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I helped an inmate escape prison. 16 years later, I’ve made peace with it

Toby Dorr infamously helped John Manard break out of a Kansas prison in 2006. In a personal essay for TODAY, she shares more about her own journey to freedom.
Toby Dorr recently released a memoir about her story.Lucia Dorr

In 2006, Toby Dorr, formerly Toby Young, made headlines after she helped convicted murderer John Manard escape from Kansas’ Lansing Correctional Facility in a dog crate. Dorr had been helping inmates train dogs to prepare them for adoption as part of a program she founded called Safe Harbor Prison Dogs. She served 27 months in prison for her role in the escape, and Manard remains in prison. Her story has been featured on “Dateline” and is the inspiration behind the upcoming Lifetime movie, “Jailbreak Lovers,” as well as Dorr’s new book, “Living With Conviction.”

In 2005, I couldn’t have been more average, the center of demographic medians in the United States. Middle-aged, middle class, middle of the scale in every category … white, female, politically unaware. My 28-year marriage yawned; I felt like my husband hardly knew I existed. Milquetoast American life. Heck, I was even born and raised in the geographic center of the country, in a city not so big and not so small: Kansas City. Even there, I lived in the suburbs, neither in the city center nor the rural cornfields. Insignificant, invisible, bored. After landing on the “still breathing” side of cancer, I yearned for more.

I jumped at the opportunity when the local prison suggested that I lead a dog rehab program. Little did I know how intoxicating purpose could be. My kids were grown, beyond any need for me. Condemned men without worldly value brought dogs back from the brink of kill shelter inevitabilities. In turn, the condemned dogs loved the men and instantly redecorated the spirit of the entire prison. Toothy grins and wagging tails were my currency. Our market was families across the country who clamored for Safe Harbor Prison dogs. With such a truly extraordinary and fulfilling purpose, I could not have been more oblivious to the insatiable gravity within me when John appeared from across the prison yard.

Inmates never approached me so directly. John’s casual stroll grayed the lines between carefree and careless, but I had no doubt that I was his target. He stopped directly in my path, eclipsing the blazing autumn sun, which created a dazzling crown of light. He offered his hand and with a deep drawl he announced, “I’m John Manard. I’d like to be your next handler.” I squinted one eye and shaded my other with my left hand. He shook my hand gently yet firmly. His voice soothed me. Everything about him, a testament to his character, unlike any other convicted killer I’d met while volunteering at the prison. His dark sunglasses concealed just enough to set my mind to wonder, “Are those eyes the icy blue I’d expect on a redhead?”

John Manard walks a dog on the grounds of the Lansing Correctional Facility alongside Toby Dorr, then Toby Young, on Dec. 8, 2005, about two months before the escape.Charlie Riedel / AP

Several weeks later, I drove through gate one with another truckload of dogs for newly approved inmate dog handlers. Hanging back from the initial throng, the lanky redhead occupied his own space. When the time had come to choose a dog, Manard inspected each one, thoughtfully analyzing his choices. His audacity as he examined each dog forced a smile to my face. He checked mouths and eyes and slowly ran his fingers through their fur. He methodically evaluated each one’s reactions, as if searching for hidden clues to health and demeanor. In a prison full of fearful, insecure men, his brash behavior sizzled. My eyes settled for a prolonged moment on Manard until he glanced up at me. A bit embarrassed, I blinked a couple of times, forcing my eyes back to my clipboard. A dog licked his face. I couldn’t find the courage to look again, but I sensed his glance stretching into a steely stare as he said, “I’ll take this one.”

The little girl in me knew to stay quiet, but her smile remained.

Who knew that a year later that love would take no prisoners? John folded himself into a cardboard box within a dog crate; I watched as other inmates hefted it into my van. Fugitives from the law, we ran for 12 wonder-filled days before U.S. Marshals forced us from the highway in Tennessee.

I did 27 months for my role in helping John Manard escape. Not until I experienced the harder side of prison bars did I realize that I’d been in prison for a lifetime. Let me be crystal clear: The prison to which I refer is not the stone and steel building topped with razor wire. I learned that freedom is a state of mind, not a circumstance. I don’t recommend my path, but I firmly believe that we command our own destinies. We all must choose. I white-knuckled my life until desperation coerced a change. The wiser choice would have been to courageously and intentionally change before my life imploded. However, life’s beauty is not destroyed by tragedy; contrarily, it is enhanced by our perseverance through hardships.

I learned that freedom is a state of mind, not a circumstance. I don’t recommend my path, but I firmly believe that we command our own destinies.

Recently, I learned about Vicky White, an Alabama corrections officer who helped an inmate escape and became a fugitive, and was struck by the parallels between our stories. The similarities are uncanny. As though my escape with John Manard were a dress rehearsal or a control experiment to which White and her alleged inmate lover would be compared. The result of her escape experiment, as described by the coroner, was a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. The one variable that brought about such a profoundly different outcome for me was an imperceptibly simple decision to live. I chose life. I chose life again. I chose life again and again, even when life was painful, unthinkably difficult or unlivable. When I faced a life without my family, without John and without a sterling reputation, I still chose life because I am not my worst mistake.

I battle my weaknesses daily. We all have prisons, mostly of our own making. My obsession with duty prevented me from considering more legally acceptable options. Had I the courage and awareness to confront my weaknesses decades before, I never would have fallen for John Manard.

Escape your prison.