Sunday, May 23, 1999

The aftermath of 'teen violence'

Five years after killing his family, Clay Shrout languishes alone in a cell

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Shrout in 1994
        EDDYVILLE — Up at daybreak. Out to the prison carpentry shop by a little after 7 a.m. Work all day for a dollar. Then the daily strip search.

        Prisoner #119453 lives alone in a cell. Stands in line for his tray of food. Hasn't had a visitor in months.

        This is Clay Shrout's life.

        Five years ago this week, he set his alarm for 5 a.m., killed his parents and two sisters, then briefly took his trigonometry class hostage at Ryle High School. It was the first of what has become a series of increasingly violent incidents involving troubled teen-agers, guns and schools.

        Back in 1994, he was a wild-haired 17-year-old from Union who dressed in black and did drugs. People described him as an outcast, a boy who needed help.

        He's 22 now, serving a sentence of life in prison without parole for 25 years. He lives in Kentucky's toughest prison, the state penitentiary, which hous es Death Row and the electric chair.

        Mr. Shrout remains one of the prison's most infamous residents. Even though he hurt no one at Ryle that day, he's somewhat of an example of school-related violence. Every time there's another school shooting, like last month's in Littleton, Colo., or Thursday's in Conyers, Ga., reporters from across the country call the penitentiary.

        Everybody wants to ask an expert why kids do things like that.

        He won't say. He declines all requests to talk about why he shot his family that Thursday morning, May 26, 1994. So do his closest living relatives - both sets of grandparents.

        But prison records and interviews with people who know him detail his last five years.

        He traded high school, a job at a burger joint and borrowing dad's Jeep for lockdowns, steel bars and razor wire.

        Since he pleaded guilty to four counts of murder, he has been a discipline problem. He violated prison rules. He planned an escape. He's well-known in solitary confinement. He won't participate in mental health programs.

        But lately, his outbursts have waned. There have been no disciplinary reports since he left segregation last September. He's allowed to be with other prisoners now in the dining hall, and he's allowed to work.

        But for anyone who wonders what happens to troubled teen-agers who commit violence — Clay Shrout's story is a cautionary tale of punishment, loneliness and resignation.

        Any problems he caused be fore he turned 18 are not publicly known. But shortly after leaving the juvenile system, he started having problems in the Kentucky State Reformatory.

        The reformatory in LaGrange, a place for minimum- and medium-risk prisoners, was his first stop in the adult system. He got there in June 1995, a little more than a year after he admitted to police he shot his family because he wanted to get away. He signed up to take an electricity class.

        But that next month, guards found he had stuffed cigarette butts in his bed post. That violates a prison rule that requires inmates to make and clean up their bed areas every day. Mr. Shrout was ordered to complete 40 extra hours of work.

        Two months later, he was caught with a blanket that had been stolen from the prison hospital. That sent him to the prison's segregation unit for 45 days.

        He went back to solitary the following January for 15 days, this time for being caught in a neighboring cell long after visiting hours ended at 9 p.m.

        When he wasn't in solitary confinement, he was in electricity class and working part-time in food service. Later, he got on a waiting list for upholstery class, but never made it in.

        In March, he went back again after two corrections officers found a 10-inch stainless-steel bar hidden under magazines in his cell. He said he found the bar on the prison yard. This time, he went to segregation for 105 days.

        Prison officials believed the bar was part of an escape plan concocted by Mr. Shrout and two other inmates. Guards found a pair of gloves resistant to razor wire in a closet near where one of his cohorts lived. A letter in Mr. Shrout's cell talked about the plan.

        An escape plot gets a warden's attention. Mr. Shrout was transferred to the state's most restrictive maximum-security prison. Two years after gunning down his family, he ended up in Eddyville.

Months in isolation
        Here, he learned the real meaning of solitary confinement.

        He landed there first in February 1997 after pushing to the front of the canteen line. That might not sound like a great offense, but prison officials say they cannot underestimate what havoc one inmate's line-cutting can wreak in a place full of people who have waited possibly a week to buy a snack or a pair of Nikes. Disciplinary segregation: 15 days.

        In the penitentiary, segregation means time in 3 Cellhouse. It's the toughest part of the toughest of all the state's prisons.

        “It's sort of the jail within the jail,” said Barry Banister, the penitentiary's spokesman. “It's the end of the line in Kentucky.”

        Inmates' heads are shaved. They wear no regular clothing, just yellow scrubs and flip-flops. There's no TV, no phone. Food comes through a slot in the door.

        There's no contact with anyone. For 23 hours a day. That other hour can be spent walking just outside the cell, but in leg shackles and handcuffs. Exercise outside comes one hour a week.

        Mr. Shrout went back again in October of 1997, this time after guards found a knife in his cell. He was sentenced to 90 days.

        But prison officials have the option to keep inmates longer. He stayed 11 months, getting out in September.

        He's back in the penitentiary's general population now. He still has a cell to himself, as do all 820 inmates, but he can watch TV, eat with other people, wear shoes, hold a job, grow hair.

        He hasn't been a discipline problem since he left segregation. He has earned back most of the “good” time he lost. Not that it matters a whole lot. He still can't go anywhere until at least 2019.

        Sometimes such improvements mean an inmate has accepted his fate and decided to make the best of it, Mr. Banister said. Other times it represents quiet time between flareups.

        They don't know which category fits Mr. Shrout.

        He isn't in any mental-health programs, even though he pleaded guilty but mentally ill. He doesn't see the prison psy chiatrist or psychologist.

        “He has chosen not to,” Mr. Banister said. “He has been asked. We can't force them.”

In need of help
        He gets no mental-health help, in spite of a plea designed, in part, to try to ensure that help. That saddens the lawyer who helped work the plea deal.

        “He needed help. Our doctors told us that,” said Ed Drennen, a Florence attorney who represented him until he turned 18. “I don't know any sane person who would kill his entire family. Unfortunately, it's still a sad situation.”

        Meanwhile, he lives in his cell. He learns about carpentry. He submits, every day, to a strip search.

        He'll wait 20 more years before he meets the parole board. He'll be 42.


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