The Other End of Life—Dreaming of Freedom
By JESSE HAMILTON
Alton Fales doesn’t seem to be much of a threat to society.
He’s bent and slow and white-haired. His voice is quiet, like a cat walking on gravel. He’s just the
kind of guy a Hollywood casting agent might pick out as a rocking-chair grandfather.
He’s 68, but his years haven’t slipped gently by. If his face is any indication, each year came
raging past him, taking more of his energy than he had to give.
Alton Fales is dying.
Harmless or not, dying or not, Washington still has to decide whether it wants Fales hobbling
among its free citizens. And in his race with mortality, that process may be a fatal roadblock.
Fales is number 266358 to the state, but he’s called Jack by the people he lives with, the
residents of the Ahtanum View Correctional Complex.
It’s a prison. But it’s not the kind of place conjured up by the word. No razor wire or guard
towers. No cages. No uniformed officers with hard eyes.
Ahtanum is an assisted-living prison, like a nursing home with tall fences. It’s where old and
infirm convicts are sent when they can’t hack life in Washington’s toughest lockups. It’s an
unusual place. Not only is it one-of-a-kind in the state, it’s among only a handful like it in the
Jack lives here. He doesn’t want to die here, so he runs a slow-motion foot race with death, seeing
if he can make it to Ahtanum’s front door first. Jack, locked up this time for two decades, would
like a little time on the outside before his cancer finishes him.
That’s the idea of Ahtanum, really. It’s supposed to be a place that prepares and moves these
weak and unhealthy inmates back into the world. This is its formal mission: “Provide a diverse
offender population with opportunities that will enhance their successful transition into the
But it doesn’t always work out that way. Often, the old guys perish before they can walk or
wheel themselves into society.
Some are just never ready. Some can’t find a home to go to.
There’s no doubt Jack is fading. He doesn’t look so hot these days. He’s traded his neat, carefully
combed white hair for a shaven scalp. He decided to keep it bald after starting the chemotherapy
again. He’d rather have no hair than watch it fall out.
“I’ll Play It Your Way’
Number 225496 looks like an old cowboy.
Don Majors claims his big, white mustache is supposed to call to mind a British military officer
of yesteryear, but it makes him look like he walked off a cattle drive a hundred years ago. Of
course, with surgical pins holding his back together and with the rest of his insides quitting on
him, horseback is the last place he should be.
His voice could fit a cowboy, too. It sounds like it’s got a million dusty miles on it. But it could
also be the voice of a Chicago tough, somebody used to enforcing orders from crime lords - which
is closer to the mark.
Much closer, if you ask him.
But that was a long time ago, those days in Chicago and New York. If Don had ever kept an
address book of his life, he’d be the first to suggest you’d find in it a dozen or more Italian
surnames that you’d have little problem recognizing.
Genovese. Gambino, maybe. Provensano.
Checking out the entry under “Majors, Don,” you’d find a man who never seemed to last
anywhere long - unless he was locked up there. The list of crossed-out addresses would look like
the top 10 spots a mother might name to scare her wayward children straight.
Leavenworth. Folsom. McNeil Island. Lompoc. Alcatraz. Prisons of the damned.
You could say Majors was trouble since he started shaving. After high school in Oregon, he
turned the “Go West” expression on its ear. It was Chicago for him, and points beyond. And a
life of underworld enterprise.
Now he’s here. He’s 79 and sick. He wants out. He thinks a little more about God. This is what
Don has to say to his creator these days:
“Whatever you want. From now on, I’ll play it your way.”
Nobody’s surprised to see the orchards, stretching out in ordered rows. They’ve been here, west
of Yakima, since the Valley got irrigation.
They’re still here, along Washington Avenue, along 64th Avenue. They still produce the fruit this
spot in the world is best known for.
But there’s a brick tower lifting itself above the treeline over there, not far south of the
intersection. Certainly not a farmhouse or barn or even silo. That’s Ahtanum View, and it’s a
A work-release center has been there since the 1970s, but the 8-acre site was expanded to go
beyond a holding place for inmates with outside jobs. Five years ago, an old county hospital
became something new - an Ellis Island for the tired, huddled, disabled masses of the state prison
From 64th Avenue, the complex looks like it could be just another government building, or maybe
a standard nursing home, complete with flowers and a well-kept lawn out front. A closer look
reveals high fences and security lights.
