True Stories From Inside Prison – Officer Buys Shoes For Psychotic Prisoner Released With $50: What Happened Next?

(11-20-17) I met Mark Tanner briefly while visiting a federal prisoner whose life story I told in my book The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, and was intrigued when Tanner later told me that he had penned a memoir that he soon hopes to get published. Tanner describes what happens in prisons, in this instance, an actual case that dealt with a prisoner with a serious mental illness. I hope he finds a publisher soon. Until then you can read more of his work at his website.

A Mental Health Case in Prison

Excerpt from upcoming book by Mark Tanner entitled Sallyport Life: Stories from Inside America’s Federal Prison and Parole Systems.

Tyrone Kelley 02567-135

I first met inmate Tyrone Kelley when he kicked me in the head while in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) at Allenwood Federal Prison.

He was being escorted by another staff member to the indoor recreation area when he broke away from the officer’s grasp and tried to head-butt him. I happened to be down range when I heard the commotion and ran toward them. The officer was struggling to get Kelley under control and they both fell to the floor. As I got there, Kelley was kicking his legs so I tried to grab them to help restrain him. Well, I missed one leg and he kicked me in the head. After a struggle, we finally got him under control, placed leg-irons on him then placed him in a holding cell.  I had a nice headache for a while but nothing serious.

Kelley was an interesting case. He had severe mental health problems but when he was on his medications, he was reasonable. Kelley was from Kansas City, Missouri and began his criminal life at age 14. It started with truancy in 1964 and by the end of the year, he was arrested for possession of a handgun and a butcher knife. The courts ordered a term of probation and attendance in school. By May of 1965, he committed an armed robbery and was committed to the State Training School for Boys in Bonneville, Missouri. Kelley was paroled on 3/1/66 but was returned to custody seven months later as a parole violator. He was paroled a second time from the juvenile conviction on 7/25/67 at age 17.

Life of Crime

In just over a year from his release, Kelley was arrested for larceny, robbery and burglary but was never held on any of the charges. He received 90 days for larceny and 30 days for attempted auto theft on 6/11/68. He was arrested two more times in 1968 with all the charges being dismissed. In 1969, he was arrested for armed robbery and was sentenced to eight years in state prison on 2/24/1970. He was released to the community on 11/21/1973 after the commutation of his sentence by a judge for the following reasons: “It is felt that the subject gained little constructive insight into his problem as a result of his incarceration.”

His criminal activity continued and he was arrested on 1/8/74 for aggravated assault and was then released. He was arrested four months later for armed robbery in which he entered the residence of a male and female, shot the male twice, once in the neck and knee, then shot the female in the face. They both survived but refused to testify so the charges were eventually dropped against Kelley.

On 1/10/1975, he was arrested for armed bank robbery in which he robbed several banks in Missouri and Minnesota using firearms. Fortunately, no one was shot during these robberies. He was prosecuted by the federal government and received a 20-year term out of Missouri and a consecutive 17-year term out of Minnesota for an aggregate term of 37-years in prison.

Mental Health Diagnosis 

Somewhere between the commencement of his sentence in 1975 and his parole in 1988, his mental health decompensated and he was placed in the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners (USMCFP) in Springfield, Missouri in 1985. He was diagnosed with paranoid ideations and schizophrenia, paranoid type. With medication, he was stabilized and after serving 12 years, 10 months and 15 days of a 37-year term, he was paroled on 1/15/1988.

He had a rough time on parole and ended up threatening his supervision officers and refusing to comply with supervision requirements. His parole was revoked on 1/28/1991 and he was returned to Springfield federal prison due to his continued mental health problems.

Kelley was eventually transferred to Allenwood high security federal prison on 6/22/1994 and that is when we became acquainted; the kick in the head. He only stayed in general population for a month and then requested placement in SHU due to his paranoid thoughts and decompensating condition. His condition kept deteriorating so we transferred him back to Springfield for treatment. While there, he seriously assaulted a doctor.

Eventually, he became medication compliant and was returned to Allenwood in 1997. He did well after his return but again refused to go to general population, so he stayed in SHU until his parole date. Federal probation in Missouri did not want him to return to their district because of his mental health issues and threats he made to various probation officers while under their supervision.

Since I was his case manager at this time, I eventually had to get the U.S. Parole Commission involved and they ordered the federal probation office out of the Eastern District of Missouri to take him back on supervision. The supervising U.S. Probation Officer (USPO) was not happy about it and I had many conversations with him prior to Kelley’s release on parole.

Federal probation officer Johnson said even though Kelley was very difficult while on supervision and had threatened him early in the 1990s, he knew his mental health problems were the driving force behind his behavior. On my rounds through SHU, I would update Kelley on the release plans but he never seemed to have much interest. He always acknowledged my presence but never had any questions. I believed Kelley was too medicated and generally out of it to understand much of what I said to him.

Given his mental health problems and his violent history, I thought it best when we released him to fly him to Kansas City rather then put him on a bus for the three days and nights it would take to get him there.  I spoke with USPO Johnson in Missouri and he said he would meet Kelley as he walked off the aircraft and drive him to his family’s home where he was going to be living. I thought it was a good plan and made all the arrangements.

