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Dangerous Freedom

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Bud heard the familiar music announcing the man’s arrival – heavy shoes thumping a bass rhythm on concrete, the high notes of jingling steel keys. Checking the clock on the cinderblock wall, he scowled.  

The prisoner absently stroked his whiskered chin as the uniformed guard appeared by his side.

“They’re ready.”

Refusing to be rushed, Bud placed his pencil on the table next to his legal pad, with its creased pages, scrawled notes and margin doodles, and gently closed the law book that had been the focus of his fierce attention.  

“Coming, boss.” 

The numbered man stood, combed his curly mop of dark brown hair with his fingers and extended his hands without being asked to do so. Cold steel enveloped his wrists. 

Guided by a firm hand on his shoulder, the inmate in baggy white coveralls and blue canvas slip-ons made his way out of the Idaho State Penitentiary law library, down a long Pine-Sol-scented passageway and through two security doors that buzzed open and slammed shut behind him with a guillotine-like thud.  

The final barrier had a small window and the corrections officer peered through it before giving a practiced nod to the closed-circuit camera. 


“Here we go,” the officer said in an aging Irishman’s baritone, roughened by cheap cigars. He pulled with some effort and the heavy door swung open.

“Here goes nothing,” Bud muttered.

Soon he was seated in a stark room that passed for a small auditorium. His bare wooden chair rested on an elevated platform that likely doubled as a stage. 

Facing him, two men in suits and a woman in a dress with a floral scarf draped over her shoulders sat at a table dotted with piles of thick file folders – the life stories of dangerous men. 

To his left he could see several rows of metal folding chairs, only one of which was occupied. His audience.

The convict didn’t recognize anyone. It had been nearly 10 years since he’d been in the room. He wondered what it was used for besides bullshit like this. Take Your Daughter to Work Day? Trivia night?

His escort had disappeared behind the security door, but another guard – about 20 years younger and twice as menacing – stood against a wall cradling a shotgun, positioned to take Bud out should the need arise.

The beige prison in the tumbleweed desert south of Boise was a security expert’s wet dream.

Ringing the two-story cellblocks and other structures were twin 12-foot-high chain-link fences topped with coils of flesh-slashing razor wire. In a barren strip between the barriers, salivating attack dogs prowled. Towering stands of light clusters covered every conceivable inch of ground and beyond them loomed seven watchtowers in which marksmen with high-powered rifles eagerly awaited a reason to shoot.

Escapes were rare. Most inmates who tried ended up dead. 

As he sat on his chair, Bud had no such ambitions, although a younger version of himself once dreamed of nothing else.

“Good morning, Mr. Baker,” the man in the middle said. “How are you today?”

“Peachy,” Bud snarled, wrinkling his nose as if an offending odor had wafted his way. 

“Good, good. Well, let’s get right to it, shall we?”  

He glanced at the stenographer, a thin woman in a cotton dress and librarian glasses. She smiled, signaling her readiness.

“This is the parole hearing for Wallace D. Baker, who is present. I am commission chairman Alex Cooper and with me today are commissioners Alice Witherspoon and Harley Johnson. We’ve all read the reports and are ready to proceed.” 

Cooper, wearing a double-breasted black suit and wielding a Mont Blanc pen that he frequently tapped on the table for emphasis, started with a dramatic recap. He spoke about a brazen robber who embarked on a one-man crime spree across a swath of the West that spanned four years, terrorizing dozens of people and culminating in the kidnapping of a woman at gunpoint in order to force her husband, a supermarket manager, to unlock the safe.

The robber was captured after a police chase and shootout in rural southwest Idaho that left a deputy dead, Cooper noted soberly.

The inmate yawned and noticed with some amusement that the grim men in the front row of the makeshift gallery disapproved. 

A leather-skinned Marlboro Man in a wheat-colored cowboy hat clenched his fists. The others shot lasers with their angry, narrow eyes.

Cooper droned on for several more minutes before saying something that caught Bud’s attention.

