January 12th, 1978. I had only one more day, and I would be released from the Metropolitan Correctional Center, even though I would be in the halfway house. After 6 and ½ years, even that is something to look forward to. I had gone to the parole board on 5 occasions during this stretch and even had been given parole which was later rescinded. October 1977 was the last time I had gone before them, only to, yet again, be denied. My maximum release date was September 1978; after all the years that had gone before me, I could wait another 8 months.
Something inside me refused to accept my latest denial. I filed an appeal to the Regional Parole Board in Kansas City, the exact people who had denied me in the first place. My chances of getting the parole board to change their mind were non-existent. But I would add a twist to my appeal. I wrote as many correspondents as I could and asked them to write letters to the parole board on my behalf. The list was substantial, a few hundred, in fact. Most of them I had established correspondence with while in prison after becoming a Christian. I asked them to write the Board and encourage them to reconsider my case.
Two months passed, and I was waiting for word from Kansas City. Prayers were going up to God continuously from everyone. In early December, Mr. John Conte (My caseworker) called me into his office. The parole board had called and said, “Tell Thomson to call off the dogs.” They had gotten the point. Over three hundred letters had poured into their office supporting my parole. I couldn’t “call off the dogs” because I couldn’t know who had written.
On December 19th, my counselor came to my cell. “I have worked for the Bureau of Prisons for 10 years and have never seen one of these.” I could only imagine what he held in his hands as he referred to the letter resting there. The parole board had CHANGED their minds and granted me parole with a release date of January 13th to the halfway house! I looked at the calendar and saw that I would be released on Friday the 13th. Jokingly, I suggested I’d probably get run over by a truck. I’m not superstitious, nor do I believe in superstition. Besides, any misfortune wasn’t going to be on the 13th. It came that night on the 12th.
Mr. Conte again called me into his office. “We have a problem.” The Associate Warden, Ed Arbogast, advised the warden not to allow me to go to the halfway house. He thought I would only go over there and mess up and disgrace the program. Mr. Arborgast had been a guard in Marion, Il. From 1965-67, the years that I was incarcerated there. I didn’t remember him, but apparently, I had made an impression on him. “No,” I said, “we don’t have a problem. You’re going home tonight. I am staying here.
I sat there crestfallen. Dejectedly I called Mary and told her the disappointing news. She asked me how I felt, and I told her. I wanted to tear the place up. I had felt this powerlessness before and torn the place up in the past. I tried to pray, but it seemed as if the old hopelessness had invaded my heart. Mr. Conte had said my past record had shown that I had yet to make it upon my release and asked why this would be different. He used the example of a racehorse who always lost. Would I bet on a loser? I told him I wasn’t a horse but a man, and men changed. Mr. Conte said I would have to interview the Halfway House Administrator in the morning, and he would make his own recommendation to the warden.
Mr. Robert Thompson was the Administrator of the halfway house, located in the old Lawson YMCA at 832 S Wabash. Son of a Baptist minister, he would at least understand the belief in redemption. What would make a difference? Even I had to admit the record wasn’t lying. Once, while being processed into the Cook County Jail, a prisoner noted the short period since my last release from prison and said, “Did you even sleep.” I hadn’t stayed out long after previous releases, but I had never been released trusting in God for my future either.
When Paul was brought before the Roman tribunal as a Roman Citizen, God gave him the words to say. And that had always been my trust as a new Christian when speaking before the judge or parole board. God would give me the words to say. I’ve always believed that it’s not what you say but what the Holy Spirit does with what you say. After the interview, Mr. Thompson gave no indication of what his recommendation was going to be.
Aimlessly, I joined a group of prisoners playing cards to while away the time. If it got to 4 o’clock, that sealed the deal against me. As 2 o’clock arrived, the female guard (from Springfield, Mo., Mary’s hometown, and who even recollected perhaps knowing Mary’s sister Jeanne.) Came over to the table, looked me straight in the face, and slowly said, “so, what are you waiting for? Go get your stuff. You are being released.” I only had a few personal belongings: a box of books, letters, pictures, and $22 on my account. They took me out to a local haberdashery, where the salesman went to the back of the store in the dead of winter and bought an ill-fitting summer suit with a stain on it. They could have released me in a gunny sack, and I would have been satisfied!
Having one’s fingerprints taken is a part of the convict’s life. That is a part of the way we live. Having God’s fingerprint on our life is another thing altogether different. Parole boards don’t change their decisions; three hundred people writing letters on one’s behalf rarely happen. God’s fingerprints were all over this!
One thought on “MCC…But Not The Mennonite Central Committee”
Bless you, John! Even though we are familiar with your story and your journey, it’s always good to remember the good things God has done–and is doing!