Barbara Parsons Lane, a Kent native, plans to return to the area she calls home when she is released on parole from the York Correctional Institution this spring-to the region that includes Warren, the town in which she fired the fatal shot that caused the death of her husband.
An author who has written an award-winning autobiographical story during her incarceration, Ms. Lane lived in Northwest Connecticut until November 1996, when she was remanded to the correctional facility in Niantic after being arrested for shooting her husband, Marcus Lane, in the head with a .22-caliber pistol.
Mr. Lane, who was 28, died in Hartford Hospital Nov. 6, two days after being shot, and nine months later his wife was convicted of first-degree manslaughter with a firearm.
But there were mitigating circumstances in the case. Ms. Lane, who was 48 at the time, was under emotional duress as a result of domestic abuse. She was subsequently sentenced to serve 25 years, to be suspended after 10 years, at York, the state's only prison for female offenders.
Ms. Lane became eligible for parole after serving 85 percent of the 10 years, and, after spending eight years at York, she was unanimously granted parole by a three-member board that heard her case Dec. 6. She is expected to be released in early May.
While most people started off the first full week of the New Year by getting back to business, on the morning of Jan. 4, Ms. Lane sat down in a private room at the York Correctional Institution to talk about her upcoming release and her feelings about starting over in her old town.
Ms. Lane said that she agreed to grant an interview to The Litchfield County Times because she was ready to talk about her new beginning-and because her attorney had "blessed" such a meeting. Many media outlets, some located as far away as Europe, had sought her out for interviews about her prison writing projects, but none had contacted her to discuss her future.
Although all of the details have yet to be ironed out for Ms. Lane's post-prison life, it's clear that for her the new year holds not just the opportunity for an exploration of a brand new vocation, but dramatic as it may sound, 2005 also ushers her into a whole new life.
There are so many decisions to be made, and Ms. Lane confessed that she is not used to making them. Touching the oversized, regulation prison sweatshirt that she had on, the inmate said, "I don't even know what size I wear." Clearly, whatever it is, it's about two sizes smaller than the sweatshirt.
The only real choice that inmates have in the tightly controlled environment, she explained, is the type of sneakers they wear, and whether they want "white cotton underwear or pastels."
And her last name is a bit of a sticking point for Ms. Lane. Nobody asked her if she wanted to go by "Lane," the name of the man she killed. The name on her legal documents before the shooting was Parsons, but after her arrest, she explained, Lane kept showing up on everything-and it stuck. Finally, she said, she asked if she could officially go by Barbara Parsons Lane.
Freedom of expression, not just in the way that she dresses, but in the way that she relates to others, is something "we're not allowed to nurture here," explained Ms. Lane, who said that physical contact is against prison rules, and that hugging or touching someone in a comforting way is conduct that will result in disciplinary action. Because of that, when her infant granddaughter came to visit, she said, "I was afraid to burp the little girl," because she thought someone might misconstrue that she was harming the baby.
Given that she has become so unpracticed at decision-making these past eight years, Ms. Lane is fortunate to have help with making choices when it comes to her new life on the outside. Enter a group of people in the Kent area who have dubbed themselves The Friends of Barbara Lane, a support group of "12 to 14 people of all ages and backgrounds," according to Charlotte Lindsey, one of the "friends" who agreed to be interviewed for this article and speak on behalf of the group.
A former schoolteacher, as well as a former counselor, Mrs. Lindsey said that although she never had Ms. Lane as a student, she has known her since she was 10 years old. "She was a fine little girl," Mrs. Lindsey said.
The Friends of Barbara Lane wrote letters to the parole board, and are continuing their unwavering support by helping her make the transition from prison to her new life on the outside in ways such as finding her a car, a place to live and assisting her with job applications, among other practical matters.
Conditions of Ms. Lane's parole require that she have a counselor upon her release, and Mrs. Lindsey said that the group is helping to set that up, as well.
While members of the group will be available and on call for Ms. Lane around the clock for the first few months immediately following her release, they are careful not to overstep their bounds. "We don't do anything over the heads of her children," she said.
