Colby Frazier of the Salt Lake City Weekly has written this week about one of his periodic visits with Rolf Kaestel, an Arkansas prison inmate sent to Utah for never-explained reasons, who’s spent 35 years behind bars for robbing $264 from a Fort Smith taco stand in 1981. No one was hurt. His weapon was a water gun.
We’ve written about the Kaestel case several times before, most recently when Gov. Asa Hutchinson denied a clemency request that would have made Kaestel parole eligible. Kaestel, now 66, must wait until he’s in his 70s to apply for clemency from his life-without-parole sentence.
He was shipped to Utah 17 years ago. In that time, his only visitor has been Colby Frazier.
While in prison in Arkansas, Kaestel became a jailhouse lawyer, the story relates.
Once condemned to prison, Kaestel plotted a scholarly path toward a paralegal certificate. He filed scores of lawsuits against the notorious Arkansas prison system, which in the 1970s had been designated by federal courts as being cruel and inhumane. Along with winning some of his suits against the prison, Kaestel advocated for prisoners’ rights, quickly becoming a problem child—the kind that manifests itself in articulately written legal briefs—for prison officials.
“Rolf was a very informed prisoner when he was in Arkansas,” [Arkansas Times senior editor Mara] Leveritt says. “He studied the law, he helped other inmates, he became a thorn in their side, I think, of the establishment—the prison department in particular.”
One of the Arkansas prison system’s misdeeds Kaestel witnessed involved a blood-plasma donation program. Kaestel himself donated plasma—a way he and other inmates could make a couple of bucks. But Kaestel noticed health concerns with the blood plasma program, including lack of testing for hepatitis C and HIV. He began collecting documents on the plasma program and even appeared in a documentary film, Factor 8: The Arkansas Prison Blood Scandal, released in 2005.
It begins with Kaestel—already with 18 years of prison under his belt—saying on camera in front of a prison official that the Arkansas prison system is ripe with “graft, corruption and money making.”
In 1999, a short time after being interviewed for the film, Kaestel was hauled out of the breakfast line, loaded into a van and moved to Utah.
Beyond “noncompliance with the system,” Arkansas officials have never offered a reason for the transfer. He’s been recommended for release by seven parole boards, but denied clemency 10 times. Gov. Mike Beebe merely declined to take action. That left the door open for another application. Gov. Asa Hutchinson went a step further with a denial of clemency, which delayed the next application for five years. Hutchinson’s office won’t talk about the Kaestel case.
Frazier’s article is a long and contemplative essay on justice reform, forgiveness and capacity for change and rehabilitation. He talks extensively with Leveritt, a particular expert on life in the Arkansas penal system.
Leveritt says that it is important to ask ourselves whether or not we are capable of forgiveness. When it comes to Kaestel, whom she calls the “walking, talking example of ‘You will not be forgiven,'” it is easy to conclude that, collectively, we Americans are not.”