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“At 5:30 a.m., the door popped open for breakfast.
“At the time of the escape, I was housed in 7 Block….There are two sides, A and B. I was living on B side. Each side holds about 48 to 50 inmates, with a totalcapacity of about 100,” writes Harold Roberts, a former Lorton maximum-security inmate now housed in theU.S. penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pa.
“All the cells are single, one man to a cell. My guess is
that the actual size of the cell is about 8 by 12 feet. There was
a bed (steel cot), a toilet and sink, a steel desk and stool
with a stainless mirror bolted to the wall over the sink.
There was a narrow window against the far wall that re-minded you of a crack in the wall.
“As I walked to chow, it was bleeding cold outside. Only a few people took the walk. I passed by the
dumpsters and they were full to capacity.
“I drank a cup of coffee and smoked a Kool cigarette. Then walked back to my room. At 8:30, the doors
swung open again for work and activities. A couple of daysbefore, I had seen the doctor, who put me on bed rest. So I was safe and didn’t have to report to work…
“I made a dummy out of damp newspaper and clothedit in a red sweatsuit, and I even put socks and Nike tennis shoes on the thing. The head was smeared with shoe
polish, and a skull cap pulled down on its head. It laid flat
on its back, arm folded across the chest with the head
slightly facing the wall. Perfect, I thought, as I looked it
over from the outside of the cell. If I didn’t know any
better I would have sworn Reds [Roberts’ nickname] wasin bed,” Roberts writes. He recalls that he and his partner in the Lorton Max escape, Elbert McKinney, had differences over strategy.
“McKinney originally wanted to climb into the dumpster during breakfast hour. But I disagreed wholeheartedly. [It] was too cold, for one thing, to sit there in the dumpster for hours until the truck came at noon. Or to run the risk of having to beat too many head counts. So during the lunch break movement we eased into the dumpster undetected.
“When lunch was over we could hear the inmates walking by, talking. Then the cop shouted (count time), and we knew it wouldn’t be long now before the truck arrived. And it was never late. Twelve noon sharp.
“We could hear the engine roar as the truck pulled up [to each dumpster], then the sound of the truck signaling that it was backing up. The forklike arms slid into place and started pickup. There were seven dumpsters. We sat in No. 6.
“‘We’re next!’ I whispered. And with that, the dumpster rocked and shook, then raised high into the air…”
In prison, “you actually live and breathe the desire to be free every day of your life,” says Roberts, writing from Lewisburg. “So many guys in prison turn to drugs, alcohol, religion, cliques, and gangs. Some even homosexuality and suicide. I guess they’re all looking for an out…”
When Roberts looks for an out, it’s usually on the other side of the wall. His outs involve sneaking through the main gate, cutting through window bars, kicking his way out of a transport van, or going over the walls. He’s done it. Plenty of times. Several times from Maryland facilities, once from D.C. Jail, and once from Maximum Security at Lorton via a garbage truck. He keeps running because he’s sitting on a 60-years-to-life sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping while armed. His chance at parole won’t come until March 3, 2034the year he will turn 80.
So he escapes.
The irony that hangs over his every day in the cell is that it is his very yearning to be free that has kept him in prison. If he had stayed put, Roberts could have served his time and gotten on with his life, but he has been leaving prisons as long as the law has been putting him in them. He always escapes, he is always caught, and he always ends up back in jail. Always.
In the summer of 1981, he escaped from Poplar Hill Pre-Release Unit, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He and another inmate were handcuffed in the back of a van, with two deputies in front. Roberts had a handcuff key in his mouth, he says, and when the windowless van came to a stop, he started kicking the van’s double back doors. Three kicks and they were open, but by the second kick the deputy at the wheel had peeled out to get some speedtrying to make it too dangerous to leap out the back. The deputy weaved the van quickly in and out of traffic. Roberts jumped anyway, and 12 hours later was back in D.C. He was free for eight months before being captured and sent to Prince George’s County Detention Center. But not for long.
