A Prison Lifer Comes Home

Imprisoned for decades for a crime he committed as a juvenile, “Red Dog” Fennell was released as an old man into a baffling world.

Haywood “Red Dog” Fennell was finishing up work for the day, headed back to his cell at Pennsylvania’s largest-capacity prison, when a friend called him over, eager to share the news that had lit up the men’s tiny TV screens and sent shouts and whistles echoing down the long, cavernous cell block. It was June 25, 2012, and the U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole were unconstitutional for juveniles. Pennsylvania had imposed that sentence on more kids than any other state—some 500 of them, many now in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Men who still had their mothers called home to share the news. The jailhouse lawyers got creative with petitions to speed their release. The religious men said prayers. Fennell didn’t see much cause to celebrate. Forty-eight years of incarceration for a role in a fatal mugging when he was 17, and 11 denied commutation applications, had hardened him against fantasies of freedom. Besides, Fennell was 20 years old by the time he was convicted and sentenced. He figured the Supreme Court decision didn’t even apply to him.

But then lawyers started coming from the Philadelphia public defender’s office, driving up the country road to Graterford state prison, set in what had once been rolling farm country and turned into suburban sprawl during Fennell’s time inside. Pennsylvania was resisting the ruling, declaring that it wasn’t retroactive, but the lawyers said it was only a matter of time before a court would disagree. Indeed, in 2016, a follow-up Supreme Court decision made it clear: The 2012 decision must be applied retroactively to the more than 2,000 people like Fennell who had been serving mandatory life sentences without parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles.

Today, Pennsylvania, which incarcerated more juvenile lifers than any other state, has become the nation’s leader in releasing them: Just over 200 have been let out so far. Criminal-justice experts are looking to the state’s experience as a test case for states around the country grappling with the reality that ending mass incarceration, an increasingly bipartisan goal, will eventually require releasing long-term offenders convicted of violent crimes, who make up a large proportion of those in prison. While the implications of this are often framed as part of a broad public-safety debate, Fennell’s experience of it is profoundly personal: How do you find your place in the world as an old man when you’ve never lived in it as an adult?

Fennell was 17 years old when two officers arrived at his mother’s house in the middle of a May night in 1968 to take him to the police station. They denied his mother’s pleas to accompany him.

According to later testimony from one of those officers, Fennell sat with him, and no lawyer, for about an hour that morning before agreeing to make a statement about the night in question. Fennell later testified that the officer told him that if he made a statement, he would not get more than a year in jail. He felt pressured and scared. “Nobody there was my color, nobody my age—all cops,” he said later. “They took advantage of my ignorance, of my family’s ignorance of the legal system.”

In the signed statement, he said that, late on May 19, 1968, he had come upon a brawl. He joined in, mistaking the man on the ground for someone who owed him money. Before realizing his mistake, he punched the man. The victim was not his debtor, but a 42-year-old neighborhood man, Joseph Hayes; the two other boys appeared to be mugging him. The three boys left, but Fennell and one of the others returned later to see whether Hayes was alive; he was. The man grabbed Fennell’s leg, and Fennell threw a bottle at his head, or maybe onto the ground. (Fennell’s description of this varied throughout the statement. In court, he said he didn’t hit Hayes with the bottle, which he maintains today.) The other boy, Stephen Watkins, pulled out an object—Fennell assumed it was a knife—and began to pound Hayes with it, at which point Fennell retreated.

Hayes died in the hospital later that night, from fatal stab wounds. Fennell later said he hadn’t seen that Watkins was stabbing Hayes, and declined to testify against him. He also maintained he didn’t kill Hayes or conspire to mug him, and would not plead otherwise. The case went to trial, and a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, which in Pennsylvania came with a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole, including for juveniles. Fennell was the only one convicted in the incident. At 20, Fennell shipped off to prison.

At the time, Pennsylvania governors regularly commuted life sentences. Fennell figured he’d be out after 10 or 15 years, and didn’t let prison get in the way of his ambition to be a family man. A woman named Bernadette, a “good old church girl” he had been courting, on and off, since he was 15, visited him frequently from the start. What had been a casual relationship on the outside became serious. She traveled to visit him with friends, with his family, and sometimes on her own. He had two kids from a previous relationship—a son, Haywood “Butch” Carter, and a daughter, Darniece Carter—whom Bernadette would bring with her.

