How Life Out of Prison Can be Harder than Life in Prison

January 30th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Back in the spring of 1974, Joe Dyer was kicked out of school in his senior year at the University of Tennessee for lifting a typewriter to make some extra cash. For the previous three years, Dyer had worked summer jobs to pay for tuition, selling a little pot on the side for some spending money. But without direction and with a larceny charge from the typewriter incident, Dyer, dejected and aimless, fell into trouble.

The risky promise of big payouts drew him into a shifty crowd, and small-time thefts soon led to burglaries for-hire. But bitterness and unpaid debts, stemming from a drugstore break-in Dyer and some friends had been asked to carry out for a Vietnam veteran, came to a head one night in a Tennessee parking lot. What started as an ambush attempt to claim unpaid money ended in two bodies on the pavement and three smoking guns. Dyer and his three friends, at a loss, dragged the bodies into the woody ditch and tried to lay low. 

In the trial that followed, thanks to various pleas and dubious prosecutorial dealings, two of Dyer's fellow accomplices had severely reduced sentences, and Dyer and his partner, Chip Grimes, were convicted of felony murder and given the death penalty for each crime (this was before a sentencing phase was required for death penalty cases in Tennessee). For two years, Dyer sat on death row, but in 1976, a landmark US Supreme Court case struck down Tennessee's mandatory death sentence for felony murderers in a broader decision that held mandatory death sentences to be unconstitutional. Dyer's death sentences was commuted to life in prison, and in 1976, he entered the Tennessee state prison population. 

On January 31st, 2014, Dyer was released into a halfway house in Crossville, Tenn. I reached out to Joe through a mutual contact I've made reporting on prisons, and over the course of a week recently, I spoke with him in a series of emails he composed on public access computers at a local library about his time in prison, reintegration, and the hardships felons face on the outside. Over the many emails we exchanged, Dyer was measured and eloquent, reflective with an admirable willingness to share his story. 

Editor's note: this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

ATTN: You had a pretty arduous time getting out of prison. Could you describe what that process entailed? 

Joe Dyer: [T]here was a statute that said no matter how many sentences you had, everyone would get a parole hearing after 30 years, so my parole date was 2004. In 1986, the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) went to a new computer system and recalculated my sentences, setting my parole date [for] 2040. I filed two post-conviction petitions and a petition for certiorari––which is an order for a higher court to review a lower court's decision. In 1993, they gave up and restored my original 2004 parole date. By that time, we were earning "good time," and there was a "safety valve" legislation that called for early parole hearings. So when I finally got my sentences straight, I was eligible for parole. When I went up for parole, I had protesters––the parents of one of the victims––and the Board put me off for five years. In 1998, I got two votes for parole, but the board chairman blocked parole, and put me off for another five years. In 2002, because of the victim's sister's protesting, I was put off for another two years. In 2004, with the victim's sister protesting, the same thing happened. In 2006, same story. I filed a petition claiming they were using a new statute to deny me parole, which they were, making it harder for me by violating the ex post facto clause––in other words, they were out of line using a new statute over and above older ones.  The court agreed, and the Board had to conduct another hearing, again putting me off for another two. Again and again.

Finally the board chairman retired, and I had two hearings in 2013. This time, even with the protesters crying and complaining, they granted me parole, and on January 31, 2014 I was released to the Bread of Life's halfway house in Crossville, Tenn.

What happened when you got out?

JD: I began working in Crossville as a part-time clerk, and found one-day-a-week employment with a local attorney as a legal assistant. In November, I moved into an apartment where I live now. Unfortunately, I was laid off at the [halfway house]; they hired their son and this caused a staff budget problem, so I had to go.

What has been your experience with getting back into the workforce?

JD: I'm currently looking for a job, and it's difficult. I have two strikes against me: I'm an ex-con and I'm also, 64 years old - and have been told I should retire. I wish. Since my prison jobs didn't pay into Social Security, I am ineligible for Medicare or Social Security benefits for another year and a half. Even then, the Social Security check will be pathetic, since I haven't paid much in. I have many practical job skills, but no certification or license, so I'm blocked from many jobs I am otherwise qualified for.

I graduated [the] University of Tennessee (finally) in 1975 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, while in jail through correspondence for the last few courses I needed. I took courses in prison from the Chattanooga State Community College, earning an Associate of Science in 1995.  

In prison, I have worked as a pharmacy technician, blood plasma center lab technician, and law clerk. None of this seems to count out here. I worked 16 years as the prison newspaper editor and photographer, and while at the [halfway house], I set up their website and added the content (breadofliferescue.org) and did their quarterly newsletter. So, I'm educated, I have word processing skills, and am familiar with computers and the internet. Again, all of this doesn't seem to count for anything out here. I'm hoping to get a factory job soon, I'm on the hiring list and just waiting for an opening. I hope the work isn't too strenuous.

What are some of the other blocks to successful reintegration you've come across?

JD: I haven't even gotten to the felony convictions. Every job I have applied for asks if I have been convicted of a felony. Some of the applications say a conviction doesn't necessarily bar you from hiring, but I'm sure it doesn't help. Then there's the problem of listing previous employment history. I have been out for a year now, so going back more than that, all I can list is prison jobs.

When I got out, I thought I could get a job working as a legal assistant with a law firm. Well, Crossville either has too many attorneys or not enough legal work. Either way, I have been lucky to land a one-day-a-week job with a new attorney––but that's all.

So, what am I supposed to do? I currently have an application in at a warehouse, a chicken house, and Lowes. I hope one of them comes through this month, but who knows? I think I am going to have to sign up for this federal grant program for underemployed old people, it gives 20 hours a week at minimum wage.

I can't get jobs I have the ability to do. I am going to have to work in a factory or warehouse job, and I have no experience with that. In prison I could get any skilled job I wanted due to a lack of competition. Usually I was better educated and skilled than my supervisor. Out here, I'm nothing. 

What are your thoughts on your experience with the criminal justice system in general? 

JD: They kept me in too long. I have no income, no savings, no retirement, and no social security. When I'm really depressed about my situation, I have thought about going back to prison where life was easier. That sounds crazy, right? But I feel out of place all the time. I don't fit in. It's hard to make friends. I'm lonely. I go to church, but the people my age all own their own houses, own businesses or are comfortably retired. They have adult children - I was locked up while still a college student. I have nothing in common with them. The women my age are not attractive to me, and I'm probably not a very good catch, either.

I should be thankful for what I do have - a rent-subsidized apartment, a car, some money in the bank. I will probably get another job before I run out of money. While in the joint, we all thought about getting out like going to heaven - everything would be great. It hasn't turned out that way for me. Being poor and on parole isn't much different than being in a minimum-security prison. I guess I'm just feeling sorry for myself, but I can understand why ex-cons get frustrated and commit some stupid crime just to bet back into prison where they feel comfortable and at home. Maybe I'm institutionalized, I don't know.