On July 7, 1982, he and eight other inmates hacksawed through window bars and went out a third-floor window, one by one in the middle of the night. A deputy sat at his station several yards away and didn’t notice their departure. They hopped rooftop to rooftop across the jail’s buildings until they got to the first floor and hopped to the ground. Roberts was captured a month later in a northeast D.C. house, after the police received an anonymous tip, and was returned to the detention center.
Two weeks later, on Aug. 20, 1982, he and eight others (four from the earlier escape), almost made it out of the maximum-security unit of the jail, where Roberts had been sent as an escape risk. At the last moment, deputies got wisebut not before the inmates had cut through three bars of an outside window and opened a space by removing an air conditioner.
On July 20, 1984, Robertswho was awaiting trialand two companions made it out of the then-brand-new D.C. Jail wearing correctional officers’ uniforms. Then 29, Roberts was waiting in the jail’s library when a fellow inmate, a convicted murderer and heroin dealer, came in with three pilfered correctional officers’ uniforms. The two inmates politely asked the librarian to summon a third from his cellblock, which she did. The three of them went into an empty sergeant’s office, changed into the uniforms, and walked out the staff entrance, keeping a calm pace as the shift changed. Roberts got as far as an apartment building down the street from the jail before correctional officers tackled him.
“Escaping has never left my mind. But it’s not just something you do,” he says in a letter. “It’s not a game, a drill, or an exercise. It’s your life! One mistake could very well determine whether you live or die! Whether you dig yourself deeper in prison or your own grave. Then, of course, there is the possibility of freedom…
“[N]ot every one has the guts, the balls, and courage to do what I have done. But then, too, not everybody has the imagination and ingenuity to plot such schemes.”
Roberts has shown an uncommon ability to parole himself out of almost every jail he has found himself in. But he is run of the mill when it comes to staying at large. Most escapees don’t stay escaped for long, and neither does Roberts. Even after decades of cycling through confinement, escape, and recapture, he obsesses about life beyond the walls.
“How [escaping] may affect your mother, brother, sister, your woman, or kids doesn’t matter anymore. You must run and keep runningstart a new life and forget that the past ever existed….You convince yourself that it’s best this way.”
With an escape record like his, there’s one place you go in the District’s prison system: Lorton Correctional Complex’s Maximum Security Facilityknown to inmates as “the Wall” for the 25-foot-high, 6-foot-thick wall that surrounds seven cellblocks. The Wall looks like a prison: A 10-acre square, it has gun towers at each corner with squat, witch’s-hat rooftops. It is where the District’s most feared and least trusted inmates go. Roberts entered Lorton in 1993. He started planning to leave the day he arrived:
“At night it was what we call quiet hour. As the world slept, I would be thinking of freedom and plotting my next move.”
He made that move Feb. 12 last year. He and fellow Maximum Security inmate McKinney, then 51 and convicted of armed robbery and burglary charges, rode out of the Wall in a trash truck.
It was the first breach of Maximum Security’s perimeter since 1974.
Letters from prison have an aura about them: the inmate’s ID number always written under his name, the penitentiary as the return address. The longer ones come stuffed into manila envelopesthe kind you imagine were available cheap in drugstores the year you were born.
Roberts’ letters come on yellow or white legal-pad paper, in blue ballpoint pen. They are lengthy, and he often brings them to a close by noting that his hand is tired. Sometimes he writes the pen dry.
He started writing me after I met his lawyer over a beer one afternoon. “Hey, one of my guys escaped from Maximum Security a while ago,” boasted the lawyer. “He was one of those guys in the trash truck. Sometime in the ’80s he escaped from D.C. Jail, too.”
“Yeah, and he’s also one of the nicest, most kind fellows you’ll ever meet,” said the lawyer, tipping his frosty glass in tribute.
Soon enough, Roberts and I were regularly exchanging letters.
“I went to Spingarn High School, where I only enrolled and never attended,” he began.
Roberts writes with a clean, neat hand, in a graceful script, and he does not edit his writing by crossing out or inserting words. He punctuates the ends of some sentences with happy or unhappy faces. Roberts prefers writing to speaking on the phone, “unless it’s an extreme emergency or I’m laying down my romance thing [happy face].”
