him…
Jake Wideman: “Why are you allowing what people think of you to dictate how you act and how you behave?”
Beth Schwartzapfel: Tank’s tough love changed Jake’s outlook, he said. The change wasn’t instantaneous. That’s not how change works. But over the course of several years, Jake says, he realized…
Jake Wideman: I had reached a point where I just couldn’t live with myself anymore. I just, you know, I knew that I needed help.
Beth Schwartzapfel: He reached out to a therapist at the prison, and to his attorney, Patty Garin.
Patty Garin: I got this call to go, from him, that he’s just — he’s ready to talk. Could I come out to Arizona? And I just dropped everything and flew out there and spent two days with him.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Jake sat with Patty in the prison’s visitation room, an officer standing nearby but out of earshot. They talked for hours about things Jake had barely ever said out loud.
Jake Wideman: And I remember walking in and just, you know, going through kind of a perfunctory greeting and then, uh, and then just — just spilling, spilling out what I hadn’t talked about for my entire life to that point.
Beth Schwartzapfel: From Jake’s earliest memories, he told her, terrible images would pop into his head. Of his family lying dead at his feet, or, if he got angry at another kid, that child lying on the ground bleeding, Jake standing over them with a knife.
He told Patty that day — and, years later, the board — about his compulsive need to hide this disturbing imagery from his family and friends. The resulting isolation compounding his feeling that he was weird and broken. The exhausting and lonely charade of pretending that everything was fine.
Well into his teenage years, he suffered from a condition called encopresis, which essentially means he soiled his pants. One year at camp the kids in his bunk called him “Little Mr. Shit-in-his-Pants” all summer. But when his parents brought him to a psychiatrist in high school, the doctor chalked it up to the result of Jake having a prolapsed rectum as a child.
Jake also told Patty that from the time he was a small child, he would periodically and suddenly start shaking and sweating, his senses intensified, his heart pounding.
Jake Wideman: It would be like looking at — looking at a scene outside of you, for example, standing on a plane and looking at a forest. And all of a sudden it just lights up. And all the trees look like Christmas trees. And, you know, the air around you feels thicker, feels more tangible.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Jake always thought of these as “adrenaline rushes.” He never told anyone about them. But that didn’t mean nobody noticed. Remember the fellow camper who said that he acted hyper sometimes, like he was possessed? Remember the tantrums he had as a child, that his family called “moose acts”?
Jake Wideman: It feels like my body speeds up to 100 miles an hour and everything becomes more intense. Thinking, emotions, impulses, they become very difficult to manage and control.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Not knowing what was going on, prison doctors over the years tried antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, anti-psychotics, and mood stabilizers.
Then, in 1997, one doctor jotted “temporal lobe epilepsy” in his chart. The potential diagnosis had appeared in his chart at least once before, as early as 1986. According to Jake, no one ever mentioned it to him, but eventually doctors began trying various anti-seizure medications. His medical records say things like, “He is calm for the first time,” and “since the last medication change, he has not experienced any ‘rushes’ as he has in the past.”
By the time Jake went before the parole board for the first time in 2011, he had been working for more than a decade to get to a healthier place. It was not easy work, he says.
Jake Wideman: There were many, several instances of suicide attempts over the first I want to say five, five, six years, especially, with days when I just, when I just couldn’t deal anymore, when it was too painful to be even talking about my experiences and too painful to be facing them. And the guilt that I felt over taking Eric’s life just overwhelmed me.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Jake refers to it sometimes as his “therapeutic journey,” which can sound like he spent that time in an ashram or a New Age retreat, but he seems to think of it that way, very much in earnest.
Jake Wideman: I was extremely lucky to encounter therapists in here, which, who were amazing. Who were miracle workers, you know, and you very rarely hear that in a prison setting.
Jake Wideman, archival: My name is Jacob Edgar Wideman and my ADC number is 070…
Beth Schwartzapfel: He had to figure out how to tell this story coherently and in a way that felt authentic. It was one of the most high-stakes stories he had ever told. The board didn’t even have a video link at that time, so Jake sat down in a room in the prison where a phone line was tied to the parole board’s hearing room, where his family and Eric’s family were gathered. And over that terrible connection, he tried to explain all of this to the board.
