Friday, March 2, 2012

A tough retirement

William Barnes at Eastern State (Jesse Southerland)
How do you retire from a life spent mostly in prison?
How do you plunge into the world again, at age 75? These questions must be on the mind of William J. Barnes today after learning that his controversial imprisonment will soon end.
In the summer of 2007, on a tour of Eastern State Penitentiary, my husband and I and our daughter and  son-in-law-to-be heard the ex-convict movingly talk about his time in that historic prison for a variety of reckless crimes before it closed in 1971.
He also talked about his more recent stint -- 16 years behind bars for shooting a police officer.
He was finally out of jail, working in a supermarket and being brutally honest about the wrong turns and harmful actions of his younger years.
Listening, rapt, to Barnes' talk
Barnes, frail-looking with white-hair, spoke to a small crowd of tourists sitting in the courtyard of the prison-turned-museum. He talked about being the “bad” kid in his family and how he shot the officer in a scared effort to escape a botched robbery. He talked about how he would never have a wife or children and all he had missed out on. How he had wasted his life.
His talk was so compelling that I asked him afterward if he’d agree to an interview, then suggested to Inquirer reporter Michael Vitez that he write a story about Barnes.
But just weeks later, before Vitez could lift his pen, the police officer, whom Barnes had shot so many years before, died. Suddenly, Barnes was re-arrested – this time for murder.
I returned from vacation to find a letter for me with a prison return-address on it – from Barnes. In it, he said he’d been justly punished for many of the things he did, but this time his imprisonment was “unfair.”
In 2010, he was re-tried and found not-guilty in the officer's death. Still, he languished in jail for violating his previous parole by carrying a cell phone and car keys  while working at the supermarket.
Barnes should soon be out, trying to find his way in an unfamiliar world. Perhaps telling his story at Eastern State Penitentiary.

1 comment:

Wendy Lee said...

Thanks for this story and for helping to put things into perspective for us all.