“… and the litigation, of course.”

The candidate for parole straightened. This was the part of the reality show he wanted to hear. The new stuff. 

After a rocky start to incarceration that involved sucker-punching a guard and spending six months in isolation, Bud had become something of a model prisoner. By the start of his fifth year and continuing to this day, his record had been clean. No more fights. No more contraband. No more willful rule-busting.

That was quite an accomplishment for a man who despised being told what to do and how to do it – especially by anyone with a badge – but it merely foreshadowed a much bigger transformation.

Bud learned to channel the raw power of his pent-up anger in a new direction. Dumbfounding everyone who had crossed his path, he became a champion for his fellow inmates.  

Putting a largely untapped but keen intellect to use, the high school dropout studied the law while behind bars – voraciously, like a starving man at a banquet table. At the same time, he learned how to gather evidence, allowing his naturally gregarious self to emerge. What he gleaned from conversations with inmates and corrections officers, he applied to the few outdated law books available to him.

And then, on behalf of the 880 souls imprisoned in the desert, he did the inconceivable: He sued the state in federal court on constitutional grounds, claiming its flagship prison was overcrowded and lacking in basic services. 

Somehow, some way, he won what would later be hailed by a criminal justice expert as “the single-most important prison reform case in Idaho history.”

“We’re keenly aware of your litigation in U.S. District Court … um … on behalf of the prison population,” Cooper continued, tapping his pen on news clippings in front of him. “The new maximum-security prison is under construction as we speak.”

Witherspoon whispered something in the chairman’s ear. 

“And your lawsuits that resulted in accreditation for the prison school and the expanded law library,” he said. “That is in the report – along with Mr. Baker’s more frivolous legal actions, such as the demand for a premium cable television package and smoking lounges.”

Bud allowed himself a mischievous grin. 

He’d been locked up for 25 years – half his life. 

In the early ‘90s, he was a rampaging criminal who earned a place on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list instead of a diploma. The sentencing judge called him a “menace.” Cops spit on him. 

Now his scruffy beard was sprinkled with gray. There were lines on his face, and in a perverse way they only made a mug framed by thick, corkscrew curls even more handsome. But his kind, soft-brown eyes reflected a growing void in his soul.

With every passing year, his hopes of getting out, of tasting freedom once more, dimmed – until there was only darkness in the tunnel that passed for his existence.

There’s zero chance of that changing today, he thought.


Bud’s transformation to jailhouse lawyer had given him an almost mythical status behind bars.

With each courtroom victory, the tales grew.

There were many theories posited about Bud’s motivation, but the truth was it had nothing to do with remorse or rehabilitation. The shaggy-haired prisoner in Unit 4 had not discovered Jesus either. He didn’t even set out to improve the lot of his fellow inmates. Not at first anyway.

It really started with a food fight.

Tensions had been rising for weeks because cells were being double- and sometimes triple-bunked. There were long lines to use pay phones and see visitors. Angry white inmates were being warehoused next to angry black and brown inmates.

The fuse was lit on Super Bowl Sunday at 3:25 p.m. when the prison’s cable TV went out. By dinner time, the mood had grown ugly. Officers began barking at the unruly cons and the cons were barking back.

Bud saw the Fritos fly, followed by hot dogs, and smiled. At least there would be some evening entertainment.

The riot lasted several hours and there were injuries on both sides, but what stuck in Bud’s head was the snippet of conversation between corrections officers he overheard on the way back to his cell.

“There’s too many of them. Too goddamn many,” one said, breathing hard.

“And more coming in. Lots more,” said the other.

“It’s gonna only get worse if the state keeps ignoring this crowding. Mark my words.”

“Yeah, but nobody gives a shit about these dirtbags, so here we are.”

The post-riot lockdown lasted a week, giving Bud plenty of time to lie on his thin mattress and think. It was one thing for inmates to complain about prison conditions – it was another thing entirely for guards to agree it was a problem.  

