58°F
weather icon Mostly Cloudy

Former inmate now advocates for prisoners in Nevada

Updated January 10, 2020 - 12:20 am

John Witherow said that after his first prison sentence in 1967, it didn’t take long for him to become a mean, dangerous man. Over the next 40 years, only three were spent on the outside.

By the time he was sentenced in Nevada, there was no hope for Witherow — he was in for life. It took a state Supreme Court ruling, his self-taught skills as a jailhouse lawyer and a sizable settlement from the Nevada Department of Corrections for Witherow to get out of prison and change his life.

“I just learned to fight in a different manner,” he said during an interview in November.

Now 70, Witherow has been on the outside for more than nine years. A self-admitted former “problem child,” who said his most serious conviction was attempted murder for shooting at an officer, now runs Nevada’s chapter of the nonprofit Citizen’s United for Rehabilitation of Errants, also called CURE.

“Prisoners in Nevada never had a group on the outside that communicated with them on a regular basis about what’s going on or who they can call for assistance: We provide that service,” he said.

Witherow took over the Nevada chapter of the prisoner advocacy organization within a year of being released on parole in Nevada. The former prisoner — who spent time incarcerated in Michigan, California and Nevada — now answers dozens of inmate letters a week, works with attorneys to file class-action lawsuits and meets with the highest-up in Nevada’s Department of Corrections.

James Dzurenda, former director of the department, who resigned in August, said Witherow helped him address problems in the prison system.

“John was a great tool for that because the inmate population trusts him, and if John said to trust me, they would do it,” Dzurenda said during a phone call in December. “It was such a big deal to have him working together with us.”

Dzurenda said Witherow was an important person to him during his time as director because he knew what was happening in the facilities.

“John’s like the filter for that. He never came to me with any minor stuff,” Dzurenda said. “He made sure that if he’s bringing it to my level, he’s bringing me the stuff that he really believes is a serious issue.”

Connection to the outside

Witherow was matter-of-fact about everything from the problems with the criminal justice system to his own checkered past during an interview at a central valley law firm.

All of the chapter’s mail goes through the law office, and Witherow said he and his volunteers work hard to try and answer every inmate.

He said he also distributes a newsletter every two months to Nevada’s seven major prison facilities. The newsletter contains copies of criminal justice news articles, list of resources for inmates and the occasional plea from Witherow for prisoners to call him with information.

The newsletter networking is how Witherow gathered nearly 100 cases of inmates who say they are not receiving proper medication for their chronic hepatitis C. He gathered two strong cases and helped file a class action lawsuit against the state prison system in October, making Nevada the latest state to face a lawsuit on the issue.

But more importantly, the newsletter lets inmates feel connected to outside.

“They’ve got somebody that will answer their questions and somebody who will help them,” Witherow said about the inmates he talks with. “Somebody who they can call and find out what’s going on.”

‘You judge people by their conduct’

Witherow said his history includes armed robbery, weapons charges, and attempted murder of a police officer, which happened while he was trying to make off with a suitcase of cash during an armed robbery.

He fired toward an officer who cut off his getaway car, he said. It was 1974.

He was convicted on an armed robbery charge in Nevada after robbing a jewelry store and got a habitual criminal enhancement tacked on to his sentence because of his prior felonies. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole, which was later overturned by the state Supreme Court, and he was resentenced to life with the possibility of parole, he said.

He was released after 26 years, and if all goes according to plan, his parole will be up in 2020, he said.

Witherow said he doesn’t hide his record. He said that without being asked, he told his neighbor of his multiple prison sentences. The man was glad he heard it from Witherow.

“I would rather tell somebody about me then have somebody else tell them about me,” Witherow said. “I think you judge people by their conduct.”

In prison at 17

Witherow grew up with four siblings in the suburbs of Detroit. Witherow said his father abused him — “He beat me until I could beat him.”

He hung out with kids whose fathers and brothers were “gang-bangers” and began stealing cars at 14. His first run-in with the cops when he was a juvenile was for stealing a 1966 Mustang, he said.

