Ramblings of a ‘rambling man’

Don’t you just hate how old people have to report their weight loss every day like it’s the stock market and their blood sugar like it’s the Dow Jones? So I have been whittling my blood sugar to 118 and my weight inching to 242.2 at almost a pound a day. I’ll be back to beach weight with a svelte figure soon. Don’t say DIET because it had the word die in it. I wouldn’t say I have a regimen, either. I cut out sugar and TRY to not eat after 7. I don’t overeat before 7, either.

Tomorrow is an unexpected doctor’s visit after my recent crash into the cement 10 days ago. The pain is still lingering, but the bright news is that the calamity may have set in motion the weight loss. What would you rather have, dive-bombing into the ground at 253 lbs or considerably less?

We haven’t started this year yet, but some NEW things have happened. After attending our new church for over 10 years, we decided to join. Only to learn that our pastor of 10 years plus is leaving, when he was one of the reasons we joined. We’ll be keeping our eye on and our vote on that one.

What I am really doing this morning is trying to establish the habit of writing every morning and doing so on my web page, which at this point looks more like what it is, A BLOG that gets shared to FB and eventually a mailing list of family and friends.

One of the best pictures I ever took. Brendan and Naomi at the Easter Balloon Release way back in the day.

When I Was In Prison

This is one of the most inspiring and intriguing articles I have ever seen on FB. Not just for its subject matter, but what he says is straight from my heart. When I say I have been there and done that, I mean it right down to the last iota. It’s not just what he says in print. What he says between the lines you feel in your bones doesn’t need explanation, at least not between him and me. “When you come out of prison, you have nothing” Look around you right now; everything you see is what you have and more. Now imagine it’s ALL gone; in a fire or a tornado, you lose it ALL. That is what he is saying when he says, “you have nothing.” “no home, no money, and no job.” He qualifies what nothing amounts to, nothing. If you are lucky, a halfway house catches you before you fall again, and most likely, you will fall again.

The halfway house only staves off the inevitable. “The only thing you have is your social standing. And returning is preferable if your social standing in jail is perceived as higher than that on the outside. This one post could be the Genesis for a discussion about all the parameters of prison, prison life, and trying to make it on the streets. And THE STREETS, society doesn’t have a clue. A job and a place to stay do not make a success. A man once asked me, “how do you make it.” I immediately responded, “you have to take a lot of shit.” I’m just being honest here.

When I left prison, I had a box of books and $22.00. I went to a halfway house then (1978) after I left the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago. They don’t even have halfway houses anymore in most of the country. Today, a homeless shelter would have been my future. Before transferring to the MCC, I was in the U. S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo. I have to respond to his statement about one’s social standing. One’s identity which a person feels he is.

I will be out of order today, but it is essential to get out of the way so that the other chapters will be understood more. Today is another ‘commercial break’ because I found this small article I had saved, and I rarely find somebody speaking your mind. Saying what you want to say, exactly how you want to say it.

There is a social hierarchy in prison; you are either feared, respected, or paid no attention. The highest status you want is to be considered GOOD PEOPLE. There are no awards…it’s in the acknowledgments you receive as you are recognized throughout the day. You see people all the time in the chow hall where you eat with the same 3 men 3 times a day, in the halls as you traverse going from destination to destination, in the yard, participating in sports. Everywhere you go, you are being acknowledged (or not), “Hey, what’s happening?” Nothing, you reply. And that’s it. Your respect. I’ll repeat what the author said above. “The only thing you have is your social standing. And returning is preferable if your social standing in jail is perceived as higher than that on the outside.

Community Organizer

In contrast to my stays at other institutions, my time at the MCFP was almost enjoyable. Any former convicts reading this are going to think I am nuts. Mark my words, the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners is very much a prison. There comes a time in a prisoner’s life when he no longer needs to prove himself. At 26 years old, with almost a dozen prisons under my belt and with as many years served, I felt confident about my standing. Every prisoner’s experience is almost always paused upon entering a new prison until you see what’s there. In my previous stays at most of the prisons I had been in, I was constantly in trouble and spent considerable time in the ‘hole .’I would often self-destruct if things weren’t as hard as I thought they should be.

