Robert “Rider” Dewey spent 17 long years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. During that time, he endured constant legal setbacks and personal tragedies. This is how he made it to the other side.

September 2013

Rider has Cherokee blood. He’d always been curious about his ancestry, and with no access to the open highway, after a short time behind bars he began to explore his past. By law, inmates can worship whatever god or gods they choose. For some incarcerated American Indians, their cathedral is the sweat lodge. In the glow of smoldering lava rocks, a dozen “brothers” would sway to the high-pitched, melodic wail of their songs, awash in scalding, purifying steam as they doused the rocks with water and passed around a pipe tamped with sacred herbs: sage, cedar, and tobacco. Guards were always looming near the “inipi” but couldn’t see under the oval structure of 16 bent willow branches pressed into the earth, connected at the top and covered in blankets. Nothing—not the searing heat of summer nor the brittle snowfalls freezing their hair stiff as they exited—stopped the sweat lodge brothers from packing the inipi. Rider wasn’t very religious, but in prison, he became devoutly spiritual. The sweat lodge was his new obsession. At only once a week, however, the cleansing sessions weren’t enough. To cope, to keep from losing his mind, Rider had to keep riding.

Every waking moment, in his head, he envisioned himself on a motorcycle. In the mess hall, inmates seated at gray tables in drab prison greens morphed into rows of motorcycles in different colors and styles, and he could pick any one of them. Sometimes he’d grab a cruiser, sometimes a low rider; it just depended on his mood. But they were all end-of-the-universe loud. He’d feel the wind whipping at his face, reminding and reassuring him that he was nothing like what he’d been branded as, nothing like what the courts and those on the outside said he was. He watched the seasons change from behind his bulletproof glass. It reminded him of holidays, family, his son’s birthday that he couldn’t attend, again. Shawn was changing—had changed—from the boy his dad remembered into a full-grown man. Shawn even had his own kids—grandkids Rider had never met but heard so much about.