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Inmate guilty of blinding another

It wasn't violent crime that landed Mark Feinstein behind the barbed wire of Zephyrhills Correctional Institution. He was a burglar and thief serving a five-year sentence.

But his stay behind bars turned gruesome May 30, 1997. On that day, less than eight months before his release, another inmate gouged out his eyes with his bare hands.

The attack left Feinstein, who was released in January, with a glass eye in his left socket and a right eye so damaged that he is legally blind. Monday, the father of four was scheduled to travel from his south Florida home to Dade City to testify against the inmate accused of taking away his sight.

Instead, that inmate, Robert Martin Stokes, decided at the last minute to plead guilty to the aggravated battery charge in exchange for a sentence of nearly eight additional years in prison. If the trial had gone forward, Stokes could have faced a sentence as long as 13 years.

But it wouldn't have made much of a difference. Stokes, 35, is doing time for a second-degree murder conviction and other offenses that would have kept him in Florida prisons until 2005. After that, he also has waiting a 24-year sentence in Maryland for convictions including armed robbery and heroin possession.

"He basically has a life sentence," prosecutor Linda H. Babb said. "This guy has nothing to lose."

The Florida prison system is sprinkled with offenders for whom the possibility of release is only a distant glimmer and for whom another sentence is only a weak deterrent to violence. In 1996 and 1997, the Department of Corrections recorded a total of 1,157 inmate-on-inmate assaults.

Jo Ellyn Rackleff, a spokeswoman for the agency, said corrections officials do all they can to prevent outbursts. But, she said, "It's prison, not kindergarten."

Still, Babb, an assistant state attorney assigned to Stokes' case, said the attack that left Feinstein without his sight underscores a difficult question about inmates like Stokes: "How do you maintain safety when they have nothing to lose?"

One inmate who agreed to testify in the Stokes case said in a deposition that the attack could have been prevented. Christopher Wheeler said Feinstein had gone to corrections officers several times to tell them he and Stokes were having problems.

Wheeler said Feinstein owed Stokes money that Feinstein had asked to borrow. But it wasn't just about money, Wheeler said. "Stokes also was in love with the guy," Wheeler said. "Then the guy would lead Stokes on. . . . I seen this same stuff happen all the time."

Prison Inspector Donald DeWitt reported the conflict somewhat differently in court documents. He said he learned from other inmates and corrections officers that Stokes had been harassing Feinstein for sex for a long time. But, he said, Feinstein got tired of the advances and reported Stokes to officials, who moved Stokes to a different part of the prison. This made Stokes very angry, DeWitt said, so Stokes broke into Feinstein's room and stole his only possessions _ family pictures and postage stamps he used to write home.

When Feinstein made it clear he wanted his belongings back, DeWitt said, Stokes told him he had buried them in the horticulture area. But when Feinstein followed him there that evening, DeWitt said, Stokes picked up a sprinkler head and hit him in the back of the head, cracking his skull. He then grabbed Feinstein's head from behind and tore out his eyes.

One eye was salvaged and now offers 10 to 15 percent vision, Babb said. Bits of crushed bone later had to be removed from Feinstein's brain, but he somehow escaped brain damage, Babb said.

Monday, Babb said, the prosecution flew Feinstein from the Miami area with his father because Feinstein now needs someone to lead him through places like airports.

She said Feinstein also has a lawyer and is planning to sue the prison system over his injury.

"He feels that, in some way, they didn't protect him," she said.