When God changed me, He didn’t just take out my stony heart. He gave me a new mind as well. With no experience, I became the Editor of the Prison paper and later the photographer. I organized banquets for our social club, talent shows for the prisoners, and MC’ing them. I raised funds for causes in the community where children were concerned. On one such occasion, a college intern came into the Recreational office and asked Mr. Creson for permission to organize a talent show for the men. Mr. Creson said, “If you want to organize a talent show, you must speak to him.” And pointed in my direction.

God had done a fantastic thing, skills where there had been none, respect from the staff and prisoners, and most of all, a desire to be used in this capacity. None of which I possessed before accepting Christ. God’s fingerprints were everywhere in my life. Another reason I accomplished what I did was in the manner of how things worked in prison. If I wanted to organize an event in prison, I could go to the men I needed and ask for their involvement. No Man Is An Island wrote Thomas Merton, which is true in prison. I had taken a course on Delegating Authority. I utilized its principles of giving those I asked responsibility for taking care of certain aspects of whatever was needed. The respect of the other prisoners across ethnic lines was imperative. This experience on the inside would carry over to the outside when I was released. Man, was I surprised to find that it profited me nothing to people on the streets.

I ran for public office three times in my life after my release. The Park District twice and once for the office of alderman in city hall. In almost every instance, I had none of the support on the streets that I had in prison. Oh, there were men and women in my life who stood out in helping to pave my way into society and acted beyond the call of duty. But where it took a large body of the response, it just wasn’t there.

When Hands Across America came into play, I successfully organized a body of folks from Reba to join in that effort. Still, I was mostly a lone wolf in my efforts to become a community activist.

I gathered a bunch of baseball cards and solicited half a dozen kids to join me in a class where we would discover how a baseball card could be used to learn math, geography, and creative writing. We held the courses in the basement of our building for the first two years. Cheryl Joyal, a resident in the building and a member of Reba Church, pitched in and bought tickets for all the kids to go to a White Sox game. Another church member, Jim Gillette, suggested I take the concept to Robert Crown Recreational Center, and they would give me a room and even pay me. And that they did, but I had one proviso, you cannot charge the kids for their participation. After the third and final year (I wasn’t going to have these kids have to pay anything.), they agreed the first year, but the following year they changed their position and wanted a nominal fee, as they put it.

We discovered the traveling secretary of the Chicago White Sox, Chuck Bizzell, lived in Evanston. We invited him to one of our classes, and although the kids were at least 12, he gave a very informative and exciting talk. We asked him back to our year-end banquet, where he gave a great speech again, but the parents dominated the questions this time. Still, a great time was had by all.

The Letter

The decade of the ’60s was a nostalgic time for many. For me, they were the worse years of my life. Almost the entire decade was spent in prison. Sheridan Reformatory, Ashland, KY, FCI; El Reno, Oklahoma Reformatory, Marion, Il – Penitentiary, Cook County Jail, Joliet (old joint), Stateville – prison, Menard, Il prison, and Vandalia, prison farm. The 60s were not only the worst years but also the years I was at my worst. Before my release in 1967 from Marion, I was advised by my caseworker that the Illinois Division of Rehabilitation had determined that prisoners were socially handicapped in reintegrating back into society, therefore, making me eligible to go to college upon my release. I didn’t think this was for me, but I said, “Sure.” When weeks passed before hearing anything, I called the DVR and asked them what was happening. They assured me that as soon as my application arrived from my parole officer, someone would come and take me to the university of my choice. I almost laughed at them as I said, “Sure, I want to go to Northwestern University.” Knowing full well that I wasn’t. After 55 days of leaving Marion, I was arrested for several crimes that would return me to prison. I had been labeled as a “doubtful improvable offender” The die was cast.

I could probably write an entire book about my experiences finding a job. I was handicapped with a prison record. I think that’s a problematic approach to looking for a job. Better to look for a career.
I also needed to gain marketable skills. I was 13 when I was first arrested, and I would be 33 when I was last released from prison (19 years). I had spent 17 ½ years in confinement. I wasn’t skilled and disciplined, nor did I have the wherewithal to conduct a successful job search. I was dependent on the skills and advice of others. What would I have learned that was transferrable to the job market?

At the time of our marriage in April of 1980, I had been working for Scandinavian Design in Evanston. I was hired as the shipping and receiving clerk. In this particular instance, I had received some familiarity with the position while in the Metropolitan Correctional Center before my release. As time went on, I also delivered furniture while at the same time learning to drive the trucks, locate products, unload containers and even assemble the furniture. Interacting with the customers was a skill set to be noticed.

