The plumber who came to our home this fall was excellent at his trade, but we discovered that’s not what was most important about him. Charles Dobbins’ love for and support of his childhood friend Calvin Bryant makes him memorable.

The service call started with a personal question instead of one about the plumbing issue. We live a short distance from a large public high school, and Charles asked my husband David if he happened to be related to our son who had attended there. Charles and our son played football together in middle school and both went to the nearby high school. As David and Charles chatted about football memories, David asked about “Fridge,” a physically imposing powerhouse player who was well known at the high school. The answer was an amazing story.

Charles explained that the popular Fridge went to college and dreamed of becoming a professional football player. In 2008 at age 22, though, Calvin made what he terms a very poor decision. At the repeated insistence of a family friend, who secretly was a police informant, Fridge obtained and sold the “friend” 320 ecstasy pills. The police informant was paid just over $1,000 for his involvement and had his own pending felony case dismissed. (He has since been convicted of at least six felonies with other charges pending.) Calvin was arrested for drug distribution.

In 2009, Fridge was convicted of a first-time, non-violent drug offense. He received an “enhanced” 17-year sentence based on a new law designed to protect children from crime. It provided for greatly increased sentences if a crime occurred within 1,000 feet of a school or other area that served children. Calvin’s home where the sale was made is within that distance of a school, though his crime was at night and had nothing to do with children. Had he lived in a different area instead of the Edgehill housing project, he would have received a three-year term. Calvin, who supporters described as a good student, peacemaker and very loving toward his family, entered the Riverbend Maximum Security Prison without possibility of parole until he had served 15 years.

The sentence, more in line with a term given to rapists or second- degree murderers, attracted widespread outrage and has been the subject of multiple appeals. The interpretation of the Tennessee Code that prompted the sentence has been modified, and even one of the district attorneys who prosecuted Calvin has said it was unfairly applied to Fridge and called for his early release. Law briefs have argued that the Tennessee Code unfairly discriminates against the urban poor, largely minorities, who live in densely populated areas. Multiple appeals point out that no children were targeted in the sale of drugs, present during the sale, or harmed in any way.

Despite the injustice of the sentence and the failed attempts to overturn it, Charles explained that Fridge had maintained a positive outlook over the ensuing nine years. Charles knows this firsthand, because he said he visits Fridge in prison every Sunday. “I grew up with Fridge,” Charles explained, “and I’m gonna be there for him.”

The successful plumber said that he takes Fridge money every time, which seems to be almost as welcome as the visit. “It’s not for him, though,” Charles explained. “Fridge wants it for the kids who come to visit their dads so they can buy stuff out of the vending machines. Most prisoners don’t have any money to give their kids, and Fridge wants them to get something positive about being there.” Charles said Calvin’s spirits were good.

As someone who gets energized at unfairness and injustice – and one who typically engages life from an impatient self-focus – both men are amazing to me. Fridge, who asserted at a recent court appearance, “I take full responsibility for my actions,” is upbeat and thinking of how he can help others despite his difficult circumstances and repeated disappointments. His friend has faithfully visited him regularly, joined others in working for his release, and provided money that Fridge can share with other inmates and their kids.

Long after the plumbing was fixed, I couldn’t get Fridge and Charles out of my mind. I shared the story with our son and continued to mull over how it was possible to stay positive and generous after so long behind bars. I imagined what it was like to visit someone in prison week after week. I prayed for a positive result for the ongoing legal efforts to get Fridge released after nearly a decade, long beyond the expected time if he had lived somewhere different. Based on how impatient and despondent I get about far easier circumstances, I’m sure I would be angry and embittered if I were in Fridge’s shoes.

Then in recent weeks the news reported the rest of the story: Fridge had been released!  Everyone from the original prosecutor to the current prosecutor to the judge who had sentenced Calvin agreed that nothing was served by his remaining incarcerated for seven more years. The current district attorney arranged a deal that allowed him to be released for the nearly 10 years he had served.

As Calvin’s mother wept for joy, the original judge who sentenced him encouraged Calvin to “do something good” with his second chance. Fridge responded, “I look forward to making something out of myself.”

From my perspective, he already has.

Marnie C. Ferree