There was always hope and never loneliness. That's how Lois Nelson could stay in a relationship so many others would find untenable. The way she saw it, she had no choice but to commit herself to Daniel Holland. She loved him, deeply, and there was nothing she could do about that.
They wore each other's wedding rings, though they never made the marriage official. That was just one of many things they didn't do in their 13 years together. They never went on a proper date, never sat next to each other in a movie theater or across from each other in a restaurant. They never cooked together, sorted their laundry together, or stood at the bathroom sink and brushed their teeth together. They never took a vacation, never even left Illinois. He never got to know her three children. She never got to feel him against her in the middle of the night.
She wanted these things, of course she did. But she realized early on that she was with Dan for the here and now. Because nobody was guaranteed a tomorrow, and because life was so much better with him in it--even if he was in her mind more often than he was at her side.
When he died last May, people who'd never met Dan--and hadn't wanted to--sent cards and called often to check up on Lois. Grief isn't something people judge. But as Lois knows all too well, love is.
They met in prison. She worked for the Illinois Department of Corrections as principal of the education program at the Joliet Correctional Center. She also oversaw the law library and the prison newspaper.
Dan was an inmate, serving a sentence longer than most lifetimes. On the January day in 1991 that he was transferred from another prison to Joliet, Lois surveyed the intake sheet, as she always did, and noticed his unusually long sentence. People convicted of first-degree murder usually got life or 40 years. Dan had 85 years printed next to his name. "I wonder what he did," she said to a colleague. "What didn't he do?" came the reply.
Dan didn't need basic ed--he'd completed his GED and had some credits toward a bachelor's degree--but he appeared in Lois's office anyway one day, asking for a minute of her time.
At 34, Dan was 11 years into his sentence. At 41, Lois was nine years into a bad marriage, her second, sticking it out, she'd convinced herself, for the sake of the kids.
Back then, prisoners could wear street clothes instead of uniforms. Dan dressed in a western-style shirt and trim-fitting jeans. He was six feet tall, with wavy hair that fell three inches below his shoulders. He was thin but muscular from years of lifting weights, and his nose was crooked from contact with fists. But when he smiled and politely introduced himself, it took a moment for Lois to realize that he was an inmate. He said he'd been trained as a paralegal a few years earlier but he'd like to audit another class. A different attorney was teaching it, he explained. He thought he might learn something new. The brief conversation made an impression on Lois. Prisoners rarely bothered with social graces.
Not long after that, Dan started editing and writing for the Joliet Insider, the prison newspaper put together in a classroom down the hall from Lois's office. His writing reflected humility and optimism, as well as an interest in the world beyond the prison walls. It was important to him to stay connected to the outside, and he gleaned what he could about it from television.
An article he wrote about the renewal of spring contained references to Senator Carol Moseley Braun, Tiananmen Square, and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. He also wrote about Earth Day, peace, social justice, and the "deeper meaning" of the tradition of New Year's resolutions, which he saw as an opportunity "to resolve to understand ourselves and our surroundings." Every now and then he'd stop by Lois's office to show her what he was working on.
He remained as polite as the day she'd met him. While other inmates catcalled when she crossed the square between buildings--hey babying as they leaned against the chain-link fence--Dan, who'd studied horticulture and worked in the prison yard, quietly tended to flower beds, barely glancing her way. When she needed a law clerk she recruited him. And when she needed a full-time school clerk she recruited him for that job too.
The arrangement kept them in close contact, often for seven-hour stretches. He would sit at the counter in her office as he filed or typed, preparing inmate transcripts.
Lois had worked in prisons for more than 20 years, and she didn't tend to dwell on prisoners' pasts. She saw her role as helping to shape their futures. The state had taken away their freedom and comforts, but her job was to give them something that couldn't be taken away: an education. Something that would help them once they returned to their communities.
When inmates worked for her, however, she took it upon herself to read their master files. And she was particularly curious about what was in Dan's. By then she knew the reason for his lengthy sentence: he'd been convicted of rape, aggravated kidnapping, and deviate sexual assault.