The company announced they moved the warehouse to Elk Grove Village just before getting married. Given the condition of my car, I wasn’t going to be able to transfer with the company, so I gave two weeks’ notice. Mike Barfield, the warehouse manager, said, “not so fast. I need a man capable of managing this warehouse during the transition. I was their choice. It wasn’t lost on me that they were putting a lot of trust in me, giving me the keys to the warehouse and password for setting the alarms at night of a warehouse that contained inventory valued at over several million dollars! It was a trust that came with a lot of pressure and anxiety.
When we returned from our honeymoon, I learned that the company had taken a different direction from the warehouse. They wouldn’t shut it down but keep the showroom open. An excellent craftsman had returned to the company, and he was now going to be the warehouse manager, and I could be, as they suggested, his right-hand man.

I had only recently read our church announcements that one of our members who owned a publishing company needed a bookkeeper. I called them immediately and stated that I had gone to commercial school while inside and had the rudimentary skills of a bookkeeper. They hired me directly, so I made the transition without any loss of pay in between.

It was only a short time before the company had taken on debt in some of its transactions in acquisitions of certain publications. Six months later, we were advised that staff would have to be let go. Bill Berry, the owner of D. Wm. Berry & Associates, called me in and gave me the news. He also gave me a handsome check to cover us for a few weeks. Bill had rented a Thunderbird for our honeymoon and $50 for gas. Bill would be a valuable friend and mentor over the years that followed.

I had read several books on job hunting. While I learned how to prepare a resume, I lacked the job experience to put on it. I walked out of D. Wm Berry and Associate to the newspaper stand on Chicago, and Main St. A Crain’s Business Report headline grabbed my attention. “The Top 100 Privately Owned Companies in Chicago.” An idea slowly developed in my head, and I purchased the magazine.

I would write a letter and address it to the CEOs and presidents of companies and bypass the Human Resources Department. At first, I thought I would test my plan and contact the bottom of the 100 lists, but why would they hire me any more than the top ones? I would start by contacting the top 20 on the list and include several large local companies in Evanston, such as Northwestern University, Evanston Hospital, Washington National, and American Hospital Supply.

Now for the letter. I needed something to impress the companies on the list. So I altered my approach. It was entirely opposite from what anyone else would do. In the body of the letter, I told them three things. 1) I had recently been released from prison, and 2) I had accepted Christ as my Saviour and had turned my life around and was starting a new life. 3) I had the rudimentary skills of a bookkeeper. I closed the letter with a question. “Based on your expertise and experience, what would you suggest I do.?

After writing the letter, I passed it to 3 English majors and my wife. I asked them to edit the letter for grammatical perfection but keep it the same. We prayed and then mailed the letter.

Three weeks passed by with no response. I was losing hope that any response would be forthcoming. CEOs are busy people. I hadn’t asked them for a job, just their advice. Would the letter even get read by them and not ambushed by a secretary and thrown in the trash?

Monday morning, the phone rang, and the voice on the other end of the line was saying that they didn’t have much at this time, the job was in the Billing Department, and it only paid $8500 a year. I didn’t care what department it was, nor that they were paying much, I was elated that I had a job… or did I? I didn’t know what to say, so I asked him what I needed to do. He said to report on Monday, and I was hired. Are you kidding me? Hired over the phone, sight unseen, by Leo Burnett, Chicago’s largest ad agency! Oh my! Praise God!