(Except where noted, all of Roberts’ words in this story are from my written correspondence with him, or his letters in court files. I added some punctuation and occasionally put a noun and verb into agreement. The rest is Roberts.)
“I turned 19 in the Baltimore Pen,” he writes.
Roberts has spent all of his adult life in prison or on the run. He went to jail the night of Feb. 15, 1973, when he was 18. That night, three men wearing ski masks raided a party in an apartment on Benning Road in Prince George’s County, and robbed seven people. The tallest of the robbers had a pistol that went off once in the course of the robbery. The single shot injured two of the guests. The robbers left in a jacked-up 1965 Chevrolet Tempest. (Roberts says it was a drug heist. The seven were cutting up lots of drugs, he says, and he and his buddies went in to take the goods.)
Two hours later, a District police officer saw the Tempest, parked, with three men inside. He ordered them out, and in the car found a pistol, three ski masks, and watches stolen from the party. The three went to jail with no bond. Roberts was the tallest of the three, and was fingered as the shooter. A judge in Upper Marlboro sentenced him to 20 years in the custody of the Maryland Division of Corrections.
Eight years later, in the summer of 1981, he escaped from Poplar Hill Pre-Release Unit on the Eastern Shore. He went on a crime spree after he left.
On Sept. 3, 1981, he, Mona Wilson, Roberts’ “girlfriend at the time,” and an unidentified third person, according to the prosecutor, robbed the Catholic University bookstore. Wilson went into the bookstore, where she had once worked, saying that she was looking for a lost coat. Shortly after she left, Roberts went in with a handgun, ordered everyone to the floor, and took $16,000. He made his getaway by diving into the back seat of a car Wilson was driving.
He also robbed two Dart drugstores in Maryland. On Jan. 9, 1982, at 11 p.m., he drew a pistol at a Dart in Lanham. He made off with $161.97. On March 1, at 3 a.m., Roberts took out the pistol at a Dart in Adelphi. The take: $165.
The charges that earned Roberts his 60-to-life sentence in Lorton stem from a heist of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel at 21st Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW. According to a prosecutor’s brief in the case, on Nov. 30, 1981, at 2 a.m., Roberts and at least two accomplices entered the hotel’s basement with a pistol and a sawed-off shotgun, and took the security guard, the bartender, a night cleaner, and the night manager hostage. The employees were all robbed, hog-tied, and left in a remote area of the basement. The robbers made off with almost $3,000 from the cash register and the hotel’s security vaults.
When he escaped and went on the eight-month crime spree, Roberts had served eight and a half years of his 20 in Maryland. He got a year for the Poplar Hill escape. He got 10 more years for each of the Dart robberies. He got five to 15 for the Catholic bookstore job. He got 60 to life for the Ritz-Carlton. If he had stayed in jail in 1981 instead of escaping, he could have been free today. His original sentence of 20 years expired in early 1993.
He also could have avoided the massive 60 to life if he had named names, but he never gave the names of his accomplices at the Ritz-Carlton. Today, no one but he and they know who they are. He took the rap. Old-school. Roberts wants to get out of jail any way he canany way except that way.
“I am his life. I am his soul,” says Diane George, the love of Roberts’ life and his most loyal defender. She met Roberts in jail before the first escape, and has visited him in almost every prison he’s been in. She is wearing a ring of his on a necklace when we sit down to lunch in Bethesda, near the office where she works for three lawyers. The ring is hugea quarter could pass through itand is gold-colored, with glass or clear stones in rectangles around it. It’s hard to tell if it’s valuable.
She knows what is said and thought about women who stick with men doing serious time, and she is quick to take the opportunity to explain herself: “My girlfriends ask, ‘When is this going to get tired for you?’” She has tried to blot Roberts out. She says she drank a lot and had dark days trying to do it. Those times are over. “I think he’ll always be a part of my life,” she says simply.
Close to 40 now, she doesn’t have the date of his parole eligibility marked on her calendar because she thinks she “might be dead by then.” Unlike the vast majority of the women who fall in love with and pine for prisoners, George has had the luxury of living with her convict, while he was on the lam in the fall of 1981 and the spring of 1982.