Going to prison at 17 just made his mental health problems worse, Witherow said.

“I was an emotionally disturbed young man,” he said. “I should have had some type of mental health treatment.”

Witherow was incarcerated in Michigan during the 1971 Attica Prison riot in New York. At the time, Witherow said he was already involved with organizations who were “trying to overthrow the government and change the world,” and inside the prison he was involved in “various sabotage activities.”

After the famous riot, facilities were redesigned to prevent takeovers, and guards became more fearful, Witherow said. But he was also inspired to do something.

“In about 1972 I started going to the law library and doing legal work, and throughout the rest of my life I’ve done legal work,” he said. “I’m not a lawyer, but I do have substantial knowledge of the law.”

Because Witherow was “big enough and tough enough” to avoid being forced into a prison gang, he did legal work for anyone who needed it. Even if gang leaders didn’t like it.

“I’ll do legal work for whoever I want. If you don’t like it, go get your knife, I got mine,” he said with a laugh, remembering how he used to think in prison.

He has sued the Nevada Department of Corrections multiple times, including one lawsuit over administrators assuming someone would test positive for drugs if they refused a urine sample, Witherow said.

That lawsuit awarded him $3,000. By the time he was paroled and moved to Michigan in 2010, he had about $45,000 from another lawsuit with the prison system. The money helped keep him out of trouble, he said.

“Instead of jumping over bank counters, which I’m too old to do anymore, I do something constructive with my time and try to help the people out that are underprivileged, or being abused, or in bad conditions in the prison system,” he said.

‘He really, really cares’

Witherow and his partner, a former schoolteacher who met Witherow while working with another prisoner advocacy organization, now live near Fresno, California. He could have stopped worrying about the criminal justice system. He could have been content to sit on his porch and feed the deer — a small joy he didn’t get on the inside.

Instead, he makes the six-hour drive to Las Vegas periodically to help run the nonprofit chapter. Travis Barrick, a lawyer at the firm where the organization’s mail is sent to, said Witherow is deeply passionate.

“He really, really cares about the conditions of confinement,” Barrick said. “That people still have rights. He really, really cares.”

Throughout his work with CURE, Witherow has met with multiple state and federal officials. He said that while he was incarcerated, he never thought that an inmate would be able to reach the decision-makers he has.

Witherow has lofty goals, including abolishing the death penalty, setting maximum sentences at 60 years and breaking the gangs’ influences in prisons. He said if people would look at those in the inmate population — which he still considers himself one of— as human, his job would be easier.

He said that the stories of injustice — an inmate who was beaten by guards with a pillowcase over his head or a woman sentenced to eight years for shoplifting a $35 item — haven’t worn him down. He could “retire,” but the work is worth it.