Mary, in the meanwhile, was working for Reba Place Day Nursery and making $500 a month. I, too, was making $500 a month. We were young and in love. We could make it just splendid. Then in August, reality hit. Mary was pregnant with our first child and would not continue at Reba Place Day Nursery the following year. We could not make it on my salary alone. I knew I would have to get back on the bricks and find a new job. What? The phone rang as I sat at my desk, pondering this burdensome situation. The voice on the other end said, “My name is Jackie.” I have had your letter sitting on my desk for six months and am still trying to figure out what to do with it. However, I didn’t have any positions at the time, but I have several that will open up in September. However, they only pay $11,300 a year.” I wanted to jump on my desk and shout to the Lord…unbelievable! I couldn’t help but wonder how closely what she said sounded similar to what the Leo Burnett man had said. She asked me if I could come in for an interview. I had only been at Leo Burnett for 6 months and had no personal days. Jackie, “Couldn’t you tell them you have a doctor’s appointment?” She had said she was the Director of Human Resources. I’m sure she had often heard that excuse in her experience. The following words out of my mouth were not entirely mine. “I’m not going to lie,” I said. I held my breath: “Can you come in on a Saturday morning?” She said. Come on! In all likelihood, she didn’t work on Saturdays, nor was it her position to do the individual interviews. Completely blown away by now, I assured her there were no hindrances to me coming in on Saturday. At that interview, she lined me up with interviews at three separate departments that all needed accounting clerks. As cloud nine carried me out of her office and back home, I realized I had to tell Leo Burnett that I was, of necessity, having to look for another job. Over the next 10 days, I interviewed at the three other departments. One particular department showed interest in me. They wanted someone who could come in and formulate and implement a chargeback system (using a Zero Based Budgeting approach) to cover and report the costs for all the publications produced by the university. SAY WHAT?! After the initial interview, I went to the library and looked for a book describing Zero Based Budgeting. I prayed for God’s wisdom and assurance that this job was for me and that I would need plenty of grace and patience. I couldn’t believe what was happening because so many variables were working out. I couldn’t believe God would carry me this far only to have it end because I had not remotely ever done anything close to what they wanted. (Hahaha)

The days since my second interview passed slowly as I awaited their response. The phone rang. It was Jackie. “John,” she said, “Yes,” I replied. “They want you to start yesterday.” I was silent momentarily, choked to tears, “They might want two weeks’ notice.” I said. “Well, I don’t know if they can wait that long. I’ll have to ask them. I know they have interviewed others for this position.” I said I would get back to her as soon as I talked to my supervisor. They wanted two weeks’ notice. I called Jackie back and told her. She, in turn, would get back to me with their answer. “R’rrnng” “They said they would wait.” I could barely contain myself. I called Mary. “Mary, I’ve got the job! I start on September 17th,” at NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY.

MCC…But Not The Mennonite Central Committee

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!

Prison Fellowship

In 1974, the Watergate scandal sent White House special counsel Chuck Colson to federal prison. A new Christian, he faced challenges and adversities that tested his faith and self-respect. Paroled in 1975, Chuck could easily have closed the book on that dark time and moved on with his life as inconspicuously as possible. But Chuck knew that God wanted him to hold onto his ties to prison and continue to identify with his fellow prisoners despite the skepticism and scorn of Chuck’s critics. So in 1976, with little more than a vision and the support of a few friends, Chuck began Prison Fellowship (PF) to proclaim to inmates the love and the power of Jesus Christ.

One of the not so often told stories of the emergence of Prison Fellowship was that involving Norman Carlson. Mr. Carlson was the Director of the Bureau of Prisons. He was in attendance at a seminar at a Federal Prison in McNeil Island, in the state of Washington. At the closing moments of the workshop, an inmate asked for prayer for Mr. Carlson. That request, as much as anything, sealed the deal for Prison Fellowship to have access to Federal Prisons in America.

At first, through the support of the Federal Bureau of Prisons director, Prison Fellowship began transporting dozens of Christian prisoners out of prison for intensive training through Washington Discipleship Seminars (WDS), held in the nation’s capital. Those prisoners then returned to prison to evangelize and teach their “colleagues.” But in 1977, Prison Fellowship ran into a hurdle when a warden from Wisconsin refused to furlough one of his prisoners to attend the WDS. Instead, he challenged: “If your program is so good, why don’t you bring it inside the prison?” Chuck and his team were up for the task, and three weeks later, 93 inmates attended PF’s first-ever in-prison seminar in Oxford, Wisconsin.

That seminar paved the way for hundreds of thousands of prisoners nationwide to receive biblically-based teaching through in-prison seminars and Bible studies over the past 56 years. That first in-prison event also reinforced the importance of training local volunteers to enter prisons and build relationships with inmates.

Today PF’s ministry relies on a volunteer network of more than 20,000.

Chaplain Niles Behrens selected me and Ken Jackson from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to attend the first Washington Discipleship Seminar in Washington D. C. The institution, however, decided to cancel my nomination because of my past record and instead sent another man in my place.

The in-prison seminars were initially called Adventuring with God seminars. The U. S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners already had numerous volunteers from the community of Springfield, Mo.

