Archive for June, 2012

Terry has gone to the hole. From there he’ll be shipped to another prison. Out of state.

Terry has gone to the hole, and I have been thinking lately about exits. The two events are a coincidence, but right now the coincidences in my life keep begging to be noticed—that seems to be the way it goes with big life transitions. Everything has to mean something, otherwise I risk believing everything means a whole lot of nothing.

So, Terry has gone to the hole and I am thinking of exits. The subtitle of Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s book Exit is: the endings that set us free. I agree in spirit. I recently exited a relationship and I’ve certainly experienced the freedom the leaving granted me (though freedom can also feel painfully constrictive as times). Terry, however, would disagree with the subtitle, I’m sure. This particular ending—his departure from our group to the hole—is anything but an elevation in his freedom. A trip to the hole for conspiracy to commit assault (so I hear) not only exits him from our group (of which he’s been a student for at least two of our three years), but also from his cell, from his tier, from his friend D– who he introduced to our program (our first transgender student) and from the prison. He will be transferred to a new prison, under new security restrictions and will most likely face additional years on his sentence. If he has been “set free” it is only in a metaphor I can not yet write.

I suppose on a spiritual level, psychological level, any other level than physical freedom, he might achieve a new understanding of why he does what he does when it only produces the same confining results. With this new understanding he might search for different ways to spend his time behind bars. Non-violent ways. Ways which might bring a freedom from the behaviors currently defining him, controlling him, ruining him. I doubt it, but I’m willing to hope because, again, I need things to have meaning right now.

Terry’s subtitle is more like, Exit: the ending that makes worse my confinement.

What I can tell you about Terry is two months ago he gave me an assignment to read The Princess Bride, a book and movie he already knows I love. I was raised on the movie (it, and Labyrinth featuring David Bowie in those distracting pants). I can quote the movie. Terry can quote the movie. We’d sometimes share an inside joke about it during class. I promised him I would read it and put the book on hold at the library. It had been a long time since I’d read it anyway, so why not humor him? Then life became…well, life…and the book arrived at the library and I didn’t get there in time and lost my hold. I put it back on hold. I went to New York City for work. Missed a class. The class Terry did not come to because he’d gone to the hole (but I did not know this while I was in NYC). While in NYC I got the notice in my inbox the book was again waiting for me. I was relieved to know the next time I saw Terry I could tell him I was on my way to completing my assignment.

What I can also tell you about Terry is he and I made an agreement at the beginning of the year. He would not get into trouble for at least one quarter. He’d disappeared on us to the hole before and I was trying to do my part to keep him out of that sort of trouble (I’ve always sensed Terry was one who has to choose daily, if not several times a day, to “walk away” as some say. I’ve also always had a feeling it is to the benefit of the other party he does choose to walk away so often). He agreed and did stay out of trouble through March. I tried to renew our agreement in April, but he wouldn’t. “I have some things I might have to take care of,” he said with an expression that was defiant, but also sad (because he was letting me down? or knew he’d soon be letting himself down?). I stated for the hundredth time (at least) how much we enjoy having him in the group and how good of a writer I think he is (he’s my Neil Gaiman-Terry Pratchett-esque writer). But he only said, “I’ll try, but I can’t promise. Things I have to take care of.”

Terry is a murderer. He’s also afraid of public speaking—to the point that another student in class would read his work because he was too embarrassed by how his hands shook when he tried. He was writing a story about a teddy bear who could travel between worlds to save children from their nightmares. He would often simply pass when it came to reading in class and give me his work to bring home, read and comment on. He made lists of movies he thought we (the volunteers) should see. He befriended D– when she first came to the prison and brought her to our group because, I hope, he knew she’d be welcomed and we’d think no differently of him. Terry keeps (kept) a McDonald’s paper bag in his cell. I don’t remember now the story about how he got it. I do know he brought it one day to show us and said it was his prized possession.

