THE OLD BALL & CHAIN

part 2 of 2
Like so many women who have fallen for prisoners, Flo Orona insists that her man and her marriage are different.

Orona met the man of her dreams in 1987. She'd prayed to God for a man who would meet her ideals. That's why her two marriages had failed, she thought--because she never chose someone who could meet her needs. Her man had to be godly, she says, and well-respected. He had to be as strong and as intelligent as she was and be able to encourage her to be all that she could be and not be threatened by her.

But when she found that man and realized she was falling in love, she initially believed it was God's idea of a joke. Because Flo--who sprang from a long line of law enforcement officers and who'd been a prison guard for fifteen years (ten in Colorado and five in Missouri)--was taken with a man serving twenty years to life for killing his wife.

She was working at the Territorial Correctional Facility in Canon City when she met Larry Orona. She'd heard about him before--a fellow employee said he was a guy who didn't belong in prison--but she hadn't been prepared for the ambivalent feelings he stirred up in her.

"We got to talking," Flo says. "And I thought, `He is a godly man, and he is respected. But I am a professional corrections officer, and whether he belongs here or not, being with an inmate would never work.'"

Two years later Flo left the prison system--without, she says, ever acting on her feelings. She'd become disillusioned with the system and disgusted by what she perceived as corruption. When she was hospitalized to have an operation on her leg, she decided she would never go back to work for the DOC.

Flo opened an investigative agency in Boulder and began working for attorneys. And one of the first cases she accepted was Larry Orona's; she helped his attorney gather evidence for a hearing in which he planned to ask for a new trial for his client.

Larry Orona shot his wife in April 1983 following an argument in a motel parking lot. He has always claimed that his estranged wife had the gun and that the weapon discharged when he tried to take it away from her. After speaking with people who knew him--witnesses, friends and family--Flo decided he was not guilty of first-degree murder.

Larry's attorney didn't succeed in obtaining a new trial. But the relationship between Flo and Larry blossomed. They were married in the chapel at the state prison in Limon in April 1992.

Unlike the vast majority of inmates, Larry Orona is able to help his wife financially. He had earned an early retirement before he was arrested, and he has always worked in prison. He pays his wife's monthly car payment and keeps up her burial insurance. "He wants to take care of me," Flo says. "He's never asked me for any money. The only time I send him some is at Christmas, and he uses it to call his family, because he doesn't like to call collect."

Larry Orona is active in prison counseling groups and lacks just nine hours of academic credit for an associate of arts degree in behavioral counseling, his wife says proudly. She expects that when he is released, he will go to work in some kind of ministry.

Flo, now 57, has retained her independence--she manages an assisted-care facility in Ca–on City--but says she's preparing to share a life with Larry by seeking his input on all major decisions. The couple has vowed to hold a second marriage ceremony when Larry is released from prison, but that could be a long way off. His parole eligibility date is 2002, at which time he'll be 65 and his wife 63.

Flo says she knows relationships likes hers can be iffy propositions. However, she doesn't believe her marriage will fail. Since marrying Larry, she says, "my life has been nothing but beautiful and good."

When DOC officials screen job applicants, says Wallis Parmenter, superintendent of the San Carlos Correctional Facility for the chronically medically ill in Pueblo, "one of the things we try to look for is whether or not [that person] is looking for something other than a paycheck. Are they here to meet their own personal needs? Do they have their own personal problems? Are they divorced or maybe ten years and twenty pounds past their prime? Because what happens is that there are times in peoples' lives that they're vulnerable. Maybe they've had a catastrophic illness in the family and they're in bad financial shape and they decide to bring in some dope [to a prisoner]. Or they're lonely and they get involved with some sex issues."

The DOC attempts to guard against human frailties through intensive training and repeated warnings about the dangers of getting involved with inmates. Finch, for instance, tells new employees that inmates are "geniuses at figuring things out" and that prisoners are "good"--good at complimenting people, good at making someone feel confident or important, good at picking up on problems that staffers may be having at work or at home.

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