In 1979, when Fennell was living in the Outside Service Unit, a cluster of trailers huddled against the prison wall, he and Bernadette decided to get married. He and some other prisoners decorated the OSU visiting room with crepe paper, balloons, and ribbons. The prisoners’ wives catered a feast. “Even the guards came out to dance,” he said.

The way Fennell tells it, he and Bernadette would meet up on the sly when he was working off-site, helped by benevolent guards. “I would disappear for a little bit,” he said with a mischievous smile. In this way, he and Bernadette had three daughters together.

Over the years, as a sort of anniversary present, Fennell would offer Bernadette an out. “If you’re tired and you want to move on, I can accept that,” he would tell her. She didn’t.

Fennell first applied for commutation in 1978, just before Republican Governor Richard Thornburgh took office, which would mark the start of a tough-on-crime era in Pennsylvania. Thornburgh’s predecessor commuted 251 life sentences, and Fennell, who had served less than a decade by then, didn’t make the cut. Thornburgh would release only seven lifers, setting the tone for a future in which clemency was reserved for only a rare handful of cases.

In 1994, Fennell’s fading hopes of clemency were extinguished entirely after then-Governor Robert Casey commuted the sentence of a juvenile lifer named Reginald McFadden. Within months, McFadden killed two people and raped a third. McFadden’s crimes horrified the nation, spurring state legislators to tighten the laws governing commutation, including in Pennsylvania.

Not long after that, Graterford state prison stopped allowing lifers in the OSU. From then on, Fennell would live in a cell roughly the size of a parking space. By the time the Supreme Court decision came down in 2016, he was an old head—but youthful still, with a quick, boyish smile under an ever-present thin mustache. He had watched the rise of mass incarceration from the inside, as the prison system expanded from eight Pennsylvania state correctional institutions to 26. During a half century of laboring for the Department of Corrections, he laid parking lots for the new prisons, and led work crews building prison churches and mosques. By then, he figured he knew all there was to know about carpentry, masonry, plumbing, and roofing.

“There’s not a piece of heavy equipment I haven’t learned how to operate or fix,” he said in 2016, waiting for the court to revise his sentence. He said he had a job lined up at his niece’s construction company. He also had an idea to get the cheapest tools he could find, and do odd jobs for free for friends who’d supported him.

And, finally, he’d be able to be a family man. Fennell had observed thousands of young black men from Philadelphia come through on their way to the far-flung facilities he helped build. “He watched these correctional officers who came in young grow up. He watched me grow from a young kid to a grown man,” said Samuel Gladden, a released juvenile lifer 25 years Fennell’s junior. Fennell, he said, helped raise them all. Now, Fennell hoped, he’d finally be the father he’d always wanted to be, even a grandfather and great-grandfather, to a flock he’d given up trying to count, let alone recall their names.

One thing he was sure of: He’d finally be with Bernadette, his wife of 37 years. “I’m going to have to learn how to live with her,” he said, anticipating his homecoming. “I’m going to have to take very soft, tender steps in adjusting to living. It’s her house. She’s used to being in her house by herself.” But in November 2016, when Fennell finally found himself led into a Philadelphia courtroom to receive a new sentence, making him immediately eligible for parole, he sneaked a quick glance at the gallery to see who’d come to support him. Bernadette was not there.

Six months later, it was Fennell’s older brother, Edward Jackson, who showed up to drive him home from prison, along with Fennell’s son, Butch, and his daughter-in-law. Fennell had listed four possible addresses on his discharge form, Bernadette’s first, but in the car, Ed informed Fennell that he’d be crashing at his house. The entourage rolled up to Ed’s house and was greeted by a swarm of people who wanted to see the man who had been away longer than most of them had been alive. “The whole block was out,” Fennell recalls. His sister was there, and a gaggle of relatives from multiple generations—some he hadn’t met. A local news station was on-site too. At age 66, Fennell was one of the oldest and longest serving of Pennsylvania’s 521 juvenile lifers. The news clip showed him laughing and bear-hugging relatives. Sitting on the stoop, he turned up his abundant charm, asking the camera cute questions about the Philadelphia he left behind: Where was the pay phone? Where were the shoe shiners?