Jake Wideman: I was so nervous and so caught up in, you know, the whole process and what I was going through and what was at stake and trying to keep 10,000 different things in the forefront of my mind, and my heart, you know, including being respectful and considerate of the Kane family in everything that I said.
Beth Schwartzapfel: He told the parole board the only formal psychiatric diagnosis he had received that seemed to fit — and he had received a lot of them by that point — was Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD.
He also told the board about the therapy that had changed his life, called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT. He first learned about it from a prison therapist.
Jake Wideman: And he sat me down and he said, without any preamble, he just said “You are not your thoughts.” And I said “What? What did you just say?” And he said “You are not your thoughts.”
Beth Schwartzapfel: For someone who had struggled with disturbing thoughts of violence, this idea — that his thoughts need not define him — was like a revelation, Jake said. With DBT, over time, Jake said, he had achieved a peace and control of his emotions that he had never known before.
But at that first hearing in 2011, Jake’s parole was denied. For Jake, this was a devastating blow. In his mind he knew it was a long-shot, but in his heart he thought he actually had a chance.
The board told him they wanted him to have a new round of psychiatric testing. They wanted a clearer explanation for why he had killed Eric — more compelling evidence that whatever happened that day in 1986 would never happen again.
Now, one thing that sets Jake apart from most people in prison is that his family has financial resources. So, if the board suggested there was something he could do to increase his odds of being paroled, they were going to do it. For the average prisoner, to arrange neuropsychiatric testing through the corrections department could take years, if it happened at all.
For Jake, before his next parole hearing a year later, his family arranged an evaluation with Dr. George Woods, a psychiatrist and professor at Morehouse and UC-Berkeley. Dr. Woods got a call in 2012 from Jake’s mother, Judy.
Dr. George Woods: She told me the story and asked me would I help the family if at all possible.
Beth Schwartzapfel, in tape: And was she asking you to do a medical examination looking for, like, a structural problem in his brain that might account for this?
Dr. George Woods: Well, she was asking me to be a neuropsychiatric sleuth.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Dr. Woods spent hours interviewing Jake and his family and read over a thousand of pages of medical records and previous evaluations dating back to 1987. So at Jake’s 2012 hearing, Dr. Woods told the board the same thing that a prison doctor had suggested years prior:
Dr. George Woods, archival: Mr. Wideman suffers from temporal lobe syndrome…
Beth Schwartzapfel: Mr. Wideman suffers from temporal lobe syndrome, he says, and this has gone under a number of terms over the years: Temporal lobe epilepsy, temporal lobe deficits, temporal lobe syndrome, but what it really describes is an abnormality in the brain, an electrical abnormality.
Most people associate epilepsy with grand mal seizures, which cause the body to shake violently. Seizures in the temporal lobe show up in a person’s behavior, Dr. Woods said.
Dr. George Woods: It can show up as hallucinations. It can show up as obsessions, obsessional behavior, and compulsive behavior.
Beth Schwartzapfel: The Kanes were skeptical. They saw this new diagnosis as yet another excuse. At Jake’s 2012 hearing, Eric’s brother Randy spoke.
Randy Kane: Temporal lobe syndrome, TLS, is now the convenient diagnosis of choice. There is no evidence that Jacob has had seizures at any point in his life…
Beth Schwartzapfel: He wasn’t having a seizure when he stole a car and forged travelers checks and ran from the law for a week, Randy said.
Randy Kane: Over the course of the entire week after he murdered my brother Eric, clearly depicts that it was not just a simple effect of a seizure disorder.
Beth Schwartzapfel: I ran all this by Dr. Woods, and he said he doesn’t care what you call it. He gave it the best, most accurate name he could, but psychiatry is an art more than a science, he said.
Dr. George Woods: Symptoms are what count, not necessarily diagnosis.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Okay. So you’re saying like we can we can squabble about what we call it, but something is going haywire in the temporal lobe of Jake’s brain.
