Prison series #1: The 4th Largest City (a working draft)

Posted: February 17, 2010 in prison reform, prison, general, prisoner rehabilitation, story, writing
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Continuing to experiment with fiction based on my work with inmates. This piece was inspired by a series of statistics I recently found.

The United States lock up almost a quarter of the prisoners in the entire world. In fact, if all our prisoners were confined in one city, that city would be the fourth largest in the country.” – Alexander, Elizabeth, “Michigan Breaks the Political Logjam: A New Model for Reducing Prison Populations,” American Civil Liberties Union (November 2009), p. 3.

Released to the city. Freedom is redefined when you live surrounded by men who know you too well. We tick in a way we can all hear. The beating of our hearts keeping us up some nights, as bad as those infernal car alarms that no one heeds. In a city of thieves what is the purpose of alarms? We were an experiment. An attempt to prove left to our own nature we would rape, pillage and plunder an entire city into ruins. Animals will, in the end, be animals. When the project was announced the president declared, “When rapists only have each other to rape, we will see if they wouldn’t prefer to get a job.” They built tall concrete walls around what used to be Denver. No one knows where the people of Denver went. Nashville, perhaps. We’ve been told Nashville is the next San Francisco, though none of us could quite imagine how that could be.

To the surprise of the country the first thing we did was hold elections. Everyone voted because, believe it or not, we had been waiting a long time for our voices to count for something. The man elected governor previously ran one of the largest Mexican gangs while he was down. If a man can control that many business transactions from behind bars imagine what he can do with an office, a staff and a capitol building. As his first order of business the governor brought all the leaders of all the gangs together for a summit and there they worked out a peace accord which satisfied them all. For his second order of business the governor created the Green for the Mean program. He had a good sense of humor. The program paid men to build, clean and otherwise maintain the city’s parks. Men lined up five hundred deep for the hundred available positions. Don’t tell me an ex-con can’t appreciate the beauty of manual labor, outside, in the shadows of the mountains, a breeze blowing, the sun warm on your neck and nothing but land in front of you.

The women were also quick to organize. Farmers markets. Day care centers. Schools. Counseling centers. Those who didn’t speak English, learned. And those who didn’t speak Spanish, learned. Two black women and a Native American women organized a day of mourning and all the women came to the city center with their crimes and the names of their victims (sometimes the name of their children) written on small pieces of paper. They threw them into a large fire and then fell to the ground and wept. This is how they healed.

Some women and some men fell in love and there were weddings, followed by babies. For the first year the governor imposed a curfew, but over time, it became unnecessary. Citizens wanted to be home with their families come the end of the day. Men volunteered to walk the streets at night, to be certain no harm was done. Unarmed, these men walked and talked to their neighbors and there was no crime. At no point did the governor recommend the building of a prison. Why would he need to when most of us still dreamt of our cells and razor wire every time we closed our eyes?

After two years the country’s president had to admit the experiment was a success…or a failure…all depending. Delegations of senators and legislators and their aids came to the city. They walked our streets. They visited our schools. They took notes, copious notes. Then they returned to the country’s capital and held meetings and hearings and briefings. One senator said, privately, to the president, “If someone there doesn’t murder someone soon, then we will have no choice but to acknowledge them as a legitimate city. They will want to be represented, to come to the capital and have a voice. Imagine. A gang leader in Congress.”

And so it was decided that the walls to our city would come down. We were told to leave. The people of Denver were returning. In our new cities we had to register as former prisoners. We struggled to get jobs. It was difficult to find housing. For a while we tried to stay organized, imagining one day we could have our city back. But over time, we lost touch with one another and it was difficult to remember what exactly our political position was anyway. Men and women were rearrested for crimes both petty and substantial. I did the best I could until one day, hungry and cold, I stretched out on a park bench to rest for a few minutes and a man in a pressed suit came and stood over me. “You can’t be here,” he said. “It’s a free country,” I countered. “Not for you,” he said. He tried to pull me from the bench and I fought back. Wouldn’t you have done the same?


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