Paroled From Life Sentences, Aging Ex-Cons Find World That Didn't Wait

In the second of a two-part series, NPR's Laura Sullivan follows a group of aging ex-cons in Colorado. Out from behind bars for the first time in decades, they attempt to make their way in a fast-paced world, still unsure if they deserve that chance.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. This week, we're hearing about what happens when elderly prison inmates finally get a chance to return to the outside world. Fewer and fewer convicts have this chance. Sentences have grown longer and parole has largely been eliminated. Most inmates with life sentences will die in prison. The cost of keeping elderly convicts locked up will soon reach into the billions for states.

NPR's Laura Sullivan spent two years tracking a group of Colorado's aging ex-cons who are now out of prison. They're struggling to make it in a world that seems to no longer have a place for them - and Laura's report today centers on two men - the program's mentor, Red Thorpe and John Huckleberry. He spent three decades in prison for killing his wife.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: John Huckleberry hasn't seen Denver since he went to prison some 30 years ago. It's hard to imagine he can see it now on the day of his release through so many tears.

JOHN HUCKLEBERRY: It's really pretty hard to take in right now.

SULLIVAN: He's trembling. The van pulls to a stop outside the Dahlia halfway house.

HUCKLEBERRY: Is this it? My legs are shaking.

SULLIVAN: He steps inside but stops in the doorway.

HUCKLEBERRY: This door, here?

SULLIVAN: He keeps asking. For 30 years someone has told him when to step into a room. Finally, he sees a friendly face.

JO JO NICHOLSON: Hey, Grandpa.

HUCKLEBERRY: Hey Jo Jo. No hair, man.

SULLIVAN: A bunch of the Long Term Offender Program - or LTOP members - are in the other room waiting for him. This is the idea, keep him close to the people he knows from prison rather than dropping him off at a bus stop and telling him to report to his parole officer in a week. They bought Huckleberry a cheesecake, pizza and olives - which he cracks open.

HUCKLEBERRY: Oh God. I know sex wasn't this good. Oh my God.

SULLIVAN: Jo Jo Nicholson pulls of something huckleberry has never seen - a cell phone.

NICHOLSON: Look that way, fool.

HUCKLEBERRY: What did you do now? What is that? You took a picture?

NICHOLSON: I'm going to take some too in a little bit, my phone's on the charger right now.

HUCKLEBERRY: Your phone's what?

NICHOLSON: On the charger.

HUCKLEBERRY: On a charger? Oh, crap. You just took that picture and it's already there?

NICHOLSON: Yeah.

HUCKLEBERRY: Come on.

SULLIVAN: A few hours later, Huckleberry looks exhausted, but the LTOP meeting is downtown and they all have to go. They stop and pick up his old prison buddy, Greg Wells.

HUCKLEBERRY: Everything's so fast. Oh, look - everybody's on the phone. Everybody's got a phone.

GREG WELLS: This is how we check in. When you get your phone, this is how you're going to check in at the halfway house. It's all on automated.

HUCKLEBERRY: I don't understand it.

SULLIVAN: Wells notices Huckleberry's lower lip is starting to quiver.

WELLS: You all right?

HUCKLEBERRY: Sure.

SULLIVAN: Do you remember feeling this way?

WELLS: Oh, absolutely. It just overwhelms you.

SULLIVAN: Inside the meeting, officials set up a video conference with the men still inside the prison.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 1: Everybody say hi to Huckleberry.

PRISONERS: Hi, Huckleberry.

SULLIVAN: Huckleberry and everyone else here might not even have made it to this room if it weren't for Red Thorpe - the group's original member and mentor. Officials say Thorpe's made the program work, he knows how to talk to the guys, how to explain things. All 32 of them have gotten jobs and found places to live - not a single one has committed a crime. Thorpe recently earned his Ph.D., but he prefers to teach young adults who are struggling. In recent years, he's helped more than 400 of them get their GEDs. He's raised his wife's children as his own into successful young adults who call him dad. He's in bed by 9:30. But what I'm about to tell you is going to change how you see him.

In 1979, when he was 22, Red Thorpe and a friend picked up a 16-year-old boy hitchhiking home from a concert. They decided to hold him for ransom from the boy's parents - it didn't work out. Thorpe took the boy to a lake, tied bricks to his feet and threw him in - except the boy managed to swim. When the boy made it to shore, he begged for his life. Thorpe strangled him to death.

Thorpe pled guilty. Today he would have been sentenced to death or life without parole. In 1979, he got 20 years with parole. We're going to come back to Red Thorpe in a minute, but let's catch up to John Huckleberry's story. It's now been almost a year since he's been out.

HUCKLEBERRY: This patio was bare, and we...

SULLIVAN: John Huckleberry opens the gate to a small yard in a rundown apartment complex.

HUCKLEBERRY: The first thing we did was we went and bought the fake grass, and then we went and bought the fake flowers.

SULLIVAN: After the halfway house, he reconnected with the woman he married over the phone in prison - Esther. They moved in here together.

HUCKLEBERRY: See the rug, it's hiding stains. The area rugs...

SULLIVAN: Huckleberry was able to find a couple jobs - one at a car dealership, though they fired him when they found out he's a felon.

HUCKLEBERRY: Let me show you something.

SULLIVAN: He pulls open the bedroom closet.

