Gary Hyer has been in prison for 13 years. After a slow metamorphosis that has changed him from a drug-dependant murderer into an articulate college graduate, he's finally earned a second chance.
But he can't afford the cost of parole. Nor can he afford the high cost of rent in Howard County, where he wants to start his life again.
Hyer, convicted of second-degree murder in 1978 for the PCP-induced slaying of his girlfriend, has looked at his rehabilitation in thestate prison system as a shot at personal redemption.
He has earned college degrees, turned to the prison library for soul-searching and sworn off the drugs that ruined his life.
"I just want people to try and get to know me for who I am today and not for who I was 15 years ago," said Hyer, 38. "I think I've shown that I'm worth taking that chance on."
Yet, even though his prison supervisors and the managers at his pre-release job believe he is thoroughly rehabilitated, Hyer is not being allowed to leave.
"I guess I'm hoping that there's someone out there who can help me," said Hyer, who has been toldby state parole officials that he cannot be released until he has found a suitable home and built up an acceptable
"I've raised $2,300 on my job, but they say it's just not enough."
At a hearing last week, parole officials told Hyer that his parole would be deferred until mid-January, pending his acquisition of a home and satisfactory cash savings.
Hyer has contacted several socialservices agencies in the area, none of which can guarantee him housing on his day of release. He has no family here, only a sister in Pennsylvania, and refuses to solicit help from her or the old acquaintances he knew during his days as a drug abuser.
"I'm not asking them. I've had to forget all about my past. I can't ever go back to it."
His struggle has been a major disappointment for him, since the rejection he has suffered -- 24 employers have turned him down for a job -- seems to indicate that society does not forgive or trust those who are rehabilitated.
"I'm being realistic about this. I know thatI'm going to have a rough time with some people who won't like me for what I've done or for where I've been," he said. "But I think I canmake a difference in someone's life, maybe as a drug counselor. If Ican't make a difference in someone else's, then I'll make a difference in my own."
The problem for Hyer is a rare but nevertheless familiar one for prison and social service officials, who say that inmates are not always successful in finding a prearranged home.
One ofthe final conditions of parole is typically that the inmate must have a "starting point" to begin life outside prison, said Susan Kaskie,a spokeswoman for the Maryland Parole and Probation Division. Each case is evaluated on a personal basis and is considered confidential, Kaskie said.
But it is generally accepted that an inmate will not be released without "having some sort of life plan," which would include a job, a place to live and some proof that the inmate can supporthimself or herself financially, Kaskie said.
"It shows that you're taking some responsibility for your life," she said. "We're not going to release anyone unless they have those kind of arrangements settled."
Jeff Maszal, the hot-line coordinator for the Grassroots shelter in Columbia, said he has been working with Hyer on trying to find him suitable housing. But Grassroots does not reserve spaces, he said.
Four other inmates, from the Baltimore County Detention Centerand the Maryland Correctional Institution at Hagerstown, have calledin the last two months with the same problem as Hyer's, Maszal said.
"It's a tough situation. We just can't guarantee them a spot, andwithout a guarantee, they can't be released," Maszal said.
Other social service agencies will not take capital offenders. And according to Evelyn Handy of the county Homeless Service Center, state law prohibits inmates from receiving federal aid that used to pay for up to10 days of motel expenses.
Kelly Koontz, a worker at Laurel Advoca
cy and Referral Services, which helps underprivileged people find local housing, said she also has tried to help Hyer.
"There's nothing we can do for him, unfortunately," she said. "I think it's necessary that someone released from prison should be required to have a home before they leave. But it's making it very difficult for some who just have no place to go."
The difficulty in stepping out into freedom has come as a shock to Hyer, who said he never expected that his long-awaited release from prison would hinge on his lack of money.His 30-hour-a-week job as afternoon cashier at a Columbia Exxon carwash only pays $5 an hour.
Lloyd Thacker, the owner of the Exxon station, said Hyer has been an exemplary employee since he began the work-release job in January. Thacker employs 10 pre-release prisoners at the station.
"This is what rehabilitation is all about," he said. "You've got to give these guys a chance. If you don't want to give them an opportunity to prove themselves, then why try and rehabilitate them in the first place?"
Further hampering Hyer's troubles is his dream of leaving the Jessup prison facilities -- where he has served time in the Patuxent Institution and the Pre-Release Unit -- to start a new life in Howard County.
For his first supervised release from prison, three years ago, Hyer opted to go to The Mall in Columbia, where he played with a puppy in a pet shop.
"I'll never forget that day. I hadn't seen a puppy in 10 years," he said. "That's what you miss when you're locked up -- little things."
Since then, he has visited Lake Kittamaqundi and other county locations during his releases under the care of social workers.
"If I'm going to start again, Howard County is a good place to do it. It's the cleanest place I've ever seen, and the people here seem very good," Hyer said. "I think people will like me. I've changed."
It was Christmas Eve 1977 when Hyer, then living in Suitland, killed Diana Lynn Knack during an argument at her Forestville apartment. He confessed to the crime two months later and was sentenced the following summer.
For the Knackfamily, the news of Hyer's impending parole does not raise questionsof bitterness. After 13 years, Diana Knack's mother has grown to accept -- and even forgive -- the crime that Hyer committed.
But LilaKnack says that the family still feels much pain over her daughter'sdeath and she had hoped the criminal justice system would enforce its own penalties with more conviction.
"I can forgive him for what he did, and I might even believe that he's a changed person," she said. "I have nothing against him turning good. I just think that if he is sentenced to 30 years, he should serve his time.
"Can a person really change that much? I don't know," she said. "But if he is sincere about turning good, he should serve his time and help others in jail. They need all the help they can get."
Hyer said he once thought about writing some sort of letter to Knack's family, "saying something to try and comfort them." His prison counselor advised against it, he said, since "it would have hurt them."
"To me, nothing is worse than the pain I've been through, but I really feel like that part of my life -- drugs, not caring about people, selfishness -- is over," he said.
His hair is slightly gray now and he's gained 25 poundsduring his prison term, physical changes that Hyer said crept up on him as surely as his realization that he had to reform or die on the street.
"For once in my life, I like who I see in the mirror," he said. "I've done just about everything I could do."
Taking advantage of prison libraries and college programs, he earned an associate'sdegree in sociology from the Community College of Baltimore and a bachelor's degree in business management from Morgan State University. He earned trade certificates in auto mechanics, air conditioning and refrigeration, and electricity.
Hyer said that when he leaves prison, he hopes to take a walk in the forest.
"I just want to walk peacefully along some place where there are no fences or guards," he said.