When the restrictions finally lifted, Bud managed to grab a seat in front of the one of the few computers available to inmates. He started reading up on prison overcrowding across the nation, which everyone seemed to agree was the inevitable result of a zero-tolerance war on drugs and ever-lengthening criminal penalties. 

An idea started forming in his brain. In other states, corrections departments were being sued. Why not here?

He began his legal research with one goal in mind: He simply wanted the state of Idaho to suffer. He craved a chance to make his captors feel his pain. In a court of law, he’d be a human being, not a number.

Fueled by bitterness, he wrote to the Idaho chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and, in an unwitting stroke of genius, did not beg for an attorney like all the other inmates. He merely asked the overburdened advocacy group what could be done about the dangerous conditions he was living in. 

They wrote back with suggestions about how he could bring such a case in federal court, attaching a copy of a similar suit filed in New Jersey.

They didn’t advise Bud to do it all himself, but that’s exactly what he did. Prisoners, he soon learned, have a fundamental constitutional right to use the court system to address civil rights violations and often have no choice but to represent themselves in pro se petitions, despite the risk of harassment by prison officials.

A few weeks later, Bud drafted his first federal lawsuit. The complaint was a hot mess, peppered with misspellings and grammatical errors, written by hand on ruled paper like a middle schooler’s homework assignment.

He mailed it to the ACLU to get some feedback and 36 hours later, a lawyer was in the prison visiting room, smiling as he clutched the black phone receiver on the other side of the Plexiglass. 

“You have something here, Wallace,” he said. “I think you should file.”

“No shit?” the inmate said, surprised. “Call me Bud.”

“We don’t have any lawyers to assign to this but if the case is accepted by the court, we’ll try to help you anyway we can.”

“I could use it.”

“Did you study law? This petition is a little rough around the edges, but your constitutional argument is solid.”

“Nope. It’s a whole new thing.”

“Amazing,” the lawyer said, shaking his head. “Well, keep it up. This could be big.”


“Really. Want me to clean this up and file it for you? It would be my genuine pleasure.”

“That would be great,” Bud said. “I suppose they know where to reach me.”

Wallace D. Baker v State of Idaho was filed in U.S. District Court in Boise the next day.

Bud had no idea what to expect and the suspense was agonizing, but after a couple of months had passed he received a letter from the court saying an initial hearing had been scheduled. 

When he got to the end, he laughed. The powerful judge had authorized Bud to attend in person.

He had been locked up in a prison fortress for more than a decade, spending much of that time in maximum security.

But weeks later he found himself seated – although still in his jumpsuit and chains – in a spacious courtroom lined with rich mahogany paneling and huge oil paintings depicting scenes from the Old West.

The last time Bud had been in such a place, at his robbery trial, the judge called him “scum” and handed down a life sentence. 

This time, the black-robed jurist with the silver mane perched above him referred to him politely as “Mr. Baker” and listened carefully to what he had to say.  

A pair of assistant attorneys general argued against opening the door to a mandate that could cripple the state’s budget. Calling the lawsuit “burdensome” and “unnecessary,” they requested it be dismissed.

Bud was shocked when the Honorable William S. Sutton addressed him directly.

“Mr. Baker, what is your response?”

Rising to his feet, the notorious convict paused to gather his thoughts. He stroked his whiskers.

“Your Honor,” he began, a slight tremble in his voice. “It seems to me the state isn’t disputing crowding or anything else. They just don’t want to do anything about it.”

Bud glanced at the squirming lawyers at the table to his right.  

“It’s not my job to figure out how to fix things,” he told the judge. “I guess that’s yours. I’m just asking that you protect the rights of myself and every inmate in the joint, I mean penitentiary. Things are getting hot in there, with the riots and all. We need to be treated with human dignity, not like animals.”

He sat down and then quickly jumped up again. “Uh, sorry. I meant to say thank you, your Honor.”

When word spread behind prison walls that Bud was in court fighting against overcrowding, he become an instant hero. 