Lois considered herself someone who was good at reading people. But she found nothing unsettling about Dan, nothing that made her leery. She couldn't reconcile his crimes with the person she knew. He was intelligent and well-spoken. His vocabulary impressed her. He was witty without resorting to sarcasm or making fun of people. He did his job well.
She went to the records office, hoping for insight. She wondered if he'd been sexually abused as a child. She wondered if he was an alcoholic. "I didn't find that," she says. "What I found was evidence of a really rotten childhood."
Juvenile authorities became aware of Dan when he was six years old--first as someone who was without proper parental care, then as someone who was beyond the control of his parents. He ran away several times to escape beatings by his stepfather and wound up bouncing between relatives' homes, group homes, and foster homes. At 12 he was sent to live in an orphanage. As a young man, Dan committed a string of gas station and convenience store holdups. The crimes he was currently locked up for had occurred on May 4, 1980, while he was on parole. He was 23. Early that morning, from what Lois could gather, Dan had offered a ride to a couple with car trouble. He'd then held the woman at knifepoint, ordered the man out of the car, and driven off with--and raped--the woman.
Your crimes just don't match your personality, she told him one day. There was a simple reason for that, he replied: he didn't do what the state said he did.
Dan said he knew the couple with car trouble and they owed him about $1,000 for marijuana and cocaine. He said he'd picked them up on the road after a night of partying and that they argued about the drug debt. He admitted to ordering the man out of the car and holding a knife to the woman, trying to scare her, but he strongly denied raping her. Lois believed him.
The facts of the case hadn't been an issue in any of Dan's appeals. At issue were his all-white jury (even though Dan was white, he had argued that the jury didn't represent a cross-section of his community), his access to counsel, and the admissibility of a statement he'd given to police.
Dan offered to let Lois borrow his trial transcripts and briefs, which he kept in his cell. In the ensuing weeks and months, she pored over them at home in the evenings. His conviction had been overturned and reinstated twice--once at the state level and once at the federal level. The U.S. Supreme Court had even considered the case, deciding five to four, with Thurgood Marshall issuing a strong dissent, that the selection and makeup of his jury had been constitutional. He'd recently appealed to the high court to reconsider the jury question, using a legal strategy Justice Anthony Kennedy had indicated might flip his vote in Dan's favor.
Dan had been married for about six months when he was arrested, but his wife divorced him after his conviction. Nobody was missing him.
Despite his circumstances, he tended to have a positive outlook on life. "Expect the worst and pray for the best" was the motto he lived by. And praying for the best filled him with hope.
Seeing Dan became something Lois looked forward to. He had a talent for making her see things in a new way. She was stunned--but had to agree--when he pointed out that she never said anything nice about her stepdaughter. As her marriage had soured, so had her relationship with her husband's daughter. "So I forced myself, every day, to say one nice thing about her." As a result, their relationship improved. Dan also made Lois rethink how she handled her anger when her son got into trouble. "Stand up for him in public," Dan advised. "You can always chew him out afterward."
On the day before Christmas, in 1992, Dan came to work with his cell mate's boom box. He set it up on Lois's bookshelf, asked her if she liked love songs, hit play, and fled.
Amy Grant's voice filled the room:
Does anybody have it better?
Isn't it easy to see just how well we fit together?
When I start to sing the blues
You pull out my dancing shoes
I think you could be so good for me . . .
Lois got the hint--how could she not?--but she hoped Dan would be able to keep his feelings in check. She decided to say nothing. Dan said nothing in return.
About a month later Dan seemed uncharacteristically subdued. When she inquired about his mood, he handed her a letter from the U.S. Supreme Court, declining to take another look at his case.
At night, while her husband was in the family room watching TV, Lois would sit upstairs on the couch and try to read. Often thoughts of Dan would distract her. She'd think about him stuck in his cell, about his awful childhood, about how unloved he'd been. On the verge of tears, she'd force herself to snap out of it, push the thoughts away, continue reading.
