The story behind the label society wants you to see
Photo by Pam Bailey
By Pam Bailey
This is a tale told in three parts: the person you most need to know, the making of his undoing and the many ways we fail people like him. It’s part love letter (to the friend who has enriched me), part lament and part call to action.
Behind all labels that stigmatize and destroy, there is always a multitude of realities. I will start with what is most important to know about who Frankie Hargrove is today:
He is a talented guitarist, songwriter and singer. In a world of imitators who perform covers of other people’s hit songs, Frankie writes and sings his own unique compositions. His style defies comparison, but if I had to say he’s like anyone, maybe it would be Richie Havens.
Frankie’s father gave him his first guitar when he was 5 years old — “a plastic thing with the Lone Ranger riding all over it” — as a distraction to keep him away from the older man’s more professional instrument. But it was two years later, when Frankie heard Elvis play at a concert and the legend shook his hand, that his real love of guitars bloomed. When he ran away from home for the first time at the age of 10, he received a pasteboard guitar to lure him home. From that time on, Frankie began to learn how to sound out music. He never did learn how to read music but can hear it in his head.
Over the course of his 35 years behind bars, most of the institutions in which he was confined had musical instruments — including guitars — prisoners could check out. But the quality declined when the institutions replaced the strings with poor plastic imitations (a collective punishment when some prisoners used guitar strings as “needles” to make tattoos or, in one case, to kill someone).
Frankie was deprived of this simple pleasure during his last two years in prison, then nine months in a halfway house. One of the first things I did after learning of his talent was to remedy that wrong by buying him his own guitar. One day, a chance man he met invited Frankie to the D.C. blues bar Madams Organ. When the house band began to play, Frankie (being Frankie) shouted out to the lead guitarist that his D string was flat. The man looked at Frankie and retorted, “You a musician?” Frankie answered, “I play guitar.” His next words: “Ladies and gentlemen, we got a guitar player here. Come on up.” And while he fixed his D string, Frankie did. He was uncertain at first but aided by a literal push from people in the crowd, he borrowed one of the group’s other guitars and played one of his own songs: “I Believe.” (“I believe,” he sang, “that there is someone out there for me.” And a woman in the crowd responded, “I’m right here, baby!”)
The band manager introduced Frankie to the club’s booker, and now he’s been invited to play regular gigs for Madams Organ. (But he needs the right equipment, since he doesn’t have a band. Help remedy that by donating!)
He has a green thumb. When I first met Frankie, he noticed my sickly-looking cactus (we call him “Harry”) and instinctively diagnosed what ailed it (it needed repotting and a little less water). Today, it is showing new growth. When I show him pictures of other people’s homes as I go about my days, what he notices more than anything is the presence of plants. (Truancy has advantages! When Frankie cut school, he’d escape to the arboretum.)Photo by Pam Bailey
He is an origami artist. Frankie grew from a troubled childhood into an adult alcoholic. And the consequences of that included time in the brig while in Japan with the Navy. One of the female officers slipped some paper under his door, saying, “Occupy your mind.” Along with the paper were some simple origami instructions for making a crane. Frankie completed the task and when she came back, she asked, “You ready for something else?” He answered, “Yeah.” And from there it went. Along with the guitar, I bought Frankie some origami paper and a book with more complex designs. Now our apartment is adorned with an elephant, beetle and antelope.
He is a writer. One of his other escapes as a child, along with the arboretum, was the library. There, at age 10, he stumbled upon poets like Percy Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe and Rod McKuen. When he was beaten or assaulted, both at home and at school, he wrote about his pain and confusion — without realizing he was composing poems. Later, in prison, his writing expanded into short stories, a memoir (since lost) and now even a novel — “for no reason than to have something to do.” (When he discovered anime through another prisoner who secured access to a contraband DVD player, he developed a particular affinity for fantasy — or rather, a sort of magical realism — as a thread in his fiction.)
I wish I could say that Frankie came by these talents easily, but you already know that’s not true.
The making of a prisoner
Frankie’s trip to see Elvis in North Carolina and his early gift of a pasteboard guitar were bright oases in a childhood he remembers as both bizarre and abusive.
His parents were alcoholics, starting him on the same path at an early age. “When my parents went out for the night, which was often, they’d pour Wild Irish Rose in a bottle with a little water and give it to me to drink, to put me to sleep,”
Accompanying that early introduction to alcohol was an easy, sexually permissive atmosphere that was confusing to a young child. His mother’s girlfriend, “Miss Jenny,” lounged on their sofa, without panties, inviting a 10-year-old Frankie to lick a precious lollipop (rare in their home) as she dangled it in front of her crotch.
That marked the first time Frankie ran away from home. The pastor to whom he turned for help raped the young boy. His father (who, he learned from his birth certificate, was not his biological parent) didn’t believe Frankie when he walked in and found him naked; instead, he whipped him with an electrical cord. Still naked, Frankie escaped down the street, where the police picked him up. For the next two years, he was farmed out to relatives he didn’t know.“I felt nothing; a pervasive nothingness, except for fear and shame.”