Fennell’s wife, Bernadette, and their three daughters arrived later in the evening, after they had finished work. They came bearing gifts—a windbreaker, shirts, and dress shoes for church—but didn’t stay long.

Ed’s daughter, Shanique—not yet born when Fennell went inside—had been one of his biggest boosters while he was incarcerated, calling state senators and groups such as the Innocence Project, which seeks exonerations for those who are wrongfully convicted, to try to get him out. Shanique was the one who had called the TV crew to film Fennell’s welcome home. A couple of days later, she, her husband, and their son took him to a department store for some non-state-issued threads. The last time Fennell selected clothing, it was the 1960s. Now he gravitated toward a fedora with a feather. “Let’s get you things you can wear right now,” Shanique told him.

Shanique’s husband took out his iPhone and captured Fennell modeling a potential outfit. He turned in front of the mirrors outside the dressing-room stalls, checking himself out in a pink button-down Shanique had picked out. When a stranger exited a dressing room and passed behind him, he jumped.

About two weeks after Fennell’s release, Shanique put out the word to family and friends to come celebrate at a less spontaneous gathering, and bring basics for her uncle: T-shirts, underwear, socks. About 20 people showed up. Bernadette and their three daughters didn’t, but Fennell didn’t take it personally. He figured the gathering just wasn’t their scene—all that alcohol and dancing. He came away from the party well supplied. The most generous of his friends was William Covington, a retired correctional officer, and his wife, Bunny. The couple came with boxes upon boxes.

Top: William Covington, a retired correctional officer, credits Haywood Fennell with saving his life after he was attacked by two inmates decades ago. Here, Fennell visits with Covington’s wife, Bunny Covington. Bottom left: A photo of Covington and Fennell, on display in Covington’s living room. Bottom right: Covington is ill and doesn’t get out often. The two friends pass time watching TV. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

Fennell and Covington had met in Eastern State Penitentiary, a fortress-like former prison in the middle of Philadelphia. They reunited at Graterford when they both ended up relocated there. Fennell liked that Covington talked to him like a human, not an inmate; Covington enjoyed Fennell’s conversation. One day in June 1980, Covington was attacked by inmates while he was guarding a doorway. Someone stabbed him and threw him over a second-floor walkway. Fennell sprang to the rescue, lifted his friend over his shoulders, and delivered him to the medics. Their friendship, cemented in that moment, grew through years of conversation on the prison grounds. When Covington retired, he and Bunny became frequent visitors to the prison.

A photo of Fennell and Covington with stylized script that reads “lifelong friends” is on display in the Covingtons’ living room. Covington is a hair taller than Fennell, his skin a few shades darker. Covington is ill and can’t drive, so soon after Fennell arrived home, Covington handed him the keys to his white pickup truck. They often passed the time at Covington’s home watching ball games on TV or old Westerns. For Fennell, it was a daily thrill just to get out of the house, after so many years of being locked into his cell at a set time.

Though not behind prison walls, Fennell would be under parole supervision for the rest of his life, not completely free from the Department of Corrections. Still, he was rapidly checking off boxes for a civilian life: clothing, a yard to putter in, a room of his own—actually, a corner of an unfinished basement with a twin bed, a few shirts hanging from a pipe, and a TV jammed up against the water heater. Realizing he could live, if modestly, on the $830 a month he got from Social Security, the bulk from spousal benefits, he abandoned the idea of looking for work; he was past retirement age, after all.

But material things were the easy part. He was still working out how to navigate family life, and repay relatives for decades’ worth of visits, letters, and phone calls—for not giving up on him.

A variety of support groups have formed in Pennsylvania to help juvenile lifers adjust to life outside. Some are peer-led, and one is organized by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Fennell sometimes attends the state-run meeting. The specter of Reggie McFadden, the commuted prisoner who went on a murder spree soon after he was released, haunts him, and he wants to do what he can to keep himself and the other juvenile lifers in line. He encourages them to take his number and call when they feel out of control. He’d rather they took their frustrations out on him than on a family member or stranger.