Lois realized she probably cared about Dan more than she cared about anyone else. At work their conversations became increasingly personal. One day, while Dan was telling Lois about how his stepfather beat him and force-fed him Tabasco sauce and how his mother failed to protect him, he interrupted himself to point out the look on Lois's face. Lois wasn't aware of any look. "You've been abused," he said.
And so she told him. She told him about her husband hitting her, about the order of protection, about how it broke her heart when her two-year-old son cried for weeks, missing his daddy, how she'd caved and let her husband come home. She told Dan that although her husband hadn't hit her in years, she had to endure his constant criticism, lack of support, and attempts to control her.
Dan didn't say anything she hadn't already thought herself, but somehow hearing it from him made all the difference. How can you let him treat you like that? As Lois drove home that night, she thought: That man is right. Why am I allowing this to continue? She didn't love her husband--she tolerated him. She also avoided him, and had for years, pretending to be asleep when he got into bed or waiting to get into bed until he was asleep. She'd had to decline promotions because he'd said he couldn't be counted on to watch their children if she got called away for emergencies at odd hours. When she got home from work that day, she walked into the family room and ended her marriage.
At work, Lois and Dan lit up around each other. Laughter came easily and often. Dan shared his dreams with Lois. He wanted to be a father. He wanted to finish his bachelor's degree. He wanted to work as a commercial graphic artist.
Lois hated when the end of the day neared. She didn't want to go home, and she didn't want to see Dan escorted away, back to his cell.
Mornings couldn't come fast enough. Dan always bounded into her office with a huge smile. Simply sharing space with him elevated her mood.
One day Lois burned her arm on a lightbulb. "I remember Dan grabbing my arm and putting some kind of bandage on it and my secretary looking at me like, 'An inmate is touching you?'"
By the spring of 1993, Lois knew she was in deep. She thought she could contain her feelings. Acting on them would mean--beyond the obvious disadvantages of having a boyfriend behind bars--quitting her job to avoid breaking IDOC rules. But the emotional tug toward Dan proved a formidable match for the intellectual tug away from him. When she sensed her feelings for him were becoming too strong to dial back, she turned to a priest. She told him she was in love with an inmate but that she wasn't allowed to be. Those are the Department of Corrections' rules, the priest said; those aren't God's rules.
"It made my whole life make sense," Lois recalls. "God and our planet and our world are a whole lot bigger than the Illinois Department of Corrections." She started thinking she'd been institutionalized right along with Dan. In the Department of Corrections box she'd been stuck in there was no room for the gray areas of life. Everything was cut-and-dried. Right or wrong. Good or bad. There was no room to love a convict. But she knew that Dan was not the sum of his crimes. And after talking to the priest she gave herself permission to love him.
She can't remember precisely how she told him. She just remembers that the words tumbled out of her, that somehow she felt an urgent need to tell him, because he'd been so unloved, because he had nobody else, because it was true. And yet it had come as no surprise to him. She was stating the obvious. He stated it back. Later he would tease her about being the one who initiated their relationship. But their confessions that day were no laughing matter. Even with the maximum good time reduction, Dan's release date was more than two decades away.
He said he would file a petition for habeas corpus relief--which would give a federal judge the opportunity to determine whether he'd been lawfully imprisoned. "I remember him saying, 'Give me six months to try and appeal the case one more time. But I don't want you to get stuck.'"
Lois had known within weeks of her first wedding that she'd made a mistake, that she and her husband had a friendship rather than a deep romantic bond. Yet she stayed with him for nine years. She'd had that romantic bond with her second husband, but it crumbled under the weight of abuse.
Loving Dan wasn't the path she would have chosen, but she felt it was the right one. "I didn't want it," she says. "I didn't ask for it. But I couldn't ignore it and be true to myself. I was tired of doing what made everybody else happy."
