Aaron Schaffhausen already knows most of his fate.
Monday afternoon, he is scheduled to be formally sentenced to serve three mandatory life prison terms for the brutal murders of his three young daughters.
How and where he’ll spend his next decades behind bars — as well as whether he’ll ever be eligible for release — is still in question.
Schaffhausen and the corrections administrators responsible for him will have to navigate a pecking order of inmates who may not look kindly upon him for his crime, experts say.
“There’s a hierarchy among prisoners,” said Martin Horn, a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who once led corrections for the state of Pennsylvania and city of New York. “Inmates who are bank robbers are very high-status prisoners because they’re viewed as very bold. But inmates who prey on children are viewed as weak.”
Schaffhausen, 35, admitted to killing his three daughters, 11-year-old Amara, 8-year-old Sophie and 5-year-old Cecilia, in the River Falls, Wis., home the girls shared with their mother last July. Prosecutors say he cut the girls’ throats to hurt his ex-wife. Defense attorneys argued at his April trial that Schaffhausen was insane, but a jury didn’t agree. So instead of going to a mental institution, Schaffhausen will serve mandatory life sentences in prison.
Criminologists and former prison administrators say the corrections system will take pains to determine what kind of prison setting he will fit into best.
“The prisons might be more vigilant with a high-profile case like this,” said Joshua Page, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, who has studied prison dynamics. “Which might mean he does most of his sentence basically in isolation until people forget about it.”
Keeping him safe
Inmates don’t talk much about what they’ve done, experts said. But for a high-profile prisoner whose crimes made news nationally, hiding what the convict did is not likely to be an option at first.
Schaffhausen has spent the past year in the St. Croix County jail in a cell by himself. In the prison system, his initial stop will likely be Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun, Wis., where new adult male prisoners are observed and tested, former corrections officials said.
New inmates undergo a “multiweek intake and initial classification process,” a Wisconsin Department of Corrections statement said. Professionals watch and interview inmates, screen them for medical problems, mental health, security and other issues.
Jeffrey Endicott, a former warden in several Wisconsin prisons, speculated that Schaffhausen will then probably be sent to a modern maximum-security prison built to keep inmates in smaller groups, so staff members have more oversight. There, he could be placed in a mental-health unit.
Wherever he is, corrections officials can put Schaffhausen on administrative confinement for his safety, with or without his consent, Endicott said.
Endicott, who was warden over the prison where serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer was killed in 1994, said that, back then, an inmate had to agree to or ask for that confinement. Dahmer had declined, Endicott said. After Dahmer was beaten to death by another inmate, the rule changed, he said.
Endicott said administrative confinement in some cases could last for a long time “even potentially their entire sentence. In other situations, the institution may gradually allow them a little more access to the general population, kind of see what’s going to happen.”
Such confinement is something to avoid if possible, experts said. It’s costly, it may affect mental health and it may label the prisoner as weak, making it more difficult for him to join other prisoners later.
Some experts say Schaffhausen’s crimes may not put him in as much danger as people think. Pedophiles are typically the most-targeted inmates, but even that is changing, they said.
No sign of remorse
Schaffhausen will get three mandatory life sentences and up to a 20-year sentence for attempted arson, but it’s unclear exactly how long he’ll stay behind bars.
St. Croix County Circuit Judge Howard Cameron will have discretion on whether to order Schaffhausen’s sentences be served consecutively or concurrently, and whether to make him eligible for release to extended supervision.
The earliest possible release date under one life term is 20 years. If Schaffhausen is sentenced to serve all his terms consecutively, he couldn’t get out for at least 60 years. Cameron could also set a later date or decide Schaffhausen will get no chance at release.
In a sentencing memo filed last week, prosecutors sought consecutive life terms without the possibility of release. Their reasons included the severity of the crimes, safety concerns for his ex-wife, and a lack of remorse, saying Schaffhausen has refused to speak with pre-sentence investigators and “thus passed up a final chance to express some measure of remorse and repentance.” They advocated imposing the longest sentence possible so that if extended supervision rules change in the future “it will not be to the defendant’s benefit.”
Defense attorneys filed court documents last week emphasizing Schaffhausen’s mental illness.
“The prosecutors, unfortunately, like the general public, want insane people to dress like Halloween, hook electricity up to their heads, speak of aliens and be disheveled … but seriously mentally ill people hold jobs, own houses and conduct their lives,” defense attorney John Kucinski wrote. “Society does not want to view an intelligent, 6’4”, handsome, athletic guy as someone that can be seriously mentally ill.”
At Monday’s hearing, family members will get a chance to speak as well as Schaffhausen.
Kucinski indicated during an interview that Schaffhausen, who didn’t take the stand at his trial, probably won’t: “In this kind of case, no matter what anybody says, neither the judge nor the media is going to give it whatever weight it ought to get, are they?”
Likely to be quiet inmate
If he’s like most other prisoners, Schaffhausen will have some difficulty adjusting but then will likely serve his time quietly, experts said.
In the long term, “lifers” typically don’t make waves becasue they don’t want to jeopardize any small measure of control they have over their lives, such as reading books and newspapers, watching certain TV shows, working out and playing video games, said Robert Johnson, an American University professor who has studied prison dynamics.
Many long-term inmates become more remorseful and try to do something positive to give meaning to their lives, he said.
“At some point,” Johnson said, “as this guy sits in a prison cell, he’s going to recognize that those children were not just props, they were people he cared about.”