Earning Freedom: Chapter 5
Chapter Five: 1992
Since I received the divorce papers from Lisa, my interactions with women have been limited to Ms. Stephens, my work supervisor, and Susan, my friend from high school with whom I’ve had an ongoing, friendly correspondence. But those relationships don’t have any possibility for intimacy. This thing with Sarah is different. She lives in Atlanta, and her proximity causes me to fantasize that I could seduce her, make her my woman. Given the rules of this place, however, initiating physical intimacy will be a major challenge. Still, forced celibacy doesn’t diminish my thirst for love or my desire for sex.
Thoughts of love have been on my mind for years. Another prisoner, Eugene Fischer, fed my hopes with a story about Orianna Fallaci, a world-famous journalist who loved a man who served time in a Greek prison for an attempted assassination. I wonder whether I could find a woman who would see me as a man and love me despite my imprisonment. I’m 28, and I refuse to give up on the possibilities.
Upon receiving the invitation to attend my graduation, Sarah surprises me by driving over to the penitentiary. I’m on a volunteer suicide-watch duty in the hospital, looking after a despondent prisoner, when I receive the call. While I study for final exams, the guard hollers my name from the other side of locked gates.
“Santos!” he yells. “Let’s go!” I see him standing outside the gate, fumbling with the ring of keys hanging on a chain attached to his belt.
“What?” I have no idea what he’s talking about.
“We’ve been paging you for 30 minutes. You’re supposed to report to the visiting room.”
“I didn’t hear a page.” I close my books and walk toward the guard.
“Leave the books. You’re late. I’ve got to take you straight to visiting.”
“Your attorney is here and she’s been waiting. Didn’t you know she was coming?”
“I didn’t have any idea.” The 15-minute walk takes me through a maze of gates and courtyards and metal detectors and corridors. With each step I’m thinking about Sarah. She’s not on my visiting list, so I wonder how she got in. If she felt this urgency to see me, perhaps it’s to tell me face-to-face that my invitation went too far and to clarify where we stand. Or maybe it’s something else.
Some prisoners’ families live near Atlanta and I hear the institutional loudspeaker page those men for visits regularly. Until this back and forth with Sarah began, my focus on school extinguished any longing to sit in the visiting room. Sarah’s surprise visit breaks my routine. The strip search by an inquisitive guard doesn’t even bother me.
After the full inspection I pull on my boxers and socks, step back into my khakis, tuck in my shirt, and lace my sneakers tightly before walking into the visiting room.
Since Sarah came as a lawyer, I’m directed past the stairs leading down into the general visiting room where hundreds of people sit beside each other under the scrutiny of guards and surveillance cameras. The guard instructs me to walk across the hall to one of the private conference rooms.
“She’s in two,” he says.
Through the narrow vertical window cut into the wooden door I see Sarah for the first time in three months, since that day she handed me her business card. For a second I pause to watch her. She’s seated at a small table, absorbed with a stack of papers. Black designer sunglasses hold her long, honey-colored hair away from her face while she works. She’s prettier than I remember. I knock, startling her. She looks over at me, smiles, and waves me in.
As I open the door she stands and quickly straightens her navy skirt. Suddenly we’re face to face in a room half the size of my cell.
“Surprise!” she greets me as I close the door. Her perfume lingers in the air and I inhale the subtle, sweet fragrance.
“Wow! This is a surprise. How’d you get in without being on my list?”
“Lawyer privileges. I just flash my bar card. What took you so long to get here?”
I smile. “I didn’t know you were coming.”
“It’s okay. I brought some work with me. How about a hug?” She opens her arms.
Her arms encircle me in a friendly gesture. I’ve been deprived of a woman’s touch for almost 3 years and I load the gesture with a lot more meaning. I’m awkward, unsure if I should hold her slender waist or keep my hands high on her back. The embrace lasts a second, but in that second, through her silk blouse, I feel the warmth of her back on my hands and her breasts pressing into my chest.