Now she was so happy she was bursting, and she needed to tell people. "I'm in love with an inmate, and not only that, he has tattoos and long hair," she told her father, trying to get all the objectionable information out of the way at once. Her mother made it clear that Lois's news was not to be shared with relatives beyond their immediate family. Of her five siblings, the most supportive was her sister Teresa, who knew Dan because Lois had recruited her to teach graphic arts to the Joliet Insider staff. Teresa had witnessed a transformation in her older sister. "She acted like a lady in love," says Teresa. "She constantly babbled about him--Dan this, Dan that, his artwork, his poetry." Lois was joyful again, after years of being miserable, and if her relationship with Dan had anything to do with it, Teresa wasn't about to condemn it. "We have our sister back," she told Lois.
Even so, Teresa's support wavered. "I'd go back and forth about it," she says. "Some days I wished she'd never met him."
People would openly wonder what compelled her to be with Dan. There were women who had a thing for bad boys, women who courted impossible loves, women for whom obstacles provided excitement, challenge, drama. And there were women who wanted a man safely tucked away, so he couldn't slap her around, so he couldn't run off with another woman. Some women preferred fantasy to reality, because reality always paled. Lois didn't think she was like any of these women. She didn't want Dan in prison; she desperately wanted him out.
Some people would suggest that she was reacting to the abuse in her second marriage. What could be safer than a man who needed her, who couldn't really touch her, who depended on her as an escape from his dismal circumstances? Lois would help him find a way out, Lois would provide a lifeline to the world, Lois would give him money--$20 or $25 from every paycheck--so he could buy things from the commissary. Did he really love her? The dynamic made people suspicious.
"They were always looking for some reason to explain the relationship," Lois says. "Looking for something that made sense to them. But I didn't need to find an excuse." She believed his sentence would eventually be overturned. Until then, "I wasn't going to stop living my life."
Lois's friends encouraged her to go on dates. But other men didn't interest her. She and Dan dreamed of growing old together. We'll put our teeth in the same cup, Dan said.
Lois's office had glass walls, and the guards and secretaries could easily see that she paid Dan an inordinate amount of attention and that their body language suggested comfort and intimacy. "I think we probably bumped into each other more than we had to," she admits.
People began talking. The truth got stretched. Lois denied rumors. Dan took a polygraph exam. He passed it, he told Lois, because he was asked about his behavior rather than his feelings, but in September 1993 the Department of Corrections transferred him anyway--to the Illinois River Correctional Center in Canton, two and a half hours southwest of Joliet.
"My heart was broken that I couldn't see him," Lois says. Her office seemed empty without him in it. She pretended that nothing was wrong. "I felt like this has got to be an Academy Award-winning performance. But I couldn't keep doing it. I couldn't go in there and keep pretending like I was OK. I wasn't OK." As long as she remained an employee of the Department of Corrections she couldn't visit Dan, couldn't send him letters, couldn't accept his collect calls.
She would soon be turning 43. She remembers thinking her life was half over. She remembers thinking she could make the second half better than the first.
On November 30, the day after her birthday, she wrote a letter of resignation, making it effective the following day at noon. She went to the prison in the morning as usual and then skipped her lunch hour and drove straight to the Illinois River Correctional Center, where several years earlier she'd been offered a job as assistant warden of programs.
She didn't receive the warm welcome she would have if she'd taken the job. Instead, she was frisked. Lois felt apprehensive about being there as a visitor rather than an administrator, but once she saw Dan, and could freely wrap her arms around him and kiss him, she had no regrets.
Dan was transferred over the years to prisons all over the state: Hill, Danville, Western Illinois, Danville again, Dixon, Pinckneyville, and Logan. It didn't matter how far they moved him, Lois told herself: her car would get her there, her stamps would carry her letters, her phone would carry his voice.
She visited Dan every week--usually on the weekends, when her children were with their father. If they were with her on a weekend, she'd take a vacation day from her new job--as executive director of the Spanish Center, a Joliet social service organization that helps immigrants find jobs and apply for citizenship--and visit while they were in school.