Dr. George Woods: No question about it.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Dr. Woods might be sure about it. But the board wasn’t so sure. And other heart tests that Jake faced — more personal, intimate ones — would give the board even more to be wary of. More after the break.
Beth Schwartzapfel: When Jake was first locked up, in 1986 he was 16 years old. It was 25 years before he could even be up for parole, and as I said earlier: a lot of that time was spent figuring out all the unspoken rules of prison and how to navigate them. Then, in the mid-1990s, Jake started to make sense of his own life story so far — both so he could live with himself and so eventually he could present a parole board with a compelling case. And he did that in 2011, but his parole was denied. His next hearing was a year later.
At the 2012 hearing, Dr. Woods, the psychiatrist who diagnosed Jake’s temporal lobe syndrome, told the board that Jake had been stable for years and, in his medical opinion, was a very good candidate for parole.
But the board expressed doubts. Was Jake in remission, one board member asked? Like, his condition was under control right now but could recur later? Dr. Woods said yes, it was like that. He felt comfortable that Jake had a long track record of asking for help if he needed it and was not concerned that any recurrence of symptoms would lead to violence, but there was no guarantee. Of course there wasn’t. How could there be?
So in 2012 the board said no a second time. This is board member Jack LaSota.
Jack LaSota: There is a probability that he could be at liberty without violating the law. I just don’t think at this time it’s a substantial enough probability. Will time get it there? Probably. But, it doesn’t — it’s not, it’s not there today.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Jake’s parole was denied in 2013, 2014, 2015, and early in 2016. There were a few years when he was denied twice.
A lot of things from Jake’s past kept coming up at hearings, things that the Kanes, and some board members, saw as evidence that Jake was more dangerous, or unstable, or untrustworthy, than he’d like you to think. They were raising questions like: the Shelli Wylie murder. Was that really a false confession? What if it wasn’t? Also, information about the crime itself. Did Jake really want to just listen to his Motown tapes in the car that night? Was he really looking at those maps to quiet his mind after they got lost that day, as Jake claimed? Or was that just a ruse for him to plan his escape? The Kanes also kept returning to one very disturbing detail.
Sandy Kane: If it was an impulse that came on suddenly, Wideman might have recognized what he had done after he stabbed Eric and gotten help for Eric. Even if he realized it a little while later after he drove away in a car, he could have called for help, even anonymously. If he’d done one of those things. Eric would be alive today because it took Eric three hours to bleed to death.
Beth Schwartzapfel: It took Eric three hours to bleed to death. Now, I haven’t been able to verify this anywhere. The autopsy report didn’t say anything about how long it took Eric to die. But the amount of blood around the room, and the fact that Eric was found in the bathroom meant that he stumbled around for a time. So, it clearly took some time. And it’s true that Jake could have called for help, and he didn’t.
Now, what should the board make of this? Is it just one more awful detail from an awful night that Jake has already served his time for? Or is this proof that Jake is beyond redemption?
Late in 2016, Jake went before the board for a seventh time. He had been in prison 30 years. He had a lot to tell the board about what he had accomplished in that time, who he had become and who he was striving to be. He had earned multiple college degrees. He had a job tutoring other men, and eventually became a peer mentor, helping them to make plans for their reentry. He organized charity events on his prison yard, raising money for various causes like the American Cancer Society.
Jake Wideman: I don’t like that people often stereotype prisoners as living in these empty, limited, confined lives because that’s not always true and it never has to be true. If I were to die tomorrow, I would certainly have many, many regrets. But I would also feel like I have lived a full and wonderful life.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Now, let’s be clear. Prison is a terrible place. Almost everyone I know who emerged from prison wiser, more accomplished, more mature and well-adjusted than they went in said that they did so by sheer force of will. Despite their time in prison, not because of it.
This is an especially fraught issue when we’re talking about people, like Jake, who committed their crimes when they were not yet adults.
In 1988, when Jake was sentenced, our country was in the midst of a historic crime wave, and there was a lot of anxiety over kids who were supposedly out of control.
