George Cason killed a man once. He says he didn't mean to kill him, but that's the way it worked out. The man was collecting rent around Carey and Riggs, and he was carrying money, and Cason and a few friends only meant to rob him.
The man has been dead for 22 years now, and Cason's been behind bars almost as long. He's doing life. In the time he's been in prison, he's become a father and then a grandfather. The generations come and go, but Cason stays where he is.
Once in a while every year, Cason's daughter comes to see him at the Baltimore City Correctional Center on Greenmount
Avenue. She's brought her 3-year-old son a few times. Cason says he lies on his cot at night and frets over the years that have gotten away while the people in his family lived their lives without him.
He says this is what drove Levi Hudson and George Jolley to make their breaks. Hudson and Jolley are the two convicted murderers who escaped Monday from a bus returning from a prison work detail.
It was pretty easy getting away, actually. The bus stopped at Hillen and Ensor streets and the two inmates, sitting near the back behind about 35 other men, simply slipped out the rear door of the minimum-security bus.
Hudson, 48, convicted of two homicides, was scheduled for a parole hearing next February. He's been locked up for 26 years. Jolley, 59, also doing time for homicide, was scheduled for a parole hearing in September. He's been incarcerated for 18 years.
"Big deal," George Cason said on Tuesday morning, the day after the big escape. "People think they were foolish to jump right before their parole hearings, but that don't mean nothing. People are getting paroled all the time, but not convicted murderers.
"These guys were looking at another five or six years here. They took the shot because they were getting old."
As this is written, Hudson and Jolley are still among the missing. Cason stays where he is. He says the prisoners like him, the ones doing time for murder, do not get enough credit.
Every day, he says, pointing across Greenmount Avenue, he walks outside this minimum-security lockup and cooks breakfast the pre-release building across the street.
He could make a break, but he does not. He could commit crimes, but he does not.
"Don't I deserve another chance?" he asks.
"You do," says his mother, Shirley Cason, 64 years old, sitting a few feet away.
"Don't I deserve a chance to see my family?" he asks.
"What about the family," a visitor asks, "of the man you killed?"
"I think about him a lot," Cason says without hesitation. "I think about his family a lot. I think about that day, and I think how foolish it was, and I can't believe I participated in it. It seems like another individual and not me."
He was 21 then. He says he was getting loaded on barbiturates and booze every day, and he was half out of his head and looking for money when he and his buddies went after the old man at Carey and Riggs.
"There was a struggle," Cason remembers, "and the man got shot." He pauses for a beat or two. "And I'll admit I was the one who shot. He passed away. I've regretted it."
There is a long silence now before Shirley Cason finally speaks.
"My son is much more mature today," she says. "He has a lot of faith now. He talks about God all the time. He works hard and he's been to school. Lord, I've seen so many changes in him. He's always ready to help somebody."
Many hear these words and remain unmoved. An innocent man died, and Cason wants a break. It doesn't matter that he's spent two decades behind bars, it's still a break. He lives, but his victim does not. Whatever happened to an eye for an eye?
"Yeah," he says, "but I was young and foolish. I understand a person should pay for a crime, but if a person changes, shouldn't that be considered, too? I was young and poor and frustrated. My father drank a lot, and I was embarrassed. I understand things now that I didn't back then. Doesn't that count for something?"
It's the eternal question in the criminal justice system. Do we believe in the redemption of human beings, that we can punish them and rehabilitate them and then return them to society to begin productive lives?
Or is it more important, finally, to draw the line somewhere? George Cason wants to come back to the outside world, but his victim can never come back. After two decades behind bars, Cason wants a compromise. He forgets that he's already gotten one.
It's the compromise society makes with those who kill. We do not take their lives in exchange for the lives they've taken. We allow them to outlive their victims.
It's the same message that slipped away from Levi Hudson and George Jolley last week. They found it frustrating to wait so long for parole.
They thought the system was unfair.
They forgot the gift they'd been given in the first place: long years behind bars, yes, but at least years when they still had their lives while their victims did not.