Inmates he’d never met offered him extra food rations, smokes, drugs, booze – even conjugal visits with hookers paid to pose as wives. They slapped his back in the exercise yard like old friends and urged him to keep kicking The Man’s ass. 

Others flooded him with requests for legal help, convinced he could breathe new life into their groundless appeals. He did his best to avoid those rabbit holes. But when one of the friendlier officers quietly asked for advice on a potential grievance, he did a little research.

Bud didn’t know what to make of it all. He set out to stick a shiv in the ribs of the prison system, make it bleed. Now, it appeared, he was doing something almost noble.

When the judge agreed to accept the overcrowding case and set a date for trial, Bud asked for another meeting with his mentor at the ACLU. He was nervous. The expectations were high, the pressure enormous.

“Bud, you caught the state’s lawyers off-guard at that hearing. I think they underestimated you,” the lawyer said. “They won’t make the same mistake twice. They will fight this with everything they’ve got. The last thing the Republican governor wants in an election year is to spend millions on criminals.”

“It’s rehabilitation, ain’t it?”

“That’s a dirty word in this state. They want people who commit crimes to do hard time.”

“Are you saying I’m gonna lose?”

“I’m telling you to do your homework. Preparing a case for trial is hard work. You’ll need reliable, honest testimony. You’ll need to obtain documents supporting your case and subpoena hostile witnesses, from the corrections director to the warden – or at least cross-examine them effectively. And that’s just for starters.”

“Crap. I only wanted to scare them.”

“You have – and then some. But now you have to convince a judge to fix what’s broken. You can do it.”

“Can you help?”

“A little. We have a law library at our disposal, research tools. We can do that kind of work, and we’ll be at the trial to assist if it gets that far, but everything else, I’m afraid, is up to you.”

“You know what will happen to me here if I lose?” Bud whispered. He pantomimed a blade slicing his throat.

“Don’t lose then,” the lawyer said.

Bud wasted no time. For the next thirty days, he feverishly built his case. He prepped his witnesses, snared documents detailing the crowding problem through open records laws and his newfound subpoena powers and began drafting his opening statement.

Less than a week before trial, he received a letter from a reporter at the Idaho Statesman, the daily newspaper in the capital city, requesting an interview. The journalist wrote that he was covering the case and wanted to profile the “prison plaintiff.” 

Bud was skeptical. Nobody outside the walls gave a damn about the people living within them, he knew. 

Granting an interview was one of the stupidest things Bud could do. He was in over his head and likely to lose in humiliating fashion. He had tons of work left to do to prepare for trial and couldn’t afford to waste any time. 

For all he knew, the reporter could have been setting him up, intent on writing a hit piece on an inmate trying to game the system.

But Bud couldn’t resist. He’d never been interviewed before.

He called the reporter collect from one of the cellblock’s crowded pay phones. The next day, they met in the same glass-partitioned cubicle where Bud had talked to the ACLU lawyer.

“Nice to meet you, I’m Roger Sweet,” the journalist said, pulling a notebook from his shoulder bag. “Like I said in the letter, I cover courts.”

Bud said nothing, sizing up his inquisitor. Sweet looked to be in his early 30s, sporting a drooping mustache, tousled brown hair and a rumpled navy blazer with brass buttons. 

“I’d like to ask you some questions about the trial, but maybe I can start with how you got here. Okay?”

How you got here. 

There was a long pause as Bud weighed whether to reject such a personal intrusion and return to the law library. Instead, he remained seated and sighed. 

“It’s a long story, boss. How much time you got?”

“As much as they’ll give me,” Sweet said, tilting his head toward the guard standing nearby.

“Yeah, well, I’ll answer what I want to answer. How ‘bout that?”


Sweet clicked his ballpoint pen and held it over the narrow white pages of his notebook. “Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born?”

With some reluctance, Bud’s story trickled out: His childhood in Medford, Oregon. His father running out on his mother. The once-cheerful boy with good grades becoming sullen and difficult. The teenage delinquency. The ugly transformation to hardened criminal. The convict with the life sentence.  

