As hard as it was to spend 35 years in prison for stealing a black-and-white television, Junior Allen has found freedom in many ways just as frustrating.
Despite extensive prison records in North Carolina, where he has spent more than half his life as inmate No. 0004604, Allen has been unable to establish his identity in rural Georgia, where he now lives with his sister, or in Alabama, where he was born 65 years ago to sharecropper parents.
A month-long effort to get a birth certificate and photo ID only hint at the new challenge he faces -- that of transforming himself from less-than-model inmate to typical senior citizen.
"It's like I never existed," Allen says. "I went to Columbus, Georgia, and they said I had to go to Alabama. I went to Alabama and they said I had to go to Georgia."
His most immediate goal is to get a driver's license. He has already revived a 1984 Dodge Aries that had been parked in his sister's yard.
"I'd like to live the rest of my life at peace, maybe get some of the things I need -- transportation and a job and maybe a hobby like fishing," he says. "I love to fish. I've already got two or three places picked out."
Allen was a strapping 30-year-old in 1970 when he walked into the unlocked home of an elderly North Carolina woman near Benson and took her 19-inch black-and-white Motorola, valued at $140. He hid the set in the woods and never watched it. Police quickly arrested him at his labor camp by following his footprints.
When Allen emerged from the Orange Correctional Center in late May, he walked out, slightly stooped, prison bifocals perched on his nose, flecks of gray in his mustache and in the hair protruding from beneath his Muslim skullcap.
But he acknowledges that the Allen who entered the North Carolina prison system 31/2 decades ago was "sort of wild," a young tough who worked a moonshine still and hauled the contraband liquor in hopped-up Pontiacs.
When Allen arrived in the Tar Heel State, he had already been hardened by years as a migrant farmworker and itinerant construction laborer. By then, his rap sheet included burglaries and a violent assault.
State records say Allen roughed up 87-year-old Lessie Johnson when he stole her TV. Allen was not convicted of assault and denies that he hurt the woman.
"Back in those days, if you roughed up a white woman and you were black, nine times out of ten you wouldn't make it to jail," he says.
Under the law of the day, a Johnston County jury sentenced the black man to life in prison for second-degree burglary -- a crime that today would carry a maximum punishment of three years. Bitter at his punishment, Allen admits he was hardly a model inmate.
"When I went into prison, in order for you to keep your manhood, you had to fight every now and then," he says. "So I got into quite a lot of fights."
He was often written up, he says, for "going by my rules," not prison rules.
"When you know you are right and the man is wrong, I put up a defense," he says. "I got a lot of little minor write-ups behind stuff like that."
During his 35 years of incarceration, Allen was denied parole 25 times. He had 47 infractions from 1972 to 2002, including gambling, weapons possession, lock tampering, misuse of medicine, profane language and making a verbal threat.
"About three years ago, Allen was told he'd have to change his behavior to have any chance of parole," says Melita Groomes, the North Carolina parole commission's executive director.
Around the same time, Allen's case caught the attention of University of North Carolina law professor Rich Rosen. "What first struck me was the ridiculous amount of time for the crime he had committed. It was an absurd amount of time. The prosecutors thought it, too."
Rosen convinced Allen that his best chance of getting out was to put away his anger and bitterness.
Allen laid bricks and blocks in prison, drove a dump truck and operated a forklift, attended barber school and worked as a cook's assistant through a work-release program.
With no infractions for three years, Allen's case went before the parole commission last year, for a 26th time, and he was finally ordered released.
On a recent summer morning, Allen rises early and sits in a white rocker on the porch of his sister's ranch-style house. She lives just outside Georgetown, a town of 970 on the banks of Lake Walter F. George, about 150 miles southwest of Atlanta.
"Seems like the birds have a different sound," he observes as he rocks. "They don't holler like they did."
In one of Georgia's most economically depressed counties, Georgetown has lots of bait shops but few industries. Many Georgetown residents, including Allen's sister, Faye, drive across the lake to Eufaula, Ala., to work in its thriving industrial park.
Faye Allen, who works the night shift at a plastics factory, refuses to talk to reporters, saying, "Where were you when my brother was serving 35 years in prison?"
Motorists crossing the lake into Alabama leave Georgetown's poverty behind and enter a picturesque town with a historic district, antebellum homes and glistening white marble statues in the middle of key intersections.
Dining at Eufaula's upscale La Bella Vita restaurant, Allen was comfortable sitting among some of the town's elite, eating a Caesar salad and a small pizza. He appreciated the contrast to prison cuisine.
"I've got a lot of catching up to do because I'm way behind," says Allen, who hopes to find work as a forklift operator as soon as he can obtain the photo ID required to apply.
But as frustrating as it is to start over from scratch, Allen knows it beats life behind bars.
"I don't have anybody telling me when to get up, when to lay down. I feel like I'm sort of free in a way, but I ain't free until I get status, get myself together," he says.
When not sitting on his sister's porch or visiting malls with his nieces and nephews, he watches soap operas on his sister's living room TV. Among his favorites are "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful."
The shows are broadcast in color, but because of either poor reception or a poorly adjusted television, Allen can view them only in black and white.
He doesn't seem to mind or even notice.