Dying to Be Free

He shuffles across the prison yard, hands in the pockets of a coat he’s worn for the past eight winters. When it was new, it more or less fit. Now it hangs from his frame like a shroud. Forty-eight year old Joe is living in the prison infirmary. They’ve let him out for a walk. He hopes to return soon to a six-by-ten cell he shares with a fellow prisoner in the general population. Joe misses his collection of hoarded canteen items and Christmas package candy. They’re familiar and comforting. It’s funny how your hopes shrink to fit within these walls. It takes time. Like a man with a chronic disease; your dreams slowly wither away.

Joe came to prison notorious. His case even made the Boston papers. It was not so much his crime that earned him fame as his disease. Stories about an HIV infected sex offender make good copy. When he arrived, the prison rumor mill went wild. He had infected his victim, his wife, his own kids. None of it was true, but it made for good copy here, too. He caught a lot of grief. Sex offenders live on the bottom rung of the prison hierarchy. Joe was below that. With his quick wit, though, with his ready smile and gregarious nature, he slowly earned a grudging respect. He volunteered to be a facilitator for the sex offender program and a leader in the chapel. He became a symbol of survival, a veteran.

We didn’t notice his decline. Like a pond in summer, the level drops, the borders shrink. One day you realize how shallow it has become. In here, we all wear a photo ID. Issued the day we arrive, it’s a mandatory accessory. Joe’s shows a two hundred ten pound former general contractor with bright, searching eyes. The picture mocks the one hundred fifty pound hollow cheeked waif who wears it.

HIV was supposed to be Joe’s get out of jail free card. He had taken a plea bargain offered by the state: ten to twenty years with the promise that when he was within a year of death from AIDS, he could be paroled to die at home. The prosecutor seemed generous at the time. The offer proved illusory. I think it was meaningless from the start. Here’s the reality.  Joe has kids, nine and eleven years old. He never harmed them, but he’s a sex offender.  He’ll never be allowed to live with them. Dying at home is out of the question.  Joe’s kids are too young, too young to remember a Dad living at home, and too young for him to be allowed to die there. Dad is a man they see weekly in the visiting room, a voice on the phone, a signature on a birthday card stamped “Mailed from the NH State Prison.” The state intends to keep the relationship that way.

But, even if Joe could get home, he and his wife are realizing he is increasingly weak and dependent. Joe asked his wife one day about her hope for his early release.  She cried.

“I’m not sure she wants me to come home,” he told me later. “She’s stressed enough right now. She’s scared I’ll be another child to take care of, someone needing constant help and supervision, a burden on her and the kids.”

There’s another obstacle to Joe’s release, prison medical services.  What doctor is going to attest Joe has less than a year to live? Everyone knows it might mean his early release.  Even on the outside, doctors are reluctant to make such predictions. He could die in a month. Then again, he could hang on for several years. It’s impossible to say. Think of the repercussions of going on the record. Who wants to be responsible for the early release of a sex offender? What if he re-offends? Imagine the headlines. The best Joe has gotten is a statement that it is conceivable he could die within a year.

“Not good enough,” said the prosecutor.  “It’s conceivable that anyone could die within a year.”

So, Joe remains in prison, watching time run down on his sentence, on his health, on his chance of ever spending time with his wife and children outside these walls.

“The way I see it,” he says, “I’ve wasted forty years of life on the drugs and promiscuity that got me here. I’ve hurt so many people. I only hope I get the chance to…” he looks wistfully into the distance before finishing the thought, “to do some good before I go.”