Return To Sender…Well, At Least To The U. S. Medical Center For Federal Prisoners

Return To Sender… Well, At Least To The U. S. Medical Center For Federal Prisoners

I was transferred from the U. S. Penitentiary at Terre Haute, Indiana, to the Federal Medical Center for Prisoners in Springfield, Mo, in January of 1974. U. S. Marshalls transported us to the Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, where I was discovered to have hepatitis. I was sent to the hospital ward immediately upon my arrival at Springfield. I had been prescribed a diet of green leafy vegetables to restore my strength, which was relatively depleted. The flip side was that hepatitis causes you not to want to eat. I had to force myself to eat whether I wanted to or not.
Mary Lipscomb and Melvina Mathenia visited me shortly after arriving at the hospital. I was considered contagious, so they had to stand in the hall a few doors down while we talked. Mel also volunteered in the church program and was Mary’s roommate in a house they rented from Hester Downey.

Hester, too, was a volunteer and often described by Chaplain Harold Washburn as his right-hand man. Yes, right-hand man. She was invaluable to the men in the institution not only as a volunteer but as a counselor and participant in several of the social groups in the institution. Upon hearing that Hester visited the Transcendental Meditation group, one prisoner questioned her about attending a non-Christian organization. Hester responded, “I am confident in my faith as a mature Christian’ that I have learned to “pick the meat and leave the bones.” “I don’t want to exclude anyone with who I might be able to share the Love of God.” Hester also knew the individual prisoner, who was trying to be a thorn in her side; she concluded by saying, “I wouldn’t recommend that you attend the group, however.”

I claimed Hester as my spiritual mother, who always showed me love and respect. She also counseled me in sessions and greatly supported me in dealing with my struggles. When I confided in her of my feelings for Mary and felt like giving up my dream that we would ever be married, she told me, “never give up on your dreams,” It was a help and a hindrance. I wasn’t sure I had the strength to hold on to what I didn’t think was possible.

Mary and I were so far apart in circumstances that marriage hadn’t even remotely been regarded of (at least by her.) We were from the opposite side of the tracks in almost every respect that one might compare each other to. Forgotten was the miracle with the Spirit of St. Louis Airport. Never giving up on one’s dreams should go right along with remembering how God parted the waters and carried His people across on dry land. He has probably born us across as well in struggles that we incur.

{Hester Downey died 6 months before our marriage in April of 1980. Fortunately, as an engaged couple, we would visit Hester 6 months before she died. Hester even referred to us as Mr. And Mrs. Thomson. With the closeness of Hester to not only me but Mary as well, we would name our first daughter Hester Ruth and then go on to call her Ruth. There was a particular reason we called her Ruth. To give her the name of Hester was because of the spiritualism with which we held Hester in high esteem. We wanted Ruth herself to choose the name when she felt she could live up to its meaning. It would be too much pressure to expect Ruth to live up to Hester’s standing in our life.}

Hester Downey was a rare woman who understood her freedom was in Christ and that her position in this world meant nothing compared to her relationship with God. She was so subservient to Christ that she would never claim she had any rights in this world, and in circumstances where it would be warranted, Hester would take a backseat to what she was rightfully allowed to claim. No one ever knew Hester Downey was an ordained minister in the Assembly of God’s denomination. In working with men in prison, she knew that many of the men had trouble with women. Their mother, wives, or girlfriends were at the center of their problems. Hester would not let her position as an ordained minister of the Gospel of Christ stands in the way of her relationship with the men. Then too, there were men in the church who held that a woman should not teach men. She decreased herself so that she could raise up Christ. And if you check your Bible, you will see where John the Baptist was the first to do so.

Even though I had hepatitis when I returned to Springfield in 1974, I knew inwardly that I had been relieved of the pain from the kidney infection. I wasn’t going to need any exploratory operation. I was housed in ‘2 building’, the medical ward for patients. There is a protocol with medical patients that require returning them to the institution they were transferred from. I didn’t want to return to Terre Haute, much preferring to stay in Springfield. To accomplish that, I would need to transfer to the Camp section of Springfield. Anytime my past record would be the basis for consideration on my approval of or for anything needed to be in satisfactory standing. Surprisingly, the idea for transfer didn’t come from me but from a guard, Mr. Eagleburger, who had just been promoted to a counselor. He suggested I apply for a transfer and would highly recommend its approval. I was overjoyed when the request was granted.

I had a 12-year B study sentence. One of the aspects of that particular sentence was that a prisoner with a ‘B’ study sentence would go up for parole in 90 days. The ridiculous aspect of that condition was that nobody, and I mean nobody, would be CONSIDERED for parole. There was a disconnect between the judges who handed out these sentences and the parole board that would decide these hearings. It would be a matter of practice for them to be summarily denied.” A federal judge ruled against the ‘B’ study sentence based on this premise and stated that they had to CONSIDER these cases based on the merit of the intention of the sentence. A prisoner had to file an appeal in the courts, and his case would be so declared to take him back up for parole and show why he was to be denied.

I immediately filed my appeal. To the degree that it applied to my case, I had become sufficiently capable of handling my own case. I received an order from the court that my case would have to be reheard by the parole board. One of the provisos of a parole hearing is that an inmate can request the presence of a prison staff member to appear with him at his parole hearing. I chose Mr. Decker from the Education Department. Mr. Decker had observed me for over 3 years, from when I studied in the Learning Center to when I was Editor of the Prison newspaper and my subsequent activities in the Recreational Department. Mr. Decker gave me a stellar recommendation to the extent that “if there ever were a person who deserved to be paroled, it was I.” Strengthened by his guidance, I was overjoyed. Still, I doubted I would get parole because I was in prison for bank robbery and had an extensive prison record. Still, I could receive a lessened set-off between my denial and my next parole hearing.

I prayed for a favorable outcome and sat back and waited. I was so shocked by the result that even I doubted I was ready for parole. “PAROLE GRANTED” was what the notice said that was mailed to me from the parole board. I was ecstatic over the news and promptly started writing letters to all my friends and family telling them I was to be paroled on April 14th. Excitedly, I began to line up my release plans though I needed more resources for everything I would need, housing, employment, etc. Three weeks later, I received another letter from the parole board and was SHOCKED again. They overturned their decision, withdrew my parole, and replaced it with a 2-year set-off. How can you go from granting parole on one end of the spectrum and going all the way to the other and receiving their maximum allowable time of 2 years before consideration is given again. I would appeal again.

Because so many appeals were being written in federal prisons, the Bureau of Prisons established a format to clear out frivolous lawsuits at the prison level. The new structure would be that you had to file an appeal within the prison first at three different levels before the courts would hear the case. Even the inside requests had nothing directly to do with the matter. It slowed down the process considerably. I again called upon my correspondents to write letters to the parole board and ask the Parole Board to reconsider my parole hearing. Their response was immeasurable. One correspondent from Ohio even circulated a petition of members from their church. The Parole Board responded that the decision to revoke my parole would stand. What was laid in place, however, was the established network of friends who would be called on again two years later.

1975 was proving to be a year of change that took a toll on my inward feelings. Mary was no longer a federal employee, having terminated her position in the Learning Center. She was still a volunteer in the church program. One of Mary’s contributions to the church was that she sang like an angel. Mary’s song about Psalm 139 was her signature song at the prison long before Reba Place Fellowship ever heard it. Mary had made a trip in May or June to visit some friends in Evanston, Il. When she returned, she announced that she was moving. As best as possible, I tried to constrain my emotions and disappointment. With the parole board case ongoing and now learning that Mary was leaving, I was despondent for the rest of the year.

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