And now, the would-be reformer.

They wound up doing a series of interviews over several days, with the prisoner finding himself looking forward to each session. He watched in amazement as Sweet’s notebook filled with ink, followed by another and another.  

“Dude, I’m not that interesting,” Bud said at one point as the journalist wrote furiously in his curious shorthand.

Sweet finished scrawling the quote and shook his cramping wrist. “I write down almost everything because they won’t let me bring in a tape recorder. But it is interesting.”

“What about all the cuss words?”

“I’ll take those out. Sorry, family paper.”

Bud could tell it wasn’t going to be a hit piece, but the experience was still a bit unsettling. 

He had been forced to relive his past and Sweet had a knack for getting to the root of things – the source of his deep-seated angst.

Bud had never been to a psychologist, but he figured this was about as close as he’d ever come. Talking so much about his feelings left him drained and a little dazed. Terrible things he’d walled off within himself were being unleashed. 

After the final interview, tears stained his cheeks when the lights went out for the night. There had been a price to pay for getting his ego stroked.

The profile ran in the Sunday paper, starting on the front page with an artist’s water-color sketch of Bud in his jumpsuit. Inside, the piece filled an entire page, wrapped around the infamous “Most Wanted” poster and sneering black-and-white prison mugshot. 

The headline was “Idaho Jailhouse Lawyer Seeks Reforms.” 

Bud carefully read every word, including the praise from the ACLU and condemnation from law-and-order conservatives that Sweet warned would be part of the story. He loved it so much he taped it to the wall of his cell. 

On the opening day of the trial, Bud saw Sweet take a seat in the front row of the gallery, bag slung over his tan sport coat, also rumpled. Several other reporters filed in moments later, drawn to the federal case by Sweet’s story.

Even though it was a bench trial, Bud had been allowed to wear a long-sleeved white dress shirt and khakis. His ankles and hands were unshackled, but there were at least six Ada County sheriff’s deputies fanned out in the courtroom.

The bailiff announced the entrance of the judge, who strode to the bench, head lowered like a bull, as everyone in the courtroom rose.

“Please be seated,” Sutton declared.

Bud’s opening statement did not go well. The words he had practiced aloud in his cell were jumbled by a bad case of nerves and he repeated himself far too much. At times, he mumbled and murmured, causing the judge to lean forward in hopes of hearing better. 

Bud’s first witness was Jerome “Ozzy” Smith, a hulking white man from the back woods of Louisiana. 

“How many men are in your cell?” Bud asked, reading from his notes.

“Three,” Smith said.

“I see, and how long have you been incarcerated at the Idaho State Penitentiary?”

“Fifteen years, six months and seven days.”

“And when you were first incarcerated, how many cellmates did you have?”

“None. That happened later,” Smith said in a Cajun drawl. “I got my first cellie five years ago. Last November, they moved in a nigger. Now that ain’t right.”

The judge frowned and Bud quickly continued. “Besides the color of the man’s skin, what was it about having three to a cell that bothered you?”

“Waiting to take a piss. Being in the same room when they jerk off. But mostly, it was that black mother fucker. We got into some serious shit, brother.”

“Mr. Baker, control your witness,” the judge scolded.

Bud, nodding, changed the subject.

“The prison is supposed to offer programs to prepare you for society. What help have you been given?”

“Programs? Man, there ain’t no pro-grams.”

“You’re getting out soon. Are you saying the prison hasn’t done a thing to help prepare you for life on the outside, like a job or a place to live?”

Smith burst into a fit of laughter that shook the witness stand.

“Your witness,” Bud said to the assistant AG.

The well-dressed lawyer for the state approached Smith.


“What are you in for?”

“Rape, kidnapping, attempted murder.”

“No further questions.”

Days later, in his closing argument, Bud didn’t mutter. With a much confidence as he could muster, he told the judge he’d proven the prison was an overcrowded powder keg that was seriously deficient in almost every way, even according to the state’s own standards.

