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Lyons serves his first two weeks in prison alone

Solitary confinement kept him safe as he awaited assignment, prison officials say.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 1999


Florida corrections officials said fallen Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons would be treated like any other inmate when he entered the state prison system April 1.

But Lyons spent his first two weeks in solitary confinement, without access to a recreation yard, other inmates or even reading materials beyond a few pages containing prison rules, his attorney said.

His circumstances changed Monday when the St. Petersburg preacher was transferred from an orientation prison in Orlando to what could be his home for most of the next 51/2 years: the Marion Correctional Institution about 10 miles north of Ocala.

While at Orlando, to protect him from harm by other inmates and fearful a rush of convicts would want to talk to the famous minister, prison officials kept Lyons isolated, said attorney Jeff Brown.

"I know Dr. Lyons appreciated the concern for his safety, but it is a double-edged sword," he said. "He was alone, locked down in a 5-by-5 cell, unable to go anywhere unless they needed him for an orientation interview or to go shave his head. He wasn't being punished, but he was kept in a cell that they would keep someone who is."

State Department of Corrections spokeswoman Debbie Buchanan confirmed that Lyons was kept in "administrative" confinement. She did not know any other details of his isolation, although she said she thought even confined inmates had access to books and a recreation yard for exercise.

Confinement is "standard operating procedure for well-known inmates," she said. "When you're at reception and in confinement, you sit there. There is no visitation. We certainly don't want anyone to harm an inmate."

Buchanan said Lyons is being treated like any other inmate at Marion. She said corrections officials were more concerned about Lyons' stay in Orlando because of the constant flow of new, sometimes unpredictable, inmates into the orientation center.

Brown said Lyons' wife, Deborah, and daughter, Stephanie, planned to drive to the prison Sunday to visit Lyons, who has seen and spoken to no family members since his sentencing March 31 on state racketeering and grand theft convictions.

Lyons bought some envelopes at a prison store in Orlando so he could mail a letter to his wife and daughter. But the envelopes were defectively sealed shut, and he was unable to immediately buy replacements, Brown said.

"I know he's anxious to see them," he said.

It has been a wrenching two weeks for the former president of the National Baptist Convention USA, especially his first night locked up in the Pinellas County Jail, his attorney said.

"He's always had lawyers around him, and he's always had people to talk to," Brown said. "He's never been behind bars. Two hours after he was remanded, he was alone in a cell with nothing but the solitude.

"He told me of having to come to grips with that. He felt a tremendous sense of loneliness. He said he gripped hold of the bars with his hands and just talked to them and said, "It's just you and me for a long time. We have to get along.' "

Brown said Lyons was surprised when he learned he could not bring even one bit of personal clothing into prison. The night before sentencing, Brown said, he and Mrs. Lyons bought the preacher a few items he hadn't had time to get himself -- three T-shirts, three pairs of socks, three pairs of underwear and black canvas sneakers.

But the prison supplies inmates all clothing. "He decided to give what he bought to charity," Brown said.

Lyons had hoped to be assigned to a prison closer to home, perhaps to one in Avon Park in Highlands County.

It is possible Lyons eventually could be transferred elsewhere from Marion Correctional, Buchanan said. But Brown said, "I think he'll end up staying there."

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