On a recent Sunday, in the visiting room of the Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk, a young, pigtailed child darted between rows of green vinyl chairs in a flurry of giggles. Outside, afternoon sunlight gleamed on barbed-wire fences, while inside, friends and family chatted over canned soda and vending-machine snacks. Arnold King, a 54-year-old inmate with graying dreadlocks and friendly eyes, sits in the midst of this scene, discussing his desideratum for the 35 years he’s spent in prison: hope.
“I have to be optimistic and hopeful, not just for myself, but for my family and everyone else in here,” he says. “Otherwise I’m just existing.” Both the strangely congenial atmosphere and King’s positivism are things you’d typically not expect to find in prison. But then, nothing about King’s life so far has been what he, or anyone else, expected.
In 1971, King was an 18-year-old high-school dropout with a drug problem. He and two friends went to Newbury Street in search of drugs and, in a still-mysterious chain of events, King fatally shot a man named John Labanara. By June of 1972, he was sentenced to life without parole for first-degree murder. Clouded by a haze of addiction, King spent his first months in prison wondering how he’d gotten there, and how he’d become the kind of person that would kill another human being. Gradually, he began tutoring illiterate inmates. It was both didactic and therapeutic — teaching others how to read as a means of coping with what he’d done. Eventually, King earned three degrees, and kicked his drug addiction. He founded youth-counseling programs, and became a freelance journalist.
There will be a reading of his poetry on Friday, July 27, at the Community Church of Boston, as part of a monthly series featuring writings by inmates serving life sentences. King started the series — Spoken Word of Lifers in Massachusetts Prisons — a year ago, to create a connection between inmates and the outside world.
It’s a world that King is eyeing a lot these days. With a fructuous past and a hundred or so supporters behind him, he’s applied to the Governor’s Council for commutation three times. In 2004, the state’s Advisory Board of Pardons voted four to three in his favor. All that was necessary was then-governor Mitt Romney’s approval to commute his sentence. Unsurprisingly, that approval never came — possibly because Romney’s presidential aspirations made him cautious. (Romney has proudly boasted on the campaign trail that he was the first Massachusetts governor to decline every request for a pardon made during his four-year term.)
With Romney having since vacated office, King plans to apply again this year. Until then, he relies on the connections he’s established with the outside world through his writing and friends in community service. As visiting hours draw to a close, King’s optimism wanes momentarily as he considers the reading series he organized, but has never attended. “I’m doing what I can,” he says, “but when you go out that door, I can’t go with you.”
Spoken Word of Lifers in Massachusetts Prisons at the Community Church of Boston, 566 Boylston Street, Boston | 617.576.5367 | throughbarbedwire.com