I had been released from the Metropolitan Correctional Center in 1978, nine months when the Adventuring with God seminar reached Chicago. Reba Place Fellowship hosted the Prison fellowship staff that came to administer the colloquium, including Ken Jackson, who, after his release, became a Regional Director for the Midwestern states. Several fellowship members volunteered to go to prison for the seminar, myself included. It was highly improbable that I would be allowed back into prison because the institution in Springfield didn’t let me go to Washington, D. C.

Chaplain Russell Stroup of Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, the newly appointed Chaplain for the MCC, suggested I submit my name. But it wasn’t the prison administration that first showed restraint regarding my going back in. My small group at Reba Place Fellowship wanted to discern whether it was an opportune time for me to go back in. Of course, I disagreed strenuously. I learned something about myself that I must confess still exists today. I need to handle authority bodies better. Individually, I loved each and every one of those in the group. They were and still are heroes to me who paved the way for my continued freedom. But collectively, they took on the appearance of the parole board and denied me time and again. Emotionally it was a rough time, with constant prayer being sought by them and me. It carried with it quite a bit of stress and frustration. Ultimately, they agreed that it would be okay for me to go in. I remember the weight of anxiety that was lifted when they okayed my involvement, walking down the beach with Judy (nee Hullings) Kalina, and telling her that as heavy an experience that was to go through, “that’s only one issue I’ve got to deal with” pointing to the lake, “it is only a drop in the water and I have a whole lake full of things to deal with.”

The prison allowed me to go in and participate in the seminar. At its conclusion Chaplain Stroup told the volunteers that we needed to form a nucleus to come back and visit the prisoners. I was most certain that they let it slide to let me participate in the seminar. There would be no chance they would allow me in as a regular volunteer. Nor was there any chance that Mr. Arbogast wouldn’t know who I was, and it would be he to sign off on the volunteers. Chaplain Stroup again encouraged me to put my name down. God will confound the wise. I was approved.

It is one thing not knowing, quite another not to know what you don’t know. It was marvelous for me to return to the prison as a volunteer. Why not? Who knew better what the men were going through than me? My small group, for one. They understood that I would be under pressure and stress, and frustration. They may not have said, “You can’t handle it.” But they knew. Still, I was surprised that not 9 months previously, the Assoc. Warden didn’t want me released to the halfway house, and here he was, signing my volunteer permit. And what literally did that mean? I could take the L down to the MCC, present my pass to the guard at the reception desk, and walk in on my own. Absolutely mind-blowing. I visited the men on the floors, especially the ones I had been on. They acknowledged that many men get out and say they will do something but never do. I came back as a free man, still on parole, which made it even more unbelievable, but I had come back.

I continued for many months or years, didn’t you? The truth was, it was too soon. When we don’t know that ‘we don’t know,’ we need other people to tell us, and hopefully, we’ll trust them and believe them. Otherwise, life will teach us as it taught me.

I will always hold to the saying, “You cannot train a man for freedom while in captivity.” In prison, I was confident in my identity and where I was; outside, I needed clarification because the game was different. The rules you live by in prison don’t hold up on the streets. You might be among the most respected men in the joint, but once outside, you become a meaningless pebble amongst many other meaningless pebbles.

I cannot tell you how I came to have so many correspondents on my writing list, but I had many. Not all were women, but plenty of them was. I refused to allow any relationships beyond platonic to develop. In most cases, I would only see some of them. But I enjoyed the conversations. They could be another prisoner’s sister, a friend of a friend, or many ways to encounter them. One young lady was Joanie Burgener from the Apple Seed ministries in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Joanie and I had written well past the two years that normally spelled out how long a correspondent would last with me and fade. While writing Joanie, I learned that Honeytree was coming to Springfield to perform at Evangel College. I don’t remember; did I know Joanie was Honeytree’s secretary before I wrote Honeytree and asked her to come to the Federal Medical Center or after? Ken Jackson, whom I previously mentioned, is from Fort Wayne and had a daughter who attended Adam’s Apple coffee house there. Between Ken’s daughter and Joanie and my persistence, Honeytree agreed to come to the Medical Center. She had gone to Pendleton Correctional Prison in Indiana and, in her words, had a not-so-pleasant experience there and wasn’t too thrilled at the thought of returning to another prison. But she had a few days during her visit to Springfield, Mo., and felt led by God to accept the invitation. We had a blessed time, with the Holy Spirit evident throughout her mini-concert.

I wouldn’t be done with Fort Wayne, Indiana, just yet.