Terry has gone to the hole and I have been thinking about exits. Mostly about my less than graceful exits from relationships over the years—how I’m always suddenly packing my things in one day trying to get out, get out, get out because I simply cannot stand another minute of it. I’ve been remembering exits from jobs and from friendships. When I exit I am desperately seeking freedom in one form or another. I do choose endings (perhaps not always at the most opportune times, but still…) to set myself free from whatever has become restrictive and suffocating. Maybe I underestimate Terry. Perhaps whatever he did or is accused of doing was an attempt, in his own way and within the system where he exists, to exit toward some kind of freedom. Freedom from oppression—by the system? by another inmate? Freedom from his own nightmares? Freedom from a wrong he couldn’t let go? Freedom from four cell walls he’d gotten tired of staring at?

The last time I saw Terry in class I was facilitating for the night. I didn’t have time to talk to him one-on-one, and it wasn’t until I was driving home that I realized he hadn’t said a word the entire night. He’d sat scribbling on a piece of paper, his head resting on the crook of his arm. The truth is I knew on that drive home we’d lost him. Or maybe I just want to think I knew now, looking back. I don’t think if I had found some one-on-one time with him that night, had reached out or encouraged him to engage in the class discussion it would have prevented his actions once we left the prison. I have, afterall, been learning a plenty of good lessons these past few months about what I do and do not have control over when it comes to the actions of others. But I do wish we’d spoken. I wish he knew I have The Princess Brideat home now and will start reading it this weekend and I will miss him and his stories and I hope whichever prison he goes to next he finds the peace he couldn’t find here and how much I hate his exit came with no goodbye.

I’m overdue posting these student pieces. As always, comments welcome. The guys appreciate hearing what other writers/readers think–even the suggestions for improvement (please do remember these are first drafts by novice writers).

The assignment: Write a 250-300 word description of your “house” (cell) without using the words, dirty, cellie, cold, steel, bars, clang and bunk. You can create a scene from your real life or a fictional scene, but put yourself inside of the “hero”–use his point of view. The idea is to be as original as possible, to use no cliches or stereotypes.

The Letter, by J.D.
“Hey, John,” hollered my neighbor. “What’s for supper?”

“T-bone steak wrapped in bacon,” I replied. “You know, a baked potato with all the trimmings, corn on the cob dripping with butter, maybe a fresh baked dinner roll and a big ass piece of apple pie for dessert.”

“Damn that sounds good,” he sighed.

I grinned and reached past the cheap plastic hangers that wore my pressed “Sunday Service” dress shirts and matching slacks into the box at the back of my closet-bookshelf-pantry combo area. “Too bad the packing says ramen noodles,” I chuckled. I scopped up some of the loose papers from on top of my desk and dumped them on one of the already overloaded boxes of stuff at the foot of my bed, then set up my hotpot, plopping down on my swivel chair to watch a litle TV while I waited.

A short time later the slop was done and I readied myself to choke it down when an envelope was shoved under my door. The only mail I received was either catalogs or crap I ordered from them. This was different and I picked it up for a closer inspection. Though I hadn’t seen it in twenty-six years I knew the return address and I swallowed hard at the lump that had formed in my throat. It was my wife’s address. Forty-seven years of living with the angriest, most bitter men this state could offer hadn’t hardened my heart enough to prevent the river of tears when I tore it open and read, “Dear John…”

The door slid open with such force I was jarred back to reality by the vibrations that rippled through the solid stone floor beneath my feet. A preacher was quoting verses on TV so I guessed it must be morning, and I had lost track of the last eight or ten hours.

“On your feet, convict,” boomed a voice form the hallway.

Without a word , I stood and pushed the chair aside like I’d been conditioned to do.

“Pack your shiit. Your ride leaves in an hour,” came the voice again.

I stepped outside of my bathroom-sized studio apartment and was met by the warden and one of his lackeys, a scrwny little kiss-ass we called “Fencepost.”

“Pack it yourself,” I snapped back, snatching my release papers from his hand before he could react. “And my name isn’t Convict. It’s John.” I turned to face the piss an beside him. “But from now on you can call me, Sir.” I shoved my wife’s tear-soaked letter in his chest before turning to walk toward the exit gate.

