I met him when he joined a program I was facilitating in an Ulster County prison. Although he was younger than me, he looked ancient — an old man, old before his time. He hobbled into the room, in pain from sciatica with his 55 years locked up in airless spaces, with minimal good food and health care, bad teeth showing through a wane smile, sparse gray hair falling on his shoulders. Resignation and abdication were the expressions he wore, a surrender born of hopelessness.
He was never getting out, as famous a murderer as the “Son of Sam.” That became clear every time he came up for parole. Dozens of hearings.
His crime is a matter of public record. The details — violent, sexual and hideous are digitized permanently out in the world, transmitted by the click of a fingertip into eternity.
The next time I saw him, I tried to connect him with the picture online of a good-looking kid of 19, who, when one moment while on drugs, went amuck beyond comprehension. All I saw now was an old man without a single cell in his body when the crime was committed 55 years ago. This time he was pushing himself in a wheelchair into a drab room.
During the ten weeks I was his teacher, I learned we had a lot in common. He was an artist, although his art was not like mine with its wild colors, huge abstracts and oil paintings of effusive dancers. His art reflected his environment, tight detailed pencil drawings, exquisite realism requiring the time and patience a person with no place to go can endure.
We had a friend in common. His pen pal was a woman I knew from many years ago when we were in a philosophy class together.
I told her I had met him. She praised him. “He has used his 55 years wisely. He mentored young men, taught art and availed himself of all programs. He received several college degrees. Lately, he has been despairing. As he approaches old age, the realization that he will never be able to go outside as a free man is weighing heavily on his heart.”
I was surprised when he contacted me on Facebook. He said, “Just like that! Shocking! After a lifetime! Last Tuesday a corrections officer came to my cell early in the morning. He said, ‘Pack up! You’re going home! No parole hearing! It’s Covid! That’s why. Covid, the officer said, ‘is giving you your life back!’ Do something good with your second chance’!”
His first action as a free man was to walk down the street where his life had taken its turn for the worse, the exact address where the crime was committed. “In the 55 years, the place has changed for the better,” he said. “I saw dozens of large trees where there had been none. When I was a boy, this place was desolate, ugly, impoverished and crime-ridden. If there had been trees, any beauty at all, it all would have been different. Praise be to trees! And now during Covid, when bad news is everywhere, I will plant some. A sign of life’s renewal.”
A tree can grow to greatness in 55 years, and some long-term elderly incarcerated men can become greater, too.