Wreckage and redemption

The following article first appeared in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in the 1990s, during which time Christopher Boyce was an inmate of the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Oak Park Heights. The original article appeared under the headline “Parole brings freedom but much to fear.”

Written by Christopher Boyce

Coming to prison is easy; it is the going home that puts convicts in a quandary. I often weigh the probability of their success. It is almost a speculative pastime with me.

I watch them arrive and leave over and over again. It is no easy task for men who have utterly botched their lives to rise above the stigma of their own social ruin. Mostly their repeated personal failures reduce them relentlessly to their own grim worlds of private self-abasement. But sometimes prisoners come along who have a chance to regain in life all that they have lost. I watch these few and I hope.

If I played the odds, though, I would bet on none of them.

Well-fed and physically fit, a young man can find a certain Spartan enjoyment in all the horseplay and sports behind the walls. Some prisoners have never been happier and appear as comfortable as lifers in the Army. In prison they can be big shots, while on the streets they are nobodies.

Even the shared suffering of the imprisoned is a source of comradeship. The penitentiary can be a demented refuge for the social outcast. Many convicts are secretly relieved upon their return to this place. I think of them as the damned.

But when their time is up they are eager to go. And while they have languished for years in prison, their peers back home will have raised families and accumulated homes and cars and all those possessions that define a man’s life. The paroled convict usually begins anew with almost nothing to his name. The young among them are men in body, but economically as insignificant as beardless high school dropouts. They have so far to catch up that that temptations to take felonious shortcuts are almost always irresistible.

Of late I have watched the personal struggle of one young man yearning to remake himself into the husband and father he was meant to be. He was a typical son of Minnesota until he took a life. Unlike the overwhelming majority of prisoners, he did not come from society’s underclass, and so the chance for his successful release is a best case scenario.

Prison reduces to almost nil the choices inmates can make, meaning that the emergence of maturity is severely stunted. So it is that I often see this young man who has spent all of his adult life in prison reflect in his unguarded moments the teenaged demeanor that was his in the last year of his freedom. Because I have seen in him the determined spark of his own rebirth, I have treated him as I would my own brother. I have looked past his lapses and hoped against hope that he would be one of the few who left this place to go on to a whole life. I see enough good in him to know he can heal from the wreckage he has made of his young years.

He will leave his controlled life to experience the regulated freedom of the paroled. Where watchful guards once curbed his rambunctious belligerency with locked cells and strict rules, he must now moderate his behavior through the power of his own will. His success at doing so will determine whether he leads the wholesome life of a grown man or returns here to become forever an imprisoned deviant. The choosing is his, and he will have to choose a hundred times a day for the rest of his life. It is a daunting task.

He must walk inoffensively into the animosity of a community that once put him away from the fellowship of decent men. Having killed in the town where he will live, he must be forever heedful of the sensitivities of the bereaved. He must accept their aversion to his freedom, for he is the cause of their lingering grief. No matter the provocation, never should he show the family of the deceased anything but heartfelt respect.

He must learn to turn the other cheek. He must never raise his hand in anger against anyone. As a paroled murderer, any argument, any fight that in any way involves him will be deemed by the police to be his fault no matter the circumstances. For years he will remain an easy mark for any deputy sheriff or city cop bent on a quick bust. Any charge, even on the flimsiest of grounds, can be framed against a parolee. For the good of the community, law enforcement often feels obligated to put an ex-convict away just as soon as practical. There is nothing fair or just about it. It is just one of the many pitfalls faced by the freed prisoner.

I have seen in his eye the fear of failure, but it is a healthy fear that shows me he has not had so much prison that he is beyond recovery. True, for six years he has been surrounded by the very worst that society can spawn, but I know he still listens to those faint lessons from childhood that taught him man’s better nature. Most important, he has his own loyal family, which has stood by him in his adversity and is ready to give him a leg up as he makes himself into a man. He has so much to overcome, yet he is capable of taking himself far.

I have put almost too much faith in my friend. If, like so many others, he is brought back to this place, I will pity him his misfortune, for he will have thrown away all that he holds dear. But much more powerful than my pity will be my disgust at the opportunity he will have let slip. If he wastes the chance I will never get – the chance to begin again while still a youth – I will despise him for his weakness. And it will break my heart.

Christopher Boyce is the co-author of the book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman. Convicted of espionage in 1977, the story of his crime was first told in the book and movie The Falcon and the Snowman. He was released from prison in 2002 and now resides in the Pacific Northwest with his wife, Cait Boyce, a legal professional and prisoner rights advocate. He remains, as ever, an avid falconer.

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