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Life Inside

Why it’s Hard to be a Lifer Who’s Getting Out of Prison

After 34 years inside, sometimes you never feel free.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

It’s an unseasonably warm, sunny November day, and Greg Diatchenko is sitting in the visiting room of the Boston Pre-Release Center, four weeks from a moment that was never supposed to happen. On December 7, 34 years after he was sentenced to life without parole for a murder he committed at 17, Diatchenko’s mother will pick him up in her car and drive him home.

For more than three decades, he tried not to think about his death in prison, a certainty that would eventually arrive. He stayed focused on his job at the prison’s plumbing shop, on his schoolwork for the degree he earned from Boston University, on the Buddhist sangha and other groups he became involved with behind the walls. He got older. Then the Supreme Court handed down Miller v. Alabama in 2012, a ruling that laid the groundwork for his own case, Diatchenko v. District Attorney, which in 2013 outlawed juvenile life without parole in Massachusetts. Then there was the parole hearing he was suddenly eligible for; the court rulings were so new, no one knew what to expect. And then, grace—“parole is granted after 12 months in lower security…during which time Gregory Diatchenko must maintain good conduct and comply with all DOC expectations for programs, activities, and employment.”

He’ll be on parole for the remainder of his sentence—which, in Greg’s case, is the rest of his life.

Almost a year ago, he was transferred from MCI-Norfolk, the medium-security prison where he spent the last several decades, and the countdown began. Now he rides the bus to and from his work-release job at a Panera Bread in a Boston suburb, where he clears tables and makes sandwiches.

As his release date approaches, Diatchenko’s excitement and anticipation have increasingly been shadowed by uneasiness and anxiety—a little depression, even. He finds himself chasing away bad thoughts more often now, worrying over his future. What follows is his account of what it’s like to get ready for your release after thinking prison was the place your life would end.

I get on a bus, I thought everyone was going to look at me and go, “Oh! He’s a convict,” “Oh, he’s in prison.” And it’s not like that. People don’t know you. They don’t know your history or who you are or where you’re from.

I have an itinerary I follow every day. I’m not supposed to stray from it, and I don’t. We’re not allowed to go in stores. We’re not supposed to go in Dunkin Donuts and get a coffee or nothing like that. You go straight to work and come back. There are things I can’t do. I can’t even strike up a conversation with a woman that I see that I’m attracted to. I can, but I don’t want to, because I’m still in prison. Last night, there’s a woman sitting there with her computer—everybody brings computers into Panera Bread. I don’t have a cell phone so I couldn’t give my number, and I don’t have an address yet.

Where do you live?

Oh, I live at the Pre-Release Center.

Oh, that’s good. That’s a good way to start up a conversation.

When I get out, my main thing is to set up some medical appointments. Dental—my teeth are terrible. My mouth hurts so bad. It’s been uncomfortable like this for 15 years. It’s like a lion with a thorn stuck in its paw.

I’m going to be looking for a job at Boston University. I was told to go on the BU website and check on what jobs I might like to do. They said I might have to start low. Everybody’s telling me, you’re coming out of prison with a degree, you have qualifications. Some jobs people don’t want but maybe you can take it. Get your foot in the door.

After 34 years, I only have like $600 in my account; I was making $5 a day at Norfolk. But you spend that. You want to eat. You want to have coffee. You want to buy shampoo and toothpaste. You could split your money, your earnings, 50/50 in your savings and personal account. But lifers don’t have to. What are you going to save money for? You don’t save money when you’re doing a death sentence. I’m fortunate that people are there to help me, show me: This is how you fill out an income tax return. You want to get a car? This is the paperwork. I’ve never done any of that stuff before.

I wonder how I’ll be accepted outside. When they find out where I’m from, and my past. I have that blemish on me. Once a prisoner, that’s there forever. No matter what you do, no matter how good you do. It’s just always there.

I don’t know if my lifetime parole is going to be a battle with the parole officer. I’ve heard horror stories. Some people had parole officers that were all over them all the time. So I’m going out there after all these years and I really don’t know what to expect. My mother said—we were actually arguing about it out here—“Look at Greg, he’s getting out, he doesn’t even smile like he’s excited about it.” And I said, “What do you want me to do? I’m going home. OK, I’m happy about it.”

But I’m not just coming home and everything’s hunky dory. Your 17-year-old son ain’t coming home—I’m 51.

I’m under the thumb of the parole board. I’m going out to society not knowing how long I’m going to be free. I could be out there, have a house all built up, my job, a truck out in my driveway, and one or two children, little ones running around, and all of a sudden I’m snatched up and sent behind the walls for something stupid. I’ve seen some parole violations for some of the pettiest things. If you don’t like me, and you live down the street, and you don’t want me on your street, you call the cops, and say: Listen, my neighbor just threatened to punch my face in. His word against mine. I ain’t never said boo to that person. Cuff up. Parole violation.

I’m leaving a lot of good guys behind. I remember when I left Norfolk, it was weird. I was in that prison for about 29 years. I knew a lot of lifers, I mostly hung around with lifers. There were guys up there who were just as deserving, if not more so, than me, for a second chance in life. Guys with three, four, and five decades in prison. It’s sad, because they were out in lower security getting furloughs, before Willie Horton. And they’re not going anywhere. Here I am, I had this opportunity, this blessing. This court ruling that opened the door for me. I feel guilty. I walked out that door, and these guys that were so sad to see me go—I can’t even send Christmas cards to those people. As a parolee, we’re not allowed to associate with convicted felons or ex-felons.

If this [court ruling] never happened, we wouldn’t even be talking right now. I’d be at Norfolk. Working in the plumbing shop. Going to work every day and just doing my thing. Living. Existing. Waiting to die.

When you’re in prison, at the end of the day, when it’s nice and quiet, you’re laying there at 10:00 after the count, a lot of thoughts are running through your head. At the Lifers Group, once a year they read off all the lifers that died in prison over the years. AIDS, cancer, diabetes, suicide. Murder. That list is so long. The board of directors would stand up and they’d go around and they’d each read five names and go around and around. Most of them I knew, even the ones that were in other prisons, because we’ve been around together for years and years. All these lifers are standing there for a moment of silence, and what’s going through their head? They’re probably saying, One day I’ll be on that list.

Even though I’m out, if they find out that I die outside, they’ll put me on the list as a lifer that died. I’m still a lifer.