Harvey Stewart, 83, first entered the Texas prison system in 1951 to serve a 10-year stint for robbing a junk yard. Paroled six years later, he returned in 1958 following a murder conviction. Stewart escaped in 1965 and was recaptured a few days later. In 1984 he made parole, but was re-incarcerated in 1986 on a new robbery charge. Of Texas' approximately 166,000 state prisoners, he has served the most amount of time – close to 60 years in total.
Stewart was one of the longest-serving prisoners in the country. New York has kept James Moore, 78, in prison since he was convicted of murder in 1963. California prisoner Booker Hillery, 82, was first convicted of rape in 1955, then returned to prison in 1962 after being convicted of murder while on parole. Norman Parker, Florida's longest-serving prisoner, has been behind bars since 1967.
Stewart still recalls how he robbed brothels in Southwest Texas in his youth. He was also shot, and murdered a man in what he claims was self-defense. But he doesn't romanticize about the consequences of his criminal past.
"Imagine that, sixty years down in this damn hole," Stewart said when he was interviewed at the Beto Unit. "I wouldn't recommend it. Man's got to be a damn fool to even stick his foot in here."
Texas officials approved Stewart's parole in April 2011, but said he would not be released until space is found for him either at a halfway house or a nursing home. He had nowhere else to go, having outlived most if not all of his relatives. He couldn't remember seeing a visitor in over a decade. Nonetheless, Stewart believes his days of criminality are at an end.
"I'm too damn old to do any robbing," he said. "I think I am anyway. My old ticker might kick out on me."
Experts have commented on how difficult it is for long-term prisoners to adjust to freedom when they are eventually released following decades in prison.
"It really is cognitively and emotionally taxing, even though it is simple decisions you and I do every day without thinking," according to Dr. Gaylene Armstrong, research director of the Correctional Management Institute of Texas at Sam Houston State University. "These folks are not used to making those decisions.... If you think of just the last five years what's changed for us: smart phones; [there] not being [any] pay phones; self-checkouts at grocery stores; ATMs; how to do things online. Even folks who have been off the streets for just a few years, that's all new to them."
So what does Stewart want to do when he gets out?
"You think I want to get involved in some sex and get drunk?" he asked testily. No, he just wants "a good easy-going meal and a root beer. I said ROOT beer," he exclaimed.
What will he miss about prison?
"You ever run into a fence post or something?" Stewart asked. "You miss it?" When Stewart first entered Texas' prison system in 1951, stamps cost $.03, there were only 48 states and Harry Truman was president.
Another long-term prisoner, Betty Smithey, 69, was released from the Arizona Department of Corrections on August 14, 2012. The nation's longest-serving female prisoner, she had spent 49 years in prison until Governor Jan Brewer granted clemency and reduced her life-without-parole sentence for a 1963 homicide.
"It's wonderful driving down the road and not seeing any barbed wire," Smithey said following her release. "I am lucky, so very lucky." [See: PLN, Dec. 2012, p.50].
However, other prisoners who have served lengthy prison terms have not been so "lucky" to be released after spending almost their entire adult lives behind bars. While they have left prison, it has been in body bags rather than via parole.
On March 5, 2012, William George Heirens, an infamous murderer known as the "Lipstick Killer," died at the Dixon Correctional Center in Illinois. Heirens, 83, had served over 65 years in prison for the gruesome murders of two women in late 1945 and a six-year-old girl in January 1946. He reportedly confessed to the crimes but later recanted and said he was "forced to lie to save myself" by accepting a plea bargain for consecutive life sentences rather than facing the death penalty.
At the time of his death, Heirens suffered from diabetes and used a wheelchair.
And on May 19, 2013, Florida death row prisoner Gary E. Alvord, 66, died due to a brain tumor; he was the state's longest-serving condemned prisoner, having spent almost 40 years on death row. Alvord, sentenced to death in 1974 after being convicted of a triple murder and rape, had avoided execution for so long – he outlived two death warrants – due to his mental health problems.
"Gary is a product of a sick system. He was a living example of why we should not have the death penalty.... I would love for the state of Florida to tell us how much money they wasted trying to kill a guy they couldn't kill," said his attorney, Bill Sheppard.
"At least he is released from that cell," added Alvord's wife, Brenda Brock. "I want to say I hope he didn't suffer. But he did suffer. His whole life was suffering."
Sources: Associated Press, www.theoaklandpress.com, New York Times, www.tampabay.com
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login