The visiting rooms at most prisons were dreary, with fluorescent lights, cold tables, and vending machines full of junk food. Visitors often added to the bleak ambience, sobbing or softly crying and wearing pained expressions. Not Dan and Lois. "We would be having the time of our lives," she says. They talked about anything and everything, laughed about silly things, and played board games and cards: euchre, twenty-one, gin rummy, Scrabble. Sometimes they put a sign on their table: Child Care Area. "He loved kids, and other people would let their kids come hang out with us so they could have some time alone."
Lois's own children met Dan only a few times. They didn't enjoy making the trips to prison. Lois refused to tell them why he was locked up. When they pestered her about Dan's charges, she would only assure them he hadn't killed anyone. "I didn't think that they needed the extra drama," she says. She didn't want to force "adult issues" on them, and she worried that if other children found out they might say cruel things.
When her daughter was a teenager she sometimes referred to Dan as Lois's "convict boyfriend." The comment stung less once Lois realized it was usually timed to deflect attention from a problem they were having.
Illinois doesn't allow conjugal visits. Prisoners are permitted to kiss visitors hello and good-bye, but during the actual visits they can only hold hands--provided their hands remain visible. The patios at some prisons have blind spots--areas that are beyond the reach of the security mirrors. The prisoners know their exact locations.
When guards get up to make the rounds, prisoners signal to those in the blind spots like truckers alerting oncoming traffic to the presence of state troopers.
Lois believed if you were truly connected to someone, as she was to Dan, emotional intimacy could thrive without physical intimacy--a good sex life wasn't something couples could always maintain. Men sometimes developed health issues as they aged--heart trouble, for example--that put a damper on bedroom activities. A debilitating accident was always possible. Sex wasn't everything, Lois knew.
Still, she and Dan used the blind spots and their hellos and good-byes well. What Dan liked most about the winter was Lois's long black coat. It provided a near-perfect shield for roving hands.
Away from each other, Lois and Dan devised creative ways to express their desire for each other. They exchanged steamy letters and had phone sex, caring little that their calls were monitored. Lois sent Dan a homemade pinup calendar with a photo of her decorating every month. Dan thought January was a stitch, she says. She'd posed in front of a snowman in a red thong and red heels.
Lois wanted to integrate Dan into her life as much as possible. At first they talked on the phone every day, except when the prison was on lockdown. When Lois started receiving $400 phone bills--prisoners can only call collect--they cut their conversations back to three times a week.
They were superstitious about saying good-bye. They agreed that their last words before hanging up would always be "I love you." Dan forgot this once and slammed down the phone during a rare fight. Realizing what he'd done, he immediately called Lois back, said he loved her, and then slammed the phone down again before another word could be spoken.
When she wasn't with her children on Thanksgiving or Christmas, she spent the holidays with Dan, eating food from vending machines. When her granddaughter was born, she brought the baby to see him. "He was just so grateful that he could hold her and give her a bottle. He just adored that little girl. He wanted me to bring her as much as possible."
Lois once photographed every room of her house and sent Dan a tour. She even sent him a piece of her wallpaper. Dan sent Lois things too: refrigerator art, spring haiku (she got one every year), letters that began "Baby," a portrait another inmate had drawn of him in pencil, even a wedding band with a leaf motif that he'd talked his ex-wife into buying. He also wrote out and illustrated sayings he found meaningful: two passages from the Tao-te Ching and a Sanskrit proverb. She hung the Tao passages and the portrait in her bedroom and the Sanskrit proverb in her hallway. "I felt sad that he wasn't here," she says, "but I didn't feel lonely. I knew at any moment of any day that I was truly loved."
Lois believed that her connection to Dan was otherworldly, that it was too strong to be explained by anything less than the mystical. A past-life reading confirmed for her that their connection stretched over many lifetimes. Lois was the type to find hidden meaning in things--in, say, a double rainbow that appeared as she was driving home from a visit. The rainbow, she wrote to Dan, signified the fullness of their relationship, and she noted that it was as bright at one end as at the other. Dan tended to favor more scientific explanations for such things. He wrote back that he'd also seen the rainbow and had thought of it as a "weather and light spectacle." He added that he liked her interpretation better because it was more "personal & romantic."
