GEORGETOWN, Ga. — As hard as it was to spend 35 years in prison for stealing a black-and-white television, Junior Allen has found freedom frustrating too.
Despite extensive prison records in North Carolina, where he spent more than half his life as inmate No. 0004604, Allen has been unable to establish his identity in rural Georgia, where he now lives with his sister, or in Alabama, where he was born 65 years ago to sharecropper parents. The monthlong effort to get a birth certificate and photo ID only hint at the new challenge he faces in transforming himself from less-than-model inmate into average senior citizen.
"It's like I never existed," Allen says. "I went to Columbus, Ga., and they said I had to go to Alabama. I went to Alabama and they said I had to go to Georgia."
His immediate goal is to get a driver's license, now that he has revived the 1984 Dodge Aries that had been parked in his sister's yard.
"I'd like to live the rest of my life at peace, maybe get some of the things I need -- transportation and a job and maybe a hobby like fishing," he says. "I love to fish. I've already got two or three places picked out."
Allen was 30 years old in 1970 when he walked into the unlocked home of an 87-year-old woman near Benson, N.C., and took her 19-inch Motorola. He hid the $140 TV in the woods, but never watched it. Police followed his footprints and quickly arrested him at his labor camp.
When Allen emerged from the Orange Correctional Center in late May, he had a slight stoop, prison bifocals, and flecks of gray in his mustache and protruding from beneath his Muslim skull cap.
He acknowledges that the Allen who entered the North Carolina prison system 3 1/2 decades ago was "sort of wild," a young tough who worked a moonshine still and hauled the contraband liquor in hopped-up Pontiacs.
When Allen arrived in the Tar Heel State, he had already been hardened by years as an itinerant farmworker and construction laborer.
By then, he had a rap sheet that included burglaries and a violent assault.
State records say Allen roughed up Lessie Johnson when he stole her TV. Allen was not convicted of assault and he denies hurting the woman.
"Back in those days if you roughed up a white woman and you were black, nine times out of 10, you wouldn't make it to jail," he says.
Under the law of the day, a jury sentenced him to life in prison for second-degree burglary -- a crime that today would carry a maximum punishment of three years.
Bitter at his punishment, Allen admits he was not the best-behaved inmate.
"When I went into prison, in order for you to keep your manhood you had to fight every now and then," he says. "So I got into quite a lot of fights."
He got in trouble for "going by my rules," not prison rules, he says.
"When you know you are right and the man is wrong, I put up a defense," he says. "I got a lot of little minor write-ups." His 47 infractions from 1972 to 2002 included gambling, weapons possession, lock-tampering, misuse of medicine, profanity and making a verbal threat.
He was denied parole 25 times.
"About three years ago, Allen was told he'd have to change his behavior to have any chance of parole," says Melita Groomes, the North Carolina parole commission's executive director.
Around the same time, Allen's case caught the attention of University of North Carolina law professor Rich Rosen. "What first struck me was the ridiculous amount of time for the crime he had committed," Rosen says. "It was an absurd amount of time. The prosecutors thought it too."
Rosen convinced Allen that his best chance of getting out was to put away his anger and bitterness.
Allen laid bricks and blocks in prison, drove a dump truck and a forklift, attended barber school and worked as a cook's assistant through a work-release program.
With no infractions for three years, Allen's case went before the North Carolina Parole Commission last year, for a 26th time, and he was finally ordered released.
On a recent morning, Allen rises early and sits in a white rocker on the porch of his sister's ranch-style house just outside Georgetown -- a town of 970 on the banks of Lake Walter F. George, about 150 miles southwest of Atlanta.
"Seems like the birds have a different sound," he observes as he rocks. "They don't holler like they did."
In one of Georgia's most economically depressed counties, Georgetown has lots of bait shops, but few industries.
Many Georgetown residents, including Allen's sister, Faye, drive across the lake to Eufala, Ala., to work in its thriving industrial park.
Faye Allen, who works the night shift at a plastics factory, refuses to talk to reporters, saying, "Where were you when my brother was serving 35 years in prison?"
In Eufala, with its historic district, antebellum homes and white marble statues, Allen sits in the upscale La Bella Vita restaurant and contrasts his Caesar salad and pizza with prison cuisine.
"I've got a lot of catching up to do because I'm way behind," says Allen, who hopes to find work as a forklift operator after he obtains the photo ID required to apply.
"I feel like I'm sort of free in a way, but I ain't free until I get status, get myself together," he says.
When not sitting on his sister's porch or visiting malls with his nieces and nephews, he often watches soap operas on his sister's living room TV. Among his favorites are "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful."
Because of poor TV reception or a maladjusted television, however, Allen views them in black and white.
He doesn't seem to mind.