June 20, 2012— -- Most people imagine prison life for convicted murderers as being harsh, brutal, and isolated, a real-life "Shawshank Redemption."
So when convicted killer Danny Robbie Hembree Jr., 50, wrote a letter in January to the Gaston Gazette in North Carolina, gloating about his comfortable life on death row, it got plenty of attention.
"Is the public aware that I am a gentleman of leisure, watching color TV in the A.C., reading, taking naps at will, eating three, well-balanced, hot meals a day," Hembree wrote.
Critics say too often, at prisons across the country, convicted killers pass the time playing dominos and basketball, use well-stocked commissaries selling snacks and sodas, and enjoy state-of-the-art gyms, or time in the arts and crafts room.
Robert Blecker, a New York Law School professor and pro-death-penalty advocate, has spent the past 25 years documenting his provocative and controversial view, that life inside state penitentiaries and maximum-security prisons can actually be an undeservedly pleasant experience for convicted killers.
"They're playing on softball fields with lined base paths and umpires in uniforms, while other guys are hanging out, getting a suntan," Blecker said. "Those who committed the worst crimes, who deserve to suffer the most, generally suffer the least."
Blecker, who is producing a documentary and writing a book about the issue, said most Americans are clueless about the reality of prison life. He said prison life can be so comfortable that some convicts claim to have killed just to get put away, like Robert Pitts of Woodbury, Tenn., who was convicted of first-degree murder after beating a 63-year-old grandmother to death with a lead pipe.
"I can play pool or basketball," Pitts told Blecker, who interviewed him for his upcoming documentary. "Softball when it's softball season. Run, you can go out and jog, lift weights, play cards."
How killers are treated in prison can come as a shock to victims' families, including Nicholas Catterton and Stella Holland. Their 17-year-old daughter Heather Catterton was strangled to death by Hembree, who dumped her body into a ravine after he killed her in 2009. Hembree was convicted of murder and is now on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C.
After his conviction, Heather's family thought that would be the last they would hear of him, until his letter boasting of his conditions appeared in the paper, including "round the clock medical care."
"He's just sticking a knife in there and just turning it all over again," Holland said.
"We can't even take care of our own poor people, but we can take care of him sitting on death row. Come on," said Catterton.
"You might be able to read a few books," he said. "But sit there and watch color TV and watch your favorite Jerry Springer Show? … When you start caring and giving more rights to the criminals than you do the victims there's something wrong with America.
Prison officials told ABC News these privileges are routine and help create a safe environment. Inmates' rights advocates say that being deprived of freedom is harsh punishment and most inmates don't live lives of leisure.
"These prisons are just absolutely horrific places to be, there is violence throughout them, absolute overcrowding, the noise is deafening, no one would voluntarily choose to be there," said Jon Gould, a criminal justice professor at American University. "We are fooling ourselves if we allow ourselves to believe that one picture of a dominos game suggests this is a something other than a horrific life to live."
Some opponents of harsh punishment say the United States should follow Europe's lead. Germany for example requires guards to knock before they enter prisoners' cells and provides jobs inside prison, including unemployment insurance and vacation time.
But Blecker said attitudes about crime and punishment might change if the public were aware of some of these conditions. He insisted that he is not advocating prisoners being deprived of their rights, just that the punishment should fit the crime.
"For the worst of the worst of the worst, the ones who are raping and murdering children, there should be punishment," Blecker said. "That quality of life that they experience day to day should be a direct reflection on the heinousness and seriousness of the crime."
State legislatures are also starting to make changes. Following a public uproar over Hembree's letter, a committee of the North Carolina House of Representatives voted to suspend television privileges for death row inmates.
And three days after the Hartford Courant published a controversial editorial by Blecker, calling for greater punishment for the worst of the worst, the Connecticut legislature took action and passed a law that now requires those who get life without parole to serve that sentence without recreation or contact visits.