But Dan liked to tease Lois about their differences. He didn't understand her new enthusiasm, quilting--or why she would hang her finished quilts. "Are your walls cold?" he quipped. He said when he got out of prison she wouldn't have time for quilting. We'll be busy, he promised. Sometimes he'd affectionately chalk up their differences to "WGS"--weird girl shit.
Lois did her own chalking up. She attributed misunderstandings to his confinement--he'd been institutionalized for most of his adult life and had little understanding of how people spent their time on the outside. Being free didn't mean your time was always your own, Lois would explain. Chores that the state did for Dan--like cooking and cleaning--took much longer than he realized. Most things did. If he and Lois scheduled a talk but when he called she was running an errand or caught up at work or in traffic, he'd feel slighted and accuse Lois of not privileging their time together.
Dan's insecurities surfaced in other ways too. "I still suspect this wonderful love is but another of my bizarre dreams," he once wrote to her. And sometimes he'd tease her about other men, especially the marines she'd worked with in a Toys for Tots program in Joliet. She understood his teasing as a cry for reassurance, which she willingly gave. You're the only man for me, she'd tell him. She must've said it a thousand times, and she believed that deep down he knew it was true.
He reassured her too. He had her initials tattooed on his wrists: LA on one, MN on the other, for Lois Ann Marie Nelson. "Baby, you know I love you madly, right?" he wrote to her one day. "Mostly 'cause yer really cute, taste good, and molest me at every opportunity!! (smile!)....You're still and always will be, my sun & moon & the stars that light my way. Nothing nor anyone around me could ever change that Lois Ann."
Lois thought guards treated visitors poorly. Once, for no apparent reason, she was made to wait for three hours and 40 minutes--after a nearly three-hour drive--before being allowed in to see Dan. Another time she was made to turn her shirt around because a guard deemed her neckline too low. Yet another time she was outright refused entry--her dress was too clingy, she was told. She'd had to drive into town and buy a new outfit.
But these petty demonstrations of power rolled off her: they weren't going to ruin her time with Dan.
Dan, who lived every day with insults to his dignity, felt compelled to redress wrongs. If he thought prisoners were treated unjustly or poorly, he'd file a grievance. He even sued the department so he could get an operation on his knee.
Lois respected Dan's desire to make life better on the inside, but she would sometimes try to talk him down. You have to pick your battles, she told him--and she thought he should reserve his energy for the biggest battle of all: getting out of prison.
Dan's relentless legal strategizing gave Lois confidence. He kept up with recent Supreme Court decisions and talked to other inmate law clerks about how they might apply to his case. Lois did what she could to help, even refinancing her house to free up money for a lawyer. She also started a People for Holland letter-writing campaign, reaching out to prominent members of the legal community, including Barry Sheck, Scott Turow, and Justice Eugene Pincham, who'd been on the state panel that had overturned Dan's conviction, only to be overruled by the state supreme court. "There was no question in my mind, from my review of the record in the case, that Holland was unjustly and illegally convicted," Pincham wrote to Lois in 1995, after he'd retired.
Dan, Lois says, was "the eternal optimist," and when one legal effort failed he'd usually bounce back with other ideas. Twice he appealed to the governor for clemency, first claiming innocence and, when that didn't work, claiming he was rehabilitated and expressing his "remorse, anguish, and deep sorrow" for his "wretched actions."
He persuaded Larry Marshall of Northwestern University to argue for DNA testing. He attempted to get his case reconsidered by the Illinois Supreme Court and to get the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision Apprendi v. New Jersey retroactively applied. (Apprendi forbids a judge from increasing a defendant's sentence beyond the statutory maximum for the crime he was convicted of without submitting the facts that support the increase to a jury.) Nothing worked.
Lois says she and Dan talked about every aspect of his case over the years. But the more they talked the murkier his story seemed. What happened on May 4, 1980, would remain a mystery to her.