Death of A Family Member

Death of A Family Member

The most disturbing thing one can encounter while in prison is learning of a family member’s death. To know that this family member you once loved and lived with will never be seen by you again. I lost my Aunt Dorothy while in Sheridan during my teenage years. A pang of pain shot through my heart. I could not attend her funeral because she wasn’t my real aunt.
But she and Uncle Joe were more loving than my mother and, most assuredly, my abusive, alcoholic father.

She was a friend of my mother’s when we lived on the corner of 62nd and Dorchester in the Woodlawn neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. This was the original birthplace of the four children born to Wilmer and Francis Thomson. Aunt Dorothy was always there for us, caring for and feeding us, knowing we lived in poverty and abuse. I’ll always remember the cheese and mayonnaise sandwiches she made for us at lunch. As hard as it was, Aunt Dorothy always told us to love our parents since they’re the only ones we’ll ever have.

My older sister Sharon had been left on the doorstep of Lutheran General Services when she was a baby. Six months later, my parents decided they wanted her back. However, she was already in the process of being adopted. A court battle ensued, and my parents won the case. They received an amount that has been quoted as $100,000. Aunt Dorothy told us that she always waited for our lives to improve after they got that money, but it never did. My dad drank it all up. It wasn’t long until my parents got divorced. My dad was constantly beating us up, including my mother, though she was not without responsibility for our miserable existence.

I was in Sheridan in 1962 when my sister Sharon visited me. She told me that she had discovered where our father lived and that he wanted to come and visit me. The last time we saw him was 10 years ago. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see him.

I was in the ‘hole’ when I was brought before the captain, the Chaplain, and some other guard. They inquired how long it had been since I had seen my dad. “10 years,” I said. My mother always told me that if I kept getting in trouble, I would end up just like my dad. I was only 8 then and didn’t understand what she meant by it. She later told me I would end up in prison before I turned 21. She proved to be right about that one. I concluded that my dad must have been in prison, though I am not positive about that now. At the time of the inquiry by my three captors, I reasoned in my mind, coupled with what my sister had said, that my dad must be trying to visit me.

They resumed their questioning. “Did your father ever do anything for you? Like, take you on picnics or to ball games?” I told them I couldn’t remember but recalled one ball game. “Is that all?” the captain asked. “That’s all that I remember,” I replied. The captain said, “Well, since your dad didn’t love you and never did anything for you, we don’t think you should feel too bad that he is dead.” I recoiled at the news. In shock, I asked, “Can I go to the funeral?” “No, that’s what we’re trying to say, is that we don’t think….” I refused to hear the rest of what he had to say. I bit my lip hard to not show them any weakness as I made my way back to my cell. As the door clanged shut, I dropped to my bunk and cried. And then I sat up straight, wiped my eyes, and vowed never to again shed another tear, no matter how hard it got or what might happen. I also vowed to never again let anybody get close enough to me to care.

The year was 1976. I received a notice that the Chaplain wanted to see me in his office. I didn’t consider that unusual because I was always hanging around the Chaplain’s office during my free time and invariably trying to organize a concert or bring in special guests or something to do with the worship services. I was on the deacon’s committee, so I was sure it had something to do with the Church program.

I immediately sensed it had nothing to do with the above. Chaplain Behrens asked me to sit down more formally than usual. “Who is Theresa Killian.?” He asked. “She is my sister,” I replied. I explained my parent’s divorce and my mother’s second marriage to John Killian and how I had 5 other siblings of Killians. He told me that Theresa had died at her own hands by hanging herself in the Hazel Crest Jail. Helplessly, I sank back into the chair. I forced myself to ask, “when is the funeral?” ” Saturday,” he replied. I had been in prison long enough to know the routine when a prisoner’s family member died. You had to be approved to go, and you had to not only pay your own way, but if they decided you needed a guard to go with you, you had to pay his way. I had no money. I knew my parents weren’t going to send me any money. I didn’t even know what it was going to take.

The Chaplain inquired and learned that the institution required me to be escorted by a guard of their choosing. I would have to pay for his airfare, lodging and food, and any overtime he accumulated after 8 hours, as well as my traveling expenses. I would be housed in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago when I wasn’t at home or with the guard. That seemed immaterial to me because I didn’t have a dime. The Catholic Chaplain joined the Protestant Chaplain in bemoaning that they could do nothing. “Anybody wants to call in a favor from God?”

