Jerry Williams was beaming as he and his girlfriend walked into the D.C. parole supervisor's office in December. After more than six years at the Lorton Reformatory, he was free.
Or was he?
"We have a 10-point program for you to follow," said Maurice Hall, the parole supervisor, as he began explaining the rules of Williams' new life. "You must maintain a job and report regularly to the parole office."
As Williams prepared to leave, Hall added, "You'll also be under alcohol and drug surveillance. You must report for a urine test in nine days." Williams assured Hall that he could handle his new responsibilities and headed for the city streets.
It felt good to be out of prison, said Williams, 34, who had been convicted of robbery and burglary. Before his incarceration, he had been a heavy drinker who sometimes used drugs. Now he inhaled deeply, said he had been spiritually revived in prison and smiled broadly as he waited at curbside for a bus to take him home.
The next day, he experienced his first bitter taste of reality when the drugstore owner who had promised him work gave the job to another man. Undaunted, Williams immediately found a new job as a custodian. When his first $148-a-week check arrived, he thought he was on a roll.
But when he showed up for his urine test, lab technicians found something that they classified as a "very high negative" in the opiate category, which is as close as you can come to testing positive. Two positive findings gets a parolee rearrested. So Williams was scheduled for a second test. But he did not show up. Something was going wrong with this new freedom.
"This is a critical time for him," said Hall. "There is something flaky in the picture, but nobody is accusing him outright of using drugs. If we must write an arrest warrant though, well, business is business. He is aware of that, and if he wants that hand dealt to him, we'll deal."
"I got hooked on Valiums at Lorton," Williams said. "Those things are worse than [narcotic] drugs. But I swear I haven't touched anything harder than beer since I've been out, except some medication for a sore tooth."
Williams was sitting in the kitchen of his sister's apartment in Northeast Washington two months after his release from prison. He and his girlfriend had parted company.
And two weeks ago, he had been fired from his job as a custodian because he had missed two days. He said the reason he didn't show up for work or his urine test was because of a toothache.
"I had a wisdom tooth pulled. It hurt too bad to go outside in the cold," he said sincerely.
But now he had a black mark on his parole record and he had been fired. The pressure was building fast. "When you don't have food in the house, that leads to fear. I thought I had a valid reason for missing work. In retrospect, I was wrong. But admitting I was wrong don't pay for groceries," Williams said.
The phone rang. It was the Narcotics Anonymous Fellowship, which Williams had called earlier in the day when he was feeling weak. He was invited to attend a meeting last night and urged by the voice on the other end of the phone to hang in their until then.
Williams sighed. "I need to be working. I got to get a job to kill this time. I can feel the influence of the streets saying, 'Come on out here and get these quarters quarter-ounces of cocaine or heroin .' I could make $600 a day. Easy."
Such a move, however, would be tragic. His family stuck by him through his ordeal at Lorton, and now he claims to have an obligation to prove to them, himself and the world that he can make it.
Can Williams hang in there? Or will he become a slave? Will he ever know what it means to be free? His friends and family said they will keep an eye on him until Feb. 19, when he is scheduled for his next urine test. So will I.