He Called a Jail Cell “Home”

Coval Russell spent 426 days in jail for stabbing his landlord with a pocketknife back in April 2001. It was the only time he ever ran afoul of the law. And that could be considered a tribute of sorts to Mr. Russell, for he was 90 years old when he committed his crime. He had never even had a traffic ticket before.

He was a World War II veteran who lived in Paradise until he got in trouble. (I didn’t make that up. Paradise is a quiet little town in California.) Behind bars, the other inmates of Butte County Jail called him “Pops” and gave him dibs on the TV set, let him go first in the food line, and reserved him a place in the Monopoly game marathons. Blind in one eye and suffering from prostate cancer, Russell loved his tiny cell. The relationships he formed with the transient population in jail appear to have rescued him from a life of unmitigated loneliness.

As the time drew near for Mr. Russell to be released, he petitioned the court to remain in jail. The lifelong bachelor had outlived all of his relatives. He was no longer welcome in Paradise. The only place he felt he had any friends was in the Butte County Jail. So he told the judge he would kill himself if he was sent “back out there” where he had nobody.

But he had something like $20,000 in his bank account. He had no mental illness that either incapacitated him or made him a threat to others. So the judge had no choice but to order him released at the end of June. No, he didn’t want any help getting into an assisted-living residence. And he refused all other suggestions for what he might consider to reestablish himself as a free man.

After two weeks of living in a motel, he took a cab to a 40-foot high bridge and apparently jumped headfirst onto river rocks below. The man who had told someone he had nothing to live for was dead.

A fellow-inmate with “Pops” was told about the death of the man who had been an unofficial grandfather to many of the younger prisoners. “We were a motley crew,” he said, “but we were family nonetheless.”

This sad story reminds all of us that there are people around us who are incredibly lonely. Some are elderly or jailed. But many are preschoolers, teens, or people in upscale neighborhoods. Is there a greater misery than being unwanted?

Loneliness was the first thing God saw in all creation that he said was not good. Be on the lookout this week for someone who is suffering its miseries.

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