Jeremy Armstrong, Anticipating Life Outside Prison Eight years after his homicide conviction at the age of 16, Jeremy Armstrong is about to be paroled. Robert Siegel, who has interviewed Armstrong over the years, talks to Armstrong about his hopes -- and fears -- at leaving prison.
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Jeremy Armstrong, Anticipating Life Outside Prison

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Jeremy Armstrong, Anticipating Life Outside Prison

Jeremy Armstrong, Anticipating Life Outside Prison

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Two days ago at the state correctional institution in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 23-year-old Jeremy Armstrong was smiling. A month earlier, he had gotten the good news, and he was happier than I've ever seen him in eight years of interviews.

Mr. JEREMY ARMSTRONG (23-Year-Old): I don't think you get this much kind of news too many times in your life, so if I can't smile over this, I'm in trouble. That's good.

SIEGEL: The news was that Jeremy was approved for parole. On Tuesday morning, he will walk out of Oshkosh and start serving the remaining 12 years of a 20-year prison sentence under supervision but on the outside. It may not be freedom as you and I know it, but it sure beats where he's been.

I first met Jeremy in 1997. He was in detention, awaiting trial for murder and shaking like a leaf. He was a pudgy little blond kid. His family life was a disaster.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (From 1997) My mom, my dad got broke up when I was real young, like seven or eight. And ever since then, it's just been hard.

SIEGEL: Both parents were addicted to drugs. His mother was disabled by mental illness as well. She suffered what she described as several psychotic breakdowns. His father was living in a crack house. Jeremy bounced between their two homes, from the frying pan into the fire and back.

There was another side to Jeremy's life. Early every morning, he took a bus to Mesmer High School, an inner-city Milwaukee Catholic school, and he thrived there. Jeff Monday is the principal at Mesmer. This is from an interview in 1997.

Mr. JEFF MONDAY (Principal, Mesmer High School): (From 1997) My impressions of Jeremy was very positive. He had an impeccable academic record. His behavioral record was perfect, really. He actually, I should mention, would get to school before many teachers, before 7:30 in the morning, and he could always be found sitting on the bench outside of my office, preparing for his classes.

SIEGEL: In June 1997, when Jeremy Armstrong was 15, he shot and killed his father's roommate, Robert Drury. It's possible that had this all happened 20 years ago or 30 years ago, the Wisconsin courts might have treated the teen-age gunman as a juvenile offender. But this was the 1990s, when America's patience with juvenile crime was running short. Wisconsin passed a law making it possible for a child of 10 to be tried as an adult. So Jeremy Armstrong, who had been looking forward to pre-calculus, and was just discovering "The Great Gatsby," stood trial as an adult that October.

Unidentified Man #1: We'll recall State of Wisconsin vs. Jeremy Armstrong. All right. We are ready for the jury.

SIEGEL: In the trial, Jeremy told his lawyer, Robin Shellow, that he had only intended to rob his victim, to take a few hundred dollars in a roll of bills. He described the murder victim as someone who had taunted him, threatened him with sodomy, with murder. To Jeremy, Robert Drury was the man who supplied his father with crack.

(Soundbite of 1997 trial)

Ms. ROBIN SHELLOW (Lawyer for Jeremy Armstrong): Why'd you shoot him, Jeremy?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I was scared.

Ms. SHELLOW: Jeremy, you were the one with the gun. He didn't have a gun, did he?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: No.

Ms. SHELLOW: Well, what made you scared? You were the one with the gun, and he didn't have a gun. Tell this jury.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: 'Cause he threatened to kill me before. I was scared he would do it.

(End of soundbite)

SIEGEL: According to the defense, it was an impulsive, unintended act. The prosecutor, Lovell Johnson, argued that anger, not fear was the motive. He asked about a moment just before the shooting, when Drury had tapped Jeremy contemptuously with the roll of bills and dismissed him with an obscenity.

(Soundbite of 1997 trial)

Mr. LOVELL JOHNSON (Prosecutor, State of Wisconsin): Did that make you mad?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

Mr. JOHNSON: You've just pulled a gun on this guy, and was he laughing at you?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

Mr. JOHNSON: Did that make you angry?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: No.

Mr. JOHNSON: It did not make you angry that he was laughing at you?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: No, not really. Made me feel little.

Mr. JOHNSON: Made you feel what?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Little.

Mr. JOHNSON: Made you feel little?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. Yes.

Mr. JOHNSON: Is that a bad feeling or a good one?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Bad.

(End of soundbite)

SIEGEL: Jeremy Armstrong was convicted of reckless homicide. The judge still might have sent him to a facility for juvenile offenders, but he decided instead to sentence him as an adult, 20 years in prison.

Unidentified Man #2: Four forty-two is clear.

SIEGEL: When he first put on a green jumpsuit at the maximum security prison in Green Bay, he was the youngest inmate the facility had ever housed.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (From 2000) Jeremy Jason(ph) Armstrong, 342386. I'm at Green Bay Correctional Facility. I'm almost three years into my sentence.

SIEGEL: That was in 2000. Prison was an oppressive reality.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (From 2000) The complete control that they have over you. They can take everything. You're naked. You have nothing. And getting stripped is no way to describe it. It just takes everything.

SIEGEL: The next time we talked was in 2002.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (From 2002) My name's Jeremy Armstrong. My number's 342386, and we're at Green Bay Correctional Institution. I'm coming up on my fifth year in June. It could be just I'm getting used to this place, which is always a fear. You know, you always hear that word, `institutionalization,' and, you know, you never know when you're actually institutionalized, so I'm just hoping that I'll be able to readjust when I get out of here.