The returned juvenile lifers are living through a historic moment, the mass release of people who’ve been locked up for their entire adult lives. They recognize the weight of that, and its fragility—how their success could pave the way for others to be released, but also how this moment would be shattered by just one of them committing a violent crime.

In July, they got a grim reminder of how precarious this moment of possible reform could be. News spread across Pennsylvania of a series of six alleged killings by five recent parolees, among them Keith Burley, who had been paroled less than four months earlier from a sentence for third-degree murder when he allegedly fatally stabbed his girlfriend’s 8-year-old son. While the Pennsylvania secretary of corrections cautioned against a “knee-jerk” backlash, calls to review the parole process began echoing around the state, from prosecutors, the correctional officers’ union, and lawmakers.

It’s not yet clear what shape any reforms might take—or how they might affect those juvenile lifers still seeking parole. Parole Board Chairman Ted Johnson called the cohort of released juvenile lifers one of his biggest success stories. They’ve been given more support than nearly any other group. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections did its best to untangle decades of paperwork and get everyone a photo ID, and it offered vouchers for six months’ rent. It even provided virtual-reality tours of the halfway house where some would be staying.

Of just over 200 released, six have faced new charges, but only one has been convicted of a new crime, contempt. That’s less than a 3 percent recidivism rate. “When you’re looking at the percentages of the guys who’ve come back in court, and compare that to our overall, which is around 40 percent, you really know you’ve done a good job,” Johnson said.

That outcome supports a theory the U.S. Supreme Court first advanced in 2005, when it outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. The Court took stock of “evolving standards of decency,” as well as a growing body of neuroscience suggesting kids’ immaturity makes them less culpable than adults. It also emphasized that kids, more than adults, are amenable to change. The low recidivism rates likely also reflect the reality that criminal behavior declines dramatically as people age out of their teens and early 20s.

At the May meeting run by the state, though, it was evident that the men were in different stages of assimilating into life outside prison. Fabian Lopez, out just two weeks, appeared to be in a honeymoon phase. “Oh my God. I can’t describe it. It’s a dream,” he said. But he was already deep in the aggravations of reentry, struggling to obtain a birth certificate and a Social Security number so he could shoulder his way back into the workforce. Several weeks after that, word rippled through the juvenile-lifer community and into the prisons that Lopez was dead—a fatal overdose, according to the Philadelphia medical examiner.

Thomas Roach, the oldest man to be released, married his childhood sweetheart at age 68, went through a work-readiness program, landed a counseling job, and is building credit to purchase his first home, all in just 14 months—the benchmarks of adulthood, accessed at hyper-speed. Recently, though, he lost that job; he said he was fired after a background check revealed his long-ago criminal history. Roach attributes what success he’s had to his own hard work, rather than to any support provided by the government. “Everything I got, I got it on my own. The state and the city abandoned us,” he said.

Fennell is prone to skipping the support-group meetings, especially in inclement weather, but some men find them helpful. One, Damon Allen, said it was instructive to learn basic life skills he had never had to pick up in prison: how to manage laundry, or nutrition, or a bank account. On this night, a parole staffer led the men through a discussion of their strengths and weaknesses. It was meant, she said, to help the men become their best selves. Afterward, she reminded them to pay their supervision fees.

Joanna Visser Adjoian, a co-founder of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP), a Philadelphia nonprofit that works with juveniles in the adult criminal-justice system, said organizations across the city convened in 2016 to support the homecomings with services such as job training, legal assistance, and housing. But as it became clear that there would not be government funding to help pay for that work, it grew difficult to sustain. In 2018, Adjoian’s organization launched a website called the Reentry Navigator, and encourages juvenile lifers, many of them incarcerated since before the invention of the internet, to log in and find resources to help themselves.

