By Courtney Gao, NECIR Student, 2014
Life was good for Wayland High School football player Nathaniel Fujita not that long ago.
He was preparing to head off to Trinity College, and had been dating his girlfriend Lauren Astley for most of high school.
Their futures looked bright. Lauren loved to sing in the choir, especially her a cappella group, and looked forward to attending college, too.
Violence had never seemed a part of their relationship – that is, until the breakup.
On July 3, 2011, Fujita beat, strangled and stabbed Lauren to death in his garage. Lauren’s father, Malcolm Astley, has worked ever since to educate teens about safe relationships.
“I dearly want to help him, and I’m very torn about it,” Astley said about Fujita. “I’ll go on thinking about it for the rest of my life, I’m sure.”
Fujita, who was sentenced last year to life in prison, is often on Astley’s mind as he grieves for Lauren.
Astley, a retired educator, carries a large poster photo of his daughter, and plays a recording of her singing when he shares his story with various groups.
Astley told the story during the summer at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University. He agreed to be interviewed by groups studying investigative reporting.
For now, Astley works to stop teen dating violence. Fujita adjusts to prison life.
Fujita was transferred on Feb. 21 from prison in Massachusetts to the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord, N.H., where he is held in the second most secure level of custody, according to Jeffrey Lyons, spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Corrections.
“He’d be locked in his cell approximately 20 hours per day,” Lyons said.
There are two reasons for moving a prisoner to a different state, Lyons said.
“They may have had a very high-profile crime in the state that they came from, and their safety could be jeopardized in some way, or they could be a threat to the institution,” Lyons said.
Because of confidentiality rules, Lyons couldn’t offer details on what prompted Fujita’s move.
Fujita is housed in the close-custody unit where he lives in a cell with one roommate.
During the four hours his cell is unlocked, Fujita is permitted to go to the chow hall and medical center to receive treatment. He can make phone calls and receive visits, Lyons said.
“He is in a more restrictive unit at the moment,” said Lyons. “He would have some level of recreational opportunities, but he would have to do them in the housing unit he lives in.”
For now, Fujita doesn’t have access to the family connection center and weight room activities, privileges most other inmates have. Every three to six months, Fujita’s behavior will be assessed to determine whether his level of custody can be relaxed, Lyons said.
Mental health programs
At trial, Fujita’s attorneys unsuccessfully argued he was psychotic at the time of the killing due to head injuries sustained playing football.
According to Lyons, about half of the inmates at New Hampshire State Prison have a history of mental illness and/or drug abuse, or were physically, mentally or sexually abused in the past. The prison system has a full mental health treatment operation, and is touted as the largest provider of mental health care in the state, Lyons said.
Most inmates in need of services can access general programs, counseling, a psychiatrist, clinicians, and individual treatment plans, Lyons said.
Without written consent from Fujita, Lyons said he could not disclose whether he receives mental health treatment. Fujita declined a request to be interviewed.
While services exist, some experts believe not enough is being done to rehabilitate inmates or to prepare them for a successful transition upon release.
Dr. James Gilligan, a well-known expert on violence, formerly worked as the director of mental health for the Massachusetts prison system.
“Two-thirds of prisoners reoffend within three years of leaving prison, often with a more serious and violent offense,” Gilligan wrote in a New York Times opinion piece.
Since 90 percent of all inmates return home within a few years, it is important they get the treatment they need while incarcerated, he said.
Fujita doesn’t look forward to ever being released because his sentence mandates life with no chance for parole.
Gilligan recommended replacing prisons with locked, home-like secure communities where inmates could obtain all the various kinds of treatment they require.
Preventing teen dating violence
Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships, an initiative through the Boston Public Health Commission, works to prevent teen dating violence and abuse.
Program Director Nicole Daley said peer support groups “try to unpack what gender norms look like” in popular songs.
Students decipher their meanings, and look for healthy and unhealthy messages from songs, the media and even in ordinary jokes, she said.
Start Strong also teaches middle school students about healthy relationships and how to identify problem relationships, Daley said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 9.4 percent of high school students reported being hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend in the 12 months prior to the 2010 survey.
Mass. Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, spearheaded a line item that passed in the latest state budget that gives some schools the option of applying for $150,000 earmarked for healthy relationship education.
“That was a concept that I actually developed after having some meetings and discussions with a constituent of mine who lost a daughter to teen dating violence,” Peisch said.
“His main concern is that while the state does require that all school districts include in their health courses some information on dating violence, it doesn’t outline in any detail exactly what should be taught.”
Peisch identified her constituent as Malcolm Astley.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reported that 21 states have adopted laws dealing with safe relationships.
Of 17 pieces of legislation related to teen dating violence introduced in 12 states this year, six are pending, one was passed, and the rest failed, according to the group’s website.
Educating young people motivates Astley to continue sharing his story with students, parents, lawmakers and as many people as he can reach.
Astley started the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund after Lauren’s death with help from his former wife, Mary Dunne, neighbors, and friends in hopes of someday seeing an end to dating violence.
Astley always cautions young people against visiting their ex-partners alone after a breakup as his daughter did. She was trying to help Fujita that night, but it is too dangerous a time in a relationship, Astley said.
Websites like loveisrespect.org provide information about how batterers can identify their own abusive behavior and seek out opportunities to change.
While it may seem too late to help to Fujita now, Astley still holds out hope for him.
“I can’t bring my daughter back, but maybe something can be done with him,” Astley said.
“All of us have done something dreadful that we wish we’d never done, and it doesn’t make us a worthless person.”
Featured Image: Malcolm Astley of Wayland, Mass., is pictured being interviewed by a group studying investigative reporting at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University during the summer of 2014.