Bernard Pease Jr. attends first concert in 40 years, awakens his ‘spirit’ again

MTIP client Bernard Pease Jr. attends REO Speedwagon concert (Photo courtesy of Linda Thomas)

Discussions about returning to society after incarceration usually center on meeting basic needs, facing stigma, and learning how to exist in a world that might be unrecognizable to the person. Montana Innocence Project client Bernard Pease Jr. faced all those challenges since his transfer to pre-release in January after nearly 40 years of incarceration. A few weeks ago, he had an experience that may seem trivial to the reentry process but proved to be a profound reminder of who he is outside of his wrongful conviction: attending an REO Speedwagon concert.

Bernie was wrongfully convicted in 1984, when he was in his 20s. Music was an important part of his life at that time with REO Speedwagon and ZZ Top being his favorites.

“Mom and dad played rock and roll, and then as I grew up, I started playing it,” Bernie said. “They always told me to turn it down, and they were the ones that turned me onto it! I love rock and roll.”

Bernie saw REO Speedwagon three or four times prior to his wrongful conviction. He recalls the first show being in 1975.

“They sounded just like them,” Bernie said. “A lot of bands, when they play, they don’t sound as good as they do on a CD. But they rocked it. Most of the people my age or a little older weren’t getting into the beat like I was. They have some pretty darn good music, and they still have the beat. That’s all I can say.”

Concerts look a lot different in 2023 than 1975. Although the music was the same, Bernie was overwhelmed “in a good way” by the experience and a little shocked by the prices at the concession and merch stands.

“Going was a big rush–I mean, a big rush,” Bernie said. “All the lights that I haven’t seen in many a years. It’s strange to see people in regular street clothes compared to uniforms all them years. The food was expensive. It was $8 for a coke. It used to be 35 cents. The shirts were $50. It was a good t-shirt. My niece bought it for me, and I was really grateful. It’s just so much to absorb. Everyone coming at you from different directions. A lot of people out there are pretty friendly, so that helped.”

Bernie’s sister Linda planned the event for the whole family–herself, Bernie, and her three kids. When the day of the concert came, Linda was sick and unable to attend. As the only family member approved to drive him to and from the pre-release center, they thought the night might not come to fruition. Instead, Bernie took it as an opportunity to push himself outside his comfort zone. He asked the center if he could take an Uber, which he enjoys referring to as “Goober.” Just a few months ago, using the Uber app would have been too overwhelming to even consider.

“It was a quick fix, and I didn’t stress on it,” Bernie said. “My niece road back to the center with me. We talked about this, we talked about that. You know, the fair that’s coming up. And the people in the car were really nice.”

Bernie’s nephew and two nieces who he attended the concert with were born while he was on the inside. He remembers meeting them in 1995 when he was a trustee at Deer Lodge County Jail.

“They got to come downstairs, and I was trying to teach them how to do some beadwork,” Bernie said. “They picked up on it pretty quick. That’s when I really met them, and that’s the time they remember.”

Bernie missed their childhoods serving a sentence for a crime he did not commit, but this concert was the first of many occasions where he gets to make up for lost time.

“They have, you know, came right up to me and welcomed me with open arms,” Bernie said. “All three of them and their husbands and fiancés, they’ve treated me like nothing really ever happened. Having family there with me and a couple friends on the other side of me, it was just a total blast.”

Bernie said the whole experience made him grateful for those in his corner and excited to see what other experiences lie ahead.

“It’s hard to describe,” Bernie said. “I think for someone to know how I feel would have to be in my shoes, and I pray to God that I can continue on. There’s so much to look forward to. You have to slow down and pick your spots. There’s just so much gratitude for everybody that’s been helping me to reenter in society. Linda and the Montana Innocence Project are top of my list.”

But more importantly, it helped him feel like himself again.

“Being partially free…I could feel myself, I could be myself,” Bernie said. “I forgot about what was going on around me, and I was just focusing on, ‘I want to rock and roll!'”

Bernie said the concert is a “big part” of his successful reentry process.

“Deep inside, it woke up my, I don’t know how you say it…the spirit in me,” Bernie said. “I got to do something I did years ago without a lot of hesitation. It just overwhelms you being there instead of in a box or a cage. There was a couple songs I really wanted to get up and start dancing…a lot of guys don’t like to dance, but I like it.”