Sutton’s monumental ruling came two days before Thanksgiving.

He found for the inmates, ordering sweeping reforms, including strict limits on cell-packing, a mandate for prison expansion and creation of a long list of rehabilitative and vocational programs – all to be overseen by an independent monitor charged with reporting back to the court in six-month intervals.  

Bud read the news stories the next day in a daze. It felt like some kind of dream. He’d wake up at any moment to find it was all just his imagination.

Once that shock wore off, Bud came to realize that as an imprisoned David, his slingshot packed a punch. He hit the law books even harder, determined to force the prison system to at least try to put lawbreakers on the right path.

Over the next few years, Bud successfully sued the state several more times, forcing additional upgrades in the prison school and creation of a true law library, with complete sets of state and federal law books, computers and other research tools. 

The library space soon became Bud’s hangout. 

When the hardback legal tomes arrived, he savored them like a fine wine, inhaling the smell of the stiff new pages, the glue of the binding. Reading the printed words was like tapping into a tiny current of electricity that couldn’t be found anywhere else behind bars.

Corrections officers would often find him asleep at his table, one hand resting on a law book like a man being sworn in, a Black’s Law Dictionary and his personal, well-thumbed paperback Webster’s close by. 

No prisoner had caused more trouble for the Department of Corrections in its history, but Bud had never been threatened. No one had ordered him to stop his legal work. He figured he had Sweet to thank for that. His profile had been raised, giving him at least some protection. 

That all changed after the note.

One day, he returned to his cell to find a piece of paper neatly folded in half on his bed. He had no idea how it got there and he opened it with trepidation.

The message, printed by hand in capital letters, said: CHECK THE TRUST FUNDS.

Bud took that to mean the accounts set up to collect money earned by working inmates that could, in turn, be sent to loved ones on the outside or spent on a list of approved items, such as art supplies or books. The prison monitored the accounts to prevent large sums of cash from trading hands or being used to support the trafficking of drugs and other contraband.

Bud didn’t have an account, but, curious and emboldened by his legal victories, he began asking around.

What he discovered alarmed him. A number of inmates said the balances in their accounts seemed to always be lower than they expected.


One said his brother deposited $1,000 for him, but the money never showed up. When he asked for an explanation from the warden’s office, he was stonewalled.

Bud suspected the accounts were being embezzled, but he had no proof and investigating the warden and his staff while being at their mercy was extremely risky.

He decided to ask Sweet for advice. As always, the journalist patiently accepted the call. 


“Hello Bud, still basking in your glory?”

“Actually, I have a question. About something very different.”

“Okay, shoot.”

Bud told him about the tip and his disturbing conversations with inmates.

“It seems to be true, but there’s no way to prove it,” he said. “And if I try to get records, they’ll make my life a living hell.”

“Any idea how much money is in these accounts?”

“A lot. A few hundred thousand at least.”

“Wow,” Sweet said, thinking. “Tell you what – get as many written statements from inmates as you can. See if they’ll agree to using their names as part of an investigation. When you’re done, send it to me. I’ll see what I can do.”

The legal affairs reporter never thought anything would come of it, but one day a fat envelope arrived from the prison. It was stuffed with handwritten statements by a dozen prisoners, some of them signed.

Sweet knew corruption when he saw it. He quickly drafted a major request for all financial records pertaining to the trust accounts going back five years.

As soon as the demand landed on the warden’s desk, Bud was summoned to the prison administration building for the first time.

When he was seated in Joseph DiGionaro’s office, the warden motioned for the pair of corrections officers to leave.

Leaning across his vast oak desk, between a brass bronco sculpture and a marble orb, he glared at Bud. 

“I know it’s you.”

The prisoner feigned ignorance, prompting DiGionaro to angrily cut him off.

“When you call a reporter, you think we aren’t listening? You think I wouldn’t be made aware that you’re up to something? Your next big case?”

