Five years ago, I strolled across the prison yard of Sterling Correctional Facility eager to find my assigned classroom. I was there as a volunteer facilitator in a prison book discussion program. The books we read included Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Adam Johnson’s “Orphan Master’s Son,” Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” and they were ripe fodder for discussion among a small group of 12 men.
It was in this program where I met Tom.
Tom was a highly experienced dog trainer in the canine program at Sterling. He became a steadfast participant in the book discussion group while always being involved with one dog or another during their stay at the prison.
Over the course of our many book discussions I came to learn a lot about Tom. Any novel with a father figure seemed to ignite rage. Happy childhood anecdotes made him sit up in his chair and engage. He defended the underdogs and often expressed disdain for the heroes even if the rest of the class felt differently.
Through our conversations his story began to emerge. A disturbingly familiar story; one of anger, loss, addiction and criminal behavior.
After his mom died unexpectedly, at the age of 11, Tom was wandering the streets of Golden, Colorado, alone. His needs were met through family friends who fed him, he recalled.
“My dad didn’t neglect our physical needs, but there was no emotional connection. I was on my own. It was up to me to figure it out. I didn’t do a very good job,” he said.
He left school for good in seventh grade. He wanted to make money.
In the early 90s, he fell in with a crack addict. He committed armed robbery in multiple counties. He violated parole. By the time he was caught working in the oilfields in Monahans, Tex., he was tired of running. Then came the life sentence.
Incarceration had its ups and downs. Once, after overdosing on heroin, Tom awakened to discover blood splattered across his chest. By the time his cellie brought him to Medline he was hanging by a thread. Surviving was a real-life, down and dirty wake-up call. Survival meant quitting heroin and finding his faith to replace his fury and contempt.
Sometime later, he joined my book discussion program. Tom was quiet at first, but he said he learned to talk in our group.
“I was the most antisocial person imaginable, but I began to share a few memories and open up,” he said. “It’s where I discovered how to have a conversation. It’s a skill I value today.”
Due to changes in the prison system, there was a six-month period when I lost touch with Tom.
I’d been working at Four Mile Correctional with a new book group for a few months when a stocky man walking a chunky beagle with a green cap on his head called out to me from the yard.
It was Tom, laughing at my shock. As I chatted with him, I saw the disapproving gaze of the correctional officers watching us from their concrete post and kept walking slowly to avoid being reprimanded.
“My case got thrown out,” he explained. Beating a life sentence is as unlikely as unicorns and world peace, but Tom’s Pro Se argument that he did not have a fair trial was accepted. A quarter of a century after his verdict, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser had expedited Tom’s case.
Tom said that his ability to express himself, make eye contact and express genuine emotion was met favorably by the Parole Board. He was approved for release.
On a blistering June evening, we met for dinner at a restaurant despite COVID-19 restrictions. As Tom waved and approached me, unexpected tears sprung into my eyes.
He was wearing a mask, but I could see that he was smiling. I gave him a hug, something I couldn’t do when he was inside. In five years, I hadn’t so much as high-fived him. He was tanned and his hair grown out and slicked back. He smelled like he had just taken a shower — in prison classrooms, I had been more used to the tang of apple cider vinegar in the spray bottles used on poorly mannered dogs.
On the day of his release, Walt, a former incarcerated friend picked him up. When he stepped into Walt’s Mercedes, Tom cried.
He didn’t sleep the first few nights because it was too quiet. “There weren’t any toilets flushing,” he says.
He credited his friends for helping him get settled. He had a driver’s license in his wallet. He waited three months to date his girlfriend. “That’s pretty restrained for a guy whose been in prison for 25 years,” he said laughing as he explained that he was taking it slow and weighing decisions carefully.
Today he’s working, saving for a house and trying to help whomever he can.
We agreed to meet a second time at a restaurant. For years he wore a frayed grey sweatshirt and state-issued baggy green pants, reciting his Department of Corrections number during count and traveling only with robotic, scheduled movement. It was a shock to see his longer stride, new Carhartt pants, and the wider personal space that defines freedom.
We sat down at the booth and I perused the menu. Tom, however, didn’t need to.
With the conviction of a man given a new lease on life, he seized the moment that he was deprived of for so long. “I know what I’m having,” he said. “The pork chops.”
(Dedicated to Nathan Ybanez)
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.