Beyond the front lobby is a security station, hemmed in by security glass and security monitors.
Through the first heavy door, there are administrative offices off to the right. Past the next door,
This isn’t Walla Walla’s penitentiary. It isn’t Clallam Bay or Monroe. There are no cellblocks
here. In almost every sense, this place looks a lot like a nursing home.
As Jack says of its occupants, “These men are not dangerous no more.” In fact, he says, “You
take the fences down, ain’t nobody gonna go anywhere.”
Most of the 125 inmates live in dormitories. Those with more serious needs have shared or single
Inmate movement doesn’t show the heavy stamp of officer-barked orders here. One can amble to
Of course, not everybody who lives here is capable of ambling. Many are in wheelchairs or lean
on canes. Some are stuck in beds. The ones who are liveliest are the younger guys known around
here as the “well crew,” meaning they’re well enough to do some of the heavy maintenance and
other work the prison needs to stay self-sufficient.
Ahtanum has a few living “units,” or stretches of hallway, each equipped with television-
occupied day rooms. The older guys gripe some about the young ones controlling what gets
shown on those communal TVs. But that’s the might-makes-right way of prison, and most are
used to it.
If professional wrestling or the Mariners game doesn’t appeal, inmates can head out to The Yard.
Rolling Their Own
The Yard could be a city park anywhere. Big, leafy trees throw shade across the grass. Flowers
teem outside the greenhouse. But this isn’t Sunday in the park, and there’s not much joy here.
Even those who till the soil and work the big garden do so deliberately, intensely. And those who
sit or stand, assuming positions of relaxation, they have a tension to them. It’s the same look you
might see in a penned animal, in a corral of wild horses too worn out and scared to fight their
confinement. They’re here because there’s nowhere else to be in their tiny world.
They often spend this social time griping about the thousand ways they think they’re cheated by
Ahtanum and the system. They’re swindled by the store that delivers weekly personal groceries.
The prison is skimming money from their accounts. The medical staff is robbing them of needed
More than anything, though, The Yard is a place to smoke.
Cigarettes are serious business at Ahtanum. Don jokes that you could trade six cigarettes for a
steak, and the steak-giving inmate would gladly cook it for you.
With the price of cigarettes, and the 35 cents an hour earned by those with prison jobs, nobody is
very eager to give up a flake of tobacco. And certainly that kind of cash doesn’t allow for the
luxury of Marlboros. No, these are roll-your-own smokes, courtesy of the small drums of Top
tobacco so many inmates keep in their lockers.
Don doesn’t smoke since he had an aneurysm a few years back, but Jack is among this lot,
dragging Top smoke past age-yellowed teeth, deep into his lungs. In his croaking voice, he
complains that this is “the world’s worst environment for quitting smoking.”
A chain-link fence stretches around this main part of The Yard. Beyond it, just a dozen feet from
Ahtanum’s grounds, are orchard trees, more laden with fruit as each summer day passes.
Sometimes, when Jack looks out there, orchard workers are looking back.
They’re close, but they’re in a different world.
If Jack’s smoking at about 4 in the afternoon, familiar intercom chimes fill the air, signaling
inmates to return to living quarters. He takes the last few puffs and heads into E - the medical unit
where he lives.
Inside, the smoke still on his breath, he starts up a machine that turns medication into a mist he
can inhale. He takes puff after puff of medicine, easing his sickness-wasted lungs.
Seven times a day, each of these men with a number is counted again.
Count is another tick on the regimented schedule of life inside. Two a.m. Four a.m. Six a.m.
Eleven thirty a.m. Four fifteen p.m. Nine thirty p.m. Eleven p.m. Bing bing bing. “Five minutes
until formal count.”
Be in your spot, somewhere near your bed. That’s the rule. Like with any rule, there’s some
Those who complain about these kinds of rules, these rules that tell them exactly where to be at
what time, they’re often the first to make their own routines.
In the cafeteria, many cling to the age-old prison custom of claiming a seat and sticking to it, three
meals a day. Especially the old guys, like Jack and Don.
Jack sits with his back to a window. He doesn’t eat much lately. He can’t keep much down. He
drinks milk. He’ll eat ice cream. Though some days he can stomach stew, other days he can’t take
much more than plain bread.