(From 2003) My name is Jeremy Jason Armstrong. My institution number's 342386, and we're at Oshkosh Correctional Institution, and it's a whole new experience.

SIEGEL: In 2003, he got out of Green Bay and into a medium security prison.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (From 2003) First six months in Green Bay were probably the--you know, I spent every day afraid, not knowing what to expect. Here, it's almost like you're at camp or something. You know, it's a whole different experience. But I think that the reason that it's worse here is because you start to forget where you're at.

(Present day) And we are walking on to our beautiful Main Street which is just freshly planted for your viewing pleasure.

SIEGEL: Oshkosh is a place where an inmate can walk around the grounds, as Jeremy did on Wednesday.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: This is the west-side rec yard. Softball is a big thing. Season starts on June 3rd, which I'll, unfortunately, have to miss.

SIEGEL: We sat down in the prison library at Oshkosh to talk again, this time, about getting out.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I'm actually walking out in greens. You have the option to buy clothes when you leave, and I chose not to. I chose to buy greens, and I want to keep them in my closet as a little reminder just to keep me focused if I get a little distracted.

SIEGEL: What's the deal when you're on parole? What are the risks? I mean, when you're on parole, you're still under the supervision of the state. And if you mess up, you could...

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Come--yeah, it's...

SIEGEL: ...(Unintelligible) be put--be sent back.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Parole is a privilege. That's the first thing they tell you. It's not a right. It's a privilege. You're getting an opportunity to do your time in a community and to serve your sentence in a community, which is, you know, a wonderful gift if you don't screw it up. But with that comes a lot of responsibility, and if you mess up, if you don't follow your rules--some of the rules, a lot of people complain about, but I always ask myself, `Is it better than this?' And they got to be better than this.

SIEGEL: What was the moment like when you learned that you've been given a parole date?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Actually, fear.

SIEGEL: Fear?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Fear. I was truly, honestly prepared to do five to 10 more years, and knowing that was all gone, it's, like, `Wow, you know, I'm going to be free.' And, you know, I don't want to let anybody down. I don't want to let myself down first, but I don't want to let the people that gave me this break down. I don't want to let the guys in here down, 'cause they need hope.

SIEGEL: Your relationship with your parents has obviously been very distant, because you've been in prison and they're on the outside. Are you going to have to help your parents when you get outside? That is, each has a set of problems. I'm just wondering whether you expect that they'll be demanding your help in various ways.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Well, I guess I've come out and told everybody--I hope I've been very clear--is I got to do my time for me. I want to help. I do. I want to be there for them, but if my dad's using and, you know, just getting out of detox ...(unintelligible) himself to say he's using, and if my mom doesn't decide to take her meds, I can't be around them. And I told them that, you know, and I told them that, and I told them that, but I don't know if it sunk in. I hope it did, but I imagine it's going to come to a point where I'm going to have to, you know, just walk away when they ask for it.

SIEGEL: Have you met people who don't like living on the outside and, in a way, have jeopardized their parole because, in some way, this is where they're from now?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. There's quite a few guys that become so accustomed to this that they can't find another way to live, and they're young. I mean, some of them are young. There's a guy actually in this class with me that said it's easier to live in prison than out there, and that scared the heck out of me. He's about my age. He's around 23. And when he told me that--this is his third time in already--I just shook my head, like, man, that's scary. I imagine he took him a little more courage to actually say what I see a lot of guys coming back for, and, you know, maybe that is the underlying reason, is the rules are simple here: Live. I mean, just get through each day. Out there, they're not so simple.

SIEGEL: Out there, there'll be many choices...

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: ...you can make.

Now I think I've asked you this question one way or another every time I've seen you, but if the judge had gone the other way and said, `Jeremy Armstrong, he did an adult crime, but he was 15 when he did it. I'm going to sentence him as a juvenile,' three years in a juvenile school, supervision, clean slate at age 25, do you think you'd be better off, stronger or weaker person today than you are?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I think I keep giving you the same answer: I never know. I mean, I stopped playing what-if games a while ago. It just hurts, `What if? What if? What if?' you know. We're here now, and the biggest thing is to make the best of now. My mantra: Live each day to the fullest because yesterday is gone, and tomorrow may never come. So let's just worry about today.

SIEGEL: Well, I gather that once you're out on parole that you'd rather not come on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED every couple of years to talk about your life.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Well, I was informed not to do any interviews on the grounds that it may influence the way I was handled in my parole, and not just from my agents and the people involved in the system, but from my community. And the biggest one that touched me was from Bob's family.

SIEGEL: Bob Drury's family.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. And, you know, of all the things that I want to do with when I get out is somehow to find a way to bring honor to his memory. And hurting his family again by getting out and talking about this like I'm some huge success story is going to be the worst thing I can do for them to heal.

SIEGEL: Well, first, I want to thank you for talking with us this time and all the previous times. And I respect your desire not to do further interviews for the program, but I hope I'll hear from you off the air.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Definitely. Definitely.

SIEGEL: Good luck to you.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Thank you. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Jeremy Armstrong knows that he faces some big obstacles, but he also has some things working in his favor: his faith. He's become a devout Catholic and his pastor is looking out for him. He's also a certified braille translator, and he's a serious reader. He's completed some college correspondence courses, and he hopes to resume his studies. But whatever he does, for the first time in eight years, he will do it in society, on parole, hoping that he never sees the inside of a prison cell again.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: My previous interviews with Jeremy Armstrong are at npr.org.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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