Archival news: Good evening we’re coming off the bloodiest year in the history of New York...
Beth Schwartzapfel: In the years that followed, a new word emerged that seemed to perfectly sum up the attitudes of the time.
Hillary Clinton, archival: They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called “superpredators.” No conscience, no empathy.
Beth Schwartzapfel: That’s Hillary Clinton in 1996. News accounts about these so-called conscience-less teenagers used terms like “wilding” and “wolf pack.”
Hillary Clinton, archival: We can talk about why they ended up that way. But first we have to bring them to heel.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Bring them to heel. As if these teenagers — really Black and brown kids, I mean, who are we kidding? — are dogs. Clinton did eventually apologize for those comments. But in this climate, the juvenile system, which had been set up to provide treatment and care but not punishment, suddenly seemed too lenient. So in the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s, states began changing their laws to treat kids who commit serious crimes as adults.
Arizona had not executed anyone in modern times who had committed their crime as a teenager. But other states had. It’s why Jake’s lawyers encouraged him to plead guilty back in 1988. Later, Jake’s father, author John Edgar Wideman, reconstructed conversations he had with the lawyers in an essay called “Thirteen.”
John Wideman: Arizona wants to start executing juveniles. The other lawyer continues. The state’s looking for the right kid to kill. A Black kid would suit them perfectly.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Much later, in 2004, the Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles.
Archival news: The majority opinion striking down juvenile death sentences was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. He noted what he called…
Beth Schwartzapfel: It was part of a slow but steady march back from the thinking of the “superpredator” era. The latest neuroscience and psychology recognizes that kids are different. It’s “what every parent knows,” Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote. Kids are more impulsive. They’re immature. Their brains aren’t fully formed yet. But they will grow up. And most of the time, they will change. This is Justice Elena Kagan.
Justice Elena Kagan: Youth matters in determining the appropriateness of certain penalties. The imposition of a state’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Many states have interpreted the Supreme Court’s line of cases in this area to mean that parole boards, too, should take that seriously when they’re deciding whether to release someone, who, like Jake, was a teenager when they committed their crime.
And whenever Jake talks to the parole board, he emphasizes his rehabilitation, his accomplishments.
Jake Wideman: I’ve had amazing people around me. I’ve been through a decades-long struggle of healing. I’ve had the opportunity to read probably three or four times as many books as the most well-read people out in the world have. I’ve had an opportunity to educate myself. I’ve had an opportunity to give back to others who are struggling and in pain and who are trying to find themselves and find meaning for their lives in prison.
Beth Schwartzapfel: All of those accomplishments are very positive, as far as the parole board is concerned. But another experience Jake has had in prison that was very positive for him — his biggest heart test yet — was not so much for some board members.
Jake Wideman: I’ve been in love.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Yup. He’s been in love. That’s the biggest heart test of all. Since he’s been locked up, Jake has been married. Twice.
Now, you might think that’s weird. Several parole board members felt that way. The board has certainly spent a lot of time over the years discussing these marriages.
Why in the world would anyone marry someone who might never get out of prison? Phone calls are monitored and recorded. Letters are opened and read. A person in prison can’t make a living. They can’t spend holidays with you, go to your birthday parties, your kids’ recitals — any of life’s events, big or small. They can’t just be with you. And on top of all that, they might have committed a terrible crime.
Jake met his first wife, Anne, in the early 2000s. She was one of his therapists at the prison.
Jake Wideman: She was tremendously helpful to me on a professional level for a couple of years, and then we came to a point pretty much simultaneously of whether there were feelings beyond a professional relationship.
Beth Schwartzapfel: I did reach out to Anne, but she never answered my calls or emails. Jake is reluctant to say much about their relationship. He says he hasn’t been in touch with her for a long time, and he wants to respect her privacy. But here’s what he did tell me.
Jake says Anne left her job at the department shortly after they first acknowledged their feelings for each other, and the two of them stopped communicating altogether for a time, trying to follow the ethical rules for psychologists.