A lot of the inmates complain about the food, that there’s not enough and that what they get isn’t
so good, but that’s not Jack’s concern. He feels good when he can eat like everybody else and
then not throw up.
Hank Williams Lives
A few months back, prisoners here got a new right - the right to bear guitars. It’s all acoustic, and
Don is usually mixed in, lending his mandolin to the country-music fray.
The guys come alive when they’re playing. They turn into the good ol’ boys they might have
been if things had gone differently. Ten or 20 years slide off their brows, and they cast off the
blank look of the tired convict.
For a few minutes here, an hour there, they find a little freedom inside their cage.
Paul Howard is belting out his dead-ringer Hank Williams voice, even when singing a Merle
“I’ve written 600 songs,” he’s claimed. “I can sit down and write a song in five minutes. But they’
re all sad.”
Across from Paul, the guitar band strums along.
Paul loses track of a verse. A crinkle of the forehead and a smile.
In his southern tone: “How does that’un go, anyhow?”
It all looks free and easy, but even this musical liberation had to be fought for. After requests
from the men who played in their past lockups, the administration approved music in March. It
wasn’t an obvious or inevitable decision, and though the band plays on, its members know this
boon could end if there’s any trouble.
It comes with rules, too. No electrical instruments - just strings and wind. No dedicated music
room. And you can’t play just anywhere.
But rules aside, this music is something powerful to them, something much more than simple
country chords and harmony. It’s no different than a man might do with his time on the other side
of the fence.
But these sessions don’t last forever. There’s always The Count to get to, or whatever else. And
they pack up their instruments and get back to their beds.
“A Yard and a Half’
In his two-man cell, in the relative quiet of the upstairs hall, Don has a lot to think about.
He’s here for second-degree murder, on a King County case. He’s responsible for a 50-year-old
man’s body dumped in Blewett Pass in 1974 - a bullet hole in his head.
Don pleaded guilty. That plea was part of an elaborate deal in which several other states across
the country would drop their own criminal charges against him.
Don has, in the past, been a pretty bad guy. He’s lived by the sword, an occasionally violent
outlaw. Sometimes he’s been caught at it.
The way he puts it, “I’ve got a record a yard and a half long.”
It goes back to 1947, and there aren’t many gaps. Concealed weapon. Bad Checks. Kidnapping.
Armed robbery. Fugitive. Grand Larceny.
The list ends in 1979, when he faced a California gun charge and, once he was held over there,
eventually had to answer to a big charge from 1974 in Washington.
So he “went down,” as they say, with the granddaddy of sentences: Life.
It would be the longest stretch of time in his dubious career, and he’s still paying it off one hour
at a time. Now when he talks about the man he was, he says he’s ashamed of much of that life
and that he’s different now. That other world is far behind him.
Though he came from a good family, “poor but honest,” Don’s chosen world - or underworld,
really - was populated by larger-than-life criminals and the nefariously powerful.
“I liked the glamour of it,” he admits.
It began, he might say, when he worked for a Chicago Democratic boss. He stuffed ballot boxes.
He pressured votes. It was like a game for young Don and his fast friends.
“I’m good at swingin’ elections,” he says now, with the look of mischief on his face that must
have set up camp there in the middle of the last century. “There’s all kinds of dirty tricks, and I
learned a lot of them.”
As he got older, as his connections grew, he would be called on to do little jobs and favors for the
infamous. But he was never a lieutenant. He wasn’t a boss. He was low man on the totem pole,
“a general flunky.” He might get call girls for bigwigs. He might drive them around. Once in a
while, he’d act as muscle. He became good at - to put it gently - convincing people to share his
employer’s point of view.
Most of his life outside prison he held down pretty standard jobs, like construction and truck
driving. But that kind of work didn’t hold him in check for long. Neither did his three children or
“I’ve had some high, high times ... tossing money around, living it up.”
Then the hammer would come down, and he’d do three years in some place like Folsom or
Vacaville, Calif., for taking a guy “for a ride” into the country, threatening him at the behest of
some boss or another and then taking his car. Or maybe he’d do a few years of federal time for
carrying grenades and a fully automatic rifle with a silencer.
For these things, for how he turned out, he doesn’t blame anybody but himself.
