A Prisoners Story: 37 years behind bars, one year of freedom

No one cares that Al died—not his family, not the folks at the halfway house where he lived, not even those of us who had served time with him. Only old man Bob on the third floor of B-Building mourned Al’s passing. Al used to clean Bob’s cell and wash his laundry. But Bob is as crazy as Al ever was, so Bob doesn’t really count.

Part of the reason nobody cares about Al’s death is that virtually every statement that came out of his mouth was a lie. In the penitentiary, deception is an important survival tool. But Al carried it to such an extreme that the rest of us ended up simply ignoring him as another nut case; the big house is full of them.


In the end, all that is certain about Al’s life are a few key dates: born in 1950, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in 1969; paroled in 1986, violated parole eight months later, reincarcerated from 1987 to 2007; paroled in late spring, deceased in early autumn. A little more than a year’s worth of freedom since 1969—that is all Al had. Thirty-seven years of his life were spent behind bars.

After his conviction in 1969, Al was sent to the Walls, Virginia’s notoriously brutal maximum security prison in downtown Richmond. Nineteen-year-old white youngsters like him didn’t stand a chance there. He was immediately “turned out,” forced to become a punk or sex slave.

Every three or four months, the older, stronger convicts would put on “The Follies,” a stage production where punks like Al had to wear make-up and women’s clothing. Then they had to dance, sing and perform skits for the assembled prisoners and guards. In those days Al was known as Strawberry, for his long red hair.

Ironically, one of the men who had turned out Al at the Walls in the early 1970s spent the first few years of this century living with him in B-Building at our medium-security facility. In the evenings they would play pinochle together in the dayroom. “And the beat goes on”—that’s what Al would say when reflecting upon the insanities of penitentiary life, “And the beat goes on.”

The Walls was torn down in the late 1980s, but a half-hearted version of “The Follies” was staged at our prison as recently as last winter. According to Congressional testimony, 20 percent of all inmates are pressured or forced into sexual activity, and according to Michael Horrock in a report distributed by UPI, “Hundreds of Thousands Raped in U.S. Lockups” (7/31/02), another 10 percent are raped outright. And the beat goes on.

After nearly 17 years behind bars, Al was paroled in 1986. But eight months later he was back. He had driven a 16-year-old girl to the house of a marijuana dealer who was under police surveillance. In this respect Al was atypical, because statistically speaking, paroled lifers have the lowest recidivism rate of any group of offenders. But the type of crime he committed, a nonviolent misdemeanor, was entirely characteristic. When paroled lifers re-offend, only 3.7 percent commit an act of violence (according to research by Mauer, King, Young, “The Meaning of ‘Life,’”The Sentencing Project, May 2004).

When I first met Al in summer 2000, 14 years later, he was 50 years old, potbellied and bespectacled. His work assignment then, as chief library aide, was a position that entailed considerable responsibility and required what is euphemistically called “a positive attitude toward staff.” In other words, Al used to snitch to the civilian librarian or the guard whenever his fellow prisoners misbehaved.

Snitches inevitably fall out of favor, and Al was eventually demoted to the job of cleaner in B-Building. To supplement his income, he engaged in the usual penitentiary hustles: selling the rest of us stolen toilet paper and cleaning supplies, and giving “massages,” especially to the weightlifters.

Mental Illness and Aging

No doubt Al entertained his clients with tales of his past and his family: his stint with the Navy Seals, the maple syrup farm in Vermont that his father had left him, the sister who was a doctor and another who was a high-ranking administrator in the Department of Corrections. All who lived in B-Building had heard his stories many times and paid no attention. But to Al, it was all terribly serious. His father died three times over the years, for instance, and on each occasion Al would stumble ashen-faced and wild-haired through the dayroom as he mourned the loss.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, before the administration shut down the Veterans’ Insight Group, Al managed to get himself adopted as the group’s mascot simply by being so sincere in his belief that he had once proudly served as a Navy Seal. Then he found out that “in his day” the Seals were known as Underwater Demolition Teams and the narrative of his exploits underwent a metamorphosis. None of us bothered to challenge Al on the fact that he now referred to his service with the U.D.T.’s instead of the Seals.

To anyone familiar with modern corrections, Al’s delusions come as no surprise: 20 percent of all inmates are officially acknowledged to be mentally ill. According to a recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, an additional 25 percent to 44 percent of prisoners have also “exhibited signs of mental disorder” in the previous year (Benson, “Rehabilitate or Punish?” Monitor on Psychology, Vol. 34, No. 7). And the beat goes on.

Despite his numerous problems, however, Al was the only inmate in B-Building who took the time to clean old man Bob’s cell every week and wash his laundry. Bob is very old, frail and partially demented. Sometimes when it gets hot, he takes showers with his clothes on, and sometimes weeks pass before he remembers to comb his hair. To the rest of us, Bob is a frightening portent of our own future, so we avoid him even as we pity him. But Al not only helped Bob in the building; he also sat with Bob in the chow hall and brought him extra paper napkins whenever the old man spit up his milk.

By reaching out to Bob, Al was riding the wave of the future: elderly prisoners are one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the penitentiary system. Between 2000 and 2005, their number grew 3.5 times as quickly as the general inmate population, and by 2025 up to 25 percent of prisoners will resemble Bob. The beat just keeps going on and on.

Little Chance of Success

After Al made parole, Bob deteriorated markedly. Al did not fare well either, though he was fortunate in one respect. While the overwhelming majority of inmates are released with nothing more than $25 and a bus ticket, Al was given a bed in one of Virginia’s very few halfway houses. But 37 years behind bars had not prepared him to enter the high-tech workforce of 21st-century America.

On his way back from another unsuccessful job interview, Al was struck by a car and killed. He should have known better than to cross a six-lane highway on foot, but during nearly four decades of incarceration, Al’s instincts had been honed to detect only two-legged threats, not four-wheeled ones.

The operator of the halfway house wrote me that Al’s death did not make much of an impression on the staff or other residents. Just as in prison, he was considered “difficult,” to put it politely.

His father—the one who had died three times and left Al the maple syrup farm—took several days to claim his son’s body and gather his belongings. No funeral arrangements were made.

According to the Criminal Justice Institute, 27.5 percent of the adult inmate population, or roughly 525,000 prisoners, are serving sentences of 20 years or more. Al spent almost twice that much time behind bars. It would be fair and reasonably accurate to project that America’s prison system is currently producing a crop of 525,000 Als. Slowly but surely, they will dribble out of the penitentiaries and onto six-lane highways across the nation.

And the beat goes on.

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