Vic Ryckaert, Indianapolis Star
Jim Robinson knows he'll never repair the damage, never heal the pain he caused 18 years ago in the parking lot of a Frankfort apartment complex.
But the U.S. Army veteran also believes a man is more than his worst deed.
That's one reason he joined American Legion Post 608.
"(The American Legion has) actually helped me be a better person," Robinson said. "It's allowed me to know that I am the person that I’ve always been."
Robinson is a proud member of the post in Pendleton, which meets in a legion hall decorated with hand-painted patriotic murals of flags and combat scenes.
You won't find beer or mixed drinks in 608's Legion Hall, but there are bars — the black steel kind — on this campus compound guarded by towers and razor wire fences.
Post 608 is inside the maximum-security Pendleton Correctional Center.
This is one of seven posts operating inside Indiana prisons, said John Raughter, a spokesman for the American Legion's national headquarters. The organization knows of nine other states with posts in a prison.
There could be more. The Legion treats these like any other post, Raughter said, noting there may be others operating inside prisons that they just don't know about.
The Legion, members say, offers offenders another way to find in themselves the men they once were.
Robinson, 56, served in the U.S. Army. He spent time in Iraq. He was home in April 2001 when he threatened his wife with a gun. Days later, he found her in an apartment parking lot and fatally shot her with a .22-caliber handgun.
A Clinton County judge handed Robinson a 60-year sentence. He's projected to be released in about 8 1/2 years.
A family suffering such carnage doesn't heal.
Robinson said he's watched from afar as his sons have grown. He's rebuilt his relationship with them as best he could through prison visits. But he said they pulled away after they had children of their own.
"It got to a point it was hard to explain to (his grandchildren) why they don’t have a grandma and why grandpa's in here by himself," Robinson said. "I understood it, so I let them have their distance."
The Legion, he said, helps him keep his mind right. It reminds him he's still worth something.
Responsibilities and privileges
The Legion Hall is a space away from the drudgery of the general population. It shares space with the wood shop, part of a separate building on the compound.
The walls aren't thick enough to block the sound of power saws whirring in the background, Here, Legion members hand-paint toys, signs, gadgets and other crafts that will be sold or auctioned to support a canine training program and other charitable causes.
They hold meetings, where they vote to accept new members and debate how to spend the tens of thousands of dollars they raise every year. The money has helped feed hungry kids, deliver clean water in Haiti and serve Thanksgiving meals to the needy in Indianapolis.
Their lives are a contradiction. They are veterans or sons of veterans. They love their country, even though they've betrayed oaths and committed some of the worst crimes. Murder, rape, child molestation.
Each man wants to do better.
"They're leaders in the facility, the way they carry themselves, the way they act," said Jeff King, the prison's community services director and adviser to the post.
"Getting in the post is real hard, but it's real easy to get kicked out."
In a prison population of more than 1,700 men, only about 25 are members of the post.
Offenders in the Legion have opportunities they wouldn't get anywhere else in prison. They find respite and brotherhood in the legion hall, away from the rest of the facility.
They conduct services for Memorial Day and Veteran's Day. Members get to invite relatives to attend the special ceremonies inside the prison and share a real, sit-down meal at a table.
They get a reminder of what they had before the crimes that brought them here. They remember they felt human once.
Ricky Harlan, Post 608's sergeant at arms, said the post doesn't consider what happened before a person ended up in prison. But all members must demonstrate their good character after they were locked up. No discipline problems. No gang members.
They must always be on their best behavior.
"We have a higher standard than the rest of the population," Harlan said. "Basically, we hold people accountable for their actions."
Harlan once served in the Indiana National Guard.
Afterward, he said he started stealing to support a drug habit. In 1989, a judge handed him a six-year prison sentence. His first, not his last.
He racked up more convictions for burglary and residential entry over the years, records show. In 2010, a judge looked at his long criminal record and sentenced Harlan to 40 years in prison. His projected release date is Aug. 25, 2032.
"A person like me, I’ve taken so much out of the community by committing crimes, you know," Harlan said.
"And to give something back into the community, like having somebody get a meal on Thanksgiving day or having a way for kids to have a good meal to take home with them, that makes me feel good."
When you live in a cage, there aren't many things to feel good about.
But the Legion offers a chance to feel good about helping someone else.
Members make craft projects like hand-painted iPad holders that support a dog training program. They make and decorate rocking-horse-style wooden toy motorcycles that will sell for hundreds of dollars at charity auctions.
Additionally, the Legion raises tens of thousands of dollars by setting up a special store for fellow inmates. It sells things offenders can't typically buy in the commissary: Nutella, Ranch dressing and Axe Body Spray are among the hot items.
Post 608 donated more than $32,000 in 2018.
For these men who have wronged so many, being a member of the American Legion is a "cherished honor," said King, the post's adviser.
"They are trying to restore the valor that they once had," King said. "Through bad decisions they lost that valor.
"They are trying to get that back."
Call IndyStar reporter Vic Ryckaert at 317-444-2701. Follow him on Twitter: @VicRyc.
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