“Everything I did was on me.”
“A Change of Lifestyle’
In 1982, Jack was having a hard time of it in Florida. He and his wife couldn’t make their marriage
work. The rest of his life wasn’t much of a success, either. So he turned his eyes west and chose
what seemed to Florida eyes the farthest corner America had to offer.
The Georgia native, a marine mechanic and former member of the Marine Corps, headed out to
the Northwest, to Washington.
Behind him, he was leaving a lifetime of trouble. A childhood in institutions, where he suffered
brutalities he scarcely wants to talk about these days. Parents who didn’t seem to want him
“I wanted a quiet life. I didn’t quite make it.”
His life before his exodus was spent more inside institutions than out, from state boys’ homes to
But then, in October 1982, the 48-year-old arrived in Washington, rolling into Longview.
“I wanted a change of lifestyle,” he says. “I really wanted to get into something decent.”
He’d met a guy on a Greyhound. They talked. Jack was broke. They agreed they’d rob a bank
together, a First Interstate Bank.
Early in the morning, they went to the bank manager’s house. Jack, gun in hand, held the manager’
s wife and kids hostage while his partner, by the name of Bassham, took the man to the bank to
get money before it opened.
It was $65,000 in a bag. But Bassham dropped the manager back at his house and sent him inside
with only $5,000 for Jack. Jack’s partner then hit the road, so Jack was left with a house full of
hostages, $5,000 and no car.
He checked out the family’s Volkswagen van, but he couldn’t figure out how to get it into reverse,
so he took the woman of the house as a driver, still in her night clothes.
Local police picked them up within minutes. His partner would get caught later in Florida.
Jack was given a 40-year sentence, with a 21-year minimum. He spent much of the time since
then in a fury.
Until he almost died.
225496 and 266358
Don Majors and Alton “Jack” Fales have seen all corners of Washington, or at least the far
corners of its correctional buildings.
They’ve known each other for years. They both talk about corrections officers and staff like most
people talk about uncles and cousins.
They remember Joop DeJonge, Ahtanum’s superintendent, from when he started work in the
prisons a long time ago.
“I’ve known Joop DeJonge since he was a counselor,” Majors says, holding his hand out at chest
level, as if describing a child’s height.
DeJonge says the same of them, always calling them Mr. Majors and Mr. Fales, in the tradition
of corrections people. He says he grew up with these men.
Finally, five years ago, the state put him in charge of a facility with a new concept. Ahtanum
would welcome men like Jack and Don. They would be brought out from the tough worlds of the
major prisons. They’d be given a chance at a safer prison life and made ready to go back to the
outside world, finally.
Getting Jack and Don back into society is exactly why Ahtanum exists.
But in the case of these two men, one of them may never see that day.
The Other End of Life—‘Never Meant to Win’
By JESSE HAMILTON
Sitting in the back seat, Alton “Jack” Fales watches the city drift past the car window. He takes
in the sights of West Yakima, drinking in this scenery like it’s an oasis and he’s been crawling
across a boiling desert.
He shifts in his seat.
“Bob, I don’t like your seat belts,” he says to his driver up front. “They suck.”
Jack gripes a bit about the heat. He tells Bob in his southern voice, made gruff by burden and
cancer, that he wouldn’t buy one of these cars, a minivan. They wouldn’t be much good for trips
through the deserts of the Southwest, he says, though both men know Jack will never make such
a trip, never be in any position to buy a minivan.
Then Jack asks Bob if he remembers the vents car makers used to put in windows.
“That was in the ‘50s, Jack.”
Oh, right. True enough.
More than anything outside this window, Jack marvels at the other cars on the road. He doesn’t
recognize most of them. He hasn’t had much of a chance to see them. He’s been locked up for
most of 20 years. And he was in and out of prison for most of his life before that.
He’s an inmate at Ahtanum View Correctional Complex. It’s a small, specialized prison west of
Yakima. Its mission is to house older and sick inmates who can’t make it in the major prisons
anymore. Jack is one of them. He’s 68 and wasting away from cancer. That’s why he’s in the
minivan now, heading to a chemotherapy appointment with Officer Bob Morales at the wheel.