Ms. Lane has four children. Two still live in Northwest Connecticut, Amanda and Arthur, and a daughter, Andrea, resides in Georgia but visits her mother regularly, bringing her grandchildren. A fourth child, a son Adam, was tragically killed when his truck hydroplaned during a rainstorm two years into Ms. Lane's incarceration.
When Ms. Lane entered prison, she had three grandchildren. "Now I have seven," she said. "I'm really excited [to be able to spend time with them upon my release]. I just love kids. They're so honest."
Still, in spite of her immediate family and her good friends with their good intentions, Ms. Lane has detractors. Not everyone is overjoyed about her upcoming release, and, cautioned Mrs. Lindsey, "The community isn't going to just hand her the key."
Ms. Lane realizes this fact, as she has reflected on the gravity of her crime, for which she takes full responsibility. She admits that she took a life and that she indeed deserved to be punished. And she acknowledges that her actions in 1996 created a "domino effect" that has impacted everyone in her circle. In fact, she said that she has close family members in Northwest Connecticut who still refuse to speak to her.
Concerning the prospect of encountering open hostility outside the walls of the correctional facility, Ms. Lane believes that she will be able to handle whatever is thrown at her, and said, "Well, this life in here is pretty rough … I've been called every name in here that you can think of."
What does worry her, she confessed, is that people will be wary of her. "One of my biggest fears is that I don't want people to be afraid of me," she said, adding, "Even though you come to prison and you do your time, it's a life sentence."
Barbara Parsons Lane does not look like a killer, nor does she come across as one.
With 75 percent of the women at York languishing behind bars and just waiting out their time, why did Ms. Lane choose to make something of her time spent in prison? Her motivation to face her demons and live a repenting and reflective life-while simultaneously moving forward and developing new skills in a system that doesn't much care if you do or not-is something that she can't explain. But she does have a name for it: "Self-rehabilitation. That's what I've done these eight years," she said. "I've worked on myself. In here … I've taken every single workshop, every single class, joined every single group that I could."
Ms. Lane earned her associate's degree behind bars, has become more than proficient with a digital camera and computers, has earned her certification as a literacy volunteer and has even tutored other inmates in algebra and other areas to help them obtain equivalency degrees.
In addition, Ms. Lane became a charter member of the prison hospice program. "It's very lonely in here, even with 1,400 other women," she said, explaining that the thought of someone having to die alone in prison was her call to action to help launch the hospice program at York.
Ms. Lane is also actively involved as a leader in a program in which inmates raise and train puppies to be used by people who have physical and mental limitations. Dogs she has trained have gone on to homes where they have helped an autistic child and people with multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy, for example.
But what has indisputably garnered Ms. Lane the most attention during her incarceration, in the form of accolades and criticism, is her writing.
She had a love of the written word well before her incarceration. Ms. Lane was affiliated with the former Kent Review, and she handled the business end of things for the publication. But writing was always in her heart, and she had taken creative writing workshops in Litchfield County.
However, it was while she was behind bars that her writing talents finally came to light-in a big way-as she studied with best-selling author Wally Lamb, a volunteer at the prison.
When Mr. Lamb submitted a story to his publisher, HarperCollins, called "Puzzle Pieces" by Ms. Lane, along with writings from other York inmates, for publication in an anthology called, "Couldn't Keep it to Myself, Testimonies From Our Imprisoned Sisters," he had not obtained the permission of Connecticut corrections officials. A brouhaha erupted with the state initially demanding the imprisoned writers' meager royalties from the project to pay for their room and board at York. Later, after the situation received much media attention, the state revised its demand downward and requested only $500 from each woman.
Ms. Lane was front and center during the controversy, and in 2004 she went on to win the prestigious PEN Award, for which she received $25,000. Established by actor Paul Newman and author A.E. Hotchner, the award honors a U.S. resident who has fought, despite adversity, to safeguard the First Amendment right to freedom of expression in the form of the written word.