Roberts cleaned and polished the floors of her house, cooked, always did the dishes, and helped her choose her outfits on weekday mornings, she says. When he had money he gave it away freely, she adds, and when he went back to the neighborhood where he grew up, the projects at 56th and East Capitol Street, he bought sneakers for the neighborhood’s little girls. She also says he worked for her as a vendor. During his trial for the Ritz-Carlton heist, according to court documents, she told his lawyer that she was “95 percent sure” that Roberts had been with her in New York on vending business at the time of the robbery.
The prosecutor, however, was ready to put a half-dozen people on the stand to say Roberts was at the hotel.
George says she did not know about his crime spree, but says, “He really knew that he’d have to go back to jail sometime.” He has matured behind bars, she believes, and prison “doesn’t have anything to offer him anymore.”
“We’re trying to get the time down to something like 2005. He can do that….When you see him he’ll say he can do another 10 years, but really he can’t.”
“One day I woke up, and everything in and about prison life had changed,” Roberts wrote. “Everybody that I once loved was now either dying or already dead.”
In January 1989, four years before the end of his Maryland sentence and the beginning of his time at Lorton, Roberts wrote a three-page plea to Judge Joseph M.F. Ryan Jr. asking for a reduction of his sentence. He wrote about the lack of a positive environment growing up, that his daughter would turn 18 that month, that at 34 himself, he had “17 wasted years, here in prison! [unhappy face],” and that under his D.C. sentence he would “either die in prison, or upon my release be a very old man.”
“I have only learned the importance of life, love, and the pursuit of happiness by having lost the chance to live!” he wrote Ryan. “[E]ven though I have done an awful crime, I am willing and able to keep my life straight with the help of God and your mercy.”
The judge was unmoved.
Roberts doesn’t think his punishment fits his crime. “I have never murdered, killed, maimed, or crippled anyone before,” he wrote me. “Yet people with gruesome, hideous offenses have either already been paroled, or have a greater chance of someday walking down the street a free man.
“I’ll be the first to admit that, yes, I was wrong for the crimes that I committed, and not only do I have regrets, but I am truly sorry for any pain or discomfort that I caused others,” he writes.
“But the question I now pose to you: How long must I pay for my unjustifiable act? Does the penalty for the rest of life in prison truly fit the crime? Sixty years to life is a death sentence for me!
“All that time, and not one murder [unhappy face],” he added. “There was a time when maybe Diane would suggest that we try some different way, like through the courts. But after losing my appeal and a few motions were denied, instant street was all that I thought about.”
When an inmate arrives at the Wall, he goes into lockdown. Lockdown means remaining in a 5-by-7-foot cell 23 hours of every 24. Lockdown is where lifers sit out the decades. When Roberts arrived at the Wall, he went to a tier of Cellblock 2 known as “the Rock.”
“The conditions are foul; human waste often covers the cell bars and grill. There is constant burning of trash, sheets, blankets, and even an occasional mattress.”
It was 1993. He had served his 20 years in Maryland and been transferred to Lorton to serve his sentences for the Catholic and Ritz-Carlton jobs.
Roberts wanted off the Rock. He wanted to be moved into 7 Block, the one cellblock inside the Wall not on lockdown. When he saw Maximum’s warden, David D. Roach, in Cellblock 2, Roberts asked for a transfer. “Since the Wall itself was max-security,” and “my D.C. Jail escape was over 10 years ago [unhappy face].”
Roach said maybe, but added, as Roberts recalls it, “But as long as I am warden, you’ll never see the other side of the wall.”
Roach, who now works for the city’s Office of Emergency Preparedness, doesn’t recall his exact conversations with Roberts, but says he may have said something to him intimating that Roberts wouldn’t leave Max.
Thirty days later, Roberts was in 7 Block. Free to move around a cellblock most of the day and associate with other inmates more freely, instead of being confined to a cell.
“When I hit Lorton, no one seemed to even be thinking escapewasn’t that a convict’s dream? I had heard that McKinney had escaped from Central [one of Lorton’s medium-security facilities] once before. So he knew the area.”
