ST. JOSEPH — On a recent weekday morning, in the bland confines of St. Joseph’s Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center, Inmate 168989 takes a seat in a plastic chair in the visitors center.
His name is Roy Murphy. He’s 43, thin, with close-cropped hair. He’s got tattoos crawling down one arm, more on his fingers. He’s soft-spoken, almost inaudible at times, and at the moment, he’s having second thoughts about agreeing to this interview.
He is the guy, after all, who wanted to go to prison.
This briefly made him something of an Internet sensation. Last December, he told a judge that he had demanded money from a St. Joseph convenience store clerk for the sole purpose of getting himself sent back to prison. The story hit regional newspapers; the Huffington Post wrote a snarky recap of the case.
But while the headlines were good for a “man-bites-dog” tale, an obvious question was ignored:
How does a man reach the point in which prison seems like a more attractive option than freedom?
It’s the question Murphy’s attempting — with varying degrees of success — to answer now, to a visiting stranger with a pen and a notepad. He worries that he won’t be able to adequately explain the things that led him to that point, that he’ll end up sounding stupid.
In his seat, he fidgets. He starts to speak, stops. Tries to start again.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Murphy says. “It was just one of those things where I kind of gave up.”
And then he drops the bomb.
The truth is, now that he’s here — he doesn’t want to be.
He grew up in Diamond, Mo., a town of about 900 located 40 miles north of the Arkansas border.
At age 3, he was adopted and would go on to enjoy what he considers a fairly normal childhood. He roamed the rural expanse, spending his time camping or heading down to the creek.
Education was never a real priority. He made mostly Fs in school, and by ninth grade, he’d dropped out. By 15, he’d moved out of his parents’ house and in with a 22-year-old woman, a decision he thought sounded pretty cool at the time.
His father tried to talk some sense into him. But like many teenage boys, he was hard-headed, in no hurry to take advice.
By 16 or 17, he’d committed his first burglary, and by 19, he was serving his first prison term. Over the course of the next two decades, he would spend a total of nearly 14 years in prison, according to his incarceration record:
Burglary; Newton (County);1989; case No. CR489301FX; six years.
Forgery; Jasper; 1994; case No. CR594230FX; five years.
Forgery; Jasper; 2002; case No. 02CR682178-01; five years.
Attempted robbery, 2nd; Greene; case No. 0831-CR09116-01; three years.
Upon his various releases, he often struggled to find stability, never quite landing on his feet.
“There’s all kinds of bad places to go and hang out and do whatever,” Murphy says. “But when you’re trying to do the right thing and stay out of trouble, it’s really hard. It’s hard to be a dependable worker when you don’t have any place to stay. It’s hard to find a job when you don’t have any place to do your laundry.
“When you get right out of prison with $5 in your pocket, and they drop you off in society, I don’t know what they really expect you to do.”
Still, by last November things seemed to be looking as promising as they had in a long time.
In the year and a half since his last release in July 2012, Murphy had mostly managed to avoid trouble — a 91-day jail stint on an old DUI charge not withstanding. He had bounced around a bit, spending time in Joplin, where he helped build a new Taco Bell on Main Street after the tornado hit, and in a small town in southeast Kansas.
He found occasional work tattooing or carrying out odd jobs. Once, he filled a wheelbarrow with tools and pushed it across town to build a ramp for an elderly man, a quick $35 job.
After meeting Brady Rodgers, a Platte City minister who also owns the local Comfort Inn, he had decided to ditch his plans to return to Joplin, where old acquaintances and habits waited. “Their ministry had blessed me and everything else, and I did rededicate my life to God before I got locked back up, and he’s still working in my life.”
Rodgers had taken a liking to him, offering him a maintenance job at his hotel and a temporary place to stay.
“He was with me for about a week and a half, doing a great job; my staff really liked him,” Rodgers said.
But at the end of his second week on the job, the ice storm hit.
After working a shift at the hotel on Nov. 21, he decided to head to St. Joseph to see his sister. When the storm hit, he was stuck in St. Joseph without a place to stay. Because his sister’s live-in boyfriend was on parole and therefore couldn’t have contact with other ex-convicts, he said, he couldn’t stay there. He didn’t have an ID, which meant he couldn’t get a bed at a shelter.
He took stock of his situation, and it didn’t look promising. His free stay at the hotel was about over, and he was still three weeks away from his first full paycheck, which he would need to afford a place of his own. Thanks to the ice, he knew he wouldn’t be able to make it to work, so likely another job was down the drain.
In hindsight, he says, he would have done things differently. Like call his boss, explain the situation, and then maybe the two of them could have figured something out.
Instead, he couldn’t look beyond the box he seemed to be in.
