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Oldest Inmate Still Thinks About Freedom

November 4, 1986 GMT

MOUNDSVILLE, W.Va. (AP) _ Freeman Collins has grown old inside the stone walls of West Virginia Penitentiary. Nearly 80, the twice-convicted murderer is content with a television and the privileges of involuntary seniority.

Collins has prowled the corridors of the maximum-security prison for more than half a century, longer than anyone else on state record.

His prison number, 19555, is the same one he was assigned Aug. 15, 1930, when he arrived to serve a life sentence for murder.

Collins’ veteran status has won him midnight snacks in the kitchen and long, unaccompanied walks around the prison yard. He is comfortable with prison life.

″I’ve got plenty of friends here,″ he said. ″And we’ve got good doctors, good nurses, good guards and good food.″

The aging convict moves slowly, his body leaning to the left, one shoulder misshapen by an accident several years ago. His white hair is thinning and white stubble covers his chin.

He has a mind ″probably sharper than yours or mine,″ Warden Jerry Hedrick said of the man who committed a second murder 11 years ago at age 68, and a man some prison officials believe would kill again.

″You feel like you’re talking to your grandpap when you talk to Freeman Collins,″ said former Warden Donald Bordenkircher. ″He’s been a model inmate but makes a lousy citizen. The minute he gets outside the walls he’s hell on wheels. He had a chance at freedom and went out and killed again.″

Collins is a rarity among rarities in the nation’s prisons. Fewer than 1 percent of U.S. inmates are over age 55, according to the American Correctional Association. And most of them, unlike Collins, have not spent most of their lives in prison.

Collins was 23 when he entered the Moundsville prison. Prison officials are skeptical of his stories about events before then, saying fantasy has a way of becoming reality after years of incarceration. But there is no denying the flair with which he tells the tales.

″It happened in the Big-Four Saloon back in the days when there wasn’t any law,″ Collins said recently, leaning forward, his clear blue eyes dancing as he spins a yarn about the first murder. ″It was one of them log saloons that sold moonshine. I went to get some whisky and as I walked through the door, someone shot me through the leg.

″But I had news for them. I drew my gun ... and let seven of them have it.″

Collins has a scar on his leg that would support his account, but prison records and newspaper accounts tell instead of a long-time feud between Collins and Perchie Jarrell, the deputy assessor of Boone County.

According to a 1930 article, witnesses said Collins attacked Jarrell with an ax as Jarrell slept under a tree. Prosecutors said revenge was the motive. Jarrell had been acquitted of shooting and killing Collins’ father in 1919.

Collins spent the next 42 years in prison. He was paroled in 1972 but was arrested five years later for fatally stabbing his parole officer.

Collins won’t discuss the murder today, other than to claim he was in another state and was ″set up.″

Dan Manville, who served three years in prison for manslaughter before becoming an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Prison Project, said Collins may well have killed again simply to return to prison and the only security he had ever known.

″It’s difficult enough for a person coming out after four or five years, but you take someone who has been away for that long... Society has changed so dramatically that they freak out,″ Manville said.

″The system forces it on them″ by making them dependent, he said. ″Your whole environment is controlled: when you eat, when you sleep, when you go out. The only control you have is when you turn your television on and off. You become so used to that.″

Collins’ black-and-white television is clearly a focus of his existence.

″Sometimes I get up about 4, 5 o’clock, make myself a cup of coffee, watch TV,″ he said. ″Sometimes I stay up all night watching TV.″

But when asked what he wishes for, the prisoner recalls a life that vanished for him long ago.

″I’d take my freedom,″ he said. ″I’d go back into some coal hollow and build me a log cabin. I’d find me a woman who can cook cornbread and I’d come to town only once a week.″