Unlike other prisons in Washington and unlike the vast majority of prisons around the country,
Ahtanum transports its inmates with little security - no handcuffs, no special jumpsuits, no
shield between passenger and driver.
“Look at them beautiful homes,” Jack says, drinking in Lincoln Avenue.
These several minutes, the drive from Ahtanum’s side door to the cancer center, is his chance to
see the world. On these trips, Jack is excited, like a schoolboy walking from his last class before
When he gets to the treatment center, he’s almost giddy. He has an exchange with the woman at
the front counter. He goes and gets a cup of coffee. He sits in the entryway couch, picking up a
magazine, flipping through it. He’s misplaced his glasses, so he can only look at the pictures.
Then he’s called back to the chemo area. Once there, he’s a Tazmanian Devil of hugs and hellos.
He loves the nurses here at the Yakima Regional Cancer Care Center on 16th Avenue. He
especially likes Joyce Raglin, and he informs her of it when the tall nurse drops by.
This is a place, though designed to be as pleasant as possible, that is dreaded by cancer patients.
It’s here they get the chemo treatments that temporarily wreck their bodies almost as thoroughly
as the sickness. But to Jack, this is the highlight of his week.
He takes a seat and introduces himself to the patient beside him, a woman named Pam Doyle with
the kind of short hair seen so often in cancer treatment. They talk shop. He owns up to being a
She says, “We’re all in the same boat.” A cancer patient is a cancer patient, whatever their
address, she seems to say. Pam can understand a little of his enthusiasm for this place.
“We get really close here. You’re interacting with people that know what you’re going through.”
Jack is nervous about nurse Jean Gunderson sticking him with a needle. She does it quickly while
he grimaces - a rare look at his bad teeth.
In a chair several feet behind him sits Bob, reading a magazine, not terribly concerned about Jack
making a run for it. Jack feels pretty sick, and he’s in some pain. But he accepts a handful of hard
candy offered by a nurse. He’s happy. He’s escaped from prison for the afternoon.
An hour later, Don Majors, a fellow inmate, is making a similar trip from Ahtanum, for a hearing-
aid adjustment. Though he’s been locked up longer than Jack, whom he’s known for many years,
he keeps a calm demeanor on the ride. He does watch the scenery closely, and shows as much
interest in the new cars as Jack had. Don calls them “a little bit radical.”
Don says he likes these trips, because they help him get ready for the outside world, which he
hasn’t been a part of since the 1970s.
One time, he saw a sign for $10 haircuts. He couldn’t believe it.
“I’m used to a buck and a quarter.”
Thinking on that a bit, he jokes, “I should become a hairdresser.”
But the 79-year-old won’t hold any kind of job if the parole board lets him out. He’s grown too
old in prison to work. He’s been in so long.
In all that time, his trips to the outside used to mean manacles and prison overalls. Everybody
Ahtanum’s methods came as a surprise. A very pleasant surprise. This way, he said, people don’
t even know who you are.
How Long Life?
When Don looks in the mirror, he knows what a life sentence looks like. The convicted killer, the
one-time outlaw whose stories of his former life invariably include mob connections: He’s gotten
He leans on a cane. It hurts him to sit down too long. It hurts him to stand up. His weak heart
could quit. His liver cancer could come storming back.
“I don’t know how long I’m gonna make it,” he says, having just had a scare the day before - a
sharp pain in his heart and some dizziness.
His life sentence can be over if the state parole board wants it to be. His minimum sentence has
passed. The board already found him “conditionally paroleable.” His last step is finding an
address on the outside that sounds good to the prison, parole board and the community
He could get out in two months. He could be in another two years, or longer. The maximum end
of his sentence is his death.
Jack’s situation is different. Though he’s in on a lesser charge than Don, it’s possible that he’ll die
at Ahtanum. Some, in fact, consider it likely.
He’s in his third bout with chemo. He’s got a bad heart. He’s lost something like 30 pounds in his
time in prison, and more pounds are slipping off all the time. He’s dying. He thinks he has a
couple of years left, maybe, which is close to when his early release date comes around.
So, he’s trying instead to get an emergency medical placement - to get out because of his failing
health, so he can die a free man.
But for those whose opinions matter, he might not be close enough to death.
“Find a Place and You Can Go’
It’s the impossible dream at Ahtanum. A lot of the guys here are ready to go. Their punishments
are no longer the reason they’re held. They’re left with one single thing to accomplish before they
can walk out of here: They need to find a new home.