Returning Home

On 7/6/1998, Kelley was moved to Receiving and Discharge (R&D) from SHU and was being fitted with a new set of clothes, including shoes, for his release that morning.  I arrived there about 6:30 am and a new case manager, Chris Adams, wanted to see how things worked so he volunteered to ride with me for the drive to the Harrisburg airport which is 100 miles away.

I was shocked when I walked into R&D and saw Kelley, who stood 6’3″, weighed 250 lbs. and looked like he had just stepped out of a horror movie.  He was disheveled and his hair looked like it had not been washed in a year. He had a big thick beard and he just stared straight ahead. His eyes were glazed over and I was sure glad that Chris was there to go along for the ride. The one last issue we had to deal with were his shoes.  I think he had a size 15 foot and R&D did not have any shoes that big. In SHU, he wore these bright orange boat shoes that did not fit him either so he would just shuffle his feet when he walked in SHU. Ordinarily, we never let inmates leave with the orange boat shoes but in this case, we had no choice.

Chris and I walked Kelley down to the main entrance, more so shuffled him down because of the too small shoes, and due to his years on Thorazine; he had the characteristic Thorazine Shuffle. We checked out a government car, placed Kelley in the back seat and headed to Harrisburg airport. I was worried about the shoes, particularly flying on a commercial airliner, and given his general appearance, thought he would stand out too much. About 30 miles south of the institution on the road to Harrisburg is a Walmart. As we were driving by, I looked at Chris and he was thinking the same thing so we decided to stop and buy Kelley a decent pair of shoes for his journey home.

They say timing is everything in life and in this case, it sure was. As it happened, we walked into Walmart, Kelley doing the Thorazine shuffle in between us and the Walmart associates were having a morning meeting right there near the entrance.  There were about eight of them and as we walked in, they stopped their cheer, stared at us with mouths wide open and the expressions on their faces said it all. I was shocked when I first saw Kelley that morning in R&D and I had seen him over the last year every week.  Imagine this 6’3″ wild-man doing the Thorazine shuffle into Walmart with bright orange boat shoes five sizes too small with a beard that still had a month’s worth of dribble glued to it and a head of hair that was standing straight up from all the grease and other funk. This was before cell phones and digital cameras but if that happened today, a photo of us walking into Walmart would be emailed around the world twice before we got him to the airport.

Given his limited functioning, I thought I would have to pick out the shoes and put them on his feet. I was pleasantly surprised when we got to the shoe department and he started looking on his own and soon found tennis shoes he liked in the correct size. The cost was $20 and I had the cash on me and thought it was the right thing to do. Kelley surprised me again when we made our way back to the checkout counter because he pulled out some money and handed it to the cashier. Chris and I were both stunned and I told Kelley that I would pay for the shoes but he said no that he would pay since he received $50 in release money when we exited the institution. All inmates generally receive release funds when they walk out the door. However, in Kelley’s case, it was handed to him from the control center officer in a white envelope and Kelley had just put the envelope in his pocket as we walked out.  I never thought he had the capacity to understand how much money he was given let alone pick out his own shoes and then pay for them.

“The system let him down.”

On that journey to the airport, I developed a new respect for Kelley. When we got to the airport, we identified ourselves to security and our need to take him right to the aircraft and ensure he got on. We were able to take him right to the gate, walk with him as he boarded and then waited for the aircraft to take off. He had to change planes but I had called ahead to the airline letting them know that they might want to assist him in getting to his next flight. I would be lying if I said I did not have some anxiety about Kelley flying on his own but I also had even more anxiety for those sitting next to him.  I knew he could be violent and given his size, he could easily hurt someone. Chris and I headed back to the joint and laughed during most of the drive back to Allenwood about our Walmart experience.

USPO Johnson called me the next day to let me know Kelley made it there and was getting settled into his parents’ home. I had watched the news the previous night hoping that I would not see anything about an airline passenger going off so I felt pretty good getting his call. I called USPO Johnson about a month later and he said that Kelley was doing good but that the living arrangements were not very good. He explained that Kelley was sleeping on a dirty couch in the living room of his parents’ home and struggling a bit with his medication regime. He said he would keep me posted if there were any serious problems.

Two months later USPO Johnson called me and said Kelley was dead. He explained that on 9/22/1998, Kelley walked out of his parents’ home, sat down in an old nasty chair that was sitting in their yard, pulled out a 32-caliber pistol and shot himself in the head. He had stopped taking his medications at that time and note was found next to his body. It read, “I am committing suicide because I don’t want to go back to the federal prison hospital in Springfield.” Kelley was 48 years old.

After hanging up the telephone I turned to Chris and told him Kelley committed suicide. I then said, “The system let him down.”

Mark Tanner is a retired federal law enforcement officer with the U.S. Parole Commission. He spent the last 30 years working within the criminal justice system with the California Youth Authority, Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Parole Commission. He spent nine years on active duty in the U.S. Army, received his undergraduate degree from San Diego State University in Criminal Justice Administration and a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Marywood University in Scranton, PA.

Mark has worked in over 100 federal prisons, state prisons, and county jails across the United States and has written about many of the experiences he encountered. He currently is looking for a literary agent and publisher. You can read more excerpts at Sallyport Life : Stories from Inside America’s Federal Prison and Parole Systems.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.