Hope is a Thing with Feathers

The day I was sentenced to the New Hampshire State Prison for Men, my five children were given something bigger than Christmas to look forward to - the day Daddy comes home. The boys would pray for it at bedtime. It was a frequent topic of dinner conversation. My wife and I did not discourage this childish hope. Hope is a powerful thing. It can get you through a bad day, or a bad decade.

"When you get home," five-year-old James said, "we can go fishing."

He was thinking about the six-inch perch that was his first catch. He caught it with a plastic rod-and-reel from Wal-Mart. My wife sent me a picture of James and the fish. He is looking warily at his prize, a little scared by his own beginner's luck.

Eight-year-old John was more philosophical. He would try to calculate the time. 

"Daddy, if you get out in six years, I'll be 13. No, I'll be 14. That's not too old." 

"Too old for what?" I ask.

"You know. Too old to do things together."

My older kids gradually realized that childhood has an end. Life can't be put on hold just because Daddy got himself put in prison. It dawned on them, as it dawned on me that sentences here in New Hampshire are indeterminate. When you get sent to prison, there is no clear answer to the question, "When are you coming home?"

I was sentenced to three consecutive terms of 3 ½  to 7 years with 2 ½ years of the last sentence to be suspended when I successfully completed the prison's sexual offender program. That translates into an aggregate sentence of 8 to 21 years. But that didn’t mean that I knew when I would get released. 

Parole, we are told, is a privilege, not a right. Under New Hampshire’s arcane system of serial parole, I had to be paroled three times: at the minimum parole dates for each of my three sentences. The parole board has broad powers. It could delay my parole for any reason, or no reason at all. Its decisions are not appealable. Any delay would mean time added on to my eight year “minimum.”

Then there is the issue of programming. Treating incarcerated sex offenders is a growth industry. Here in New Hampshire there are hundreds of men in prison awaiting sexual offender programming. The guys with short sentences get priority. Inmates with longer time like me get put on a waiting list. No one makes any guarantees that a prisoner will be done the program by his minimum parole date. One thing is sure: if I didn’t finish the program, I wouldn’t get out. Some of the guys who are in the program now are going well beyond their minimums. The prison does not see this as a problem. Parole is, as I said, a privilege, not a right.

Finally, those inmates like me who have been down a long time, are usually made to go out through the system. That means doing time in the Minimum Security Unit and Halfway House before hitting the streets. The process can take over a year. There is a waiting list for both these facilities too. Some guys have been awaiting bed space in MSU for months.

I tried to explain all this to my 10-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, one day.

"So, if everything works out like it's supposed to, you'll be able to come home in April of 2008. Right?" 

Elizabeth likes to have her life in order. It upsets her when her sock drawer is not neat. 

"No," I tell her. "Even if I get out then, I still might not be able to come home."

"Why?" she asks, looking puzzled. 

"The parole board might say I can't live at home with you guys." 

"Why?" she asks again.

How could I explain to her that, since my crime was against an unrelated minor, I might be prevented from living with my own minor children while I'm on parole? It might be six years beyond his minimum parole date before Daddy comes home. By then I might not have any kids to come home to.

"Let's not worry about that now," I say, giving her a hug. "Let's just hope for the best."

Thank God for hope.