Memory is a funny thing. No matter how hard I try, I can’t really remember the terrible parts of prison. When I think back about those lost years… all I can remember is the good stuff. How incredible peanut butter tastes when you’re really damn hungry.
High-fiving up and down our madhouse of a tier after the Pats’ epic Super Bowl comeback. How exciting it was to have a member of a high-profile gang constantly threatening to kill me. Terrifying too, but in the sky-diving sense. I’d spent most of my life training to fight, at least in a limited capacity, and here was a chance to finally test it out in the real world.
Laughing and bullshitting under sky and stars on the way to chow, with my buddies watching my back and I theirs, as we enjoyed a few moments of open space and outside air. On what would turn out to be one of my last evenings the whole building was marveling at the sky, it was softly rippling with bright pink clouds from horizon to gentle horizon, and we all lost our shit when one of the hardest guys on our tier observed: “yyooooooo… it’s like an angel’s vagina.”
I know that prison was completely fucking awful. But for the life of me I cannot remember it that way in my bones. For awhile I waited for some flood of repressed memories to wash over me… they never came. But then reading Man’s Search For Meaning, Victor Frankel’s concentration camp memoir, Dostoevsky is credited as saying that mankind is defined by one thing: our capacity to get used to anything. So although unlike Frankel, I didn’t regularly wake up next to dead bodies that I hurriedly looted before anyone else could, or have to flick off my own frostbitten toes, or get regularly beaten by my guards – I joked with mine and have mostly positive memories of them – I did suffer in prison.
But apparently, much like speed, suffering is relative.
After some time – maybe it’s months, maybe years – whatever you’re experiencing just becomes your reality, and you get busy livin’ as best you can, despite whatever pain you’re in or how aggravated you get or how ferociously the loneliness digs at you as you’re trying as hard as you can not to let the memories you have of the outside slip through your fingers.
Late in the evening of April 5th I checked out of my job as a delivery cashier for a small family-owned Bethesda restaurant, the peeling paint and exposed wires of my small back office that’d once seemed so depressing and beneath me now comforting old friends, and jogged to the bus stop to catch the 26 bus back to the Pre-Release Center – my begrudging home since September – so that one of the Resident Supervisors could finally drive me home to begin my short stint on house arrest. It ended up being one of the guys who’s an MMA fan and casually follows collegiate wrestling, so we chatted amicably as Rockville Pike became 270 became 28 became my parent’s court. He popped the trunk and wished me luck… just like that, I was home – exactly 1,300 days after I’d left. In any meaningful sense, my incarceration was over.
Granted I still had my GPS anklet on and was only allowed to go to the gym and work, but I would be back in my own bed and wouldn’t ever again have to worry about sharing a room with someone who’d threaten to send his homies to murder my parents, or just generally have bad hygiene and a poor understanding of quiet time and personal space.
And then a few short weeks later I woke up, quickly snuggled my first puppy, and hopped in my car to get the GPS snipped off and officially become a free man. Cruising back down Route 28 I could’ve been 16 again – the road was a bit wider and there were a few new buildings here and there, but they were already well on their way to blending into the ever-shifting suburban foreground… it was just another morning commute. Avici sang wake me up when it’s all over, poignant for a variety of reasons, and the wind whipped my tears away as I strode out of my car and back into a correctional facility as an inmate for the last time. In theory.
Then it was a quick stop by the courthouse to sign up for probation and a drive to the mall to go shopping for the clothes I’d need for my new job as a waiter. My Colombian waitress buddy who I’d gotten to know as a cashier met me there to help me shop, and I got to eat my first real meal as a free man with a pretty friend who means a lot to me.
The weeks and months since have been a blur, and ironically enough other than that first lunch I haven’t really done all that much social except working and running errands. Life has its own GPS of sorts I suppose. While working in Bethesda I was constantly on-edge about being confronted by someone who knew about my criminal history, but my only close call was getting a handshake from a wrestling dad who couldn’t quite place me – just knew I’d been a coach. I distinctly remembered his boys, he’d always been in their corner, and one of my wrestlers had an epic blow-up after losing to his oldest during St. Alban’s Holiday Tournament. But he only had a vague memory of me… clearly I wasn’t as important as I’d thought.
And then in those first few weeks out while working as a waiter in Arlington I ran into multiple former athletes and once-kids I knew from coaching, none of whom were anything but friendly to me. Either they didn’t know, or simply didn’t have room in their lives to care about what to me had seemed like the end of my life.
