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D.C. Department of Corrections officials told Michael D. Hamilton he was free to go. Then they called to say they’d made a mistake.
On the morning of March 2, a guard came to the cell of D.C. Jail inmate Michael D. Hamilton and told him he was going home.
“Man, get away from my cell,” Hamilton barked.
It wasn’t that Hamilton, 42, didn’t want to go home. He just didn’t believe the guard’s story. Hamilton had served 15 years in various Virginia state prisons for bank robbery before being brought to D.C. Jail on Feb. 28 to serve some more time for an old parole violation. Hamilton wasn’t supposed to get out for at least two more years.
But the guard wasn’t kidding. An hour later, Hamilton was standing outside the jail waiting for his younger brother, Ricardo Hamilton, to pick him up. “I was like, ‘Is it really over? Is this really happening that I’m going home?’” he remembers.
Yes, Hamilton was headed home, with a few pit stops along the way. Ricardo Hamilton took his brother wherever he wanted to go—the barbershop, the block they grew up on Bruce Place SE, the home of an old girlfriend, Denise Marshall. Before Hamilton was locked up, he was living with Marshall and their daughter close to the jail. At first, he wrote them once a week; then it was once a month, then finally, every holiday. He never received a reply.
Hamilton says he kept up with the outside world through the 5-inch television he had in his cell in Virginia. But television didn’t prepare him for the wonders he saw that day, such as the Stadium-Armory Metro station—even though it’s been there since 1977, roughly a decade before he entered prison. Other marvels included the boarded-up Stanton Dwellings and Ricardo’s cell phone. “Which part do I talk into?” he asked.
When Hamilton arrived at his mother’s house, she was out grocery shopping. Hamilton had called his mother regularly from prison, and he has her first name, Bertha, tattooed on his lower right arm. But he hadn’t seen her since she made the 3-hour trek to see him in prison in Buckingham, Va., three years ago. He says he was standing outside her house smoking when an elderly woman drove by.
“I ain’t seen her in so many years, I didn’t know it was my mother,” he says. “She said, ‘Who is that big bald-head man in the door?’ So she pulled around back.”
When Bertha Hamilton realized who he was, Hamilton says, “I’ve never seen my mother so happy.”
Bertha Hamilton heated up a chicken pot pie for him. She started calling relatives, who soon began stopping by. She also started planning a big family dinner for the next night, while Ricardo talked about throwing a party. Michael Hamilton slipped out of his prison blues into a black track suit that Ricardo had given him.
“I felt like I was Michael Jordan or something,” says Hamilton. “You know your family love you. But the magnitude of love my family showed me—I didn’t know that love was there.”
It was close to midnight on Saturday when Hamilton got the bad news. He was out with his uncle Butch when Bertha Hamilton called to tell him to come to her house right away.
“Butch said, ‘It probably ain’t nothin’. She got a surprise for you. Somebody she want you to see. She just doesn’t want to tell you,’” says Hamilton.
But when Hamilton arrived at his mother’s house, she and several of his nieces were sitting around a table, their expressions grim.
“You got to call this number,” Bertha Hamilton said.
“Is it a girl?” Hamilton asked.
“Stop playing with me and call that number,” his mother scolded him.
Hamilton called the number. It was not a girl. On the other end was Ben Ellis, a supervisor with the D.C. Department of Corrections Records Office. Ellis told him that his release had been a mistake. He said Hamilton would have to turn himself in or else there’d be a warrant out for his arrest.
Hamilton says he and his mom started to cry. “I ain’t going to turn myself in right now. I ain’t going,” Hamilton told Ellis. Then he looked at his mother.
“My mother old. To me she look like my grandmother,” he says. “I don’t want to do nothin’ to make my mother hurt.” So he promised Ellis that he would turn himself in, but not until Monday. “Let me spend one day with my family,” he said.
Hamilton spent the night at his sister’s in Maryland. He almost wasn’t as happy to see her as he was her television.
“She had a TV as big as a wall. I never seen that in my life. She had a DVD. I sit on that couch Saturday night until Sunday morning. I left the couch one time to eat an egg-and-bacon sandwich. I was so happy. I watched The Matrix. Foxy Brown. Bruce Lee. Another Bruce Lee. Gone in 60 Seconds, where they’re stealin’ all those cars. People be calling me on the phone, asking ‘You ain’t sleep yet?’ I say, ‘I’m busy. Don’t call over here.’”
When Bertha Hamilton got wind that her son was spurning relatives on the phone to watch television, she rang him up, too. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
Hamilton told his mother: “I be looking at these movies. I’d appreciate it if you don’t call me.”
He phoned another old girlfriend, Sharon Nelson, his son’s mother. Hamilton says he and Nelson “weren’t too cool” when he went to prison because he was living with another woman, but he wanted to see her and his son, Mike Nelson, 17. Mike’s face is tattooed on Hamilton’s upper right arm, but the last time Hamilton saw his son, Mike was an infant. Despite the short notice, Nelson granted him a visit. When he arrived at her house, his son’s grandmother challenged him to pick Mike out from a group of boys.
“And I don’t even know. That’s bad, ain’t it?” Hamilton says.
That evening, Nelson and Mike joined Hamilton at his mother’s house, where the family gathered for a feast of spare ribs, fried chicken, fried fish, shrimp fried rice, macaroni and cheese “with three kinds of cheese,” corn bread, potato salad, and greens. Hamilton loaded up two plates. “All that food on the table!” he says.
After dinner, Hamilton said goodbye to Mike and sent him home. “Sharon said, ‘Don’t you want him to stay the night with you?’ and I said, ‘No, we got some business to take care of.’” Hamilton and she spent the night alone.
“I had another woman—my daughter’s mother—but I always love Sharon,” he says. In fact, back when they were together, Hamilton says he asked Nelson to marry him several times, but she always turned him down.
Hamilton decided to try again. This time, she said yes.
Early the next morning, Ricardo Hamilton drove his brother to the jail. According to court records, Michael Hamilton still owes another 12 to 36 months for a 1985 parole violation. He is slated to be transferred to federal custody for the rest of his sentence, says Darryl Madden, a spokesperson with the Department of Corrections.
The department is investigating Hamilton’s release, but “on the surface it appears to be a case of human error,” says Madden. Ricardo Hamilton says a Corrections Department official told him that his brother had been released by mistake instead of another inmate who has the same last name—an account that Madden declined to confirm.
“Any improper release is a concern to this agency,” says Madden. “And we will be examining the results of the Internal Affairs report to reduce the likelihood that it will ever happen again.”
Hamilton believes he should get some time off for turning himself in. “I came back over here, and they locked me in my cell like I had done something,” he says. “They made a mistake. I didn’t have to come back. And this is the gratitude they show me.” CP