As Don put it, “They say “Find a place, and you can go.’”
The other day, in the prison’s little inmate-run library, some of the guys talked about addresses.
One man had been looking for a year and a half. He just got rejected again, and since he’s got
nobody on the outside pulling for him, he relies on the overworked counselors at Ahtanum to
track down a place for him.
Don has an advantage. He’s got a daughter in Quincy trying to find him a spot, maybe in
Not too long ago, she found one. It was a gospel mission with some living space for the
downtrodden. His daughter went there at the suggestion of a state community-corrections officer.
It seemed good enough to help Don get on his feet and find himself a little apartment with his
Social Security checks.
Don submits it as his address. For weeks, he talks about living there. He wants to play his
mandolin and do some singing for them. He’s ready to take on chores to earn his keep.
The other day, he gets word the same office that had suggested the place went out and found it
“Nobody out there wants anybody on parole,” Don says after he hears the news. But he says he’
ll try to stay positive.
“If I don’t have this address, I’ll have another one.”
Chris Glenn, the program manager at Ahtanum, says he is aware of how badly this part of the
“There’s nothing out there,” he says, barely exaggerating the situation in which halfway houses,
missions and low-income houses get more scarce every day for an increasing number of ex-cons.
“It’s pretty frustrating for us, too.”
For Don, Glenn admits, “This carrot could get dangled for a long time.”
At least he has the daughter. Don actually had three kids with his first wife. She’s still alive and in
the Northwest, remarried for a long time. His second wife - whom he married in the King County
jail - died in the 1980s, in Chicago. His daughter, the one who visits him, is the only one actively
fighting for him on the outside.
If Jack is ever found paroleable by the board, he won’t even have the family help that Don has.
His daughter in Tenino hasn’t come to see him since 1994. Nobody has, except chaplins and
Jack talks about his daughter, but he knows it’s not an option to live with her family when he
gets out. The 68-year-old’s adult grandson has been in prison, too. There’s no way the board
would smile on these two living in the same house.
It used to be the parole board, but it’s most recent bureaucratic moniker is this mouthful:
Indeterminate Sentence Review Board. It represents the old way of handling convicts, basing
release decisions on rehabilitation and behavior, using minimum and maximum sentence lengths as
carrot and stick.
The group handles cases from before 1984, like Jack’s and Don’s. Cases after that date fall under
the reformed sentencing system, which gives every person the same time for the same crimes - an
attempt to even out the justice system.
So the old board continued as a transitional effort, still working to set loose these Rip Van
Winkles for a new millennium.
The number of inmates the board is responsible for decreases every year. In fact, the board was
supposed to be phased out in 1992, but it’s been extended to 2008.
That’s a long time for Jack and Don. They can pretty much count on being under the board’s
jurisdiction until they get out or get buried. Until the board gives them the OK, they’re not going
So every release request or corrections plan for them has to go through several layers in both the
Department of Corrections and the board. Paperwork comes out looking like the Declaration of
Independence, signatures all over it.
Until it lets somebody out, the board periodically holds hearings to check up on inmates.
John Austin, the board’s chairman, said, “Our decision is strictly: Is he rehabilitated and ready for
At Don’s last hearing, he was found paroleable - “a medium risk for violence and reoffense.” At
Jack’s, his report said this: “The Board still believes he is too high of a risk to be released into the
community and the only responsible decision remains to continue to find him not paroleable.”
So, for the murderer, pending freedom. For the bank robber, more time.
Tech Support and Mandolin
Don doesn’t have grand plans when he gets out of here. They’re only as grand as a Social Security
check can secure for him.
He’d like to do some good, he says. But mostly he’d like to retreat into a simple life in which he
can sit down and write a memoir.
For a little extra money, he might assemble and upgrade computers. The 79-year-old is computer
savvy. He learned it at the big prisons. Computers and running the law library were his claims to
So he’d like to tinker with computers, although he doesn’t know the first thing about the Internet
- something he can’t access as an inmate.
He’d also like to play a little music, maybe with a church choir. He’ll read, too. He’s an avid
reader. He even likes poetry.