Top left: Fennell runs errands in the North Philadelphia neighborhood where he lives. He worries that people will look at him and see a criminal. Top right: His local Walgreens is a familiar stop for him. Bottom: Fennell gazes at an overpass that he says was not there when he went to prison. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

Recent similar mass releases have created a growing understanding of what’s required to help older people succeed in reentry. In Maryland, where more than 190 people sentenced on violent crimes before 1981 were released under a 2012 state-supreme-court decision regarding flawed jury instructions, the Open Society Institute of Baltimore kicked in $400,000 to cover basic social services, referrals to health care and drug treatment, and emergency grants to cover a month’s rent, a phone bill, or just a bag of groceries.

“We were dealing on the bottom level of the Maslow pyramid of needs,” said Rebecca Bowman-Rivas, who administered that support through the University of Maryland Law and Social Work Services Program. Even with 40-year-old convictions, people were routinely rejected from senior housing and fired from jobs because of their records.

John Pace, who now works for YSRP as a reentry coordinator, wants to move beyond the focus on basic needs and help formerly incarcerated people thrive. “I don’t want to be in survival mode,” he said.

Fennell’s son, Butch, who was two months old when Fennell was incarcerated, was elated at his father’s return. “It’s what I envisioned growing up: being able to be there with him, for him, and vice versa,” Butch said. When Butch was in his 20s, he briefly joined his father in prison, with a conviction for selling narcotics; that had been the first time they’d spent time together outside a visiting room. On the outside, their favorite thing to do was perambulate the city streets, side by side. “I call him my walkie,” Butch said—slang for best friend, prison lingo for the person you walk the yard with.

But some of Fennell’s other bonds were becoming strained. Fennell’s sister Diana said visiting prison did not prepare her for day-to-day interactions with her brother. In brief interactions at prison, she said, “you don’t have to deal with normal-life, everyday things.” Now she found herself retreading the dynamics of her childhood, when Fennell would boss her around. On his first visit to her house, she said, he cursed loudly in front of an elderly neighbor, which she felt was disrespectful. After that, she didn’t invite him back, and when he came to visit her son anyway, she took to retreating to her bedroom. Fennell’s view of their relationship contradicts hers: He doesn’t remember getting in trouble for cursing, and didn’t notice her making herself scarce.

As for Bernadette, their relationship seemed to have evaporated. They’d text, and Fennell would sometimes call to ask her out. “Sometimes she answers,” he said, “sometimes she don’t.” Through Diana, she declined to be interviewed for this story.

Fennell wanted more than anything to be an exemplary family man. Working out how to accomplish that, when even his wife kept her distance, was the hard part. His $830 a month included a few hundred in Supplemental Security, but he mostly relied on close to $600 in Social Security spousal benefits, thanks to Bernadette’s years in the workforce. He said he’s offered to refund her a portion of that, but she declined.

He realized at one point that what he had for riches was a part of his identity he’d kept all through his prison years—an affinity and skill for manual labor. About seven months after he was released, close to Christmas of 2017, he repainted Ed’s kitchen in the middle of the night, to surprise Ed and his wife, Eleanor, and to stay out of the way when they needed it. “Eleanor likes to hang out there, so I wouldn’t inconvenience her,” Fennell said.

Next, he restored the tiles in his cousin’s basement. That went over well, so he offered to fix her doors and shampoo her carpets. He used a trick he’d learned in jail: add just a little bit of floor stripper to the shampoo and water.

Helping family, neighbors, and friends with landscaping and household maintenance gives Fennell a sense of purpose. Here, he works in the garden outside his brother and sister-in-law’s house, where he lives. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

Word got out that Fennell’s services were high quality and, best of all, free. He started extending himself to neighbors, friends, friends of friends. “It’s a beautiful thing to create something,” he said. “It gave me a thrill. No high-school diploma, no college degree—God blessed me to be mechanically inclined.”

Though Fennell has never stopped insisting that he didn’t murder anyone, he’s racked with guilt over something else: being away from his wife and kids for so long. “They grew up without me and depended on who?” he said. Back in prison, he had often envisioned burglars targeting his wife and girls. “I never felt comfortable in jail because no male was protecting them,” he said.