“Hey, wait!” called Fencepost. “What about your stuff? Don’t you want it?”

I paused a moment and closed my eyes visualizing my confines from the last third of my incarceration. “For forty-seven years I laid on a concrete slab you call a mattress committing every detail of every item in that rat-hole to memory, and staring at pictures of people who do nothing but stare back. People who forgot about me a long time ago. What would you have me take with me? A guitar that collects dust in the corner? A lifetime of crap ordered from catalogs tha I never really wanted in the first place? Foul smelling soap or toothpaste I couldn’t pay to get rid of? Nah. There’s nothing in there I want or need.”

“Well, what the hell am I supposed to do with this shit?” The warden glared at the overflowing shelves and boxes inside the elaborate broom closet with a toilet.

“Same thing I always tell you, warden.” I glanced back over my shoulder. “Shove it up your ass for all I care.”

As I walked away, I overheard his say, “Poor bastard. He doesn’t even realize he’s going back out into the world with nothing. Ten bucks says he’ll be back.”

“I don’t think so,” said Fencepost. “That lucky bastard just got his second chance.” He handed my wife’s letter to him with a crooked smile. “He’s going back home where she’s still waiting.”

The warden read the letter.

All nine words of it.

“Dear John, I still love you. Please come home.”

Untitled, by M.J.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that my cell’s dimensions were designed to be for people without comprehension. This is not fiction. I’m basing truth on all these cement inventions that have taken the place of lynchings. Injustice attacking powerless victims, benefits the structural systems of people like Rockefeller to President Nixon. Contemplate that and then decide if *powder cocaine and crack are not the same chemically as well as in fact. So who’s worse in this community pack? The ones without power or the lab techs setting the inevitable traps? The walls of the hood are quite similar to the ones in my room. Brick after brick confining every dream to the space of reality’s tomb. No glass ceilings so the skies out of reach. Just like the roof of the womb, all is dark and the souls of the youth are consumed by the tortuous doom. And they call us violent whenever we finally become conscious of the government tyrants who are running rampnt destroying the minds of the vibrant then close our mouths around pipes and fifths until we’re drowing in silence. My floor look like the streets in the ghetto, stuffed up, cracked and controlled by the string of Gipetto. So how can I get to the front row when I’ve only been allowed as far as my rope goes? Like I’m a dog chained in the yard to pole? It’s fucked up I know, but what can be the source of change? Are we to play the game or rearrange our brains and unshakle the chains? They say it’s for me and even though oxygen is a product of trees we’d rather inhale the smells of rot when the lungs of a prisoner breathes. So it seems my reality is drunk, boxed in and boxed out without throwing a punch. The noises of men clapped at televised junk invades my ears with a thump as I stare at my reflection contemplating my wants. It’s hard though, you understand what I’m saying? I’ve turned my whole world around but am never acknowledged for changing. So life makes religious men lose faith and stop praying, turn away from communication and embrace the teachings of Satan. No I’m not hating, what’s to expected? We live in a grave, but we can’t rest in peace because we’re alive and the reaper is delayed. So at times I feel like a slave. One that captured and turned in myself to live in this cave. Betrayed my family and friends because I was in it for the bling. A multitude of us lyin gin ruin, destruction caused by the hands of delusion, mistaking truth with confusion while wearing the mask of illusions. I’m beyond that, the face we paint on our essence instead of becoming invested in the lessons given to the sections of poverty’s veterans. And I reckon th eworld spins on God’s middle fingernail, so I’m not the only one trapped in a jail, waiting for mail, hoping for heaven not hell, but never released from our cells. And we’re told to have hope, convinced it’s cool to sell dope. What a joke. Yeah, we all laugh in the clouds of blunt smoke, but nothing is funny once we find friends hanging from a sheet turned to rope.

*Starting with the War on Drugs possession of crack cocaine came with a minimum sentence of 10 years, while possession of powder cocaine could still receive a misdemeanor sentence. Crack was most often found in minority and low income neighborhoods, while powder cocaine was most often used by upper-class whites. Under President Obama Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine to only 18:1 (for what that’s worth).