When Merle Haggard passed away last week on his 79th birthday, country music lost one of its best storytellers.
For decades, Haggard built his legacy as a rough-and-tumble country outlaw, telling stories of his own troubled past, which involved repeated stints in both reform schools and, later, in prison. In songs like “Mama Tried” and “The Bottle Let Me Down,” Haggard reflected on past mistakes and paths not taken, regretting the consequences of poor choices.
In memory of Haggard’s life, National Public Radio recently replayed an interview the country music icon from 1995. The wide-ranging interview reflects on Haggard’s upbringing with a single mother who struggled to keep her rebellious son in check.
“I was, to say the least, probably the most incorrigible child you could think of,” Haggard says. “I was just—I was already on the way to prison before I realized it, actually. … I think it was mostly just out of boredom and lack of a father’s attention, I think.”
Sent to a juvenile home by the time he was 14, Haggard became a frequent flight risk. (“I think I escaped 17 times,” he tells the interviewer.) Such behavior portended future brushes with the law, which ultimately resulted in a lengthy stay at San Quentin State Prison in California.
I really kind of was crazy as a kid, and then all of a sudden, you know, while I was in San Quentin, I just—I one day understood—I saw the light,” Haggard says. “I just didn’t want to do that no more and I realized what a mess I’d made out of my life, and I got out of there and stayed out of there—never did go back.”
Leaving prison didn’t end Haggard’s struggles, though. In the interview, Haggard describes the life of a returning prisoner:
[A] lot of people may or may not understand how hard it is for a person coming out of an institution, you know—whether it be a prison or whether it be some sort of a mental institution, whether it be the Army or whatever. There’s a thing that happens, like, when you leave the penitentiary. When you’ve been there for three years, you have friends and you have a way of life and you have a routine and a whole way of life that you just give up all of a sudden. One day you’re there and you’re—next day, you’re not there.
And you don’t have any more friends from the outside ‘cause things went on when you left, and you can’t find anybody there. And the people you left behind in prison are really your only friends. And there’s a period of adjustment that took me about 120 days, I don’t know—about four months. A couple times, I really wanted to go back. And it’s really a weird sensation. It’s the loneliest feeling in the world about the second night out of the penitentiary.
Such challenges are not unique to Merle Haggard. Recently released prisoners struggle with reconnecting with the world outside the prison yard. Even those that are fortunate enough to have a support system in place face countless legal and social hurdles that prevent them from becoming productive members of their communities.
The goal of the Second Prison Project is to remove these barriers to reintegration. By helping to develop leadership skills in men and women who were formerly incarcerated, advocating for changes in laws that unnecessarily hinder them from moving forward, and by encouraging these men and women to undertake acts of service to build ties with their neighbors, the Second Prison Project is unlocking second chances, and strengthening communities around the country. To learn more about the Second Prison Project, visit https://secondprison.org.