I’m looking out over the Potomac writing this now, realizing that after so many years longing to see open water, I’ve been taking working right next to it at my new job at the McCormick and Schmick’s on the National Harbor utterly for granted. No one except my GM knows about my past, and at this point I don’t think any of my coworkers would care too much – I do my best to help everyone out and make their jobs easier, and the kitchen staff calls me el gringo numero uno. And as much as I like good tippers, after serving my first big family table with a pretty teenage girl smiling back at me sitting at it – nearly freezing as a I first strode up to the group thinking: oh shit, her parents are gonna know – getting handshakes from the Dads at the table for the attentive service and laughs I brought was as good as any tip. Well at least better than a shitty tip.
But as well as things are going for me, and as far away as the suffering I experienced feels, I left a lot of friends behind. Friends who make up just a tiny sliver of America’s incarcerated population, a significant portion of which really doesn’t need to be behind bars and concertina wire and chainlink, making memories constrained by concrete blocks. And yet those friends are surrounded by plenty of men I’m glad will be there for the next few decades, and by others who deserve to be locked away forever but will be out next week.
There are millions of crimes committed every year that almost no one knows about – criminologists refer to them as crime’s dark figure, making up the estimated 80% of violent crimes which occur every year but go unreported – crimes that remain buried in the memories of their perpetrators and victims. Maybe you’re aware of a few of them, maybe you know about the decades of time that should’ve been served and the lives that won’t ever be made whole. The pain and suffering caused by those crimes will go forever unpunished, while the unlucky or unfairly judged lose years of their lives and their children lose the chance to be fathered by good men.
And yet that dark figure doesn’t even count the careless criminal events like casual unnoticed DUIs, that only chance prevented from becoming tragedy, or the profound moral transgressions embodied by neglected children or broken trust that aren’t technically criminal at all – none of which ever get punished except by guilty consciences. And statistically speaking, there are one or two sociopaths reading this – but there’s a good chance that you’ve channeled that, like many sociopaths do, into mainstream rather than criminal success.
One of the starkest realizations I’ve had is that our current system makes very close to zero sense: prison is a different experience depending on who you are, sentence-length is utterly arbitrary, who gets caught and prosecuted is a function of luck as much as anything else. Plus the whole system is based on a 200 year-old understanding of the human condition. This letter’s long enough so I won’t get into that any more depth here, but it’s something I plan on spending a lifetime digging into.
J.K Rowling got a lot of things right, but one thing she really nailed is the existence of Dementors. The only thing she missed is that their kiss isn’t instantaneous – it takes a long time to happen. And it’s not terrible as it occurs, in fact it takes so long to finish that you don’t really even notice it as it’s happening – except during the small moments that you can’t let yourself dwell on – as the joy and laughter and ease you’d once known is pulled from your life.
Then one day you wake up and just realize that, finally – no more memories, they’re all gone. Once the kiss ends, things aren’t all that bad: you make do with the life you’re left with, holding onto the dimming afterimages of what used to be as tightly as the new friendships you form, replacing the pursuit of happiness with the fight against desperation. And so it would follow that just like Dementors don’t magically and suddenly appear, your Patronus won’t come galloping heroically in as soon as you summon enough willpower and the right words.
Turns out, he manifests almost unnoticed once you get out of prison. In the form of silly text messages from the friends who have stuck by you, as strangers’ smiles and bro nods on the street, alongside unexpected geshundits from old ladies. As unlocked doors and the first time a Metro escalator slowly turns a distant pinpoint into a full-on sun-lit afternoon. As thunderstorms on the horizon while your radio blares and the wind carries cut-grass and barbecues and whistles from the fields you aren’t allowed on anymore but where many of your fondest memories will always be waiting. And so little by little the grips of stress and despair and hatred loosen from around your neck, until one day you wake up and can hardly even remember what prison was like at all, and everything from your arrest to your last day in a jumpsuit feel like murmurs from an almost-forgotten dream.
Some of you reading this I talk to almost every day, for others it’s been awhile. But whether you want to catch-up or revisit whatever past we share or not, if you have any contacts in the world of criminal-justice reform I’d profoundly appreciate an introduction. I haven’t quite figured out how I’m going to help change things, but I’m pretty sure there’s a role for me to play.
And actually now that I think about it… I could be wrong. Maybe my Patronus is just a puppy.