Jake Wideman: We waited the required amount of time, which I believe at that time was six months. And then we started corresponding and the relationship went from there.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Now, as a general rule, therapists getting into romantic relationships with their clients — certainly current clients but even former clients — is seriously frowned upon by the profession. But the Arizona board that licenses psychologists never disciplined Anne for this relationship. They considered, and dismissed, some sort of allegation against her in 2005, but I can’t find out what it was because those records have been destroyed.
But when the parole board learned about it later, board members found Jake’s relationship with Anne to be troubling. The Kanes had accused Jake of being manipulative. And marrying his prison psychologist seemed to fit that narrative. I talked to retired Arizona prison warden Duane Vild about this. He has no involvement with Jake’s case, but Duane worked as a warden in the Arizona prison system for many years, so he understands how the system works. And he tried to put himself in the shoes of a parole board member.
Duane Vild: So now the word manipulation now comes in I’m going, who is this guy? And how does he marry a psychologist? First of all, how does he find her? How does he marry her? What’s going on here? And now, I’m kind of like hmm, no. Get his ass back to prison.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Warden Vild and the parole board members hearing Jake’s case weren’t the only ones who were surprised.
Marta DeSoto: I remember him saying, I’m getting married. And I was like, Oh, I was like, ‘oh!’ You know, I just kind of like, found it really, you know, unusual.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Marta DeSoto was completing her training to become a psychologist at the unit where Jake was housed at the time.
Marta DeSoto: I remember asking my supervisor, Beth, I said, ‘Who is she?’
Beth Schwartzapfel: The marriage between Jake and Anne lasted only two years. They were married in 2004 and divorced in 2006.
Jake Wideman: And I have a lot of regrets about that because I feel like I was not a good husband at all. I feel like I was still caught up too much in myself and in what I wanted and needed. And, um, you know, the failures of that relationship were almost exclusively mine.
Beth Schwartzapfel: In fairness, the responsibilities of being a good husband are tricky when you are in prison. Again it’s a little hard to get further context on this relationship failure from Jake or from Anne. But soon after, another surprising relationship started to take shape.
About a year after Jake’s divorce from Anne, Marta got a letter from Jake, asking if they could stay in touch. Like, be pen pals.
Marta was the woman training to be a psychologist in Jake’s unit. She remembered Jake well from her time working at the state prison. He was clean cut, soft-spoken. He clearly read a lot.
Marta grew up in Spain, where it’s unheard of for a 16-year-old to be given a life sentence. Kids can’t be tried as adults there. So she was sort of curious what his story was — how in the world did this guy end up in this place?
Marta DeSoto: You know, at first I was like, I don’t know. You know, that’s kind of weird, to some. But then I said, yeah, why not?
Beth Schwartzapfel: By the time Marta heard from Jake, she had gotten her psychology license, left the state Department of Corrections, and was working as a psychologist at the county jail. She had given birth to her second child and gotten divorced from her husband all within the last few years.
Beth Schwartzapfel, in tape: What made you say ‘Why not?’ Like, I mean, you could have…You were newly divorced. You had two little kids at home. Were you — was there any part of you that was like, ‘I do not need this right now?’
Marta DeSoto: Oh I’m sure there was. I’m sure there was. But, you know, I don’t know, fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve never really played it very safe. It’s not like I don’t think through what I do, but I kind of, I like new experiences. I like to go into places that maybe not many people would go into.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Jake’s letters were surprising, full of insights and emotion. He felt familiar, somehow. Comforting. Like Marta had known him forever. It wasn’t long before Marta would be fluttering with anticipation each time she got a letter from Jake in the mail. Soon, she filled out an application to go visit him in person.
Jake Wideman: It was just — it was magic, Beth. It was the most natural and easy conversation, first time conversation with somebody I’d ever had. And we just fell into this immediate comfort with each other and openness with each other. And I think I told her things in those first few visits that I hadn’t told people who’d known me my whole life and felt perfectly okay doing it.
Marta DeSoto: I spent, you know, 8 hours with him talking with him. This has been the case since that time until now. I mean, we can sit for endless hours and talk about anything and everything. Nobody had ever listened to me the way that Jake listens to me.
