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One day several years ago, a young woman approached retired prison secretary Mary Jane Eaklor and asked her what she thought the chances were of making a successful marriage with her inmate fiance. Eaklor responded by telling her about a pile of rocks in her driveway.

"`If I blindfolded you and asked you to pick a particular one out of the pile,'" Eaklor recalls telling the woman, "`the chances of getting it right are how much chance you have.' And she said to me, `You don't like John.' And I said, `I like him very much. But you asked me what I thought your chances were.'"

Over the past dozen years, numerous women have come to Eaklor seeking advice--and, just as often, consolation--about their relationships with prisoners. Some of the women are guards or teachers who worked within the prison system and became smitten with a con. Others have worked behind the walls as volunteers. Some, like the young woman from a few years ago, want to tie the knot with their special felon. To that question, Eaklor says her advice will always be the same: Don't do it.

Eaklor, now 73 and a great-grandmother, has become a sounding board for the prison system's lovelorn because of her firsthand experience: For the last seven years, she has been married to Robert Dean Kautz, whom she met while he was serving a life term for the murder of a Wheat Ridge man. (Kautz's accomplice was convicted of killing the man's pregnant wife.) Eaklor married Kautz knowing not only that he was a murderer but that he had previously been convicted of trying to kill his first wife. And though she divorced Kautz after he was paroled and she realized she was afraid of him, Eaklor later agreed to marry him a second time.

Today Eaklor remains wedded to Kautz, who is back behind bars after committing yet another violent crime--the stabbing of a Sterling woman. "I'm still taking that chance," she says. But she harbors no illusions about prison romances. "Of all the cases I know about," she says, "none of them have been successful." Eaklor can easily summon up stories about countless failed romances and the sometimes cruel marriages that resulted from such unions. Once, when trying to comfort another prison secretary whose relationship with an ex-con had soured, Eaklor offered to pray with her. "I said to her, `Pray that you don't care about him so he can't hurt you anymore,'" remembers Eaklor.

Studies show that Eaklor is right when she says that the majority of such relationships are doomed. But in Colorado they continue to occur with such frequency that the marriage of Eaklor, a prison staffer, to Kautz, a convicted murderer, is far from unique. According to Colorado prison officials, an informal study of inmate marriages during the 1980s discovered 63 pairings between felons and people who'd worked in the corrections system. About half that number involved men and women who'd done volunteer work in the prisons. The other half consisted of state Department of Corrections employees who'd held positions ranging from teachers and secretaries to prison guards and psychologists. Officials also learned from the study that staffers most often become involved not with con artists or white-collar criminals but with the worst of the worst--violent offenders, primarily rapists and murderers.

Fraternization is of great concern to prison officials across the country because the practice can jeopardize the safety of inmates and staff alike. Displays of partiality to certain prisoners have caused fights and assaults. Staffers who've become involved with inmates have been known to bring drugs into the system and have even aided in escapes. And prison authorities have long suspected that what staffers may view as romantic encounters are actually guileful seductions.

"The majority of relationships are based solely on the fact that the inmate needed something," says Judy Finch, a DOC employee who tracked Colorado's 63 odd couples for a study ending in 1990. "They wanted someone to help them get out or to have someone to write to or to do things for them. The inmate is getting involved with a staff member for a reason that has very little to do with love. But you can't tell staff that."

The vast majority of the staffers Finch studied were either fired or chose to abandon their careers when their relationships were discovered. Some were ostracized by co-workers and their families. Of the 63 marriages, says Finch, now the DOC's assistant director of training, only one is still intact.

Despite that dismal track record--and the fact that fraternization is a firing offense--staffers show no sign of slowing down.

Between January 1994 and December 1, 1995, DOC investigators have probed 44 cases of alleged fraternization between staffers and inmates. Of those numbers, says DOC Inspector General Bob Cantwell, 13 employees have resigned and 8 were terminated as a direct result of the investigations. Four others have been disciplined. Nine cases remain open. Only ten cases were either proven to be unfounded or could not be substantiated.

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Karen Bowers