The thing I remember best about Louie is that he said he hadn’t had a peach in 30 years. Louie (not his real name) was a lifer; he was in his 50s and had been in prison for over three decades. On the day he told me this, as he was hanging out in the library where I work, a couple of landscape workers were ripping out two trees in the chapel courtyard. The trees in question had grown from saplings and had turned out to be fruit trees, suspected peach trees, and so had to be removed from the prison grounds before they bore any fruit. This is because fruit can be fermented into alcohol by inventive inmates. Which explains why Louie had not had a peach in 30 years.
Louie had recently been found suitable for parole at his hearing with the parole board, a ritual that inmates with life sentences endure every so many years. A typical board hearing used to end in an almost certain denial, but because of a sea change in public attitude from a preference for punishment to an interest in rehabilitation, along with a federal court order to reduce the state prison population, now prisoners are sometimes emerging from their hearings with a dazed look and a piece of paper that reads “Parole granted.” A waiting period of 120 days follows the board’s decision, to allow for review. For a murder conviction—not all life sentences are for murder—an additional 30 days are tacked on, during which time the governor can reverse the board’s decision. Past governors had almost always taken this route. More and more, however, the governor has been upholding the board’s suitability findings.
The new normal of the parole board has prompted many lifers to take their hearings seriously for the first time in decades. They come to the library to organize their paperwork, make copies of favorable work reports and letters of support, write letters of remorse to their victims and/or their victims’ families, look up addresses of helpful entities on the outside, formulate practical parole plans and network with lifers who already have been found suitable and were somehow living through the waiting period, wanting only to stay out of trouble for their blessedly finite days of captivity. The library has become a little hub of hope for inmates who had never expected to feel such an emotion. They suddenly had work to do.
So Louie was spending a lot of hours in the library, killing time, talking about the past and the future and helping some of his fellow lifers whose board dates were approaching. He talked about his family, his daughter who was now an adult, the grandkids he had yet to meet, the house his dad had left him, the work he hoped to do with at-risk young gangbangers. He had been a gang member in his day, deviant and up to no good, until he’d been convicted of murder along with his partner in crime, or crimee. It was hard for me to imagine Louie as a young and ruthless hoodlum because I knew him as a thoughtful intelligent, serene presence on the yard. He’d obviously put his years in prison to good use. He had become educated and enlightened and rehabilitated. His crimee had been released from another prison the year before. Now it was his turn.
Louie’s thoughts were full of family and freedom and peaches. He talked about looking forward to having a burger at Carl’s Jr., whose television commercials were relentless on the prison screens. I reminded him that he might be better satisfied at In-N-Out Burger, the iconic burger place of California. He’d forgotten about In-N-Out. He was almost dizzy with the anticipation of such good fortune as to be able to walk into a fast-food restaurant and order whatever the heck he wanted. Such freedom was almost unimaginable after 30 years. “That’s the first place I’m gonna go; the first thing I’m gonna do,” he said. “In-N-Out. Where’s the closest one?”
As his release date drew closer and the governor did not reverse the board’s decision, as he was finally called in to sign his final parole paperwork and find out the day of his physical release, Louie became philosophical. “I’m looking forward to the burgers,” he said, on one of the last days he came into the library, “but really, the first thing I’m probably gonna do when I go through that last gate is fall on my knees and cry like a baby.”
Louie has been gone for about three months now. The last time I went to In-N-Out, I pictured Louie in his parole clothes, with his cry-like-a-baby tears dried on the car ride, walking through the door, grinning when a teenager with a chipper voice asked to take his order, pulling his gate money out of his pocket and paying with cash for the first time in 30 years. The thought made me appreciate my French fries like never before.
I picture Louie’s grandkids teaching him how to use a smartphone, or how to Google. I picture him with peach juice on his chin, with a big bowl of peaches and pears and grapes and melon and berries on the table in his home.
Some people might say that Louie does not deserve to be out of prison, that the life he took should be paid for with his own. No one knows better than a murderer that he can never give back or fully atone for the life taken, or erase a family’s grief. But if we believe in God’s redemptive love, we have to believe that every single one of us can change, can be forgiven, can be redeemed. The power of God’s compassion is so much greater than ours, after all. Louie may very well alter the course of some young man’s life by sharing his story, by offering his guidance, by giving the benefit of his journey of remorse and renewal. His presence may save some other precious and holy life. I will never know.
I will quite probably never see Louie again; indeed, as long as I work in the library of a state prison, I am not allowed to have any contact with parolees. But I think of Louie every time I eat a peach, and the world seems a more hopeful place with him out there somewhere.