GEORGETOWN, Ga. - As hard as it was to spend 35 years in prison for stealing a black-and-white television, Junior Allen in many ways has found freedom just as frustrating.
Despite extensive prison records in North Carolina, where he has spent more than half his life as inmate No. 0004604, Mr. Allen has been unable to establish his identity in rural Georgia, where he now lives with his sister, or in Alabama, where he was born 65 years ago to sharecropper parents.
The monthlong effort to get a birth certificate and photo ID only hints at the new challenge he faces - that of transforming himself from less-than-model inmate to average senior citizen.
"It's like I never existed," Mr. Allen says. "I went to Columbus, Ga., and they said I had to go to Alabama. I went to Alabama and they said I had to go to Georgia."
His immediate goal is to get a driver's license. He has already revived a 1984 Dodge Aries that was parked in his sister's yard.
"I'd like to live the rest of my life at peace, maybe get some of the things I need - transportation and a job and maybe a hobby like fishing," he says. "I love to fish. I've already got two or three places picked out."
Mr. Allen was a strapping 30-year-old in 1970 when he walked into the unlocked home of an elderly North Carolina woman and took her $140, 19-inch black-and-white Motorola. He hid the set in the woods and never watched it. Police quickly arrested him at his labor camp by following his footprints.
When Mr. Allen left the Orange Correctional Center in late May, he walked out slightly stooped, prison bifocals perched on his nose, with flecks of gray in his mustache and protruding from beneath his Muslim skull cap.
But he acknowledges that the Junior Allen who entered the North Carolina prison system 3 decades ago was "sort of wild," a young tough who worked a moonshine still and hauled the contraband liquor in hopped-up Pontiacs.
When Mr. Allen arrived in the Tar Heel state, he had already been hardened by years as a migrant farm worker and itinerant construction laborer. By then, his rap sheet already included burglaries and a violent assault.
State records say he roughed up 87-year-old Lessie Johnson and stole her TV set. Mr. Allen was not convicted of assault and denies the notion that he hurt the woman.
"Back in those days, if you roughed up a white woman and you were black, nine times out of 10, you wouldn't make it to jail," he says.
Under the law of the day, a Johnston County jury sentenced the black man to life in prison for second-degree burglary - a crime that today would carry a maximum punishment of three years. Bitter at his punishment, Mr. Allen admits he was hardly a model inmate.
"When I went into prison, in order for you to keep your manhood, you had to fight every now and then," he says. "So I got into quite a lot of fights."
He was often written up, he says, for "going by my rules," not prison rules.
During his 35 years of incarceration, Mr. Allen was denied parole 25 times. About three years ago, his case caught the attention of University of North Carolina law professor Rich Rosen.
"What first struck me was the ridiculous amount of time for the crime he had committed. It was an absurd amount of time. The prosecutors thought it, too," Mr. Rosen said.
He convinced Mr. Allen that his best chance of getting out was to put away his anger and bitterness. Mr. Allen laid bricks and blocks in prison, drove a dump truck and fork lift, attended barber school, and worked as a cook's assistant.
With no infractions for three years, his case went before the parole commission last year, for a 26th time, and he was finally ordered released.
On a recent morning, he rose early and sat in a rocker on the porch of his sister's house. She lives outside Georgetown, a town of 970 on the banks of Lake Walter F. George, about 150 miles southwest of Atlanta.
"Seems like the birds have a different sound," he observed as he rocked. "They don't holler like they did."
In one of Georgia's most economically depressed counties, Georgetown has lots of bait shops but few industries. Many residents, including Mr. Allen's sister, Faye, drive to Eufaula, Ala., to work in its thriving industrial park.
Motorists crossing the lake into Alabama enter a picturesque town with a historic district, antebellum homes and glistening marble statues in the middle of key intersections.
At Eufaula's upscale La Bella Vita restaurant, Mr. Allen was comfortable sitting among some of the town's elite, eating a salad and pizza.
"I've got a lot of catching up to do because I'm way behind," said Mr. Allen, who hopes to find work as a fork-lift operator as soon as he can obtain the photo ID required to apply.
"I don't have anybody telling me when to get up, when to lay down. I feel like I'm sort of free in a way, but I ain't free until I get status, get myself together."