Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene It's Not Easy Being Free

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  Editor's Note: Like many other long-term inmates newly released from prison, Woody Eargle is a lost man. He has had a difficult time adjusting to the outside world, and his story underscores the reason why so many former prisoners return so quickly to the institutions from which they have just been set free. Eargle didn't deserve to be treated nicely. He is a hardened criminal, one who recently left the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in West Nashville after serving 15 years of a life sentence for armed robbery. In 1982 Eargle and an accomplice held up an Arby's Restaurant near Rivergate Mall. The accomplice was shot and killed by police; Eargle was sent to prison.

The Arby's incident was not Eargle's first brush with the law. His rap sheet includes prior convictions for armed robbery, larceny, and burglary. His first arrest came while he was still a juvenile--he was arrested for urinating on a public street.

Eargle, who is now 50, has spent about two-thirds of his adult life in prison. During his career as a prisoner, he has done time at Riverbend, at the old Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville, at the Morgan County Regional Correctional Facility and at Fort Pillow State Prison and Farm in West Tennessee. During a 1984 uprising at Fort Pillow, Eargle was shot five times by prison guards.

During each of his incarcerations, Eargle wrote for the inmate newspapers. While he was at the Tennessee State Penitentiary, Eargle served from 1985 to 1990 as editor of The Interim. Under his editorship, that newspaper won several awards in journalism competitions sponsored by the American Penal Press Awards.

Photo by Eric England.

Eargle was paroled and released from Riverbend on July 7. Initially, he moved in with a friend, but he says he wore out his welcome quickly. He has since moved in with another friend and says he is now working 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., five days a week, at a local paint factory. He says he has kept that job for nearly two months now.

As is the case with many ex-convicts, Eargle has had a tough time entering the workaday world. Things that average law-abiding citizens take for granted--taking a city bus, reporting to work, renting an apartment--can be logistically and emotionally taxing experiences for a man who has spent most of his life behind bars. Few programs exist to assist inmates as they adjust to life outside the prison walls. Sometimes breaking the law seems like a logical means of survival--at least it gets them back into an environment they understand.

Photo by Tennessee Department of Corrections.

Steven Womack, the award-winning Nashville mystery writer who taught writing in the prison system for years, has seen the pattern repeated again and again. Both as a teacher and an adviser, he has come to know the often insurmountable struggles that inmates face when they return to the real world.

Eargle recently wrote down his thoughts about getting out of prison--the difficulties, the frustrations, and, on occasion, the joys of the experience. Womack, as well, shares his firsthand observations about a correctional system that fails, all too often, in one of its most important missions: to correct the behavior of those who are locked behind the walls.

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