A few months ago, my uncle from Grand Rapids, Michigan and I agreed a meet up in Virginia for a family reunion that took place this past weekend. He was joined by his oldest friend and when we were introduced, he mentioned the two of them met in jail. And then Uncle B dropped the bombshell; His friend Hank was just released in October after serving 54-years in prison.

I think my mind immediately went into overload trying to process what I just heard. I tried to do the math but the numbers weren’t stacking up. I wanted to ask a million questions but couldn’t bring myself to ask a single one. All I could do is keep staring at the guy and wonder what his first year of being free from prison must be like after spending 54 straight years behind bars. 

I listened as my uncle shared how they met on death row locked up directly across from each other among the other 7-cells on that block with the execution chamber located at the end of the hall. He told us of some of the things he did to occupy his mind being locked up for 23 & a half hours a day for years. 

Unc did 20-years and has lived a productive life ever since. But Hank just got out after 54-years. Thanks to the stories, I learned they both were sentenced at 18-years-old in 1967. Putting it in perspective, I was in 2nd grade. Hank said after 5-years on death row, his sentence  was reduced to 80-years. Although he has been released ‘early,’ he’s now on parole living in a halfway house.

The following day I did have an opportunity to chat with Hank alone to ask some of the questions on my mind.

Q: How long were you in prison when you determined you wouldn’t offend again?

A: The day I walked into prison.

Q: What are the most overwhelming discoveries you’ve made since you’ve been out?

A: (After a long pause) Everything.

Q: What has been the most difficult adjustment?

A:  Getting used to not being told what to do all day everyday. 

Q: Who are your friends?

A: Other inmates over the years. Many of them have died. 

Hank sat alone much of the reunion enjoying all the food he could eat. He seemed to enjoy being outdoors among people having a good time. I couldn’t help but to notice his attachment to his travel cup that he gripped with both hands almost the whole time I was in his company for the two days. Obviously, that’s a prized possession he will not allow anyone to take from him.

Hank is 73-years old, his body is deformed and he uses a rolling walker to get around. He looks a lot like Jim Brown in the face with a handsome smile and a soft voice. He looks like anybody’s grandfather. 

54-years in jail is hard for me to fathom. I’m sure there are some prisoners who should never be released but it was obvious to me that it’s been a long time since Hank even had the physical capacity to hurt a fly, let alone hurt another human being. I know there are victims and victim’s families who want to see folks go to jail forever. Is that really the way to settle a score or find closure?

Who knows how a person prepares to adjust to 2021 when they’ve been incarcerated since 1967? It all seems so cruel and unusual to me. 

I’ll probably never see Hank again. I hope his days of freedom are not too counter to the life he’s been accustomed to for so long to the point that he can’t enjoy however many years he has left to live.

He said he never thought he’d get out. Although he’s out, will he ever be free at this point?

Hank & I

The U.S. has only 4 percent of the world’s total population, but has about 22 percent of the world’s prison population and it’s no secret that the United States sends people to prison for much longer sentences on average than other countries despite the fact that research has turned up little evidence that imposing longer sentences makes people less likely to re-offend. A 2014 report from the National Research Center also concluded that “lengthy prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure. What longer sentences are associated with, however, are larger prison populations.