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In the failure of James Featherstone, more evidence that our prison system should be torn down and rebuilt | COMMENTARY

James Featherstone raking leaves in front of his rented rowhouse in northeast Baltimore in 2018, a few years after his release from prison.
James Featherstone raking leaves in front of his rented rowhouse in northeast Baltimore in 2018, a few years after his release from prison. (Dan Rodricks / Baltimore Sun)

Sometimes I hear voices when I write, and the one I hear today says: “I told you so. Lifers are just dangerous criminals, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

I know that voice. It’s ancient, firm and unforgiving. It says people who commit the worst crimes are lost causes. They should never live among us again. Murder someone — even when you’re just a boy and your brain hasn’t fully developed — and you should die in prison.

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I heard this voice in 2014, when I first reported that James Featherstone would be getting out of his life sentence.

He had been convicted in the fatal shooting of a medical student, Alan Trimakas, near Johns Hopkins Hospital on a winter night in 1979. Trimakas was only 25. Featherstone was just 16. He said he was with other boys who tried to rob Trimakas and claimed he was not the one with the gun. But he was the only one convicted, and a judge sentenced Featherstone to life in prison.

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I did not hear of him again until after the Unger ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

That was in 2012. The state’s highest court found that judges’ instructions to juries in criminal trials before 1980 had been fundamentally flawed. Prisoners across the state appealed their decades-old convictions. Prosecutors struck deals to release them rather than retry them. Two hundred inmates have been released since then.

One was Featherstone.

He was 52, among the youngest of the Unger inmates. He had been in prison for 35 years, six months and five days. He got some help with his adjustment to life outside the walls from students at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and the University of Maryland School of Law.

A few years later, I visited him at a rowhouse he rented in Northeast Baltimore. He seemed to be doing well, at least in terms of attitude. “Whatever problems I have today,” he said, “they’re better than the ones I had.”

But he faced a big challenge: He had not been able to land a full-time job. Temporary ones were available, he said, but not one that offered a convicted felon 40 hours a week. That frustrated him.

Unlike other Unger inmates in their 60s and 70s, Featherstone was healthy and still had several working years ahead of him. He expressed an interest in counseling at-risk kids, convinced that early and positive intervention was the only way to keep them off the path to prison he had walked. “In Baltimore, and in this country, we fight things from the back end instead of jumping in front,” he said.

We had lunch at the Overlea Diner. I wished him luck. Once in a while I received a message from him, but those stopped coming about a year ago.

That’s around the time Featherstone was arrested in Harford County and charged with armed robbery. He and an accomplice allegedly held up a gas station in Aberdeen and led police on a car chase. More recently, both men were indicted on federal charges, accused of carrying out a series of armed robberies at discount stores in Baltimore in the month before the gas station holdup.

And so I hear that told-you-so voice: Once a criminal, always a criminal.

I don’t know what happened with Featherstone, but being unemployed or underemployed and needing cash are factors that usually precede armed robberies.

His case is deeply disappointing, especially to the small group of men and women who took an interest in him and thought he was on the right track. He’ll be 59 next month, and, if convicted, he faces time in federal prison. Maybe the voice I hear is right. Maybe Featherstone is a lost cause.

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But I look for lessons in broken things.

Featherstone was a boy when a judge sent him away to an adult prison. Before the Unger ruling years later, which came to him as a shock, Featherstone fully expected to die in prison. He told me that in 2018. Though eligible for parole, he had no hope of getting out and made no plans for life after prison. And Featherstone was not alone in that regard.

Our so-called correctional system needs to be torn down and rebuilt.

Prison is certainly about punishment, and denial of freedom is, indeed, punishment. (If you don’t believe that, ask for a taxpayer tour of a prison some day.) But it is a massive waste of time and money not to do everything possible to reform inmates from the moment they arrive to serve their sentences. Eventual freedom and successful reentry should be goals for everyone serving life with the possibility of parole.

It’s important that the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office is now reviewing sentences of senior inmates who have been locked up for way too long. But what I’m talking about starts at ground zero, from the day of intake at the Department of Corrections.

Last, but not least, about James Featherstone: Of the 200 Unger inmates released after the ruling, he is one of only eight who have returned to prison.

As I mentioned, he was one of the younger ones. He was still of working age when he got out. He needed to support himself, and he apparently needed even more support than he received in getting to self-reliance. But that should have started long ago, when he was just a boy.

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