Jake Wideman: Our relationship evolved into something enormously beautiful and challenging and difficult at times. And it’s been all of that. But it was, it’s been just a cornerstone of my life for 15 years now.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Jake and Marta married in a small ceremony at the prison in 2013. Jake’s sister, Jamila, and his mother, Judy, came. Marta’s sister came too. They weren’t allowed much fanfare — Jake had to wear his usual orange jumpsuit and they couldn’t take pictures, but someone bought a bag of Skittles from the vending machine and threw the little rainbow candies in the air like confetti.
So why would a woman like Marta — a woman with a successful career and a full life out in the world — marry a man like Jake? It’s a question even Jake has asked her.
Marta DeSoto: At first, there were like many times where he tried to convince me not to be with him because he felt like I could do much better than him.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Armchair psychologists have lots of theories about why women — and let’s be honest, it’s mostly women — choose to marry men who might never get out of prison. It’s way more common than you might think. Statistics are hard to come by, but every year there are hundreds of prison weddings between incarcerated people and those on the outside. Maybe they have a savior complex. Maybe they have been abused or mistreated and this feels safer. A man in prison is a man who can’t hurt you. But every relationship is different, and every person’s reasons are their own. As for Marta, she says she is in love with Jake. It’s as simple as that. Her life is better with him than without him.
Marta DeSoto: I have a you know, I have fulfilled life. I can’t complain about anything. And the fact that he’s in my life, you know, adds to my happiness.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Jake and Marta have now been married for ten years. But even before they were married, Marta was already attending Jake’s parole hearings and speaking on his behalf. Starting in 2011, moving in with Marta and her children was a formal part of the plan Jake submitted to the board for what he would do if he were released.
This clearly bothered people. Shortly after the 2011 hearing, someone reported Marta to the board that licenses psychologists in Arizona — the same board that considered an allegation against Anne. It’s called the Board of Psychologist Examiners and there were five members looking at the complaint against Marta.
Marta DeSoto: Two out of the five said that they didn’t think that I did anything wrong at all. And the other three said, well, there’s concern that she may not know about multiple relationships.
Beth Schwartzapfel: “Multiple relationships” is a no-no in psychology. It’s when a psychologist is acting in both a professional and personal capacity at the same time or promising to do so in the future. Marta says she did no such thing with Jake. She was not even licensed as a psychologist yet when they met, and their romantic relationship didn’t begin until years later.
Marta DeSoto: I mean, I didn’t do anything that was contrary to what the ethics say.
Beth Schwartzapfel: But Marta agreed to earn some additional educational credits on the subject and the board closed the case without disciplining her.
Beth Schwartzapfel, in tape: And so you did that?
Marta DeSoto: Mm hmm.
Beth Schwartzapfel: And then that was the end of it?
Marta DeSoto: That was the end of it.
Beth Schwartzapfel: But that wasn’t the end of it for certain parole board members. They couldn’t shake this idea that Marta and Jake’s relationship said something crafty about Jake. This is former board member David Neal:
David Neal: During his time incarcerated he had several counselors. And he convinced two different women to marry him while he was in prison. And this is like, “Wow, is this guy a manipulator or what?”
Beth Schwartzapfel: The idea was that Jake was doing anything he could, including marrying prison psychologists, to get himself out of prison. As if the marriages could help him get released somehow. Maybe because the women had a home for him to go to? I don’t know. Board members never exactly explained their skepticism — it was more of an implication: These women couldn’t possibly want to be with him because they loved him. There must be something else going on.
And hey, part of that statement is true. Jake was doing everything he could to get out. And it turns out one new idea involved a different therapist he started working with in 2016. His name was Jon McCaine. Not the Arizona senator and one-time presidential candidate.
Dr. Jon McCaine: I’m a Ph.D. licensed psychologist in the state of Arizona.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Dr. McCaine had traveled to the prison to talk about Jake’s parole plan, how he might adjust to life outside of prison, and to establish a relationship so that Jake would have some continuity in his mental health supports if he ever got out.
