Tuesday, June 30, 2020

"I'm Counting Down The Hours Now..."

Nearly fifty years ago, a priest I had come across somehow in my work as a prison abolitionist invited me to lunch. I was puzzled by the invitation because I was still in my twenties and thought of being invited to lunch as a "date." I didn't think priests went out on "dates," but here we were, over sandwiches and sodas in a small-town diner, chatting about this and that after he assured me that, "No, indeed, priests don't date," prompting me to ask, "Then why are we here?"

He laughed, responding with a question of his own: "You're trying to close the prisons so the prisoners can all go home...right?"

"Yes," I nodded without a smile, having no idea where he was headed with this.

"Well...when they all go home," he went on, now looking earnestly into my face with real concern in his eyes, "where will you go?"

I don't remember if I tried to answer him or, if so, what the answer was, but as I recall, we parted company shortly after that and I don't remember ever seeing him again. Perhaps he saw asking that question as his priestly duty for some reason (as some version of an attempt to save a woman from herself) or perhaps he was just curious, wondering why I chose this sacrifice instead of marrying God.

I've recalled this question through the years, no closer to an answer than I was back then -- until last week, when I received a JPay email from a prisoner in Angola.

"I have been granted parole," it read. "I entered Angola at 16 and I am now 46. I will call you when I get out."

He didn't explain why he had wound up in Angola at 16, but I already know there are many hundreds of men in Louisiana to whom this has happened, most of them innocent or caught up in circumstances not of their making. Yet they are penalized as if poverty, family dysfunction, and repeated physical, psychological and emotional trauma shot through with the effects of brutal White Supremacy from birth had played no part.

He also didn't go into the details of his imminent release, but I already know that U.S. Supreme Court decisions in recent years have held that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to life sentences without parole, opening the possibility of release for hundreds of incarcerated men and women who went from painful lives straight into a hell hole where they literally grew up with no reason to believe they would ever see freedom again.

As the days passed, the emails became regular. I warned him that life outside the walls would be complicated and difficult. He told me he knew. He told me he wanted to work with me, but he needed to try to help his family first. I told him he has a long journey before him and he should breathe and not require too much of himself. Finally, he wrote, "I've signed the papers. I'm leaving on Wednesday." And at 5:30 a.m. this morning, he wrote again. "I'm counting down the hours now. I wish I could sleep all day, but I can't. So I will face it as I have countless days here..."

I told him I would write him a letter on this blog, a short, celebratory song to mark this historic moment, but facing the task, I am overwhelmed by the memories of others I have watched leave after long periods behind bars. Some are dead now. Some are back in prison. And some have married and planted a garden in their back yard. One went to work in a junk yard where he sat with his dogs in a shady spot, not talking unless he had to. Some became sociologists, some lawyers, and a few wrote about their ordeal and their triumph over the darkness that could have destroyed them. They are, in fact, not surprisingly, everywhere in a country where we incarcerate more of our population per capita than any other country ever has.

And Louisiana, of course, where Angola and I are located, long-recognized as the incarceration capital of the incarceration nation, has talked of late about bringing down its number of prisoners, but it has ultimately failed, thanks to the influx of more than 8,000 mostly undocumented immigrants now held in private prisons here. So the man I'm dedicating this post to will be among thousands upon thousands of other men in Louisiana -- largely Black -- who are locked up or have been locked up or are about to be or are just being released like he will be in the morning.

They run the gamut from lovingly supported to devastatingly alone. Some are not struggling financially and some sleep under bridges. So there is no one-size-fits-all set of instructions for success. But I will write about some of what I've been told by those who've walked the path, things I've heard repeated by more than a few of them as challenges they were unprepared for. This is for you, T. I hope it helps you avoid the potholes.

People in prison live in fantasy, inside their heads. They have no choice. The physical, psychological, and emotional brutality of prison existence makes it absolutely and horrifyingly necessary. In The Sun Does Shine, Anthony Ray Hinton describes how his fantasy life on death row in Alabama was so rich, he sometimes didn't eat for days. But in life outside the walls, the dreams of which those fantasies are made do not linger deliciously just outside the gate.