This pattern of abuse — both sexual and physical — continued for years; it’s hard to say which parent was worse. His mother punished what she considered aberrant behavior by dousing Frankie with scalding water. “I can’t recall a time when she hugged me or said I love you.”
Lost in a world of confusion and torment, Frankie was bullied at school as well, leading him to drop out at the age of 14. The lyrics of a song he wrote that year were dedicated to Red Lady, the wine he turned to for comfort:
I’ve been cheated.
I’ve been used.
Hurt and mistreated,
I’ve been lied to,
I’ve been bled.
I’ve been infected, neglected,
I’ve even been scared.
A good woman is so hard to find.
Just one good woman who I can call mine.
I’ve been hurt too many damn times.
The one woman I trust
is on a bottle of wine.
A year later, his father signed him up for the military. He had no knowledge of his “recruitment” until he was arrested at a friend’s house for being AWOL. When his officers realized he had been signed up without his consent, Frankie was discharged. But he didn’t return home. He was 16 and on his own, living on the street, in cars and in abandoned homes. Drunk almost constantly, Frankie immersed himself in the “hippie life”: sex, drugs and rock and roll.Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash
In an attempt to get a grip on his life, Frankie enlisted in the Navy at the age of 22. It didn’t last long; he was discharged after three years due to his raging alcoholism, still untreated. “It ruined my life. Everything from that period is a haze. I don’t remember much of anything about people or relationships, except for drunks and junkies.”
Frankie was living in a brothel-cum-boarding house when his already-ravaged life took a tragic turn. One of the owner’s daughters solicited tricks to earn extra money and Frankie had been a regular customer for eight months. Her boyfriend walked in and she accused Frankie of rape. When the prosecutor learned she was 15, not 19 as she had claimed, other charges were piled on, including kidnapping. His sentence: 16 to 48 years.
There are two types of people who are at the bottom of the prisoner hierarchy: “snitches” and sex offenders. When Frankie arrived at his first stop, D.C.’s Lorton prison (now closed), he was already a sort of marked man.
“Everybody knows who you are before you even get there,” Frankie says. “In Lorton, I was shot twice, stabbed three times and raped repeatedly.”Photo provided by Frankie Hargrove
Frankie’s sex offense, exacerbated by his identification of a correctional officer involved in drug smuggling, followed him everywhere. To protect him from the ensuing threats and assaults, he was moved between institutions repeatedly. But it never stopped. How on earth, I asked, did he cope?
“I’ve always been a religious guy, and the Almighty was, and is, with me. I felt it,” Frankie answered simply, adding that another key, for him, was not just reading, but literally studying, on topics ranging from Biblical archeology to marine biology. “I’ve never taken the stuff handed out by the psychiatry department so guys can calm down or sleep. There were always hundreds of guys in line for those drugs. But I never signed up for any of that. I didn’t need it.”
Year 16 came and went, with Frankie trying for parole five times. Each time he was denied because he had not completed the required programming for “sex offenders.” But it wasn’t for lack of trying. The waiting list was long and each time, before he could begin the program, he’d be moved to another institution. “Up near Maine, there was a sex-offender program that I tried to get into for all of 25 years,” Frankie explained. “But the majority of guys they let go were white. Just about every one of them. I remember one night breaking down and crying because a guy on the staff told me, ‘You’re never going to get the program.’”
And he was right, Frankie never did. He was released from prison only when they couldn’t hold him anymore, due to mandatory credits for good conduct and other programming. He’d been moved to 19 different prisons over the years and had just recovered from a severe case of COVID-19.
“They flew me from Louisiana to D.C., and boom, I was on my own. They gave me enough money to catch a cab from the airport but that was all. I walked around, looking for places that could assist me, for three days. But they were all closed. So, I went to CSOSA [the federal agency that supervises adults on probation]. And they locked me up in the D.C. jail for 30 days! They said, ‘They let you out 30 days too soon.’ When I was finally released again, the jail officials gave me $70 on a debit card, a train ticket and a couple of bus passes, and told me to go the halfway house in Baltimore.”
A brave (?) new world
Frankie exited the prison system at the age of 70 to a world that is very different in ways both big and small from the one he left at 36. The people seem less friendly and more suspicious — particularly toward a Black man. D.C. itself has “shifted” — not only favorite places are gone, but entire neighborhoods. He predicted this feeling of vertigo-inducing disorientation in a country song he wrote from prison:
I never dreamed everything’d be gone,
even my neighborhood,
even my home.
Instead, I find a shopping mall.
And then there is new technology: No more flip phones and CD players. They’ve been replaced by programmable TVs and “smart” phones that make him feel dumb.
