“Three hots and a cot.” Old-timers use that phrase in reference to life in jail. They are guarantees, sometimes an improvement over life “outside.” Some guys will even get themselves arrested purposefully so that they can eat and rest their heads. However, there is usually a desire to leave. The freedom lost is not worth the trade-off. Not true for Walter Unbehaun. This is a man who realized that for him, prison is home.
The 73-year-old Unbehaun, from Rock Hill, South Carolina, has led a life of crime. He received his first conviction 50 years ago. He dropped out of high school, has fathered no children and his wife is deceased. After his last release from prison in 2011, Unbehaun languished in a trailer purchased for him by his sister. He passed the time watching television while he drew or painted pictures. He had just spent 11 years locked up for bank robbery, and when he was released, he left behind friends, routines and a world to which he had become accustomed. In short, he left behind his identity.
This is not uncommon. A huge portion of the US prison population is made up of men who do not know how to live outside of the routine and lifestyle offered in prison. Recidivism rates among released prisoners are staggering. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study done in 1994, of 272,111 released prisoners, 67.5 percent were arrested again, primarily for felonies, and 25.4 percent were sent to prison again for new crimes after only three years.
What makes Unbehaun’s case so unusual is that he admitted to committing yet another bank robbery in 2013 for the sole purpose of being sent back to prison. At his arraignment, Unbehaun told his attorney, Richard McLeese, “I just want to go home.” Initially the lawyer thought he meant that he wanted to bond out. It took him a few minutes to ascertain that what his client wanted was to be sentenced and sent back to prison, which he felt was his true home.
Luckily for him, the judge lent a sympathetic ear to his story. The judge, Sharon Johnson Coleman, will ensure that Unbehaun has easy access to mental health resources, particularly upon his release (he has been sentenced to 3 ½ years.) Though he wants to go “home,” he has stated that he does not want to die there.
The prosecutor, Sharon Fairley, was reluctant to give the defendant just what he wanted. However, she knew that he would be back at yet another bank, or perhaps doing something worse, if she did not ensure that he was convicted. She did admit that there may have been failings on the part of this nation’s systems of justice and incarceration.
Perhaps with the right guidance and help, Walter Unbehaun can find a niche for himself when he does leave prison life behind. Coleman told him that she was impressed with his talent for drawing. She also took into consideration Unbehaun’s request to be sent to a particular prison in southern Illinois. He said he liked their work programs.
Walter Unbehaun got what he wanted for now. Will that be enough? Will he get released and go through the same isolation and separation anxieties? It may just be that he will again want to return to prison, his home.
By Stacy Lamy