His mission is change, prisoner saysMan who killed four in chase-related crash promotes effort to improve inmate attitudes
By DAVID DOEGE
New Lisbon — Patricia James oversees 250 imprisoned men in her job at the New Lisbon Correctional Institution, and the one who most impresses her these days is a man who took four lives.
Ramiah A. Whiteside went to prison 11 years ago with the same attitude that made him try to outrun police in a stolen Cadillac, a wild flight that ended when the car plowed into a bus stop, killing three bystanders and a young relative riding in the car. There are 36 years left on Whiteside's sentence, but James sees a changed man determined to positively influence anyone who'll listen in the 1,000-bed prison.
"It's like he's on a mission," James said. "The guy stays motivated seven days a week."
Whiteside, who was 19 when he went to prison in 1995, insists that James isn't mistaken. "I am on a
mission," he said. "The only way that I can make amends from in here for the wrong I've caused is to try to influence others not to make the same kinds of choices I made."
Whiteside, now 30, was sentenced to 47 years in prison on four counts of second-degree reckless homicide and one count each of second-degree reckless injury and operating a vehicle without the owner's consent. When Milwaukee County Circuit Judge David A. Hansher gave Whiteside the maximum sentence, he said he wished he could have imposed more time. "What I said at the time of sentencing, I meant," Hansh-
"To me, a sentence to prison is not only to rehabilitate, but to protect the public and to punish," said Hansher, who cites Whiteside's case to defendants in fleeing cases.
The bystanders killed in the crash on April 24,1995, at N. 64th St. and W. Silver Spring Drive were Clifton B. Wallace, 20; his girlfriend, Kimberly Carr, 18; and Roger D. Kirk, 36. A passenger in the stolen car, Payton Ashford, 15, also died. Authorities said that before the chase began, the stolen car was traveling erratically and twice jumped a curb. Once an officer tried to stop the car, it sped wildly away through yards, down the wrong side of a street, hit two parked cars and roared through a 6-foot-high chain-link fence before reaching the bus stop. The car crashed into the Westlawn public housing complex after it plowed through the bus stop.
Whiteside, who was rescued from the burning car by a police sergeant, tried to run but was taken into custody. Police tried to rescue Ashford, Whiteside's cousin, but were driven back by intense flames.
Whiteside was routinely in trouble with the law in those days. He was on parole at the time for a marijuana trafficking conviction, had another adult conviction for driving a stolen auto and was prosecuted as a juvenile for stolen auto, firearm and armed robbery charges.
"I manipulated people," Whiteside said in a prison interview. "I used people."
He made similar choices the first five years into his current sentence and regularly wound up in segregation for disruptive behavior. He changed, he said, during 22 months in the Cognitive Group Intervention Program at the Waupun Correctional Institution.
'Program opened my eyes'
According to corrections literature, the program teaches violent offenders to identify and change "the personal thinking patterns and underlying beliefs that support their criminal behaviors." Inmates meet in group sessions to discuss those thoughts and habits.
"I got rid of a lot of beliefs and attitudes that made me make the wrong choices," Whiteside said. "The victim impact part of the program opened my eyes.
"I finally saw the pain victims feel."
Whiteside wrote a four-page letter to Gov. Jim Doyle praising the program and helped found an aftercare version for program graduates after he arrived at New Lisbon last year.
"He was instrumental in getting it," said James, who has been with the state Department of Corrections for 23 years. "He really gets down on the guys if he thinks they don't try, and he really doesn't care about inmates coming after him for telling them what he thinks."
Whiteside, who sees the parole board for the first time in April 2007, said he realizes that he has detractors who figure he's trying to spruce himself up in hopes of getting an early release. He insists it's no act.
"I'm going to try to do what I can in all of their memories," he said of the four people he killed 11 years ago. Whiteside, who says he has answers to questions now that he didn't have when he was sentenced, has written letters to the families of his victims, but state law prohibits violent of fenders from initiating contact
Whiteside's letters remain on file in the event the families contact corrections officials to establish contact with him.
In Milwaukee, Clifton Wallace's mother said she was heartened to hear of White side's changed attitude. But Lucy Wallace Farris said his transformation; as well as the passing of 11 years, can't undo what happened at the bus stop
"He is the same age as my son would be now," she said.
"I hope 1 get to see Ramiah be fore I leave this earth. There are things I need to hear from him to see him say."Then I'll know if he's truly rehabilitated."
Below,a letter of support and congratulations from The man who defended Ramiah, Click to view full size.
Ramiah has full blog here.