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Wednesday, 30 January 2008

James Gang,

Obsessed with the lore of the outlaw James Gang, James "Tokie" Caston decided that his first two boys would bear the names of his heroes: Jesse and Frank James. By the time the third son, Sonny, arrived in 1967, the boys' futures were clear. At an early age, Frank Caston recalls, most people in tiny Lake Providence, La., referred to the brothers not as the Castons, but as the "James Gang."
"To be named after the worst outlaw in the country, I think you put a stamp on a person," says Jesse James Caston, 42, who was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list in 2000. "We never had a chance."
Their names were symbolic of a troubled upbringing that Jesse and Frank Caston say was marked by abuse and neglect. Today, all three brothers are convicted killers serving life sentences at Louisiana's state prison.
Their story is extraordinary but emblematic of what social scientists and law enforcement officials see as an increasingly complex and persistent problem: people who become criminals in part because of the influence of family members.
Nearly half of the 2 million inmates in state prisons across the USA — 48% — say they have relatives who also have been incarcerated, according to a Justice Department report in 2004, the most recent comprehensive survey of state prison populations.
The portion of those reporting the detention of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, spouses and children has kept pace with the national prison population as it has increased during the past decade. In 1997, 48% of state prisoners also reported that family members had been to prison, according to a Justice Department analysis for USA TODAY based on previous inmate surveys.
Social scientists and law enforcement authorities say the influence of family members may be one of the most important and largely unaddressed factors in determining whether people adopt lives of crime.
"The numbers are amazing," says Oregon psychologist Mark Eddy, who is tracking 400 inmates and their deep familial ties to that state's criminal justice system. Eddy, a principal researcher for the Oregon Social Learning Center, which studies social problems plaguing families, says prison administrators and law enforcement officials only recently have begun to recognize the problem and tried to intervene.
"This is a big issue," Eddy says, "one we need to get a handle on as a society."
Doing so will depend in part on a more complete understanding of the phenomenon, Eddy and other researchers say. Criminologists and sociologists are trying to determine whether criminal wrongdoing is spreading to more families or deepening across generations within the same families.
Family ties are ingrained in just about every part of the nation's criminal justice system. On California's death row, prison spokeswoman Terry Thornton says, there are six sets of brothers among the 667 condemned prisoners awaiting death by lethal injection.
In Texas, which has executed six sets of siblings, there are two sets of cousins on death row. An additional dozen or so death row inmates have relatives serving time in other parts of the state prison system, spokeswoman Michelle Lyons says
In the Castons' case, the issue wasn't an incarcerated family member. It was a collision of poverty and a lack of family support that helped lead the brothers to violent crimes and prison.
James Caston couldn't read very well, but that didn't stop him from collecting every book he could find on the criminal exploits of Jesse James, the legendary outlaw who along with his brother and other members of the "James Gang" robbed banks, trains and stagecoaches after the Civil War.
One of Frank Caston's most vivid memories is of his father asking him to read passages from those books aloud until the elder Caston's curiosity was satisfied for the night.
Those were the good times. The bad times are what the Caston brothers say scarred them for life.
In separate interviews with USA TODAY at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Jesse and Frank Caston, 41, described Gothic-like childhoods during which their father beat them and, after their parents separated, they often were left at early ages to find their own food and places to sleep. (Sonny Caston, 40, declined to be interviewed.)
Both men characterized the breakup of their parents' marriage as perhaps the most life-altering event of their childhood. Frank Caston says he became aware of the split at the age of "7 or 8," when his mother left the house.
Jesse and Frank Caston say their mother took their youngest brother with her and left the other three boys with their father, a local fisherman.
Although the three boys lived briefly with their sickly grandfather, they spent most of their time with their father. From that point on, they say, their lives were marked by near-constant misery.
Their mother declined to comment for this article. Jesse Caston says their father, who he believes did not have a criminal record, died in 2004.
The brothers say they spent five to six nights a week locked out of the house. Some nights were spent with sympathetic neighbors. Other nights, they sought refuge in a local cemetery or in an alley near a commercial laundry, where a sympathetic manager would leave the dryers running so the boys could warm themselves under the outside vents.
Occasionally, Frank Caston says, he slept outside with a family dog, Pony, to keep warm.
"That can put a lot of hate in a person," Jesse Caston says of their upbringing.