When I asked Dr. McCaine his first impressions of Jake, he said the things they didn’t talk about were at least as noticeable as the things they did talk about.
Dr. Jon McCaine: What we didn’t talk about, which is often really common is discontent, cynicism with the system, a sense of being wrongfully this and that. None of that was even part of the conversations. He was completely understanding and accepting of the situation and his own culpability in it.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Jake included a letter from Dr. McCaine in the paperwork he submitted to the board, and said that he planned to continue to see him if he were released.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Because of Arizona’s public meeting law, the board has to deliberate in public. So there’s this awkward period at the end of every hearing when they talk amongst themselves as if they’re in a private meeting but they do it at the dais in front of everyone.
Parole board member, archival: In discussion, the board may sound as though we are talking to you. We are not. We are talking to each other. Our purpose here is to relay our own thoughts and come to some determination by motion of the board.
At Jake’s 2016 hearing, when the time came for the board to vote, the tone of the conversation felt different than at prior hearings. One board member, and then another remarked on Jake’s accomplishments over the years. Jake cautiously started doing math in his head.
Laura Steele, one of the board members, had previously said she thought Jake was ready for home arrest, a sort of step-down form of parole where you wear an ankle monitor and are mostly confined to your home. But you’re out of prison and living in the community.
But you need at least 3 out of 5 votes to get parole or home arrest, and at the last hearing, only one other board member — Brian Livingston — had agreed.
Brian Livingston, archival: On the other side we must look and believe in the Arizona correctional system.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Now, at this hearing in 2016, Jake’s seventh, Livingston said he understood the Kanes’ pain would never go away. But he said he had to balance that against other factors.
Brian Livingston: So when you look at Mr. Widesman [sic] institutional actions, we have to agree that he’s participated in all of the training, and more, than is required of most inmates.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Then Sandra Lines agreed.
Sandra Lines, archival: I don’t blame him for marrying two women. Two educated women. This is a lonely man. He was a kid, a 16-year-old kid when he was in jail. He’s lonely. He wants the comfort and the love of somebody. I’m not sure about the women. But I don’t blame him. I believe it’s time for mercy and clemency. There is not a substantial probability that he will be a danger to society. He has earned a home arrest. And both families deserve not to come back to this board again.
Beth Schwartzapfel: Sandra Lines, Laura Steele and Brian Livingston made three.
And that was a huge deal. It meant that after decades in prison, after seven appearances before the parole board and six denials; after spending his entire adult life never knowing if or when he would ever be free, Jake was granted release on home arrest.
There were still some big revelations to come including more information about why Jake killed Eric Kane all those years ago. But in this moment, in 2016, this felt like a huge break in the Wideman family’s quest for Jake’s second chance, his freedom.
Thirty years after he had gone to prison, as a teenager, Jake was finally getting out.
Jake Wideman: I was stunned. And, and I you know, I didn’t even want to get up. I just wanted to sit there and just kind of let everything sink in.
Beth Schwartzapfel: But his freedom wouldn’t last long. Even before Jake set foot outside of prison, there were already people outside working to have him sent back in.
Jake Wideman: About a week before my first status hearing, my parole officer actually made me aware that there was a private investigator following me.
Beth Schwartzapfel: That’s next time, on “Violation.”
“Violation” is a production of WBUR in Boston and The Marshall Project.
Editing of the show comes from Geraldine Sealey, who is also managing editor of The Marshall Project, and Ben Brock Johnson, executive producer of WBUR Podcasts. Additional editing, project management and web production from Amy Gorel. Quincy Walters is our producer. Mix, sound design and original music composition by Matt Reed and Paul Vaitkus. Fact checking help from Kate Gallagher at The Marshall Project.
I’m Beth Schwartzapfel, your reporter and host. I’ll talk to you next week.
Reporter & Host: Beth Schwartzapfel; Managing Editor: Geraldine Sealey; Executive Producer: Ben Brock Johnson; Producer: Quincy Walters; Editor: Amy Gorel; Production Manager: Paul Vaitkus; Sound Designer: Matt Reed; Fact Checker: Kate Gallagher; Illustrator: Diego Mallo