The First Week's Rent

Alvah was a small sixty-something guy who looked even smaller in his oversized prison-issue jeans jacket, hands stuffed deep in the pockets. Alvah would appear at the unit gatehouse ten minutes before the yard opened and rock back and forth. When the guard unlocked the door, Alvah would give a little jump and scurry to the wood shop. Once I tried to speak to him as we waited.

 “How’re you doing, Alvah?” 

Alvah looked away. “People in prison should mind their own business,” he mumbled. 

Alvah lived for the wood shop. He made cribbage pegs. He would clamp a scrap of wood into a drill press and shape the spinning dowel into a peg with a homemade scraper. He repeated the process innumerable times each day, packing the finished pegs into little plastic bags for sale at the prison craft store. Alvah had occupied one of the wood shop’s drill presses for so long that the unwritten prison code made it his.  By the time I met him, Alvah had been down 18 years. He seemed unclear about how long his sentence was. Somebody said he was doing several consecutive sentences, adding up to like twenty-seven years, for incest with his daughters. 

Part of his sentence was the prison sex offender program. Sometime early in his bid he tried the program but flunked out. He wouldn’t talk. Failure to do the program guaranteed he would have to max out his time. No one seemed concerned about those extra thirteen and a half years he would do behind bars. Alvah settled into his routine. 

In 2002, the prison decided to bar those refusing court-ordered programming from the wood shop. Alvah’s world was shaken. He could face twenty-seven years in prison, but not without those cribbage pegs. He reluctantly signed up for the sex offender program again. 

My guess is Alvah has Asperger Syndrome. He displays all the symptoms. Besides his poor social skills, he’s got a lot of eccentric rituals. At the end of each day he would take all the stuff from his footlocker and repacked it in some order known only to him.  The electric cords around his bunk had to be routed precisely. It would upset him if anyone moved his T.V. from its exact spot on his desk. But I never saw him watch it. He slept like a board, face up on top of his bunk, fully dressed in prison greens. 

The sex offender program was tough on him. Alvah never spoke unless spoken to and then gave short non-committal answers. I figured he was on his way to flunking out again. After a couple of months, Alvah was told to get himself ready for a road trip. He had a court date. I asked him if he knew what it was for. 

“I don’t know.” 

When he got back, I asked what happened. 

“My ex-wife got a restraining order on me.” 

“Why would she do that, you’ve been down eighteen years!” 

“I don’t know,” Alvah said and walked away. 

A few weeks later, he was called to the unit counselor’s office.  He was maxing out his sentence in one week.  Turns out Alvah’s crime happened before New Hampshire’s Truth in Sentencing law.  He had been getting good time all those years without knowing it. His wife knew it. That’s why she got the restraining order. She lived two blocks from the homeless shelter in Manchester. 

“It’s January,” I said. “What are you going to do when you get out, Alvah?” 

“I don’t know.” 

When the day came, Alvah packed his few belongings into two plastic bags and walked out the front door. I heard the counselor found him a room in a boarding house and paid the first week’s rent.