When Elbert McKinney telephones from the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., he says, “This is
McKinney” right when I pick up the receiver. When he leaves a message on my answering machine, it’s, “This was McKinney.” He calls several times, his voice always calm and patient.
McKinney is 52 years old. It’s hard to get him talking, and when he does talk it’s in clipped sentences. He assumes I know all about his case already, and openly confirms the stories of his crimes and escapes. “If you knew what it was like behind that wall,” he suggests, “you’d look for any way you could find to get out.” It’s the longest and most complicated comment he makes.
At Lorton, McKinney was serving 30 years-to-life for armed robbery and burglary. Back in 1987, responding to an ad for a Toyota for sale, he pistol-whipped the man selling it, tied him up, robbed him, went through his house taking more goods, and left in the car. When the police found him two weeks later, sleeping in the Toyota, he was wearing his victim’s ring.
In 1989, after living in Lorton’s medium-security Central facility for 18 months, he sneaked the key to one of the prison’s trucks that was parked outside the fence for the night. His plan was to get out of the security gate on the axle of another truck, wait for rush hour, find the truck that went with the key, and “drive it home.”
“I just got too impatient,” he repeats several times. “I just kept peeking out.” It was about 3:30 in the parking lot on a July afternoon. As he sees it, all he had to do was sit tight and watch the heat ripples rise. But a correctional officer came into the parking lot and saw him looking out from under the truck. Curtains. McKinney ran for Silverbrook Road, fought recapture, and threatened officers with a screwdriver.
Then he was on his way to the Wall. Warden Roach put a “special handling” notice on the front of McKinney’s file jacket, stating that he was “extremely dangerouslengthy sentence.” McKinney was convicted of escape and sentenced to another 27 months on top of his 30 years to life. He did not see his failure to escape as a setback. “If anything, it made me more determined,” he says.
Roberts had been behind bars for 26 years. McKinney had been locked up since 1988. Both are sentenced as career offenders, both are in for violent crimes, and both of their sentencing papers read, “Short term release date: Life.” When Roberts sought out McKinney in 7 Block, he asked him if they were “both on the same page.” Then they planned for a lucky day.
Fifteen minutes before the noon count on the day of their escape, the trash truck came to the sally port entrance at Tower 4 outside Max and Central, which are adjoining facilities. The top-loading garbage truck pulled up to the dumpsters, lifted them up, and turned them over, without the driver leaving the cab. At Tower 4, the truck’s license number was written down, its driver identified, and his name recorded. The truck waited for an officer to escort it on its rounds inside the Wall. Cpl. Henry White, assigned to Interior Patrol Vehicle No. 26, got the order. When he picked up the paperwork, he followed the trash truck in his patrol car, and the two vehicles went to Tower 7, into Max, where Cpl. E. Rivera “shook down” both vehicles, guardspeak for examined thoroughly. This is daily procedure.
Inside 7 Block, the noon head count had gone smoothlyno one unaccounted for. The dummies in Roberts’ and McKinney’s cells fooled Officer Leroy Williams, who listed his post as “chow relief” in the block, while the officer in charge and second officer were on a lunch break.
“This totally unacceptable error allowed the facility’s count to clear,” Roach later wrote in an internal memo to D.C. Department of Corrections Director Margaret A. Moore. This memorandum and the reports of corrections personnel in this story were obtained by Washington City Paper under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act. “The [Division Operations Procedure],” Roach continued, “requires that officers making the count observe human flesh.” That obviously didn’t happen.
Inside the Wall, White followed the trash truck as it picked up and compacted all the dumpsters. He noted nothing unusual. Neither did Officer Brenda L. Martini, in Tower 5, who had a panoramic view of inmate movement, the seven dumpsters, and the trash truck on its rounds.
Roberts and McKinney had already slipped undetected into the waste stream from Max.
“As I landed inside on the floor of the truck in a squatting position, the compressor immediately came alive. So I ran toward the rear of the truck and leaped as high as I could up into the trash. The truck was about one-third full already, and I dug a hole in the trash, then sat.
“McKinney was next to me with his back to the side of the truck. The first thing I noticed once inside was the complete darkness, and then the terrible smell that almost made me vomit [unhappy face]. The sound of the compressor echoed through the truck, bouncing off the steel walls, making the floor and walls vibrate under my feet.
