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September 9, 2004 - The Chicago Tribune (IL)

Prison Pictures 'Still In My Head'

By Jacqueline Fitzgerald, Tribune staff reporter

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

To people who know Susan McDougal, it was shocking that she received a prison sentence and ironic that she served time for not talking, given her gift of gab.

But, eight years ago, after refusing to cooperate with prosecutors investigating possible wrongdoing in a failed land deal known as Whitewater, McDougal spent 21 months in seven facilities in five states. She was released in 1998; her ex-husband Jim McDougal died in prison that same year.

Her description of her time in jail creates a haunting sequence in "The Hunting of the President," a documentary by Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry about what they view as a decade-long effort by the right to ruin Bill Clinton. The film was released in theaters this summer and is coming out on DVD and video through Fox Home Entertainment at the end of the month.

Now living in her hometown of Camden, Ark., McDougal, 49, is working to raise money to help newly released female offenders.

Jails and prisons, she says, are "horrible, brutal and a breaking of the spirit. I think we've given up on making better people and, to me, giving up is not an option."

WN caught up with McDougal in Chicago last month.

Q. The movie made the point that some journalists saw Whitewater as their generation's Watergate in that many saw a chance to gain glory by exposing "corruption."

A. [Journalists] forgot that in Watergate, it wasn't a get-the-president thing, it was get-the-abuse-of-power thing. And the abuse of power actually came from the Independent Counsel [Kenneth Starr]'s office. ... The real story was that this office had ultimate power, they were above the president, they were above the attorney general, they were above the Congress. No one could fire Kenneth Starr or stop the investigation. More FBI agents were used to investigate Whitewater than to investigate the Oklahoma City bombing that killed so many people. ... It was a gross abuse of power.

Q. You were accused of being in love with Bill Clinton and of hating Hillary. In fact, you didn't know them well.

A. It's some sort of weird man thing to think that a woman would put herself in the position of going to jail for years over a man that she has not spoken to since 1985. I put it to any woman in America: Now, does that make sense?! ...

[Starr's] idea of morality and sexuality and all of those things is very perverse, very twisted and sick. So they approached me: Would I testify against Hillary Clinton since I was in love with Bill Clinton and must hate her? ... The whole thing was Kafka-esque.

Q. Can you talk about Jim McDougal's impact on your life?

A. It's very hard to talk about. ... It's the only regret that I have -- the death of Jim McDougal, who did not deserve to die like a dog without his heart medication on the floor of a lockdown cell. I consider the death of Jim McDougal unforgivable, something outrightly evil.

Q. What does this say about justice and politics in America?

A. What happened to me is not so unusual. I had no money, no power, I had a court-appointed attorney. I had a prosecution that was willing to say and do anything to convict me. ...

And you know, it happens every day in America. [Famed defense attorney] Johnnie Cochran said the color of justice in America is green. And it just is so true. I never met a woman in any of the seven jails I was in that was wealthy. They were poor women, they were minority women, they were women who had no family support, which is why they were in trouble in the first place.

Q. In the election campaign, attacks on both sides are increasingly vicious.

A. It's a throwback to Starr's moral stance that Bill Clinton is just an immoral man, so anything we do to him is OK. ... It's the same thing they branded the left with-that we're a bunch of people who don't have the moral character to run the country. And we're too embarrassed to say, "Yes we do." Most people who are left are intellectuals and they don't want to fight at that level, a gutter sort of level. ...

Democrats and the left have been loath to spend their time really standing up and telling who we are. We have all these causes that we greatly believe in. ... But in order to make it an even battle and a fight where both sides are equally pushing their agenda, we're going to have to start saying who we are and naming ourselves.

Kerry and Edwards are standing up for themselves, and it's been a long time coming. ... We need to take back that moral ground. We are not immoral people.

Q. Could we backtrack a little and talk about how fellow prisoners perceived you?

A. Most of them knew who I was from television. ... The women would meet me and say, "You do it, girl. You go, girl. Don't break."

Q. You've said that prison is no country club. Are you allowed to bring a personal item, like a hairbrush or a Teddy Bear-or is that a silly question?

A. Silly question. You are stripped naked and sprayed with bug spray so that you don't have lice on you. Hands over your head, bend over, spread your cheeks, they look in every orifice you have ... and you go to your cell.

And sometimes you don't have panties to wear under the uniform ... or there are no feminine products so blood runs down your legs.

You have to understand that the guy who ran Abu Ghraib was a prison guard in America. This is not a good place. This is a very hard place that we're putting young kids into. ... It's a terrible place to be-where roaches fall on your face at night because they're crawling everywhere ... where they slide a breakfast tray underneath your cell [door] and rats run to get it before you can.

And if you eat everything they give you, you're hungry. The counties don't have any money to even keep the schools open. Do you think they want to feed inmates? ... The counties run the jails. They don't care about people who break the law. If you're sick and you're crying and your stomach is killing you and you're doubled over, they don't want to take you to the doctor because it costs the county money.

All night long, a 16-year-girl screamed, "Help me, help me, help me." Nobody came. She had lost her baby in the night and miscarried. The worst things you can think of. ... I saw a woman beaten with a telephone receiver, cracks in her skull, black and blue eyes, broken nose because she dared to say [to another prisoner], "Are you going to get off the phone soon?" From just a kid who just exploded in fury. This woman was 70 years old. ...

One of the most horrible sights is what happens to mentally ill women in jails. ... They put them in the nastiest, most horrible places in the jail.

I cry about it because the pictures are still in my head, but working on it is the therapy that helps me go forward.

E-mail Jacqueline Fitzgerald at

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