Dan's memory of those events seemed sketchy. She came to believe that there were pieces of the crimes that Dan did commit and pieces that he didn't, and that even he probably couldn't sort it out. Maybe he'd been too high to realize what he was doing. Or maybe he'd suppressed the memory, unable to face the truth. Or maybe the victim had fabricated the story to get out of her drug debt. All Lois felt sure about was that "in his mind, the rape didn't happen."
After a while the facts of the case stopped mattering. The Dan she knew was a kind, gentle man, and she gave up trying to account for his crimes. If he had raped someone, she realized, she would still love him. He was no longer the person he'd been at 23.
One day, after getting bad news about his case, Dan broke down and cried. "He said, 'I've done everything I can, there's no other recourse. I can't have you wait for me.' I said I wasn't going anywhere, that I couldn't turn off my feelings for him. He very much did not want to feel that he was screwing up my life. My bottom line was, 'I don't want anybody else. If this is all I get, this is all I get.'" It was still better than anything she'd ever had. "One minute with Dan was more precious than those 20 years with those other two men," she says. "One minute."
One night in April 2000, when Dan was 43, he curled up next to the toilet in his cell and began vomiting. It went on so long that his cell mate became alarmed and called for help. It was then that Dan noticed he was lying in a pool of blood.
At a hospital 30 miles south of the prison, Dan had emergency surgery to stop the life-threatening bleeding, which was caused by complications from hepatitis C, which he'd known nothing about. The extent of the damage that the disease had done to his liver was unknown. He hemorrhaged again four days later.
Although he asked his prison doctors, both verbally and in writing, about his condition and prognosis, the Department of Corrections provided little information. Everything that Dan learned about hepatitis C he learned from Lois, who researched it on the Internet. Lois says the IDOC medical staff didn't even warn him that he could spread the disease to others.
Lois learned that hepatitis C was a blood-borne illness with a long latency period. They surmised that he'd contracted it eight years earlier, from a blood transfusion during his knee surgery. The surgery had taken place in 1992, just before testing of the nation's blood supply for hepatitis C began. Lois also learned that hepatitis C, once thought to have no cure, was now treatable with a new form of combination therapy.
The treatment, however, was very expensive--about $20,000--and it wasn't being offered to Dan. Dan wrote grievance after grievance asking for "the treatment I need to survive"--pleas that fell on deaf ears.
In October 2001 he hemorrhaged again. Dan researched class-action lawsuits in other states on behalf of prisoners with hepatitis C, and Lois lobbied legislators, contacted wardens, and finally called the media. After the Reader published my story about the state's refusal to treat Dan, the department finally began offering him combination therapy. Lois says the drugs eventually cleared the disease from Dan's system. But the news wasn't all good: his liver was still damaged.
Dan kept hemorrhaging.
One day last December he didn't call Lois when he said he would, and she figured the prison was on lockdown. But a week later he called and told her he'd been in the hospital. No one from the department had notified Lois, though hers was the only name on his emergency contact list.
They decided to get married, figuring the department would be legally obligated to call his wife about any emergencies. Dan then began what he called "the bureaucratic goose step" to get permission to marry Lois. He contacted the warden, who forwarded his request to the chaplain, but Lois says the chaplain never followed through.
Around Christmas, Dan sent Lois a letter, telling her why he loved her: "Baby . . . The woman I met in '91 was impressive: confident, professional (hot!), but the woman you've become is one to be admired. Strong, sweet, helpful, charitable, with a view that focuses on the overall in her community, the country, the world. Don't get me wrong, you are now and will always be on some WGS, but it works for you now, as it always has. . . . I'm proud of you, Lois Ann. Poor praise indeed (in consideration of the source) but true nevertheless. You are truly a role model in your work as a professional, a mother, and the best friend I've ever known. I love you more every day, Baby Grrl."
Early this year Dan told Lois that a doctor at Logan Correctional Center, where he was now incarcerated, had said that without a liver transplant he probably wouldn't live more than five years, five years short of his earliest possible release date. He could no longer find hope in his motto, expect the worst and pray for the best. He knew he wasn't going to make it.
