Parolee spent half his life in prison, now volunteers for Salvation Army

Parolee spent half his life in prison, now volunteers for Salvation Army Saturday, April 12, 2008
Dan McDonald 508-626-4416 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- Crime was his calling.

Alvin Greenwood forged checks. He broke into pubs. He robbed bar patrons. He drove drunk. He shot a man. For about half of his 68 years, he called a prison cell home.

"I was born with the con game," he said.

Now, his life is free of booze, drugs and crime.

Since he was paroled last July, he has spent many mornings in the passenger seat of a gray GMC van, making food deliveries to the Salvation Army Corps Community Center as a volunteer.

It's a far cry from his life as a drug-addled stick-up man.

On a January morning in 1971, Greenwood woke up and tried to rob a bank in Miami Beach, Fla.

If he had breakfast that morning, it was likely a meal of vodka and cocaine, he said.

"We weren't big on food in those days," he said.

Upon entering a First National Bank around 10:30 a.m., things went awry quickly. After handing a teller a note that read "no dye-pack, no alarms, and large bills," Greenwood and his partner drew the attention of an armed security guard.

Greenwood drew his 9-millimeter pistol and exchanged shots.

A bullet struck Greenwood in the arm. He, in turn, shot the guard in the leg.

Both lived.

Greenwood was arrested shortly thereafter.

It was not his first bank robbery. Greenwood recalls robbing at least seven other banks as well as supermarkets and drug stores. He estimates his take from such robberies to be in the $80,000 to $90,000 range.

He would serve about two decades in jail for the bungled Miami Beach bank job.

It was not the first, nor the last prison stint for Greenwood.

Before that incident, he was in and out of jail from the late 1950s through the '60s.

"I never lasted more than a year outside," said Greenwood. "Easy money, drugs, women, booze, and then get busted again."

It was during the first of these prison stints - in 1958 - that he made the prison baseball team as a left-handed pitcher. Then a teenager, Greenwood was in prison for forging checks.

Playing on the prison baseball team beat having to wade through the Florida swamp canals slashing back brush with a scythe as part of chain gang. Making the team absolved him of that duty, he said.

In jail, he also mastered the art of making prison liquor. For a sweet tonic, mix two 5-pound bags of sugar with a 5-gallon bucket of orange juice, then ferment the bucket in a warm place for three days, he said.

Then, prison meant baseball and booze for Greenwood.

While on the team in the spring of 1958, Greenwood said he pitched against the Boston Red Sox. It was typical for teams of that era to play prison teams and college teams on their trip home from spring training, he said.

"At this point I'm happy in prison," Greenwood recalled. "I'm getting drunk. I'm pitching against the Red Sox and I never been anything in my life. I ain't taking my life seriously."

His pitching days ended, however, more than a decade later near Brattleboro, Vt.

Driving drunk on his way to Woodstock in August 1969, Greenwood lost control of his 1956 Oldsmobile Holiday on a wet road. The car flipped with Greenwood's left hand clenched to the top of the driver-side window. He woke up in a hospital bed with his left pinky and ring finger missing. To this day his left middle finger is gnarled forward.

"My first two thoughts were I can't play baseball anymore and the cops will be able to identify me now," he said.

In 1990, he was granted parole for the 1971 Miami bank job. He returned to his birthplace of Gardner where his sister lived and worked as a cabby in Fitchburg.

In 1993, he was arrested on his first drunk-driving charge. His second came in 1999. In 2003 he was arrested for a third drunken driving offense. A jury found him not guilty, but the Florida Parole Board had had enough and ordered him shipped back to a Florida prison.

Last summer he was paroled and returned to Massachusetts.

The Florida Parole Board placed him in the Bridge House, a substance abuse recovery facility in Framingham. It was incorporated in 1984 to reduce recidivism in the criminal justice system, according to the organization's Web site. The Summit Street house was the closest program of its kind to Gardner, where Greenwood has family. Calls to the Bridge House were not returned.

With a multitude of physical ailments - he has had a triple bypass, has circulation problems in his legs, and has his gnarled left hand - he collects disability money from the federal government.

However, upon his return from prison the Bridge House supervisors didn't want him "laying around watching soap operas all day."

Thus, last summer, he volunteered at Salvation Army. He rang the organization's bells during the holidays, mopped the center's floors, and washed the windows.

While praising Greenwood, Salvation Army Major Sharon Himes verified Greenwood has been sober since his arrival last summer.

"He's done everything we've asked him to," said Himes. "He's been clean since he's been here."

Greenwood credits Alcoholics Anonymous and the Bridge House for his sobriety.

"Right now I'm learning to tell the truth for the first time in my life," he said.

This weekend finds Greenwood moving out of the Bridge House. He expected to move into the top floor of Maggie's Place a SMOC sober housing floor by the time this story is published.

"It's for people who for one reason or another ended up homeless and are back trying to put their life together again," said SMOC President Jim Cuddy of the upper floor of Maggie's Place.

SMOC charges "flexible fees," that often range from $20-$30 per week for the housing if the person is working, said Cuddy.

Looking forward, Greenwood knows one thing: He does not want to go back to jail.

In prison, Greenwood said he was witness to an inmate burning "like a Buddhist monk" after a fellow inmate doused him with gasoline. He saw a good friend stabbed to death. The violence, he said, is too much to bear.

"I'm scared because of my age," he said. "The worst thing ever is to die in prison."

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