But the biggest challenge has been the re-entry process itself. And that is where I came into the picture. Stacey Litner from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs contacted me because she knew Frankie would be exiting the halfway house to, basically, nothing: no relatives to take him in, no home, no job, no support network ready to guide him through a world that could and would be very unkind to a 70-year-old Black man who had spent almost half his life in prison and with a sex-offender label that might as well be tattooed on his forehead. I had set up a GoFundMe account for another returned citizen and she hoped I would do so again.
I have indeed set up that GoFundMe account, but helping him make a place for himself has required so much more. While D.C. offers a wealth of services for returning citizens, there are a multitude of holes and very little “glue” holding it all together. Frankie, sadly, is a case study that D.C. officials should study, because in one person, he encompasses just about all the challenges that can face a returning citizen. And COVID made them doubly worse, since offices are not open (making it impossible to confront anyone in person) and calls often go into queues that terminate due to heavy volume. And the U.S. postal service? The delays are well documented.
Here are just a few of the obstacles my partner and I have tried to help Frankie navigate:
Social Security and the IRS: When Frankie was in the halfway house, one of the employees was caught selling residents’ social security numbers. Frankie’s was among them. When he tried filing for the economic-stimulus payments, he was told that a) his birthdate was Oct. 4, not Oct. 8, and b) someone already had filed, declaring him as a dependent. I worked with him to file an identity theft claim, but he never received any response. We also called the Social Security Administration, which confirmed that its records showed the wrong birth date. He mailed an application for a new social security card and received no response. Numerous phone calls later, he finally secured an in-person appointment and within days, he was told his birth date had been corrected and the IRS should reflect the change. However, that is not true and as of this writing, the IRS is still rejecting his claims, repeating again and again that his birth date is wrong. Attempts to get free legal help have yielded only promises to call back, with no follow-through.
Benefits: Due to the length of his prison term, Frankie did not work enough years to qualify for the Social Security on which most of us can rely. Once he resolved the incorrect birth date, however, he was told he could receive an age-related benefit. The caveat, he can never have any more than $2,000 in his bank account. But the first check he received, with several back-payments in one, was $2,300! And almost as soon as it was deposited, he was notified he had violated the rules and his payments had been suspended. We continue to battle that ruling.
I could go on and on about his problems in obtaining other types of benefits. But I’ll let that suffice for now as an example.
Housing: When Frankie first arrived in D.C. after being released from the halfway house, he was sent into a low-barrier-to-entry shelter for the homeless. On the first night, the bag with most of his belongings was stolen while he took a shower. Five stabbings occurred in three weeks. And when medical personnel came in to administer the COVID vaccine, they threatened to shut the shelter down due to overcrowding. We knew we had to get Frankie out of there, fast. He began to stay in our apartment some nights as we helped him search for a safe, longer-term place to stay.
However, we quickly came up against the government’s blind spot when it comes to “sex offenders.” Both SOME (So That Others May Eat) and the Mayor’s Office for Returning Citizens (MORCA) — both primary resources for most newly released prisoners — say they cannot help individuals with this label. Catholic Charities offered a group home, but Frankie’s prison history with rape and assault made it a psychologically unsafe environment for him. In any case, his probation conditions prohibit contact with other former prisoners. Fortunately, a private nonprofit called Friendship Place stepped into the breach and has rented an apartment for him (as well as donated a bed) until he can become independent — a status that seems very elusive right now.
Employment: Frankie is 70 years old, an age when most of us deserve to retire. But how can he do that? So, he is looking for a job. But most professional jobs won’t hire a person with his kind of incarceration history; even a senior center who merely needed someone to escort visitors rescinded its offer once the background check came in. As for manual labor, most of those types of jobs are out: In his last three years in prison, Frankie experienced three heart attacks. Maybe the treatment was not the best, maybe it’s just the reality of his health, but the end result is that he can’t walk very far without resting, can’t lift heavy objects and can’t stand on his feet for hours at a time. And he never learned to drive. He continues to look.
Frankie has more than paid the pound of flesh demanded by society for not rising above his tortured past. We — all of us, collectively — owe him the ability to truly enjoy the years he has now. He told me recently that, when looking back, he has never felt real happiness. I responded that happiness often comes in flashes, and asked if he had felt that yet, even for a little, now that he is free. He said yes: When he was on stage at Madams Organ, he felt unadulterated joy.
I don’t know yet how he/we will overcome all of the other challenges, but we can, collectively, give him more flashes of joy. Please donate to the GoFundMe campaign so he can perform like the talented musician he is.Photo by Pam Bailey
Frankie wants to extend special thanks to several individuals who have gone out of their way to help him cope in the strange world he has entered: Jim DuBeau (my partner, who has fully joined me in this “cause”), Stacey Litner (Washington Lawyers Committee), Myra Woods (the reformer from Rethink Justice who has been my own mentor as well), Nate Cato (Friendship Place) and Daniel Memkem (New Living Health Care).
The Real Frankie Hargrove was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.