Many children’s career dreams for the future, from astronaut to fireman, never happen.
But Jerry McLaughlin, who served 27 years in prison for first degree murder, knew by age 10 that he wanted to be a criminal.
McLaughlin spoke recently to participants in the Creative Retirement program at Edmonds Community College. With his parole officer, Carol Martin, he’s teaching a class called “Behind Bars: Prison Life from the Inside Out.”
A burly man with a goatee, brown sweater and dress pants, he spoke to 17 women and two men who asked questions and punctuated his talk with thoughtful murmurs.
McLaughlin’s goal in the class is to encourage people to volunteer in prisons, since volunteers changed his life, he said.
His story begins as a child. He didn’t grow up on the wrong side of the tracks — he moved there, he said.
“I had a home,” he said. “I chose not to stay there.”
He landed at Luther Burbank school on Mercer Island, a juvenile facility for troubled boys, at age 10.
As a teen, he lived with his brother — part of the time in a 1957 Ford — gambling in pool halls in Seattle’s International District and consorting with criminals who taught him theft techniques.
“I learned to peel a safe, trip the alarm,” he said. “The guy who let me into (one home) was the owner of a safe company.”
At 13, he landed in juvenile detention on an abandoned brig. His room was as big as his mattress.
As part of an escape plan, McLaughlin took a bar from a chair and hid it. When the guard discovered it, McLaughlin attacked him savagely, he said. The guard then beat him for 21 days straight, he said.
“Six months later my mom shows up,” McLaughlin said. “All this time, I had no clothes on, I had scabs. They put clothes on me.”
His mother threatened to return to the prison with a lawyer, so McLaughlin was sent to Seattle that night. There, he fell back into his old ways.
“I rolled back into my old life,” he said. “But this time I was very, very angry. Everyone was responsible for that (beating).”
He’s seen much abuse in prisons, he said, including rapes of other prisoners by guards.
He told the audience not to feel sorry for him.
“I deserved the stuff that happened to me,” he said. “You have to take responsibility.”
As a young man, McLaughlin robbed banks and jewelry stores, had shoot-outs with police and attacked people who provoked him. He also sold drugs.
“I went to bed at night trying to think of a crime,” he said.
His aim, he said, was money, not fun.
“I had fun spending (money), but not getting it,” he said.
McLaughlin was convicted at age 17 for stealing a $75 set of tools and went to prison. Altogether, he’s been in jail most of his life.
“They showed amazing insight in not letting me out,” McLaughlin said. “As a young man I was not fit to be in society.”
What finally landed him in prison with a life sentence was a conviction for first degree murder: He killed the man who raped his wife. Martin, his parole officer, said that was a documented fact.
While in prison, McLaughlin was mean.
“I was at the top of the food chain,” he said. “There were guys at the bottom.”
That hierarchy was determined by several things, including how you carried yourself and what you were in for. Men in for molestation or petty theft were at the bottom, he said.
What turned McLaughlin around were volunteers coming into prisons, including nuns, he said.
Prison treatment was bad in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, McLaughlin said, but it got better after outsiders started coming in to bear witness.
Their presence baffled him.
“It blew me away,” he said. “They cared about the treatment of their fellow human beings.”
It made McLaughlin think about how he treated others. He saw the same thought process in other hardened prisoners.
“After the volunteers started coming in, I decided it wasn’t my job to punish anybody,” he said.
He realized that if he stopped someone from getting the help needed to turn life around, he was responsible.
Even so, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the government cut many prison and after-prison programs, said Martin, the parole officer. Prison programs now are starting to come back, she said.
Even after McLaughlin changed, he spent 10 more years in prison.
“The loneliest time in a man’s life is at 2 a.m. in a cell,” he said. “You wake up and wonder: ‘Will this ever end?’ I thought it would end like most of my people: a knife in the yard, overdose. I didn’t think it would end by getting out.”
But McLaughlin did get out, in May 2004.
Martin, based on his record, believed he was ready, so she wrote a letter to the parole board saying he should come out into a controlled environment.
“(People) said: ‘You let who out of prison?’” Martin said. McLaughlin had a bad reputation among other parole officers.
Life on the outside, though, has not been easy.
“I’m 58, unemployed, a convicted murderer,” McLaughlin said. “It doesn’t look good on an application.”
He’s been looking for work and trying to start a business where he sets appointments for people.
But he’s uneasy in the world. He still has trouble going into a store and leaving without buying anything.
He said he used to go jogging, but one day was at a track with a small-framed woman. Terrified that he’d accidentally bump into her and cause a scene, he ran home.
“People used to be afraid of me and now I’m afraid of people,” he said.
McLaughlin said he looks back on his old self as a different person, “Jerry Mack.” The new self has learned compassion and can accept disrespect, he said.
His goal in speaking to the class was to inspire people to volunteer in prisons, he said.
“I owe it to me and the guys behind me,” he said. “It’s important that as many people get involved as can possibly get involved. It’s what worked for me.”
Volunteers in prison improve life on the outside, too, he said. “If there is no presence in the prisons, the world out here is more dangerous.”