Life outside can be every bit as trying in its own way as life inside. Bosses may be disrespectful and insulting, especially if they're racists and/or they think you have no other choices. Financial pressures can be grinding or even panic-producing, if eviction looms or there are kids to support, especially in this COVID-19 plagued economy. The romantic and sexual delights and satisfactions so fine-tuned in day dreams and night dreams inside may not appear fast enough outside (after all those years of waiting) or may bring with them increased demands and expectations of all kinds with no clear means to or knowledge of how to meet them.

At moments when these pressures push you to the wall, say to yourself, "It's not the movies." Comparing the bitter anguish of prison life to dreams of "freedom" typically convinces the psyche that release will send you instantly from hell to heaven -- but that's the movies. That doesn't mean love doesn't exist or that things will never get better or that you don't deserve to be happy or respected or paid a living wage. It just means reality in the outside world is not the movies. It's not what you fantasized it to be to keep your soul alive. And if you despair, the people around you may not understand because they have been dealing with reality all the time you were dreaming about how good people outside have it -- if they only do it "right."

One of the factors related to wanting real life to be the way life is portrayed in the movies is thinking that "everyone else" (which is not true) has accomplished or accumulated so much more than you have (coming out of decades in prison) that you need to make up for "lost" time by some fantastic scheme or demand on yourself or expectations of life or other people. There are millions of people in the United States who have never been arrested or gone to prison, have worked hard all their lives, and would own virtually nothing if they couldn't get it on credit by some hook or crook.

A minimum wage paycheck sends a worker home with so little they fall under the Federal Poverty Guideline. Governmental decision-makers know this perfectly well and they couldn't care less. They're not going without health insurance or hot water or decent shoes. Most of us out here are "wage slaves" (meaning we make more than prison laborers earn, but not enough to get ahead or to quit our jobs, even if they're awful). So don't blame yourself for stuff White Supremacy or the economic system in this country is inflicting on most of us. And keep in mind, just because somebody looks as if they're high-rolling doesn't mean they are. Statistics tell us that an insane number of us are one month away from being in the street if we lose our job.

When you first got to prison, you were clueless about what to do, but here you are, thirty years later, and somehow you survived. Use that same grit and wisdom to face the next thirty years. Take it one day at a time. See what you can learn each day and try not to make any mistakes you can't fix one way or another. Learn to keep your "pride" out of the mix and make friends with "self-respect" instead. (And if you don't know what I mean, think about it for awhile and you'll figure it out.)

When you got to prison, you had to figure out who you could trust and who you better not trust. Use the wisdom you learned through that experience to do the same out here. Just because somebody makes you feel "special" doesn't mean they have your best interests at heart. And just because somebody pumps you up to go in a direction doesn't mean they're right. And just because you're desperate doesn't mean you have to...(fill in the blank). And just because you've waited so long doesn't mean this is "The One" (job, opportunity, or lover). Take your time making decisions. In fact, decisions that must be made right now should probably be left alone.

Which brings me to breathing. (I know, elementary, right?) When you feel overwhelmed or frustrated or angry or stuck, take five deep breaths. Slowly. If that doesn't work, take five more. Give yourself a break. You've just spent two-thirds of your life and all of your adulthood in a madhouse. But if you think there's no madness out here, sit quietly and observe. It can catch you sideways, if you're not paying attention. There's a lot of it out here. But then you already know that -- prison guards and administrators and, let's face it, even prisoners come from...(wait for it)...out here.

You might be tempted to speed up now because life outside the walls is speedy. But for your own sake, slow it down. You don't have to be ashamed or embarrassed. When somebody is recuperating from surgery, they're always warned to "take it slow." You'll be recuperating from three decades in prison. Take your time. And for goodness' sake, don't expect miracles. They may happen, but expecting them leads to disappointment. And besides, isn't a surprise miracle the best anyway?

That's probably more than enough for now. In less than twelve hours, you'll have left the gate and the  plantation where you were once told you would die. You'll have lunch in a city you haven't seen since you were a kid. And I will have watched one more prisoner go home.

But what of the question the priest asked me back when I began my journey? Where will I go when all the walls have crumbled, the gates hang on their hinges, and the prisoners have gone home? I will be home then, too, because "home" to me -- I have finally realized -- would be a world without prisons.

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