There’s a line from a poem he recites from memory. It’s about a woman, but it sounds like it
could be written to his corrections overseers:
“Lead me to books and wine and memories.
Not a thing you have to give will equal these.”
His collection of ailments doesn’t leave him much more energy and ability than for the pursuit of
books and memory, and he says he’s ready for when his bad health kills him. But he’s beaten
death before, and seen a miracle, he believes.
In 1984, he had liver cancer - two tumors devouring his insides. The pain was bad, and he was
told he’d have two months to live.
He spent two years in an infirmary bed. In the outside world, his second wife died, but he was
too close to death himself to deal with it fully.
“I just kept layin’ there and layin’ there.”
At the end of two years, he says a medical test of his liver found only scars where the tumors
were. A miracle for him.
Later, an aneurysm almost killed him again. He was unconscious for 17 days and lost 47 pounds.
His retellings are often filled with such specifics. Details rule in prison.
Don’s memory is long, but it jumps around like a cricket when you talk to him, so you’re never
sure where it’ll land.
One memory he brings up is about the time he was passing through Oregon. He decided to drop
in on a girl he remembered as a high-school beauty. He knocked on Faye’s door, and when she
answered, he regretted having done so. She’d lost every scrap of the beauty he remembered, and
seeing her darkened that ideal memory he’d kept of her.
His moral: “You cannot go back.”
So, does that go for returning to the world, too?
No, he says. “I’m preparing myself.”
“I’ve been reading the papers like crazy.”
He scans the ads.
“How much is a dozen eggs?”
“A loaf of bread?”
“What’s a head of lettuce worth?”
“Not Ready to Quit’
There’s a movie about prison life called “The Shawshank Redemption.” In it, an old con gets
released after a lifetime behind bars. In prison, he was important. Outside, he’s just a broken old
man. He can’t make it, so he hangs himself.
Jack mentions that scene. But he says that’s not him.
“I’m not ready to quit.”
When Jack talks about outside life, he sometimes seems frantic. He’ll volunteer here. He’ll pitch
in on helping his family there. Maybe he’ll live in Yakima to be close to his doctors. Maybe he’ll
decide to go to Washington’s west side to be near his family.
He thinks he could help kids stay straight. He thinks he could give a hand to fellow cancer
patients. He says he wants a chance to do something good before he dies.
But his effort to get an emergency medical placement is a Catch-22. He wants to do so much
when he gets out, but he probably won’t get out as long as he’s well enough to get anything done.
“You don’t want to put a dangerous person out there - even if it’s just six months,” Chris Glenn
said. Of Jack: “We don’t want to dash his hopes, but we don’t want to make him think he’s
getting out soon, either.”
If Glenn personally had to decide whether to let Jack out, he said, “I wouldn’t right now. He’s
Jack says he’s neither. He’s got bad lungs, throat cancer, colon cancer and an ongoing heart
condition that’s required major surgery. And he doesn’t intend to do wrong any more, he says.
But Glenn says you have to consider the state’s point of view. It has an inmate who’s been in
trouble since 1943 and has never made it long without breaking the law. What makes him any
different now? That’s the question the state needs to answer.
Jack admits he hasn’t had much of a normal life. His best time was after a long stretch in Florida
prisons. He got out and worked on boats, work he’s always liked.
“The happiest three years of my damn life,” he says. “I had three good years. I’d like to have a
In the past, he’d always found himself in trouble again and back inside the cages he hates.
“I don’t like these places, don’t like nothing in them.”
With his life, he figures, “I could have done a hell of a lot better.”
But he made his last mistake in 1982, kidnapping a bank manager’s family while his partner
robbed the bank.
“They deserved better than they got from me,” he says. “That’s the worst I ever done.”
He thinks about it a lot, but he believes there’s “no way to make amends to them,” so he also
tries to look ahead. He lives week by week. He looks forward to the good things, like the time he
can spend out on medical appointments.
On those outings, “I forget,” he says. “This place just doesn’t exist.”
Ready to go to an appointment recently, Jack stood in a hall and waited to be escorted to a car.
An officer, Allen Clark, ribbed him about being dressed up. When the officer caught a whiff of
cologne, he laughed.
“He even smells pretty.”
“A Man Who Won’t Fit In’
Don quit smoking after the aneurysm. He never did drink much. As for getting work in organized
crime, that’s not likely with his back held together by pins.
