Innocent Abroad. (Comment)

Article excerpt

I went to a reception the other night to celebrate the efforts of a group called the Innocence Project, which provides legal assistance to prisoners for whom the technology of DNA testing may now provide proof that they did not commit the crimes they've been found guilty of. One such man, Clark McMillan of Memphis, Tennessee, was in attendance that night, having recently been declared a free man. McMillan was 23 when he was sentenced to 119 years in prison. He is now 45.

He was in New York City for only one day. I figured he might like to take in a few sights while he was here, so I asked if he'd ever been to the Museum of Natural History. He looked me in the eye and took a second before answering my question. One of the things I now know about men who have spent large amounts of time in prison is that they are not in a rush.

"Well," he said, "I haven't been anywhere."

So I asked if he'd like to go, and he would.

I have always loved this museum, but it was hard to know where to begin with a person who has never seen a dinosaur skeleton, or a diorama of kudus on the plains of Africa, or an exhibit of minerals, or a great white whale. I figured we'd just walk along and stop whenever something looked particularly interesting, which was often. After a while, we took a break and got a cup of coffee and a danish. "Food," McMillan said, "is a wonderful thing to me now."

As hard as it is for a person to take in the contents of the Museum of Natural History in a morning, it's impossible to get a handle on twenty-four years a man spent in prison for a crime he did not commit. But I wanted to know how it was that this well-spoken and thoughtful person could emerge from prison, as he seemed to, singularly lacking in rage or bitterness. "What's the point?" he said. "If I spent my time that way, I'd only be imprisoned again."

Over the course of his many years in prison, McMillan was transferred frequently and without notice from one facility to another--a way, he said, "for them to keep you disorganized." He received few visitors over the years. But he discovered a love of reading, and that sustained him. Things you think you can't live without, it turns out you can, he told me. "I found other forms of bliss."

He also wrote letters, hundreds of them. He wrote to people whose names he saw in magazines, authors of books he read, people he saw on television, religious leaders. He wrote to the Wall Street Journal one time and, as a result, got a free subscription for a number of years, during which time he followed the stock market and invested a hundred dollars in penny stocks. He did well, multiplied his money--felt, he said, "like this ultra-hip jet-setter"--and got the whole cellblock interested in the market, but then he was transferred to another prison, and he couldn't keep up with his stocks anymore.

Mostly, when he wrote letters, he didn't expect to hear back, and he hardly ever did, but still, it was some kind of contact with the world, just sending out that letter.

Not easy, though. First you had to get a pencil smuggled in.

No pencils in prison?

Not where they put him.

So what would he do when the point got dull? No sharpeners, probably.

You use your fingernails. Or your teeth.

How about paper?

"Paper," he said. A group of schoolchildren had just filed past us, where we sat in the museum coffee shop, with our danish, and for a moment he seemed totally engrossed in watching the children noisily lining up, shifting their backpacks, getting ready to go into the IMAX theater. …