After prison, building a new life means more than just doing right

Louis B. Sawyer Jr., who spent 25 years in prison, is trying to build a new life for himself on the outside.

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By Alex Halperin
Sunday, January 16, 2011; 6:46 PM

Last Feb. 9, Louis B. Sawyer Jr. reported to "receiving and discharge" at FCI Allenwood, a federal prison in central Pennsylvania.

He took off his prison-issue khaki pants and shirt, and pulled the jeans, sweatshirt and jacket that had been provided to him over his gangly frame. The staff completed the paperwork, and a guard escorted Sawyer to the checkpoint. His nephew was waiting in the lobby on the other side.

Sawyer passed through, and the men embraced. Someone in the background said, "You're free to go," and with that, Sawyer, then 49, who had spent more than half his life locked up for murder, walked into the winter morning. He rode to his nephew's nearby home for a special meal of grilled fish, macaroni and cheese and greens. He got to have orange juice, which was banned at Allenwood because it can be fermented into an alcoholic drink.

Sawyer's nephew, Gary Williams, gave him clothes and a black hat with a cross and "Jesus" written in rhinestones. After the meal, the family sat around talking and snapping pictures.

"They showed love," Sawyer said. "They knew Uncle Louis was home."

Williams, a carpenter in his 30s, had volunteered to house his uncle and help him find work, but authorities rejected the plan, which left Sawyer to return to Washington, D.C., where he had no home, no job prospects and no family. A blizzard had hobbled the mid-Atlantic, and Sawyer called Hope Village, his appointed halfway house, to ask if he could delay the trip. Permission denied. If he wasn't there by midnight, he'd be considered an escapee.

Before the 200-mile drive, Sawyer visited his mother at a nursing home. He hadn't seen her in at least eight years, and she now had Alzheimer's. "We talked, hugged," Sawyer said. "She wasn't too coherent, but she was not incoherent. ... I'm grateful, just being able to be in her presence. She knew I was there. That's all that counts."

It was dark when Williams's SUV reached Hope Village, an unimposing cluster of brick buildings on a side street in Southeast Washington. "Everything was quiet, surreal. The snow was coming down," Sawyer said. He'd brought his leftovers from earlier, toiletries he'd picked up at a dollar store and a box with his important papers, including a list of courses he'd taken in prison and a job recommendation from a warden.

Sawyer checked in and entered the kitchenless, two-bedroom apartment he'd share with up to seven roommates. He had four months to find a job and permanent housing. If he failed, he could be evicted and end up homeless.

The snow would shutter the District for much of the week. Sawyer had waited 25 years for his second chance. He'd have to wait a few more days.

***

Every year, more than 2,000 people return to Washington from federal prisons, according to the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. After years in a cell dreaming of freedom, they're often unprepared for it. Many have minimal education and work experience and are shackled by drug addictions and mental illnesses. Those who are capable of searching for a job need to find a boss who will overlook their crimes. The latest national data indicate that about two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years.


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