He’s a different guy now. For one thing, he’s one of Ahtanum’s Humpty Dumptys who can’t
physically be put back together again. Plus, even if he wanted to mix back in with his kings of the
underworld when he gets out, he says he can’t.
“Every one of them is dead and gone now.”
So he stokes the embers of small dreams, and this tough guy feels “a little anxious.”
He mostly just waits. He reads. He sleeps. He crochets.
Crocheting is big with him. He’s made dozens of scarves and hats for Ahtanum’s residents. He
sits there in the two-bed cell. His crochet hook dances slowly, deliberately through donated yarn.
He twists a chain of knots, carefully joined together, a degree of order and precision he never
could nail down for his outside life.
Every once in a while, some guy in here will make a smart remark about his crocheting, about his
manhood. He says it doesn’t worry him. He says he’s done enough time in awful places to feel
secure enough in that department.
Anyway, his manhood is a secondary concern these days. It’s not like he has to woo any women,
to pursue romance anymore. He says his catheter has put a stop to those ideas.
Now he just goes through the motions, trying to keep up some hobbies until his life can begin
again outside. He sits and watches three shifts of guards keep track of him. He doesn’t think he’s
“I knocked somebody off to get in here,” he admits, but that doesn’t mean he’s an evil robot
without hope. “You don’t lose your humanity just because you’re locked up.”
He thinks about that idea a little, tries to come up with an example for his point. Then here it
comes, with a smile:
“I cried when Old Yeller died.”
No, Don isn’t the world’s most sensitive man. He’s lived hard and is still paying for it.
He likes a poem by Robert Service and thinks it could have been written for him. The end goes
“He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in.”
“An Appalling Lack of Insight’
Jack sits in what they call the legal room. He’s here every day, typing away at a word processor.
While Don crochets scarves, Jack sweats over the legal papers he hopes will save his life - or at
least the little he’s got left of it.
He’s working on an argument he’s sending to the U.S. Supreme Court. He wants the justices to
agree with him that Washington miscalculated his sentence a long time ago and he should have
been out in 1989. So, he argues, it shouldn’t be held against him that he escaped from prison for
six months in 1990, because he shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
This is one of his chief hopes, along with the medical placement. He works hard at it. He has
hope. What could be a more golden hope than being set scot-free by the highest court in the land?
He thinks that’s just what he deserves.
“I may have been a son-of-a-bitch at one time, but I’m not no more.”
The rest of his time, he shuffles around, making do with Ahtanum. The chemo’s got him feeling
poorly. On his locker, a sign: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
But then again, it was the sickness that changed him. When he almost died, when his heart tried to
quit in 1987, he got wise, he says.
“It terrified me. How did I get this way? Why did I get this way?”
He wanted to be better, he says. He even made some peace with God, with the help of Chaplin
Shannon O’Donnell at Washington Corrections Center in Shelton.
She’s seen men like him, desperate to repent at the end.
“There was a time when he was the old man on the cell block and people looked up to him. He
says, “Now I haven’t got time to talk about war stories. I’ve got other things to get ready for.’”
She sees Jack’s medical-placement effort as his “something to hang on to.”
“Even if it’s been home for 30 years, dying in prison’s not anybody’s first choice.”
But he’s not dead yet. In fact, there are men worse off, men who are more vulnerable. His best
friend, Earl, is in a wheelchair. Their beds aren’t too far from each other, and Jack gives the other
man what help he can. Jack talks about Earl pretty frequently. He says friends need to be
Another of his friends, this one a young guy named Lyle Glidewell, shaves his head for him every
three days. Jack doesn’t want chemo knocking the hair into his food.
He’s got a few friends inside, but Jack is lonely. He says he’d like a pen pal out in the world,
somebody he could talk to a little.
He probably wouldn’t write much about his fears, like the one he has of the room down a little
hallway in E unit. That’s where people are taken to die. He’s seen it happen.
With a parole board that says he has “an appalling lack of insight into his own criminal behavior,”
he knows he might not get out. And if he doesn’t, he knows that room waits for him.
So he thinks about religion, and he believes that God has some kind of plan for him, some
purpose for his life. He’s sure there’s something he’s supposed to get done.
“I just wanna know what it is.”