The veins on the warden’s neck were bulging, but he leaned back in his padded leather chair, breathed deeply and clasped his hands behind his coiffed hair.  

“This is going to disappear. It’s going to vanish because nobody gives a goddamn about scum like you.”

“Not if money is miss—”

Shut up! Say one more word and I’ll have those men come in here and do some silencing.”

Another deep breath.

“I want you to go back to your unit and tell everyone that no money is missing, not a fucking cent. Tell them it’s all a big misunderstanding and you were wrong. You got that?”

Bud nodded.

“Good. If I hear you are pursuing this matter in any way, I will toss you in solitary for inciting a riot. No more talking to reporters or lawyers or anyone else. Do you understand me?”

Another nod.

“Now get the fuck out of my office.”  

DiGionaro pressed a button on his desk and the guards entered, grabbing Bud roughly by his shoulders and half-dragging him out.

Rattled by the threats, Bud followed the warden’s orders and told the inmates who had risked retribution by giving him statements that he was dropping the matter. They did not take the news well. Several threatened to beat the jailhouse lawyer to death with his new law books.

Bud was too frightened to reach out to Sweet or take his calls. 

A couple of weeks later, he was sitting in the library as usual. The wheezing, gray-haired prisoner charged with distributing magazines and mail shuffled toward him. He dropped the morning paper in front of Bud.

“Interesting reading today,” the old-timer rasped before shuffling along.

Bud glanced at the front page. There it was, above the fold, splashed across five columns: “ISP Warden Ousted, Accused of Theft.”

Stunned, he read Sweet’s account of an ongoing federal investigation into an embezzlement scheme that had drained more than $250,000 from inmate trust accounts over six years. 

DiGionaro, immediately fired by the governor, had just been arraigned on felony theft and conspiracy charges. Other prison officials were being questioned by authorities, the story said.


“Shithouse mouse,” was all Bud could say. “Shithouse fucking mouse.”


That happened a few days before the parole hearing, where Bud now sat in judgment.

He noticed that the front edge of his chair had been scratched by countless fingernails. But he wasn’t one of those anxious convicts. He never expected to get out. 

He was a lifer.

“I applaud Mr. Baker’s work in this area, which has clearly resulted in some notable improvements for the prison population,” Witherspoon, the woman, was saying. “And I, for one, will take that into consideration.”

“Of course,” Cooper said dryly.  

The chairman asked if anyone in the audience wished to speak and none did. They already had  written to the panel demanding that Bud never get out. 

They called him a “vicious criminal,” a “monster” and a “danger to society.” They said his jailhouse lawyer schtick was just another con.  

“He should be hanged,” one person wrote.  “A leopard can’t change his spots,” expounded another.

The father of the young deputy killed in the shootout preceding Bud’s arrest wrote a long letter, explaining in crushing detail his lingering sorrow. For good measure, he included a snapshot of his son’s grave. 

“Mr. Baker,” Cooper asked, “do you believe you’ve been rehabilitated?”

“Absolutely,” Bud said with a blank face. “One hundred percent.”

“What has changed since your last hearing?” 

“Changed? I’ve opened a law practice with more than 800 clients. Business is good.”

Cooper frowned. 

“I mean, what has changed in your life that makes you a better candidate for parole?”

“Nothing has changed,” Bud snapped, unable to control a rising tide of resentment. “I’m still here. I haven’t found God. I haven’t had an epiphany. I can’t change what I’ve done. I’m still here, only a lot older.”

The trio at the table huddled briefly and then the chairman motioned to have Bud removed from the room.  

“We’ll inform you of our decision,” he said.

An hour or so passed. 

Bud was back in the law library in his favorite spot, catching up on some reading, when he heard the guard’s heavy shoes and jingling keys. 

When the prisoner looked up, he saw regret on the Irishman’s ruddy face. He placed a beefy hand on Bud’s shoulder but not to move him anywhere.

“Denied,” he said.

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Dangerous Freedom