So, a little before 10 a.m. the next day, he left his sister’s house with his jacket and walked to the nearby Garfield 66, a convenience store on Alabama Street.
He’d come up with an option that wouldn’t occur to most people. He’d get himself arrested.
Once inside, he approached the clerk behind the counter, a woman in her mid-50s named Julia Bradford. He asked for all the money in the register. He didn’t threaten her. He didn’t carry a weapon. He asked her if she wanted him to put on an Army-green “hoodie-like” stocking cap he’d brought with him.
She told him to leave; later, she would say she was less scared than confused. When she picked up her cellphone, he told her to go ahead and call the police.
Then he walked outside and across the parking lot, out toward the train tracks.
“He didn’t run or nothing,” Bradford would recall.
Ten minutes later, St. Joseph Police Department officers arrested him.
There’s no shortage of questions about American corrections: the shocking number behind bars, especially those with nonviolent convictions; the joblessness among ex-cons; the high rates of recidivism; the growing price of corrections — some reports put the overall cost to Missouri taxpayers at more than $22,000 to house an inmate for a year.
Why someone would want to go back doesn’t come up too often.
Gary Zajac pointed to a quote from “Shawshank Redemption,” the 1994 film set in a 1940s-era prison.
“All I do anymore is think of ways to break my parole, so maybe they’d send me back,” the character Red, played by Morgan Freeman, muses in the movie. “... All I want is to be back where things make sense.”
Though experience tells Zajac, the managing director of the Justice Center for Research at Penn State, that there probably aren’t many who really, truly want to be incarcerated, he admits the challenges awaiting longtime prisoners once they’re released can seem daunting.
“There is a real challenge for folks who have been in for a very, very long straight stretch, decades in,” said Zajac, who spent years with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. “Because they’re returning to a world that is in many respects different from the one they left. Cellphones, or even knowing how to pump your own gas, using a debit card. They have no real work history, no history as a renter.”
Joshua Bachman agrees. As Murphy’s public defender, he considers it one of the more bizarre cases of his career, but he doesn’t describe it as unheard of.
Bachman says he’s worked with a handful of offenders who — if not exactly excited about the prospect — were at least willing to be incarcerated.
In a way, he can understand it.
“Life inside the institution and life outside the institution, they both have their challenges,” Bachman said. “And for an individual that has learned how to adapt to the difficulties inside the institution, but not necessarily the outside life, it can be difficult.”
And so it was that on a Monday last December, Bachman stood with Murphy in front of Judge Patrick Robb and listened to the charges facing his client.
At one point, Murphy spoke up.
“I intended to go to prison,” he told the judge, according to the St. Joseph News-Press. “I’ve been out for a year. I’ve got nothing, and I don’t know how to make it on the outside.”
After some consideration, Murphy’s charge was amended to attempting to physically take property from a victim, which is a felony.
He was sentenced to four years in the Missouri Department of Corrections.
In the visiting room, Murphy is talking about prison life.
Although sentenced in December, he’s only recently entered the general population. His days are fairly uneventful. He gets up, does his required work. He tries to work out, go to church. He’s got a lot of time to think.
When you’ve been in and out of lockup as much as he has, you get comfortable with the routine. He knows quite a few other inmates from his prior time served. During his last stretch of freedom, he admits, while he was living with a woman in southeast Kansas, he left the house a total of only 10 times over a seven- or eight-month stretch.
One of the side effects of institutionalization, he says, is agoraphobia, fear of open places.
He’s careful not to make excuses for his actions; he’s got no one to blame for his current predicament, he says, but himself.
“Nobody actually wants to be here,” he says. “I mean, I could not legitimately say that I honestly wanted to be here. And I don’t want to be here. But I am here, because of the choice I made.”
This time, he wants to make the most of his time in lockup, so that when he does eventually get out, he’ll be in the best possible position to succeed.
When he looks back, there are lots of moments he can identify as turning points, when a different decision could have made all the difference. He realizes now, for instance, that he has wasted most of his time in prison. Instead of preparing himself for life on the outside, he’s mostly just passed the time.
Even if he works at it, however, he understands that his next bout of freedom will be difficult.
“I’m still up against a wall, regardless when I get back out,” he says. “I’m hoping that there’s a situation I can get into where I’ve got a job when I get out, where I can save my money and have enough time to put back the type of finances I need to do the things I need to secure my freedom.”
On the other hand, he says, “(If) I get out with another $5 and nowhere to go, then...”
He trails off.
His allotted hour of visiting time almost up, he pulls on his jail-issued jacket and makes his way back toward the waiting guard, a heavy door closing behind him.
He will be eligible for parole in November 2015.
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