Dr. James Woods entered the office. He was a psychologist on the prison staff. Dr. Woods was a very congenial and kind man. He was also a stated atheist regarding God and religion, but he liked the chaplains, nevertheless. One look at our faces was all it took for him to notice that something serious was wrong.

[Dr. Woods had a friend who was also a psychologist, and she was blind. She had a very technical book that needed to be transcribed onto tapes. Doctor Woods asked me if I would do it for him, and I most assuredly said I would.]

He also had baled me out of a sticky situation once. Some months before, Mary was coming into the institution that night on August 19, close enough to her birthday on the 20th that I asked someone in the kitchen to make her a cake. Another inmate had made a necklace in the craft shop and gave it to me so I could give her a gift. Mary was well-liked by the men in the prison, and it didn’t take much to get them to respond to the surprise I was planning for her. But how do I get the cake past the guard at the T intersection? I went to the kitchen and had the guys put the cake on a rolling table and a cardboard box over it. The guard stationed at the T would randomly stop guys coming from the kitchen and search them for contraband, i. e. sandwiches, eggs, and any foods that didn’t require cooking that could be consumed later in the night.
On the other hand, I could not conceal this cart and box I was rolling down the hall. I was joined by Dr. Woods as he came from the staff dining room. He waved to the guard as we approached, and the guard waved back, and on I rolled. And the party was enjoyed by all who were in attendance!]

The Chaplains invited Dr. Woods into Niles Behrens’s office, where whatever was discussed was discussed. When the door opened, Chaplain Behrens hurriedly walked by me and said. “We got the money.” I was awestruck. Something inside me told me not to ask any questions at the moment. In the prison maze of circular hallways, Mr. Bill Reed was asked if he wanted to go to Chicago? “Not really,” the slow-talking guard from West Virginia said. But then he rethought it, considering the nature of the trip involved. Mr. Bill Reed was one of the most compassionate guards I had ever met. He purposely kept his expenses to a minimum to not cause me any more financial burden than necessary. Dennis Chesley and Mary Lipscomb of Reba Place Fellowship met us at the airport and drove us to Hazel Crest to my family’s home. There were 9 siblings, the place was crowded, and drama was everywhere. It was said that my sister Mary was to have been married that day. My sister Joanie was escorted by two guards from Geneva girls’ school. She and Theresa were very tight. She had the horrible experience of learning about Theresa’s death on TV. My brother was home alone, but even he had been in the brig then. There was much angst and anguish in the community, not only over her death but what she had done to end up in jail. She had been charged with Attempted Murder in the burning down of a home a block away. The family had banned the news media from our house the day before. During the funeral, our home was burglarized. When my brother learned of this, he said that everything better was returned or someone would pay. The family got everything back, including stuff that hadn’t even been stolen from our house.

I visited the family on Friday and was then taken to the MCC to stay overnight. I lay exhausted in my cell that night. 4 years as a Christian in prison did not prepare me for this. I had no need in prison; there was no drama of this extent in my world inside… I wasn’t even in touch with family members for the past four years except for my brother Michael, who was in the Marines. So I did not see the destruction of my siblings over that time. Are there prayers that go more profound when the need goes deeper?’ Help me not let Theresa’s death be in vain. “this was all I could come up with.

Dr. Woods had given the Chaplains $600. The round-trip cost was $505.00. The Catholic prisoners were part of an organization called St. Vincent DePaul. When I returned, they gave $100 towards my trip, leaving me owing approximately $400. I walked into Dr. Wood’s office shortly after returning to the institution. I told him, “I want you to know that when I get out, I will pay you back the $400.” This kind, gentle atheist turned around and said, “No, I gave you that money because you were in need. I hope you will do the same when you see someone in need.”

Father Jones told Chaplain Niles Behrens, “Ya’ know, sometimes I think He is more of a Christian than we are.”

One of the most enjoyable moments while living in Springfield was to see Dr. Woods walking down the road, inviting him to visit our home and see Ruth and Naomi as babies.

[On a hot sultry night many years later, on July 26, 1996, I got the news of another family tragedy. Judy Belser called to inform me that my nephew David, age 17, had shot himself in the head and had died. The first thought that came to mind was that Theresa, my sister, was 17 when she committed suicide. I wanted to go out to Hazel Crest immediately, but I didn’t want Ruth and Naomi to deal with it emotionally when I wasn’t home, so I didn’t tell them directly. This troubled our family to no end. I don’t think the wounds that resulted from this have been healed for everyone.]

