He did 17 years in prison and 17 years on parole. Now Bruce Thomas, also known as Dancing Bruce for his graceful moves on the Weaver Street lawn, is finally free.
Each year, Thomas had asked Florida officials—he was jailed at Union Correctional Institution in that state after robbing a bank in 1980—to be released from parole before 2069, its original expiration date. And each time, the parole board turned him down.
That meant Thomas, who is 54, could not travel from his Carrboro home across state lines without permission. He had to keep a job or risk having his parole revoked and returning to prison. He had to submit to drug testing. He could not vote.
"Even though I was free, I was still incarcerated," Thomas says.
Then shortly after 7 p.m. last New Year's Eve, Thomas got a call from a friend, David Roth, who had petitioned the parole board for his release.
"First, I started laughing," Thomas says, remembering when Roth told him the news. "Then, I started crying. I didn't realize the weight of it until three or four days later."
On March 3, 2010, the INDY published a story about his struggles in a "The Reincarnation of Bruce Thomas." The article chronicled his transformation from bank robber and racist militant to a spiritual man and the most recognized person in Carrboro—albeit someone who still fought inner demons.
"It's so easy to give up. There were times I thought, 'What can I do to get off this planet?'" Thomas says. "But I have so many good friends who helped me keep a good attitude."
Twenty-two people, including former Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, wrote to the parole board.
"He is a simple, good man," says Roth, who spearheaded the letter-writing campaign. "I did it because I have a deep and abiding respect and affection for someone abused by the system.
"And on a political level, we know that segments of our society have systemic means to eviscerate young, black men in disproportionate numbers and for terms that are absurd."
Cely Chicurel and her husband, Bill, have known Thomas for 15 years. At times he has lived with them.
"People are imprisoned in different ways," she says. "One way is economic, his not being able to get a full-time job because he was on parole.
"He's defined himself so much as someone on parole," she adds. "Now he has the opportunity to think of himself as not."
Thomas works part-time as a custodian at Chestnut Ridge Christian camp in Efland. "Bruce needs a new beginning," Roth says. "He is a competent, intelligent person who shows up and needs a freakin' break."
Thomas, who already holds free meditation classes for the community, would like to open a meditation center and to go into schools to talk with students about making good choices.
"One dumb thing and you're in the system," he says. "I made foolish mistakes. You don't have to go to prison to find out who you are."
This article appeared in print with the headline "A simple, good man."