“The work is hard, but it’s rewarding in that you’re helping people,” he said.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Crime Videos
Elderly woman robbed in Fremont elevator - VIDEO
An elderly woman was robbed in an elevator on the 300 block of Fremont Street. Video courtesy of Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. (James Schaeffer/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bail set at $300K for suspect in Las Vegas credit union shooting
William Cass Jackson who authorities said shot his mother three times before firing at police at a credit union in southwest Las Vegas was ordered held on $300,000 bail on Thursday.
Police update on shooting at Las Vegas credit union - VIDEO
Las Vegas police Capt. Nichole Splinter gives an update of officer-involved shooting at Navy Federal Credit Union, 6975 Spring Mountain Road, near Rainbow Boulevard, on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police investigate officer-involved shooting - VIDEO
Las Vegas police brief the media on an officer-involved shooting in the 6900 block of Spring Mountain, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Witnesses discuss officer-involved shooting in Las Vegas - VIDEO
Witnesses discuss what they saw during a shooting involving Las Vegas police on Spring Mountain Road near Rainbow Boulevard, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (Glen Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Store clerk shoots assailant after stabbing - VIDEO
North Las Vegas police say a 7-Eleven store clerk, who was stabbed by an attacker, pulled out a firearm and shot the individual in the store's parking lot early Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The car that Tupac was shot in is for sale - VIDEO
The vehicle that legendary rapper Tupac Shakur was riding in when he was shot after a boxing match in Las Vegas is up for auction. The black 1996 BMW 7 Series is listed by Celebrity Cars Las Vegas for $1.75 million. (Angus Kelly/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nye County deputy dragged by Las Vegas man driving stolen vehicle - VIDEO
A Las Vegas man was taken into custody after dragging a Nye County officer while in a stolen vehicle, and then leading police in a pursuit. (Nye County Sheriff's Office)
Margaret Rudin's first interview after release from prison
Convicted killer Margaret Rudin maintains her innocence in her first interview after spending 20 years in a Las Vegas prison for the murder of her husband, Ron Rudin.
Convicted killer Margaret Rudin is released from prison - VIDEO
Greg Mullanax, attorney for Margaret Rudin, makes a statement to the press after Rudin's release from prison. She served 20 years for killing her husband. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Women accused of high-heel attack at Cosmopolitan - VIDEO
Prosecutors agreed to drop felony charges Thursday against four Utah sisters accused of storming into a penthouse suite at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and attacking one woman’s estranged husband and his girlfriend with fists and high-heeled shoes. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bayzle Morgan Sentenced To 44 Years To Life - Video
A man with neo-Nazi tattoos on his face who pleaded guilty to killing a 75-year-old woman in her Las Vegas home in 2013 was sentenced Thursday to at least 44 years behind bars.
I-15 northbound lanes remain closed at Nevada-California stateline - VIDEO
A fatal officer-involved shooting occurred late Wednesday afternoon involving California law enforcement. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas bus attack caught on video
Video released Metro shows two men talking on a bus on Dec. 13, 2019. A few seconds into the video, the younger man stands up and punches the older man in the face. (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)
North Las Vegas police release details of first fatal officer-involved shooting of 2020 - VIDEO
North Las Vegas Police Chief Pamela Ojeda discusses details of the departments first fatal officer-involved shooting for 2020. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police release details of first officer involved shooting of 2020 - VIDEO
Assistant Sheriff Brett Zimmerman meets with the media to discuss additional details of the January 2, 2020, officer-involved shooting that occurred at 4051 W. Viking Road. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Body found in vacant lot in Las Vegas ruled a homicide - VIDEO
Las Vegas police homicide detectives investigate what is described as a suspicious death in northeast Las Vegas, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
$50K bail set for suspect in attack on girlfriend seen on video - Video
A judge set bail at $50,000 on Friday for a man accused of beating and kidnapping his girlfriend in an act caught on a home surveillance video. Darnell Rodgers, 23, was arrested early Thursday morning, hours after the Metropolitan Police Department released the video in which a woman was seen crying while she ran to a house screaming for help near Warm Springs Road and the 215 Beltway.
Metro detectives seeking help identifying kidnapping victim and suspect - VIDEO
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department detectives are seeking help in identifying a kidnapping victim and suspect. (James Schaeffer/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Wrong-way driver on Las Vegas Blvd
Nevada troopers stop a wrong-way driver on Las Vegas Boulevard on Dec. 31, 2019. (@NHPSouthernComm/Twitter)
Woman fatally shot man during attempted burglary
A homeowner in a residential area near Warm Springs Road and Spencer Street shot a man who had broken into her home on Saturday, December 28, 2019. The man, who was in his 30s, died at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center. (Katelyn Newberg/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Man critically wounded in Las Vegas bus stop shooting - VIDEO