He wrote to Lois that she was his only reason for living, that otherwise the next time he was admitted to a hospital he'd sign a do not resuscitate order. His resigned tone sounded nothing like him. "The only reason I haven't DNRed is you, Lois Ann, and that outdate that realizes the dream. This life is miserable; a never ending uphill battle with an 85 year boulder that keeps rolling back on me. I'm tired of being tired, and now I'm scared constantly and I've never lived in fear before. I love you with all my heart, Baby, and that's what keeps me going."
The way Lois saw it, if the state wouldn't pay for a liver transplant, it was obligated to release him and let him seek one on his own. Otherwise, it would be overriding his sentence and imposing a sentence of death.
That spring, thanks to the Spanish Center, she had an opportunity to meet Gerardo Cardenas, the Chicago press secretary and Latino liaison of Governor Blagojevich. She handed him a letter. It asked the governor, who already had Dan's second clemency petition on his desk, to grant Dan a medical commutation so he could try to get a liver transplant on his own. Cardenas told her he'd deliver it.
In early May Lois received a call at work from Memorial Medical Center in Springfield. She was told to come as soon as she could but not to drive alone. Dan was in a coma and he might not pull through.
Lois went home and packed a suitcase, then drove alone the three hours to Springfield. On the way, she called Cardenas. Please don't let him die like this, she pleaded. It may be too late for a liver transplant, she realized, but she believed that if Dan's sentence was commuted, he would know, even in a coma, that he was finally free. Cardenas promised to go straight to the chief legal counsel and see what he could do.
In the intensive care unit at Memorial Medical Center, Dan lay in bed, unresponsive, with tubes in his throat and nose and an IV line in his arm. His right ankle was shackled to the bed. A guard sat ten feet away, watching TV.
Lois sat by Dan's side, holding his hand and caressing him. They had plans for growing old together. There was the cup for their teeth. There was the southwest. They wanted to be grandparents together. They wanted the time they'd never had.
Lois told Dan she loved him, that she was there, and that the doctors were doing all they could.
After four hours, the guard told Lois she had to leave: prisoners were only allowed four-hour visits. Lois camped out in the waiting room down the hall and asked the staff to let her know if Dan's condition changed. In the middle of the night, she was informed that Dan had taken a turn for the worse: there was swelling in his brain.
Lois was waiting outside Dan's door when the doctor arrived at 7 AM. She begged him to let her stay with Dan for longer than four hours. What if he dies in the fifth hour and I'm not there? she said.
With the doctor's permission, she spent nearly the entire day at Dan's side, drifting in and out of sleep. At one point she awoke with a headache and left the room briefly to find ibuprofen. While she was gone, he went into cardiac arrest and had to be revived.
Dan was clearly incapable of making decisions about his medical treatment. So the doctor transferred decision-making power to Lois under the Illinois Health Care Surrogate Act. She held off signing a do not resuscitate order, hoping first that he could pull through and then for word from the governor. But once it became apparent that reviving Dan would mean reviving him in a vegetative state, Lois signed the order. She was there, holding his hand, as he took his last breath the following morning.
After he died, Lois discovered that at some point his ankle had been unshackled. He may not have died a free man, but at least he'd died unchained.
In the weeks and months that followed, Lois searched for Dan's living relatives, found an aunt, and wrote letters to people who had supported him. She wanted them to know that he had been worth loving. "I lost the love of my life, my soul mate, and my best friend," she wrote to Judge Pincham. "The only comforting thoughts are that he is no longer in pain, doesn't feel sick all of the time anymore, and he is no longer locked up."
Lois got a tattoo on her back of a butterfly breaking free of chains and flying into God's hands. The day she got the tattoo she picked up Dan's ashes from the funeral home. They were in a black box, which she set on the floor behind the driver's seat of her car. When she strapped herself in, she reached around the back of her seat and touched the top of the box. It was the first time they'd been truly alone. "OK, honey," she said. "We're going for a ride in the country. No prisons. No guards."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.