It felt like every time he tried to show he cared about his third daughter, Felicea, he accidentally upset her. Felicea, now in her 30s, considered herself a daddy’s girl. She said, “I thought it was going to be all peaches and roses, and we’d just fall into this comfortable space, and it would be like he’s never been anywhere else, like he’d never been away … The reality of it was so totally different.”

She felt like he still saw her as a little girl, in need of fatherly advice—and criticism. A particularly sore subject was her choice to have a child out of wedlock. That child was 11 when Fennell came home, and he still remarked on it. “He felt that he wasn’t here to protect us from certain things, but I’ve never held him responsible for that,” she said.

Fennell denied being bothered by the fact that Felicea wasn’t married; what stung, he said, is that no one had told him right away when she was pregnant. “I didn’t even know she was dating,” he said. “It hurts because I wasn’t there to watch them grow, I wasn’t included.”

Above his bed, Fennell keeps tokens and messages of love from his children. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

It was hard for Fennell to leave his prison baggage behind. Some mornings, he woke up in his twin bed and waited quietly for someone to unlock his door. Even after he remembered himself and got up, he hesitated to make breakfast, to the mild irritation of his sister-in-law. “She tells me all the time, ‘You live here! You stop that. You do what you want to do. I’m tired of telling you it’s all right to go get something from the refrigerator,’” he said.

In 2018, when he learned to text, Fennell started using these quiet hours, before anyone else was awake, to compose a daily batch of text messages to family members. “You know about 6-something, you’re going to get that text,” Felicea Fennell said. “I call him the weatherman, because it’s always something about the weather. Sometimes it’s, ‘Good morning, be safe. Love you.’ Unless he’s upset with me; then it will be a couple of days.” Whereas face-to-face communication could be fraught, composing a text message was uncomplicated—a bit like the letters he used to write home from prison. It took Fennell nearly an hour to write all the texts, but the return was worth it: “Then, throughout the day, Ding! Ding! Ding!

Fennell’s small, quiet life is unfolding amid a major overhaul in the U.S. prison system that could put many more people in his position. After three decades of rapid growth, the nation’s incarceration rate has fallen about 15 percent since 2007, reflecting declines in violent crime and reforms in some states with large numbers of incarcerated people. But so far, states that have released prisoners have mostly focused on low-level offenders sentenced long ago to harsh terms under mandatory-minimum drug laws and nonviolent three-strikes laws. In Pennsylvania, advocates for further shrinking prison populations—for example, by releasing geriatric prisoners—have pointed to the newly released juvenile lifers as examples of model prisoner reentry.

Marsha Levick, the chief legal officer of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, a legal-advocacy nonprofit focused on juvenile-justice issues, believes Pennsylvania’s juvenile lifers are the proof needed to more aggressively change the justice system as a whole. Levick argued the case that set Fennell free—that of Henry Montgomery, a juvenile lifer who’d been at Angola prison in Louisiana for 52 years. “As a nation, we’re not there yet. We’re not ready to embrace a different model of justice,” she said. “But we’re certainly having a more robust conversation than I think we’ve ever had.”

Progress, though, is lurching and uneven. Other states with large numbers of juvenile lifers aren’t experiencing the same movement toward mass decarceration. Michigan has released only about 26 percent of its 369 juvenile lifers, Louisiana about 15 percent of its 300 or so. Among those denied was Montgomery, now 72: Three years after his landmark Supreme Court decision, the state’s parole board cited a “lack of maturity.”

On a Tuesday morning in April, just about two years after his homecoming, Fennell stared at an intake form at his doctor’s office. The bright-yellow plastic chair Fennell sat on was bolted to the floor. Only a few other patients sat in the sparse office. A cooking show flickered on a television fixed to the back wall, the perky hostess showing viewers how to roast brussels sprouts, as Fennell considered a question about the conditions under which he would want to be resuscitated. It perplexed him. For nearly his entire life, most of his decisions were made for him, and now he was supposed to tell a doctor what to do? “Yeah, if I get a heart attack or something, I want y’all to do something to help me,” he said out loud in the direction of the form. He let out an exaggerated groan. “I don’t understand this stuff,” he said.