A man was in critical condition Friday afternoon after he was shot at a bus stop on Boulder Highway in southeast Las Vegas, police said. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Margaret Rudin Expected to be Released on Parole - Video
The scheduled release from prison of a woman convicted of killing her millionaire husband in Las Vegas a quarter-century ago seems imminent pending approval of a parole plan.
New Summerlin Metro substation opens in January - VIDEO
A new Metropolitan Police Department substation will be opening in the Summerlin area. New in-house detective squads, "flex squads" and more police availability in the Summerlin area are some of the new features of the substation. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal / Summerlin Area Command)
East Tropicana road rage shooting
Las Vegas police brief the media on a shooting in a Walmart parking lot on East Tropicana Blvd. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Henderson officer-involved shooting body cams - VIDEO
Henderson police department video shows body cameras from three officers during an officer-involved shooting on Dec. 10, 2019, in front of the Bourbon Street Sports Bar at North Major Avenue and Boulder Highway. (Henderson Police Department)
Veteran reacts to Buddhist temple fire started by arsonist - VIDEO
Veteran James Smales visited the Thai Buddhist Temple- Las Vegas, Wat Buddha Pavana, in North Las Vegas on Tuesday, Dec. 17, to see the extent of the damage to the temple after a fire started by the arsonist on Sunday night. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pedestrian struck, killed in east Las Vegas - VIDEO
A pedestrian is dead after being struck by a vehicle that ran a red light Sunday afternoon in the east valley, Las Vegas police said. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police assisted by cowboys
Video shows cowboys helping Las Vegas police corral a suspected carjacker at Horseman's Park in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. (Cayden Cox)
Cowboys help Las Vegas police
Cowboys at Horseman's Park help Metro apprehend a suspected carjacker on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. (Colton Payne/Facebook)
Police briefing on officer-involved shooting in Henderson - VIDEO
Henderson police were called to a disturbance at the Bourbon Street Sports Bar at Major Avenue and Boulder Highway early Tuesday morning, Dec. 10, 2019, where officers shot a suspect armed a knife. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Henderson police release body camera footage of officer-involved shooting - VIDEO
On Monday, Dec. 9, 2019, the Henderson Police Department released 911 audio and body camera footage from a fatal officer-involved shooting on Nov. 20. (Henderson Police Department)
Press Conference with NHP for I-15 Southbound Crash
Two people are dead following a “catastrophic” crash involving a wrong-way driver Thursday night on Interstate 15 south of Las Vegas. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Homicide Pecos and Washington
Metro Homicide Lt. Ray Spencer talks about an investigation into a man's death at an east Las Vegas apartment complex on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police tend to man shot and wounded on McCarran tarmac - VIDEO
A man is in surgery after being shot by a Metro police officer on the tarmac at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas early Thursday. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Man charged in model's death to be released under house arrest - Video
Christopher Prestipino, who has been charged in the death of Esmeralda Gonzalez, has posted $500,000 bail. District Judge Douglas Herndon confirmed on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, that Prestipino should be released on house arrest while he awaits trial. (Nathan Asselin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Casandra Garrett appears in court over model's death - Video
Casandra Garrett was in court on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, in Las Vegas after she was extradited from Wisconsin. She is facing charges in connection with the slaying of Esmeralda Gonzalez, a 24-year-old model whose body was found encased in concrete in October. (Nathan Asselin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bodycam footage of Henderson Police Officers in Fatal Shooting of Mother - Video
Bodycam footage from an officer-involved shooting where the officers a 7-year-old male juvenile with apparent stab wounds and an agitated adult female.
3 more arrested, accused of abuse at east Las Vegas group home - Video
Three more people were arrested in connection with an unlicensed group home in the east valley that authorities first raided in September, police said Thursday. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Christopher Prestipino pleads not guilty to all charges - VIDEO
Christopher Prestipino of Las Vegas pleaded not guilty Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, to charges in the slaying of Esmeralda Gonzalez, a 24-year-old model, whose body authorities said was found encased in concrete. (Angus Kelly/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bail hearing for Christopher Prestipino and Lisa Mort - Video
A bail hearing and court appearance for Christopher Prestipino and Lisa Mort who are charged in connection with the death of Esmeralda Gonzalez, Oct. 22, 2019. (Nathan Asselin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST
Judicial races crowded with more than 100 candidates

Judicial candidates, family, friends, colleagues and at least one campaign manager huddled around a row of monitors inside the Clark County Government Center as the clock crept toward 5 p.m. on Friday.