A prisoner, a frog, and a promise

After hard time at state prison, after months of nothing but prison-yard worms, after two bumpy buses and a train trek to Philadelphia while stashed away in a peanut butter jar, freedom was near for the Frog.

His unlikely captor, Eric Miskovitch, stood in the grass on the Schuylkill River Trail on Dec. 7, holding his palm-size jailhouse pet, until recently the pride of C Block. And if freedom was imminent for the Frog, it was a newfound pleasure for Miskovitch.

Only two hours earlier, Miskovitch, 39, of Allegheny County, had been paroled from Graterford Prison, where he had spent twelve years for a robbery and a string of car thefts - and for the very bad habit of leading police on high-speed chases through the streets and suburbs of Pittsburgh.

As reckless as the car chases were, he wasn't a violent guy. But he had busted out of jail twice. A third attempt was foiled when he was found crawling through a ceiling duct. A firm believer in liberty.

Now, once again breathing the air of a free man, Miskovitch had come to the riverbank to fulfill a promise. A promise he had made to jailhouse friends he left behind: He was going to free the Frog. And, in doing so, he would make a bigger point.

"Nature does not belong in concrete and steel," he said. "That was not what God intended for nature - and that was not what God intended for man."

The Frog came into Miskovitch's life two months ago. He was playing racquetball against the jail yard wall, when he noticed a small tree sprouting through a crack in the wall. With Christmas near, it would be a perfect decoration for the garden near the activities shed, he thought. He tried digging it out, but the roots were too deep. Then, something in the dirt hopped.

Later, he and some other inmates would read in the prison copy of the "F" volume of the World Book Encyclopedia that the Frog had likely been hibernating in the dirt.

Now, the Frog was stuck on the wrong side of the prison wall.

Leaving it in the yard meant a death sentence. Some inmate with a lesser appreciation for wildlife would surely stomp it. Or a hawk would eat it.

With parole near, Miskovitch could not afford any violations - even smuggling in a contraband frog. Once free, he was not coming back, he promised himself. He was done.

"I've hit my criminal menopause," he likes to say.

In court, he had attributed his two-week crime spree in the summer of 2004 to a mental breakdown. He had slipped into a manic state after being treated with the wrong medicine for a bipolar disorder, his lawyer said. In his mind, Miskovitch was on a mission from God when he tried to rob that McDonald's with a BB gun. When he stole that police cruiser. When he crawled into that prison duct.

His efforts toward rehabilitation impressed a judge enough for a lenient sentence. His jailhouse legal studies - and volunteer work with Lifers Inc., a prison group calling for reforms to allow some prisoners serving life a chance at parole - had so impressed his lawyer, Chris Rand Eyster, that he promised him paralegal work.

If he maintained his faith and a positive attitude, he was confident a world of opportunities awaited.

But he wasn't going to just let the Frog die in the yard.

A friend agreed to sneak it past the guards by stuffing it in his underwear. On C Block, they made a habitat for it in a water basin. They made a moat out of a plastic bottle, and put in some rocks and spider weeds. They covered it with a piece of plastic. So the Frog couldn't get out.

The Frog was unhappy in his unnatural habitat. He wouldn't eat prison food, only worms from the yard. All day, he'd dive from the spider weeds trying to escape. All night, he'd ribbit.

The two-time escapee felt guilty.

"I felt horrible," Miskovitch said. "I had an absolute appreciation for it."

Plus, the Frog stunk.

It was agreed among the prisoners of C Block that Miskovitch would smuggle the Frog out - set it free.

So on Dec. 7, while making his way to Pittsburgh, Miskovitch found a spot along the river. He asked a stranger to film a video with a cellphone.

(Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4MlXT9gfmM)

He called the Frog by a new name: the Freedom Frog. He compared its situation to the friends he left behind - some of whom, he said, deserved a chance at freedom they may never get. He asked people to consider reforms ending life without the chance of parole in Pennsylvania.

Then, he unscrewed the peanut butter jar's top and let the Frog go. At first, it seemed like the Frog didn't know what to do. Like he had been behind bars too long. Then, he began to hop.

"I hope he does well," Miskovitch said, closing up the jar.

mnewall@phillynews.com 215-854-2759 @MikeNewall