Kenneth Ireland

Kenneth Ireland is seeking compensation from the state after spending 21 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. (MICHAEL McANDREWS / Hartford Courant / April 14, 2014)

It was a man Kenneth Ireland had not seen in decades.

There he was, unrecognizable, staring back at him in a mirror in a New Haven restaurant where Ireland's lawyers had taken him for a steak dinner on the day he was released from prison after serving 21 years for a crime he did not commit.

"I remember thinking, who is this old guy?" Ireland said. "Then I realized it was me."

Mirrors are hard to come by in prison, Ireland, now 44, explained during an interview Monday, days after state officials announced they will not fight his efforts to seek $5.5 million to $8 million in compensation for years he lost locked up.

Ireland went to prison at age 18 for the 1986 rape and slaying in Wallingford of Barbara Pelkey, a 30-year-old mother of four. In 2009 he was freed, after DNA tests — pushed by lawyers with the Connecticut Innocence Project — pointed to another man, Kevin Benefield, as the killer. Benefield was convicted of Pelkey's murder in 2012 and is now serving a 60-year prison sentence.

While in prison, Ireland was extremely angry, often using it to ward off other inmates. Once released, something changed.

Ireland said he took a crash course in life in the weeks and months following his release. He had to learn how to get by doing the basic things in life on a daily basis: using an ATM card, a cellphone, a computer.

But he also stopped to savor the simplest things in the newest hours he spent outside the gates of prison.

There were so many things to appreciate, Ireland said.

Like color.

"You go from everything to being dark, gray and dingy, the same four walls that you see day after day, year after year," Ireland said. "Now you're out and cars are zooming by. There are people I've never seen before. There are vibrant colors everywhere. There are trees and grass."

And demons to battle.

"When I was first released, I would always fear that they were going to come to take me back to prison. Even to this day, I still think they're going to come and take me."

Soon after his release, he said, he barricaded himself in closets and back rooms at night.

Today, he will live only on the top floor of an apartment building, farthest from the street. He never answers his door. When he hears movement in the stairway, he turns the TV volume down and stays quiet.

"That's all residual things I'm dealing with from prison," Ireland said. He is in counseling.

21 Years Of Anger

"I was probably the most angry person in the entire world for 21 years," Ireland said. "I despised everything. You wouldn't be able to talk to me. I would just be very angry and bitter and dismissive."

He had to learn to navigate the prison terrors he was forced to endure. Gang violence on the outside bled into the maximum-security prison where he spent much of his sentence, the Connecticut Correctional Institution in Somers.

"All of that gang violence on the streets from all of those metropolitan areas were all dumped into this one prison," Ireland said. "You couldn't get away from it. So you had to go out and carry yourself in such a way so that people wouldn't mess with you."