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What Prison Life Is Like for Well-Known Killers

Go behind bars.

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  • Photo Credit: Time Photoguy / Unsplash

It’s sometimes difficult to imagine that serial killers are people, too. Often serial killers become celebrities in their own right—long after their capture and incarceration they become the stuff of legend, tossed into the media spotlight. But what is it like for serial killers on the inside? 

Believe it or not, serial killer life in the cell is not as bleak and devastating as you might think. Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez had his rotting teeth completely repaired and replaced by a dentist. Ted Bundy was free to walk without cuffs or shackles, spending hours in the prison library doing research for his own court case. John Wayne Gacy carried around tools and was considered a frequent handyman throughout the prison. These are privileges absent from the average inmate’s daily routine, yet some of the most notorious serial killers were able to claim them.

The Lineup decided to go a bit deeper, examining some serial killers currently serving life in prison to see how what their daily lives are like now.

Dennis Rader

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Better known as the BTK Killer, Dennis Rader haunted Wichita, Kansas for 30 years and claimed 10 victims. His modus operandi of choice was to bind, torture, and kill (hence "BTK"). Leading a double life as a Boy Scout troop leader, Rader was finally caught and processed at El Dorado Correctional Facility, where he has been since 2005. 

Related: The Brutal Case of BTK Serial Killer Dennis Rader

After years in solitary confinement, mostly due to the nature of his crimes (inmates have it in for other inmates known for definitively heinous crimes), he has been offered the ability to watch television and listen to the radio from the comfort of his own cell. Rader has said that he has become a bit of a “prison pet” and is taken care of well. 

The perks have not gone unnoticed. Kevin O’Connor, a deputy attorney, has gone on record to express his concern with the special treatment. “We’re having a hard time understanding why somebody like this is allowed to earn privileges when all the evidence was presented as to how he can turn what most people would consider to be innocent into something that is evil.” 

David Berkowitz

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Perhaps the most “famous” serial killer mentioned here, Berkowitz is known as “Son of Sam” and the “.44 Caliber Killer,” alternatively. He killed six people in New York City between the years 1976 and 1977, believing he received the orders to kill from his demon-possessed dog. 

Related: Son of Sam's Reign of Terror: 40 Years Later

Berkowitz is locked up in Shawangunk Correctional Facility in New York. Though he could be granted parole, Berkowitz has yet to seek such a choice, preferring to remain in prison. Could this be due to his treatment in the system? It seems to be the case. 

In addition to having written and published a book, Son of Hope: The Prison Journals of David Berkowitz, the serial killer has turned to the Christian faith and spends his time working as a prison chaplain, including being entrusted by the system to file paperwork and clean the facilities. Though this is more of a sobering prison experience, Berkowitz seems to have found a second life behind bars.

Gary Ridgway

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Ridgway is known throughout the media as the “Green River Killer.” Though he committed most of his murders in 1982 and 1983, it took the authorities 20 years to catch him. Perhaps what’s most alarming is just how many people he has killed—Ridgway has been convicted of murdering 49 women. 

Related: Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer Who Murdered At Least 49 People

GRK’s weapon of choice? His bare hands, which he used to dole out death by strangulation. His nickname is derived from the location of the disposed bodies, as he left them dead and naked along the river bank. Serving 48 consecutive prison sentences, Ridgway is a lifer, now currently behind bars at USP Florence High, a high-security prison in Colorado. 

A life sentence for Ridgway isn’t as glamorous or calm as Berkowitz’s or Rader’s. His life is one of solitude, limited to a prison cell for 23 hours of the day due to the high likelihood that other inmates would attempt to hurt and/or kill Ridgway. Killing 49 women? Yeah, that’ll certainly put a “mark” on a person, with anyone and everyone seeking to ensure such a prolific killer’s last breath.

Scott Peterson

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Peterson might be best known for his case's comparison to the book and blockbuster film, Gone Girl—author Gillian Flynn has said that while she didn't base her book on any true crime stories, she does see the connection between the two. Like Gone Girl's Nick Dunne, Peterson is the charming yet seemingly unfazed man whose wife went missing. Her name was Laci, and she was pregnant at the time. Thanks to his odd alibi and his generally unemotional affect, Peterson’s trial became a media spectacle. 

Peterson has been serving a life sentence at San Quentin. Reports suggest that Peterson has things quite “cushy” for an inmate. Where most are confined to a cell for 23 hours a day, Peterson has access to an outdoor shower and toilet. Likewise, he can visit the basketball court by himself whenever he pleases. It’s perhaps an effort to protect him from other inmates and yet, it does offer some surprise. Peterson’s life in prison has been nearly as glamorous as the trial that preceded it. 

Viktor Sayenko

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Viktor Sayenko’s modus operandi differed from many of the killers on this list. Here is a young man who turned to murder as a business. Dubbed the “Dnepropetrovsk Maniac,” he murdered upwards of 18 people and filmed it. The intention was to get rich distributing the videos, which contained content that many might know as “snuff.” 

Related: 9 Creepy Wikipedia Pages That Will Haunt Your Nightmares

The murders were crude, and aimed for lasting impact—they included bludgeoning to death by way of hammers, steel construction bars, and even multiple knife stabbings. Sayenko is serving life in prison and though reports are quite vague, his parents have been vocal about their son’s trial, claiming that he was used as a scapegoat and that the sentencing was unfair. 

His father is at work on creating a website to track the investigation of his son’s case, though he has gone on record to state that his son has been treated well in prison. Sayenko had a partner in these murders: the other “Maniac,” Alexander Hanzha, who has been released from prison on parole after serving nine years. The same fate does not extend to Sayenko, though a quiet life in prison is perhaps a privilege all its own.

Paul Bernardo

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Bernardo has been called the “Schoolgirl Killer” and the “Scarborough Rapist” by the media. His targets were schoolgirls who, with the help of his girlfriend Karla Homolka, he kidnapped, poisoned, raped, and then strangled. His best known victims were two Niagara schoolgirls, Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. 

Related: Dangerous Duos: Sickest Serial Killer Couples Ever

He has plead guilty to more than a dozen rapes and sexual assaults and has since been marked a dangerous offender. He is serving a life sentence in Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, Canada. Life in prison has not been as calm or cushy for Bernardo. A fellow inmate, Carl Hiltz, became a hero and received countless donations and fan letters after word got out of Hiltz’s assault of Bernardo, clocking him so hard that he almost lost an eye. 

No one would deny that Bernardo didn’t “deserve” the punch, and it proves that just because enigmatic serial killers like Charles Manson or Scott Peterson can get away with a nice life behind bars, they are seemingly the exception to the rule. A serial killer in prison is usually marked for dead—most inmates would pounce in a second.

Featured photo: Time Photoguy / Unsplash