Reflecting on how she will earn a living upon her upcoming release, Ms. Lane said that the ideal job for her is one that will tap into one or more of her many interests and talents such as dog training, gardening-and writing.
In fact, her parole liaison at York said that after she is released, Ms. Lane must continue to make time for her writing, which has been so integral to her rehabilitation.
In "Puzzle Pieces," Ms. Lane revisits her childhood and other areas of her life that do not excuse, but help explain, how she ended up killing her husband. She has a very clear, direct style that captivates the reader, but in an unassuming way, like a single, melancholic church bell that peals through a village at dusk.
Her latest literary effort, "Nature at York, Life after Death," which is currently in the process of being edited, examines the vast contrast in the natural world as viewed from the maximum-security side of the correctional facility. The piece also incorporates Ms. Lane's mother's suicide.
In maximum security, Ms. Lane explained, there is a tiny slit of a window where inmates can look out onto the correctional facility's grounds and sometimes see deer or a skunk.
But as far as smells and sounds are concerned, all inmates have to go by is memory. "Maximum security is very controlled," she explained.
But when she was moved to minimum security, "I became fascinated," Ms. Lane said, noting that there is a window, with a screen, that can be opened. "I could [finally] hear things … You notice everything."
Sometimes, Ms. Lane said, she will get a whiff of Patchouli, a scent that she enjoys, or vanilla, from something that a staff member at the correctional facility is wearing, which will trigger a memory for her.
Currently, Mr. Lamb is in the process of editing, "Nature at York." "I'm very lucky to have Wally as my editor," Ms. Lane acknowledged. "I still see myself as having some flaws. My grammar is atrocious," she admitted.
During the meeting two weeks ago, Ms. Lane was asked to put herself in the place of the interviewer and determine the single most important question to be asked.
The inmate-author hesitated for a minute, and then she said, "I would want to know how prison has changed me." And when asked to respond to her own question, she said, "I'm much more humble, and I appreciate kindness and I just appreciate life on a more natural basis … I love nature … I stop to smell the flowers, I stop to appreciate our daily evolution. I'm just so much more appreciative … .
"I've made it a positive experience," she continued. "I've tried not to pick up raw language. I've tried to stay truthful. The things I like about myself, I've tried to carry with me through these eight years. The things I didn't like, I've tried to round out."
About her experience with domestic violence, Ms. Lane said, "I was very uneducated about it." She noted that she has taken "every single workshop or class on the subject" that she could get into while at York. "Now, I see every mistake I made," she admitted.
Ms. Lane said that most people don't understand "how silent [domestic violence] makes a person. I was raised with, 'You don't talk about it.'"
But Ms. Lane is done with all of that and ready to move on. "Even the judge [who sentenced me] said that I would never commit another crime."
Charlotte Lindsey, Ms. Lane's friend, agrees, and said, "Everybody knows that Barbara is going to come back and be somebody. Not that she wasn't [somebody] before … [But] if you read the book, you understand [how she got to the breaking point]." And pointing out that it could have been any one of us in that prison cell these past eight years, Mrs. Lindsey said, "She's just another human being."
So Ms. Lane is officially coming home May 3, or shortly thereafter, depending on how quickly her paperwork is processed. But she admits that her daughter, who lives in Georgia, would like for her to parole to another state instead of returning to Kent.
Ms. Lane, who will celebrate her 57th birthday this summer, wants to try to come back to the place that she has called home all of her life.
The landscape has changed considerably, physically and otherwise, during the past eight years that Ms. Lane has been away. There has been commercial and residential development, and the people in her life have changed. Some family members aren't speaking to her, she no longer has a husband, and her youngest son rests in a Canaan cemetery.
Even if Barbara Parsons Lane can't return to the things that she once knew, perhaps she can still go home-like the character in Thomas Wolfe's classic novel, "You Can't Go Home Again," eventually did: "The simple joy he felt at being once more a part of such familiar things also contained an element of strangeness and unreality. With a sharp stab of wonder he reminded himself, as he had done a 100 times in the last few weeks, that he had really come home again … ."