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Sorting Through the Years

The foreign stamp department occupies a few tables and several bins and plastic cabinets with tiny drawers. As foreign stamps are culled from the mounds of stamps at the other end of the shop, they are carried across the room to the foreign stamp department, to be further sorted and filed by country of origin.

"We've got India, China, Japan, Ethiopia, Britain, Germany," he says, circling a low table and pointing out piles of stamps.

(Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

He's 51 and has been confined to John Howard for going on 23 years, sometimes in minimum and medium security but currently in max, in a little cinder block room with a bed and not much else. You get there from the building entrance through a metal detector in the lobby and a half-dozen armored doors on the way up. The doors unlock with heavy brass keys, and here and there a staff member sits behind safety glass.

Nearly 70 men live on the three max wards on the fifth floor. They eat breakfast between 7:45 and 9:30 each morning, and usually the lights go out at 11 p.m. They pass their idle hours in common areas, shooting pool, watching TV, or daydreaming on the balcony, dragging slow on cigarettes.

Their home, built 50 years ago, is the newest asylum on the grounds of St. Elizabeths, a fenced-in, 118-acre oasis of sloping fields and stands of trees near Congress Heights, one of the city's toughest neighborhoods. There's a lot of bipolar disorder among the 200 or so patients in John Howard, almost all of them men. You'll find a lot of depression, schizophrenia and paranoia. Each patient's illness manifested itself in some heinous crime, in many cases years ago, and now they reside here, medicated into docility or just quietly bored.

As with most of Melanson's workers, asking English about his crime and mental illness is a good way to kill a conversation. "Well, that's personal," he says, stopping to look at you. "We deal with the stamps. If you have any questions about the stamps . . ."

Why does he like the stamps?

He begins circling the table again and says he likes the work because it gives him a feeling of responsibility -- a buyer may offer $20 for a package of stamps from a particular country, and the order has to be filled correctly -- and because the stamps remind him of the outside world, which otherwise might fade from memory.

"You really have to memorize a lot of stamps," he says. "Because sometimes the name of the country is on the stamp, but it's not spelled the way it is in English. Like you might have stamps from Egypt. Then, like China and Japan, you have to differentiate the difference between the two of them, because they use characters for their language. And sometimes one country may have several different names, where the name of the country has changed, you see?

"Like Ceylon and Sri Lanka -- that's the same country. Ceylon and Sri Lanka. . . . But they changed the name. And I have to know that."

Like any NGBRI, English, who drove cabs and worked construction in his younger years, will go free only if his treatment team and a judge someday agree that he's no longer a threat to himself or others. And for him the door has been shut for nearly a quarter-century, meaning about all he has is this window the size of a postage stamp.

"You see this one?" he says, taking a stamp from a pile. "You look at that writing there. I bet you don't know which country this is from."

Eastern Europe somewhere?

"Greece. See, you have to know that."

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