Near Death In Terre Haute

Near Death in Terre Haute

The year I spent at the Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, was a wasteland. Had I become despondent after being denied the proposal to go to work at Mr. Haglin’s airport? Maybe. Church was not the same. No volunteers and no spirit. Correspondence had consistently been strengthening for me, but even now, it did little to lift my spirits. Mary was not allowed to write me as a government employee with the Bureau of Prisons. I had arrived in January of 1973, and by December, I had become quite sick.

Every 20 minutes, I would incur an awful pain in my abdomen, and they were unable or unwilling to determine the problem. The pain would rack my stomach for a full 2 minutes, and if I didn’t apply extreme pressure to the area of the pain, I would pass out. Desperate, I planned to bring my condition to the Medical Bureau’s attention.

I wrote a letter to the Medical Director describing my condition. I sent a copy of the letter to my Senator. I then sent a letter to everyone on my list of correspondents and asked them to send it to their Senator, as they covered several states. I then asked them to collect their Senator’s responses and send them to the Medical Director.

I let a week go by, and then I resorted to something that was going to be risky. I was going to go to the chow hall, and at that point, I was going to leave the hall; I would fall over the table and lay in pain on the floor. The pain part wasn’t going to be faked. That was real, but I had to get someone’s attention. I was taking a calculated risk. The disturbance I would make in falling over the table, with the metal trays clambering to the floor, would cause a ruckus. Such a sound could ignite a riot with trays flying everywhere. I informed the three men at my table what I would do. They said they would stay there and explain what was wrong with me to the guards.

I fell to the floor at that point, and the three men ran out of the chow hall. They realized that they, too, could be implicated as having started the riot should one occur since they were at the table too. The guards came running at the sound of trays hitting the floor. My rap partner, Kevin, had been sitting only a table away, and when he saw what had happened, he immediately started screaming that they were killing me. And unknowingly, they were. As I writhed in pain on the floor, I heard someone say to get him to the hospital. That night for the first time, I was given drugs to squelch the pain.

The following day, specialists were called in from the community hospital, and after a spinal tap and a cystoscopy, they discovered that my kidneys were 90% infected. They drained the infection from my kidneys and then ordered an operation to look inside and see what could be learned.

The prison Doctor asked me who I knew during the prison doctor’s earlier visit. I said, “I don’t understand the question.” He told me the Medical Director had called him and wanted to know my prognosis and diagnosis immediately. At that same time, the doctor got another call from a friend from my hometown of Hazel Crest. Bobby Greer, a young man who lived across the street and one of the correspondents I had written, called to inquire how I was doing. The attention, letters, and calls all had served their purpose in alerting the medical staff, incompetent as they were, to pay attention to me. I was scheduled for an exploratory operation. But hold up.

The night before the operation, the inmate nurse said, “I’ll be back later to shave you front and back for the operation tomorrow.” “You want to explain that to me?” I said. “Well, they’re going to do an exploratory operation, so what that means is they’re going to cut you in the front, and if they don’t find anything, they’ll roll you over and cut you in the back.” “So I have to shave you front and back.” “No, you don’t. They’ll have to send me to Springfield, Mo. I demanded. “I’m not getting an operation in this hospital.”

That was the only Medical Center in the prison system.
I knew the doctor would be displeased when he arrived the following morning. The thought of returning to Springfield, even for a short time (they would return me after the operation.), was exciting. The doctor asked me why I wanted to go to Springfield instead of having it here. I didn’t want to rouse his ire by slamming his hospital at the institution, but I also realized he didn’t have to answer to me, but he did have that Medical Director breathing down his neck. I told him that the prison was not equipped for such operations, and at least the prison in Springfield was called a Medical Center. I remained in the institution’s hospital until I was transferred to Springfield.

I did not go immediately to Springfield. However, I was laid over in Leavenworth Federal Prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. A prisoner walked by our cell of 8 other prisoners waiting to be transferred. He looked at me and asked how long I had been in prison. I told him 3 years. He asked if I had been out in the sun. No, I hadn’t; I’d been hospitalized for a while. He said, “Then you’ve got hepatitis because you’re yellow. Sure enough, when I got to Springfield and was housed in the hospital, they immediately diagnosed me with hepatitis. I don’t know what would have happened had I let them do the exploratory operation with hepatitis.

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.