“‘Here it comes!’” Roberts said, “as we ran to the back…hoping to find safety. The first compression was painful but bearable. When it let up, we both checked to see if the other was all right. The last dumpster, No. 7, came next. The squeeze got a little tighter, but since we knew that there were only two more dumpsters left at the back gate, we found comfort in that.
“At the gate, the last two dumpsters were unloaded; then a cop climbed onto the top of the truck, where he would look down into the trash as the driver made three final compressions. Any movement at all could be detected, so we remained completely still and endured the three bone-crunching squeezes. The pressure was then let up as the cop waved to the tower to open the gate.
“But what we did not know was that the truck had come to the Wall first, as opposed to going to the Central complex first…so more trash had to be picked up [at Central].”
And there was a lot of trash at Central. The truck dumped and compressed the trash from inmate housing, the motor pool, the infirmary, the dental lab, the metal shop, the warehouse, the kitchen, and the tire retread shop. It all came raining down on McKinney and Roberts.
“I lost count of the many dumpsters he dropped inside….The garbage behind me became hard, cold, and wet, like a concrete wall.
“I was now trapped in the middle, buried alive. My head was the only thing visible. I couldn’t move, and there was no feeling anyway. I was trapped inside a body cask of wet, cold garbage and trash.
“There was no longer any air at all. I couldn’t breathe. I fought for air, now breathing harder and fasterthe taste of garbage was in my mouthbut I sucked in the funky air anyway, trying to fill my lungs.
“‘Reds? You all right?’ [McKinney asked.]
“‘No! Man, I can’t breathe. Here comes the compressor! Oh my God!’ I wanted to screamto shout out’Help we’re in here! Somebody turn it off!’”
At 2:07 p.m., the truck left the prison for the landfill, about a mile away.xxxxxxxxx
Ten minutes earlier, at approximately 1:57 p.m., Cpl. Tirzsha McKoy, stationed at the “safety office” near Tower 7, heard from a “confidential” sourcean inmatethat Roberts and McKinney “had made an escape through the trash compactor.” She called the officer in charge of 7 Block, Cpl. Dorothy West, and asked her to shake down Roberts’ and McKinney’s cells. West replied “that McKinney is usually on the floor watching television, and Roberts should be with the paint squad.” McKoy knew, however, that Roberts had a medical pass and hadn’t gone to work with the painters. McKoy then phoned Rivera at the sally port by Tower 7, and asked “if the trash was compacted prior to leaving.” Rivera said yes. McKoy headed for the supervisor’s office, and according to her written report she passed her tip to the lieutenant on duty.
The lieutenant’s clock said 2:10 p.m. when the tip came in, according to his report. The truck was gone.
At 2:20 p.m., Maximum Security Deputy Warden Matthew McLean was notified of a suspected escape. He ordered an emergency head count. Lt. Isaac Cooper, the shift supervisor, took off for 7 Block to supervise the count. Officer in charge West reported that she saw “what appeared to be a dummy or dead body” through the narrow window of Roberts’ cell. McKinney’s was similarly decorated. At 2:43 p.m., Cooper confirmed an escape to Max’s control center. Two minutes later, Warden Roach was notified, as well as Fairfax County authorities, and Lorton’s escape siren wailed out over the brick.
Pagers started buzzing on Emergency Response Team (ERT) officersthe prison equivalent of a SWAT teamfrom Maximum, Central, Occoquan, and Minimum Security. They went to their armories and picked up guns. The first ones, a lieutenant, a corporal, and a sergeant, took off in a corrections department truck for the landfill, where the trash was bound and from which the control center had already received a call about two inmates falling into the trash grinding machine.
“My knees were now going up to my chest. God, the pressure was breaking me in twofolding me up like a closed book.
“It twisted my neck one way and my body the other, squeezing my head until I knew it would burst in two. ‘God damn!’ I screamed. ‘Motherfucker! Shit!’
“‘Reds, you all right?’ McKinney’s shoulder was pushing my chin up. ‘Reds, you wanna call the cops?’ he asked.
