TENNESSEE COLONY, Texas (AP) – When Harvey Stewart first went to prison 60 years ago, gasoline was 20 cents a gallon, a postage stamp cost three pennies and Harry Truman was president.
Now, as perhaps one of the longest-serving inmates in US history, the convicted killer is looking forward to the perks of freedom when he is released on parole in the coming weeks or months.
An IPod or cell phone perhaps? Not for this 83-year-old. Stewart simply wants a root beer and a good meal.
“Imagine that! Sixty years being down in this damn hole,” Stewart recently told The Associated Press from the Beto Unit in East Texas, one of his many stops in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “I wouldn’t recommend it. Man’s a damn fool to even stick his foot in here.”
Stewart, awaiting his release to a halfway house or nursing home after being granted parole earlier this year, recalled his youthful days of robbing brothels in Southeast Texas for quick $3,000 pay days, of getting shot in the back while holding up a junk yard and murdering a man in what he insists was a self-defense killing.
But the six decades in prison haven’t been nearly as eventful. He counts among his highlights his brief escape in 1965 and a recurring headache from a prison van wreck a couple years ago. Besides those short-lived respites from monotony, Stewart has served his time isolated from the outside world. He doesn’t recall receiving a single visitor in more than a decade. He’s outlived most or all his immediate family.
His parole was approved in April, with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles considering his recent history of good behavior, his age and declining health.
“I’m too damn old to do any robbing,” said Stewart, his blond hair now a balding gray brush cut. “I think I am anyway. My old ticker might kick out on me.”
Stewart is the longest-serving inmate among the 155,000 prisoners in the Texas system, though it’s unclear if he is the nation’s longest-serving inmate now or ever. Prison officials and historians say they’re unaware of any agency or organization that keeps track of all inmates’ jail time.
Among other states with significant prison populations, convicted murderer James Moore, 78, has been locked up in New York since 1963. In California, 80-year-old Booker Hillery first went to prison in 1955 for rape and was returned in 1962 for a murder earlier that year while on parole. Norman Parker is Florida’s longest-serving inmate, arriving in 1967.
Stewart was first sent to prison in spring 1951 after a junk yard heist in Houston got him a 10-year sentence. He was paroled after serving six years but was convicted in 1958 of murdering a man in Beaumont and received a life sentence. Seven years later he broke out of prison for several days, then waited another two decades before being paroled a second time to a halfway house and worked as a dishwasher.
He used his freedom in 1984 to eat a Big Mac for the first time, but by summer 1986 he was back behind bars, busted for a robbery plot.
State corrections officials say he won’t be released until a parole plan is completed, and will receive proper supervision in either a halfway house or nursing home. Officials would not estimate how much longer that could take or what kind of restrictions he’d continue to have.
Even under halfway house restrictions or in a nursing home, corrections experts say he could be in for some challenges, noting that even short-time prisoners get indoctrinated to the rigid rules of prison.
“It really is cognitively and emotionally taxing, even though it is simple decisions you and I do every day without thinking,” said Gaylene Armstrong, research director of the Correctional Management Institute of Texas at Sam Houston State University. “These folks are not used to making those decisions. … If you think of just in the last five years what’s changed for us: smart phones, not being pay phones, self-checkouts at grocery stores, ATMs, how to do things online. Even folks who have been off the streets for just a few years, that’s all new to them.”
Stewart, whose last car was a 1958 Ford, maintains he’s unfazed by how the world has changed during his confinement.
“I’ve functioned in a lot of places,” he said. “I know what’s there and what ain’t there.”
Stewart was born in Corpus Christi, one of five children whose father worked in the South Texas oil fields. A search for Stewart’s relatives was unsuccessful, with records showing most of them deceased.
Having outlived so many he knew, Stewart says it’s been probably a decade since he had a visitor.
“Looks like nobody wants something to do with me,” said Stewart, who never married.
His days are spent quietly and simply. Among his joys now is interaction with female corrections officers. He called their presence “the only thing that lightens the whole atmosphere.”
Then there’s the occasional “pitty-pat” in his head, the result of being inside a prison van that rolled over in a wreck. His knees hurt but he’s still able to walk, although “I’m not real fast anymore.”
Asked how he spends his days, he responds: “Well, I fart every once in a while.”
His cellmate these days is “only 70-something. In fact, I think he’s 60-something. There ain’t nobody my age down here.”
Asked what he hoped to do when he does get out, he gets defensive.
“You think I want to get involved in some sex and get drunk,” he said.
Told that many inmates talk about feeling the grass on their bare feet and looking up at the sky without fences topped by razor wire, he said sarcastically: “Well, that’s poetic.”
Instead, he looks forward to “a good easy-going meal and a root beer. I said a ROOT beer,” he emphasized.
And the things he’ll miss about prison?
“You ever run into a fence post or light post or something?” he asked. “You miss it?”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)