Monday, December 30, 2013

One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you

This unfortunate Reuters story (Dec. 22) about a murderer-turned-bootmaker-turned-parole-violator provides a window into the difficulties of ex-prisoners trying to reintegrate into society, especially those who've spent many years behind bars. The article opened:
Lawmen would come from across Texas just to walk a few miles in the boots made by inmate Arnold Darby.

Darby, 64, soft-spoken, bespectacled and tattooed, was once one of the most prodigious bootmakers in the Texas prison system, turning out more than a thousand pairs of custom-made footwear for police, FBI agents and the governor's office, prison officials said.

But freedom put an end to that.

After 37 years behind bars, serving time for robbery and murder, Darby was released on parole in 2011.

The highly skilled bootmaker was looking to open his own shop in a state that loves its boots. But lacking start-up cash, he settled for making boxes at a food-processing plant.

After only a year on the outside, Darby violated parole by driving while intoxicated and was sent back to prison.

This time, however, he has not been in the new unit long enough to earn what is considered a privileged position in a workshop, and the once-vaunted jailhouse cobbler is not sure if he will ever make boots again.

"I was working six or seven days a week, and I started drinking a little bit. That is what brought me back," said Darby in an interview from the Goree Unit prison in Huntsville, about 70 miles north of Houston.

The Texas parole board said in an emailed statement: "Mr. Darby was revoked on August 29, 2012, after he waived his hearing for DWI, failure to stop and render information and violation of the GPS monitor."

His next parole review is in March 2015, and Darby does not expect to be at a bootmaking bench until then.

"He was once a model prisoner and he made boots for everybody" said Larry Fitzgerald, a longtime spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice who has since retired.

"You have to be, to work in the craft shop - because you are surrounded by weapons of all kinds," he said.

Fitzgerald himself owns three pairs of Darby's boots.
Darby went to prison in 1974 for aggravated robbery. He later received life sentences for killing two fellow inmates in gang violence. There was also an attempt to escape along the way, where he was shot in the head.

"My biggest regret of all was getting in the game," Darby said.
So many lamentable angles to this article: A murderer who no one thinks will kill again but still could be locked up forever. An inmate leaving prison after decades without effective treatment for alcoholism, returning over a DWI. (Too bad, given his age and circumstances, he wasn't considered a candidate for treatment at an Intermediate Sanctions Facility instead of leaping to immediate revocation.) An aging prisoner whose healthcare costs will be borne by the state of Texas instead of Medicare. A skilled bootmaker who can't practice his craft outside prison and now, can't do so on this inside, either. A prodigious craftsman who made high-end footwear on the cheap for lawmen across the state but only made about $2,000 per year doing so, nearly all of which was spent at the prison commissary. (In the outside world, you can pay $600 to $800 or more for a single pair of hand-made boots without batting an eye.) Then there are the barriers to successful reentry: A man who entered prison during the era of eight-track tapes and predictably struggled to re-launch his life in the 21st century. Someone with a marketable skill but no access to capital and whose record prevented employment in his field, leaving him underemployed at a job that failed to utilize his talents. These aspects of the story aren't unique to Mr. Darby, but his example epitomizes them.

I'm sure there are many who think Darby should never have been released in the first place. But Texas prisons release more than 70,000 inmates per year and, from a systemic perspective, that's not a realistic view. With as many people as the state keeps sending in, some of them have to be let out. And as a general rule, people age out of crime. A return to drinking may be more typical of someone of his generation (he and Travis County DA Rosemay Lehmberg, who was recently convicted of DWI, are about the same age), but it's highly unlikely this person would ever have returned to robbery or killing.

Mr. Darby's story exemplifies the formidable obstacles to successful reentry for those leaving prison and reminds us that the state places too little emphasis in assisting ex-cons in making a new life. As a result, the state will pay for his housing, meals and medical care for a few years longer, providing no real benefit to anyone. If Darby could have found an employer willing to give him a chance to use the skills he'd spent decades honing in prison, maybe this saga would have a more convivial ending.


Gadfly said...

First newspaper I was at, I did a story about a guy with generally similar background, who was out on parole, and wound up driving without insurance .... which is a parole violation.

Extra twist: He was working in Miss Ann's governor's office.

Robert Langham said...

99% of everything is made out of stupid.

Anonymous said...

It is indeed a shame "the book" was thrown at him returning him to prison before treatment. Sounds to me like he could have opened up shop where law enforcement officers could access him and made a good living on them alone. With all the entitlement funds out there why not create another one :)

Unknown said...

All the legal system is this country knows how to do is punish. No programs to effectively reintegrate. That would take some of the "milk" from the cash cow the prison industry keeps milking!

The Homeless Cowboy said...

You know, it really seems a shame that this guy's parole was mishandled. This fellow could have and still could, make some nice boots and a decent living if given the chance he should have gotten. What terrible thing would happen if he was paroled to treatment, then was allowed to work for a boot maker here in Texas while being monitored by the parole system. if he could do it, there would be a great value there, in the example he could set, the motivation he could provide for others, as well as allowing him to live a "normal" life. I say give the guy a chance to learn the tools he needs to keep himself afloat, if it turns out he can't live out here then so be it, it will show our failure as a society to care about each other.

FK46 said...

For years, I have privately advocated offering convicts a sentencing option: flogging instead of prison time.

We have not sentenced anyone to being stabbed or raped or having to live like an animal in racist gangs to have a bit of protection. We have not sentenced anyone to losing job skills or family.

But, yes, we do it every day, many times.

A convict, at his option, could choose to be flogged instead of imprisoned. Flogged on Friday, a man could return to work on light duty in a few days. He would not lose his family, dignity or job skills.

Delaware flogged prisoners in units, not publically, as late as 1948. Doctors were available.

Flogging would be more humane than what we are doing now.

Unknown said...

"we have not sentenced anyone to be stabbed or raped or having to live like an animal in racist gangs." Yes, we have. You just described prison in this country, but you forgot to mention the overcrowding and rotten food, and lack of medical care.
And don't forget all the fat cats who make a tremendous profit from the suffering!