“‘No! No! Man, it’s all or nothing. We either make it or we die together!’ I said. Inside my head though, I heard myself say, ‘Come on, motherfucker. Kill me. Get it over with!’
“I had been in knife fights, gang fights, fist and shootouts, but never nothing like this. I was rendered helpless. No defense, no way of fighting back!”
Roberts and McKinney were sadly misinformed about the amount of garbage that was going to follow them into the truck. They were also wrong about where the trash went. McKinney thought they were just going to be plopped out in the old landfill behind Lorton’s Youth Center Number One. Instead, they were dumped into a machine that grinds trash into little easy-to-burn bits.
“The first thing that I saw was the light rushing into the darkened truck. And instantly my lungs were filled with air,” Roberts recalls. “My back was facing the back of the truck. I tumbled through the air at the height of 40 to 50 feet. I saw the lights shining in the ceiling above, and I knew where we were. The incinerator. Not the landing field where the trash was dumped years ago.
“The trash behind me helped to cushion my fall. The trash fell out of the truck all in one chunk the shape of a block of wood. When I hit the ground I was covered in trash. I tried to kick it off, but I couldn’t move my legs.
“‘Man, get out of here!’ I shouted. I could hear the grinder roar. The sound was deafening.
“McKinney was now standing over me and pushing the trash off of me and to the side. But still I couldn’t move. ‘Man, I can’t move my motherfucking legs!’
“‘Rub them, Reds,’” McKinney said. “‘It’s just the circulation has been cut off.’
“I rubbed them like they were a magic lantern. ‘Help me up!’ I shouted, but when he grabbed hold of my arm, I screamed holy hell. My shoulder was dislocated.
“‘Go man! Go on, leave me!’ I told him. ‘I can’t make this one.’ McKinney hopped away on a broken foot. I clawed at the trash, fought to get away from the sound of the grinder. The [big block of] trash started to move like snow melting away from the heat of the sun. I panicked, and fought even harder to turn onto my side and crawl like a mad dog.”
McKinney confirms this narrative almost exactly. The only difference in his account is that it is he who delivers the heroic lines, and Roberts who wants to give up.
(Former warden Roach and other corrections department officials say that the grinder wasn’t onthat if it had been there would be “almost not enough of them left for us to identify,” according to Roach. Roberts stands by his account and in a telephone interview says, “It sure sounded on.”)
McKinney ran out of the rubbish and made off for some woods not far away. Landfill workers watched him go. Then Fairfax County police and Lorton’s ERTs arrived. Roberts offered no resistancehe was calling for their helpand got hauled out of the junk on a stretcher.
From there, he went to intensive care and a series of hospitals, the last of them the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ hospital. His legs had suffered multiple fractures. Protein from his crushed muscles had been secreted into his blood, which affected his kidneys and started “causing me to piss out shit black as coffee.” Today, a slight limp is the only lasting physical legacy of the dumpster play.
About an hour later, as ERT officers combed the landfill, the woods, and the nearby prison dairy, Cpl. Lonny W. Bish of Max’s ERT heard another officer shout from the woods, “We found him, we found him!” Bish and three other officers rushed over. “I observed Resident McKinney, Elbert, hiding in a patch of briars. I drew my weapon and ordered Resident McKinney to crawl slowly out of the briars. Resident McKinney complied with all orders he was given.” Back to Max.
Both were charged with escape, pleaded guilty, and sentenced to forever.
Bill Meeks, the corrections depart-ment director of communications, thinks that in the minds of lifers, an escape that lasts only two weeks is worth the risk: “That’s the mentality.”
Roach says that if you lock enough guys up for long enough, eventually a few of them might sneak away despite the best efforts.
“Inmates will sit around and watch for their brief opportunity. They’re going to test it, and they’re going to test it every way they can.” (McKinney claims that he watched the operation of the trash dumping and its escort for a year before he and Roberts made their move.) Most attempts are found out quickly, in part because keeping a secret in prison is a difficult affair. “Without a good snitch line you won’t run a good prison,” Roach tells me.