Fennell comes here once a month for a checkup, one of the very few consistent obligations in his life these days. Planning ahead is not his forte, but he is always on call, volunteering his labor with an almost manic drive. He has planted a large bush at the Covingtons’; mowed at least three yards on his block, plus others beyond; painted a neighbor’s front door and porch trim; cleared poison ivy from a friend of a friend’s fence; hauled his still sturdy, 5-foot-9 frame over the rear fence of a relative’s rowhouse to fell a weed tree so thick, she couldn’t open the back door; and washed too many cars to count.

He takes special care with Ed’s car, a navy-blue Chrysler 300. At least once a week, Fennell fills a bucket with cold water, grabs a rag, and wipes down the sedan, which he describes with reverence: “It’s the car that brought me to freedom.” Ed, who is 77 and beset with ailments that include prostate cancer, doesn’t make it out of the house much, but he knows Fennell keeps his car clean. “Yeah,” he said. “I seen my water bill get high.”

Fennell left the doctor’s office still thinking about the intake form and his mortality. The doctor told him his blood pressure had gone up a bit since his last visit—a change Fennell attributes to a bag of potato chips. “I said, ‘Doc, here’s some advice: Don’t tell an old man his blood pressure is up after giving him a paper about “do not resuscitate.” ’”

Other than the high blood pressure, Fennell is in good health for a man his age, particularly one who spent most of his life in prison. Unlike many other former prisoners, he has a room (or a big-enough basement corner to pass for one), an income (albeit small and fixed), and food on the table (mostly thanks to his sister-in-law, though he chips in for groceries). If anyone asks him, he says he counts himself a blessed man. His struggles are below the surface.

After a one-stop subway ride home from the doctor’s office, he strolled the main drag near his house, “seeing the sights.” The street was quiet that morning—many of the metal grates were shuttered over storefronts, some until business hours, many indefinitely. He has traversed these blocks countless times, but still worries he looks like a threatening, foreign presence. He rattled off a short list of establishments he frequents: the donut shop, the bank, a dry cleaner. The people behind those counters know him. “I don’t want to stop in a lot of these places until they get familiar with my face,” he said. “I don’t want them thinking I’m casing the place.”

These days, resigned to Bernadette’s refusal to take his Social Security spousal benefits, Fennell puts $94 of each month’s payment toward a $50,000 life-insurance policy, listing Bernadette as the beneficiary. They remain married, and he still wants to be a provider and partner. He still asks her on dates; she still declines. He recognizes she may never come around to having a husband at home.

“Red Dog” at the Covingtons’ (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

Recently, sitting on Ed’s porch, he admitted that he has begun to contemplate dating. But after half a century in an all-male institution, he struggles to make sense of modern women. The other day, after a kindly teller helped him at the bank, he told her, “You’re very helpful. I bet your husband really appreciates you, and you all got a good partnership.” She said, “You mean my wife.” Fennell walked out of the bank stunned. “I don’t know who’s available and who ain’t, who’s sending out signals and who ain’t. I don’t know how to read them no more,” he said.

Other women are so direct, it makes Fennell’s head spin. As a neighbor passed by, he mentioned that she’d once told him that if she weren’t married, she’d give him a shot. Fennell keeps it respectful—mows their lawns, washes their cars, and waits for something to happen organically. If prison taught him one thing, he said, it’s patience.

His volunteer work makes him feel connected to the neighborhood, and to law-abiding society at large. But he’s come to terms with the fact that no amount of hard work will fully restore his relationship with his children. “I don’t know the kids’ likes and dislikes,” he said of his grands and great-grands. “All I know is I’m not supposed to cuss or smoke around them. They’re like strangers. I don’t know how to act around them, so I just stay quiet.” As for Felicea, his daddy’s girl, he wants to “establish the understanding that we let get away.” Felicea wants this, too, but feelings about the past and miscommunications about the present have created an impasse between them. These days they mostly communicate by text.

Around noon one Saturday, he was sitting on his porch when two kids strolled down the sidewalk. The girl, about 12, with neatly braided hair, smiled and waved. Fennell greeted them with a friendly “Hi there!” When they passed, he said, “They know I’m not an evil man. I must have a good facade … She was waving down the block! You see that? It makes me feel part of something. It makes me feel good.”