HUCKLEBERRY: You ain't going to believe this. Everything came from Goodwill.

SULLIVAN: On the top shelf are the sweatpants he so carefully mailed back from prison. He seems to have forgotten all about them.

We sat down in some chairs in his living room. Huckleberry's followed all the rules of this program. He used to cost taxpayers almost $70,000 a year in prison, now he's been paying taxes. I asked him how people are supposed to know whether to give someone like him a chance?

HUCKLEBERRY: You don't, it's a leap of faith. I hope when he gets out he does the right thing. You don't know if he's going to - you don't know if I'm going to or not. I don't know - these guys coming out, I don't know. And I've known them, right?

SULLIVAN: Look at Red Thorpe, he tells me.

HUCKLEBERRY: And there you go. A crime that was real heavy.

SULLIVAN: Yes.

HUCKLEBERRY: But look at what he's done. Don't you have to separate the man that did the deed years and years ago and the man that he's become? You're on the outside, don't you say, wow, how did he get here from there?

SULLIVAN: The hard part is not so much whether or not someone can change but whether or not...

HUCKLEBERRY: He deserves the chance to change - the opportunity. Does he deserve that opportunity?

SULLIVAN: When people hear about the crime, it sounds to them like it happened yesterday.

HUCKLEBERRY: Why is he out? Why does he deserve that job? He just did that to a child. The average person can't separate that it was 40 years ago.

SULLIVAN: Red Thorpe lives about 20 minutes away from Huckleberry in his own modest apartment complex. He's been out almost 10 years now. He opens the door to a cozy apartment full of pictures of his wife and three kids that he's raised since they were little.

RED THORPE: That's an older picture, but they're 8, 12 and 14.

SULLIVAN: Thorpe's own childhood in Alaska was rough. But he doesn't want to talk about it because he says it sounds like an excuse. He ran away from home at 16, spent a year in a group home and joined the Marines at 17. By 20, he had left the service and spent his days drinking and doing drugs.

THORPE: Out of control idiot, had no regard for anyone - their feelings, nothing.

SULLIVAN: He strangled 16-year-old William Leonard to death on June 16, 1979 when he was 22. In prison, he was a warden's worst nightmare. He was angry, violent and worst of all, didn't care if he lived or died. That went on for years. And then one day, the warden came to visit him in solitary.

THORPE: He said, if you tell me what you want to do with your life and it's positive, I'll help you. Next day, he came back, he said, so what do you want to do? I said, I want to go to school. He said, OK, pack your stuff up. You're out of here within the hour.

SULLIVAN: The warden sent him to school that afternoon. He's been in school ever since. The more he learned about himself and others and living, he says, the more he has felt distance from that 22-year-old killer. But that kind of perspective has a price, because now when he thinks about his crime and looks at his students and his wife and children and looks at his own 14-year-old daughter, if he's no longer relating to that 22-year-old killer, it's because he's relating to William Leonard - his victim.

THORPE: You know, there's times where it's overwhelming. You know? And you just don't want to go on no more.

SULLIVAN: He says it was easier in prison.

THORPE: Not one time did I ever think about checking out in there. Out here, I think about it all the time because of what I've done.

SULLIVAN: William Leonard's family did not appear at Thorpe's sentencing or parole hearings. NPR's efforts to reach them were also unsuccessful.

In recent months, Thorpe has bought a piece of property in his wife's name and set aside money for his children. He says he's only here at the moment because of them. So I asked him what the point is. What is the point of changing so much that you can finally see the horror of your own self only to find out that you can't live with it? I asked him, what if it's easier for the public if you don't change?

THORPE: It is easier for public because then they don't have to make those tough decisions. They don't want to. It's - look, man, lock them up, throw away the key and don't bother me no more. And I understand that, but what they really don't realize is when that person changes, it comes to fully accept what they've actually done and feel the weight of that - far, far outweighs what they think they're going through in there. I think they got it backwards, you know? You want that person to suffer? Let them change.

SULLIVAN: That's something Tim Hand, when he ran the program, understood. Thirty years ago, his motto with parolees with simple.

TIM HAND: Tail 'em, nail 'em and jail 'em. That was your job.

SULLIVAN: But watching these guys in the Long Term Offender Program has changed him.

HAND: It's not about a person, it's about a program - it's about hope. It's about redemption. They're people that you can't - I don't think you give up on them.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 2: Everybody's got their phones in here?

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 3: Yes.

SPEAKER 2: Well, good afternoon.

SULLIVAN: On a recent day, John Huckleberry, Greg Wells, Chris Mayes and several others pile out of a van outside the Sterling Correctional Facility. They've come back to visit with a new group of old guys who may be released. Correctional officers spot them message exchanges.

OFFICER: Well, look at you.

HUCKLEBERRY: How you doing?

SULLIVAN: They all seem happy, but when they step past security and into prison, they're suddenly quiet. Huckleberry seems to speak for all of them.

HUCKLEBERRY: I hate that sound.

SULLIVAN: On the other side of this prison is another group of men in green jumpsuits pulling plastic chairs into a circle. They're the last of a breed - lifers with parole.

Huckleberry and the men shuffle down a long hallway, walking past their old cells, their canes tapping on the concrete floor.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

CORNISH: You can hear the first of Laura's reports at our website npr.org. You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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