Roach says that when he questioned Roberts and McKinney about the escape, they were “quite upset at how quickly they’d been apprehended, and did not anticipate that they’d be dropped into a chopper.” Furthermore, he says, they had figured out that someone had snitched on their escape, and they were highly pissed off.
Roach remembers Roberts as a good and efficient worker within the prison who would never cooperate with the administration against another inmatea convict version of the stand-up guy who would never testify against a fellow perpetrator. Roberts ended up with a 60-to-life sentence because he didn’t roll over on his colleagues in the Ritz-Carlton. He wouldn’t expect as much from some of the people he shares a cellblock with these days.
“Understand that I know how it is for the new young men coming into the prison todaywhat it’s like to be young and full of energy. But nobody prepared these kids for prison life. Nobody told them that it was a flipside to hustling and getting money, the fast cars and chicks and fancy clothes. They just gave them a key of dope and an AK-47 or Uzi and said, here, get paid. So now in prison they feel that they must be tough or at least play the part. [But] the entire concept of a convict is almost nonexistent [unhappy face]. They’re all rolling over and turning rat.”
Snitching is a ready-made way to show prison administrators that you’re a good guy, that you respect authority, that you are society’s team player, that you’re not one of “them,” that you are “rehabilitated.”
Roberts rejects “rehabilitation.” Rehabilitation meanshe thinksselling out, giving in: “Rehabilitation to me implies restoring a thing back to its original condition.”
“What I was before coming to prison is what brought me to prison in the very first place. The combination of my unique personality and the circumstances of my ghetto environment all conspired to put me in the penitentiary. What I strive to do while here is to reshape myself. Form a new me, a better me, a more complete me.”
Instead of rehab, Roberts believes in an individual’s ability to “reform,” which “implies a reconstructing of a thing or reforming a new.”
“Rehabilitate? No! Reform? Yes! The United States created ‘Big Reds’; I refined him,” he writes.
Roberts is a convict’s convict. He believes being a good convict is what would make him a good citizen.
“I have invested a lot of time and energy into the negative means [unhappy face]. I now strive to approach my ultimate goalof course, differently.”
He is, like many men who are locked up, an increasingly spiritual person. When his body was locked in trash and subjected to multiple bone-crushing compressions, he prayed:
In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful.
All praise be due to Allah, the lord of the worlds,
the beneficent, the merciful master of the day
Thee do we worship and thine aid we seek.
Show us the straight way.
The way of those on whom you have bestowed thy grace.
Not those who have earned thy wrath nor
“Prison is like watching your life pass you by on the big screen,” Roberts wrote from Lewisburg, another high-security facility, with another square brick perimeter around it, and other towers at the corners. It was built in the 1930s, the same decade as the wall at Lorton’s Max. His girlfriend, Diane George, thinks he has gone to a better place. Even though the distance to Lewisburg means she can only visit him every two months instead of three times a week, George thinks it’s nicer than Lorton, since it has more programs and facilities. Roberts is on high-risk status there. Correctional officers need to see him and make a check mark on a clipboard every two hours.
From there he is writing his life story in letters to George, which he hopes to make into a book. In our correspondence, he would not discuss his previous escapes, saying, “Well, that’s another [story] reserved for my book.”
Once, when we first agreed to exchange letters for this story, in a conference call George arranged, Roberts said under his breath that he didn’t have a chance of getting out again. “That’s not true, baby,” she said promptly. “Yeah I know,” he said, quickly and just as promptly.
I asked him if we were going to run into any problemssending notes about escaping from jailsince his jailers can examine everything that goes to him.
“Ah, that depends!” he said, his voice risingas if there might be a cake with a you-know-what inside it. “Whatcha wanna send?”
Then I asked if he was going to be going anywhere soon, if he was going to be leaving Lewisburg. “No man,” he almost whispered. “This is my home.”
In his last letter before deadline, he wrote about inmates’ happiness when one of theirs makes it out. “There is a common bond more or less amongst real convicts, and so when one man is free, they all rejoice, root a cheer, yes! To learn that there is or has been a breakout, naturally one’s basic instinct is to say, Damn, I wish that it was me!” [happy face] CP