At 13, Frank Caston says, he crossed the line, when he and Sonny burglarized a neighbor's home. "We just didn't care anymore," he says. Before they were caught, they splurged on a meal of pork chops and rice with money they took from the home. "It was the first time we ate like that" in a month, he says.
Shortly afterward, Frank Caston says, he and Sonny served two stints in juvenile detention for separate thefts of a truck and a bicycle.
"Daddy said we would end up at Angola by the time we were 18," Frank Caston says.
As it turned out, James Caston wasn't off by very much.
In 1988, Frank, then 22, and Sonny, 21, were sentenced to life in prison in connection with the murder of a local sheriff's deputy during an attempted jail break. The brothers had been jailed on lesser charges when a third suspect helped engineer the escape.
The slain deputy, Jeff Gathings, was on duty alone when he was shot to death with a 12-gauge shotgun during the breakout.
That year, Jesse Caston, then 23, began an eight-year prison sentence for a manslaughter conviction. In 2000, four years after his release, he became the target of an eight-month manhunt that briefly elevated him to the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list for the slayings of his wife and her friend.
Jesse Caston confessed to shooting his wife, Angela Caston, in the head, according to court documents. He also admitted fatally shooting her friend, Sharon McIntyre. As part of a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to McIntyre's murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Reviewing his criminal record during the interview, Jesse Caston shakes his head. He has cousins who served prison time, he says, but as far as he knows, many of his other relatives, including his father, "never had a speeding ticket."
The brothers say they do not solely blame their parents for their criminal pasts.
Frank Caston says he could have made better decisions. Says Jesse Caston: "What kind of bad luck ends a man up in here?"
An investigator with the East Carroll Parish district attorney's office and attorneys who have represented Jesse and Frank Caston attest to the boys' particularly rough upbringing.
They also confirmed key aspects of their early lives, based on their own discussions with the brothers or personal contacts with family and those who knew the Castons as children.
Sha Carter, the district attorney's investigator who assisted in the investigation that ended with Jesse Caston confessing to the murders of his wife and her friend, says interviews conducted during the investigation of the killings supported the Castons' account of a difficult upbringing.
Carter, however, rejects the notion that the brothers' experiences as children were to blame for their criminal actions as adults.
"I don't believe their backgrounds had anything to do with it," Carter says. "You have privileged people who do the same thing. I just don't think it's an excuse."
Burl Cain, warden of the sprawling Angola complex, also says he has no reason to doubt the Caston brothers' accounts. What is not in dispute, he says, is that they arrived here as "extremely dangerous" men. "It's real sad."
'Bigger than just a police issue'
The Castons' experience, although extreme, is not all that different from what authorities are battling in places such as Oregon and Boston.
Since 2003, Boston police have assisted the city in an intense review of the crime-plagued neighborhood of Grove Hall in Boston's Dorchester section.
Police Superintendent Paul Joyce says the review found that a relatively small number — 457 — of the neighborhood's 19,000 residents were responsible for an overwhelming portion of law enforcement contacts. From 2000 to 2003, for example, the 457 residents were arraigned nearly 12,000 times.
Further study, Joyce says, led authorities to one family whose contacts with the local criminal justice system spanned five generations.
Joyce says the city identified 11 younger family members — ages 12 to 23 — deemed to be at the most risk. Police, social workers and public health authorities flooded the group with counseling, health and other social services.
"We may have gotten there too late," Joyce says, adding that all but one of the 11 already were "involved with gangs. And nine of the 11 already have been in prison" before the intervention. He hopes the city can get involved early enough to make a larger difference with other families and says authorities are working to identify six more for similar intervention.
"This is much bigger than just a police issue," Joyce says. "It's about thinking differently. If we don't do something, this cycle will just continue."
Eddy, the Oregon psychologist, says most of the 400 inmates in his study, which focuses on their return to their families and young children, also have considerable generational links to crime.
At least 20% of the inmates reported that their mothers had been in prison. At least half said their fathers or siblings had been in prison.
"If you want to break the cycle, the current generation (of family members) has to be linked with education and jobs," Eddy says, adding that many need basic information on how to be good parents.
Porter, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services administrator, says the federal government hopes to expand its new voucher program to link 24,000 children of imprisoned parents with mentors by 2010.
"It's a very complex set of issues," Eddy says.

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