My wife, Brenda, and I were driving on Leestown Road in Lexington, Kentucky when we saw a large green sign with an arrow pointing to the Blackburn Correctional Complex, a 90-day, prerelease, male-only correctional unit.
Brenda casually mentioned she had once worked inside those prison walls. She said in her senior year as a law enforcement/corrections and social work student at Eastern Kentucky University, she was completing her required field placement practicum at the prison.
Brenda said all offenders incarcerated there were within 90 days of release from their stint in confinement. It wasn’t your “typical” penitentiary. There were, of course, restricted areas; men had their daily job assignments in the work release programs, and general lights out.
However, within the facility walls, the honor system was in place, and there was a lot of roaming about by the offenders. They designed their time at Blackburn to help reintegrate them back into civilian life and society.
The staff assigned Brenda as a student counselor, responsible for conducting counseling and therapy sessions with both individuals and groups, under the supervision of full-time counseling staff.
“There were many habitual criminals at Blackburn, with rap sheets as long as your arm,” she said.
Over the time she worked at Blackburn, although allowed, Brenda said she never felt compelled to look at any rap sheets until near the end of her tenure there. Until she met an offender by the nickname of HOG.
HOG was not a typical prisoner. She said she doesn’t remember his real name. Everyone there just called him HOG. It wasn’t a nice name, but no one used it in a derogatory way. Ironically, most spoke it in a very endearing way. An oxymoron of sorts.
HOG was a tall, overgrown, older man, well into his 60s, with a quiet demeanor unlike any other there.
HOG was a habitual offender. He had become acculturated to the prison environment so much so that for many years, each time he was within a few weeks of being released from Blackburn, he would commit a minor violation of the rules purposefully just to garner more prison time.
He was a shy man, strong and towering in appearance. From the muscles showing from under the sleeve of his cotton T-shirt, one could see he was burly and solid, but his gentle spirit made him appear almost childlike.
Brenda said he was school boyish in his fondness for her, smiling profusely, offering to do errands of any kind to help her during the day.
They did not enroll HOG in the work release program since they considered him too old to work.
The nagging question in Brenda’s mind persisted about what such a nice man could have done to have caused him to spend over 40 years in prison.
One evening, Brenda went to the file room and located his prison file. She glanced immediately at his “rap sheet.” There were several petty crimes, but then, there it was. Murder in the first degree.
Shocked and in disbelief, Brenda said she had to read more. His file provided the name of the victim, date and time of the murder, and other very cold details of the crime. But it didn’t explain what she needed to know.
During one of her last sessions with him, Brenda asked HOG if he minded telling her what had happened that he ended up in prison so many years ago.
In his simple, innocent way, he told her when he was just a young boy in grade school, he was “slow” and so backward that his teacher used to make fun of him all the time. He said she berated him in front of the other students, making him feel so badly and so embarrassed to the point that he quit school in the fourth grade.
He said for years and years he hated even the thought of the school teacher, and his anger festered.
One summer day, he said he became so upset he went to her home and he killed her.
Quiet fell over the space between them. For several minutes, with his head hanging low, HOG said nothing. Breaking the silence, Brenda said to him, looking him directly in the eyes, that it was over, and that many years ago he had paid the price for what he had done.
Now he needed to forgive himself, as others had done. She told him that even the memory of his teacher could not hurt him anymore unless he allowed it to.
Brenda said she didn’t know if HOG was able to grasp the concepts she had spoken, but said the familiar smile returned to his face when they finished their last session together.
Moving from the protection of the prison walls and the only world he had known throughout his adult life had always been too frightening a prospect for HOG to move to the outside world.
Eventually, HOG died there, at Blackburn.
Brenda said her sincere hope was that he died at peace with himself. He was a kind man.
Except for one summer’s day.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County native and former county commissioner and sheriff.