“It’s cozy,” she says, looking around the small room. Some designer of prisons splurged by using two shades to paint the concrete walls–dark beige to shoulder height and a lighter beige up to the matching ceiling above. Its dreariness contrasts with Sarah’s radiance. She moves the suit jacket she’s folded over the back of the extra chair and we sit.
When she asks whether I’ve ever been in this part of the visiting room, I shake my head no, telling her that I hardly ever come to the visiting room. She nods, in empathy I think. “So you’re graduating next month. Congratulations!” Her eyes shine as she leans back, pushing her fingers through her hair.
“I’m looking forward to the commencement ceremony. Did you get my letter inviting you to come?”
“I did. That’s why I’m here.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you went to all the trouble of driving out here just to give me an answer, it probably means you can’t come, or you won’t come.”
“No, not at all. I’d love to watch you receive your degree. It’s just that you’ve expressed so much admiration for Bruce, and you wrote that they’d only allow you to have two visitors. Maybe you should invite him and your sister. I can visit you any time.”
“Well Bruce will be on vacation, but I asked you because I want you here. Will you come?”
Our eyes lock as she smiles, nodding yes.
“Good, I want you to meet my sister, Julie. I’ve written to her about you.”
“Really? What about?”
“Just that I’ve made a new friend and that we’re corresponding. My sister and I are close. She worries about me, wants me to be happy.”
“I understand. Sounds like you’ve got a great sister.”
“Two great sisters,” I say. “The best.”
Sarah and I talk for three hours, discussing challenges I’ve faced, plans I’m making, and steps she’s taking to open her own practice. Without a doubt, I’m relishing the electricity between us, feeling a connection that hasn’t been a part of my existence for years. When I stand to leave we share a longer embrace, and she promises to return before my graduation. I’ll hold onto this memory of her breasts pressing into my chest. It’s been the best day since my confinement began.
I return to my cell and read. My brother-in-law, Tim, purchased a subscription to The Wall Street Journal for me last year. He’s building a career as an investment real estate broker and he advises me to familiarize myself with finance. Appreciating his advice, I make a point of carefully reading each issue. Learning more about the stock market helps me understand how to value public companies and reading the Journal broadens my business education. Rather than following sports, I devote time to commerce every day, convinced that the education will make me more capable of contributing to any business that will employ me once I’m released.
I read an editorial in the Journal that upsets me. John DiIulio, a professor of politics at Princeton University, wrote a scathing article calling for society to build more prisons and urging administrators to manage them with tighter controls and fewer privileges. Wanting to provide him with a different perspective, I write him directly.
In my letter I express my disagreement with his premise, explaining why we don’t need more prisons in America with tighter controls. Rather, we need strong, intelligent leadership to make better use of the prison resources we have. Instead of locking so many nonviolent people up and eradicating hope, I suggest administrators should implement policies that encourage prisoners to work toward educating themselves, reconciling with society, and earning freedom.
I explain to Professor DiIulio what I’ve seen during the five years I’ve served. Most prisoners give up while they serve time. Many join gangs, hustle drugs and weapons, or incite disturbances. Oppressive policies cause negative adjustments. Instead, we need policies similar to those in business that encourage people to contribute with meaningful incentives. I explain to the Princeton scholar that I strive to live as a model for such reforms, that I’m about to graduate from Mercer University and that I’ll begin graduate school at Hofstra University in the fall. I conclude my letter by restating that by inspiring more prisoners to focus on preparing for release, prison leadership could better serve the interests of society by, among things, lowering recidivism rates.
Dr. DiIulio surprises me by responding to my letter. Even though I’ve never stepped foot on a campus, universities have become a big part of my life. Holding the heavy stock of the envelope and letterhead gives me a charge. Wow! Princeton University. It’s one thing for me to write an unsolicited letter but quite another to receive a response. Through his letter he validates and honors me as a contributing citizen, as a man, not a prisoner. It’s moments like these that inspire me to keep up the work of building my support network. I’m on the right path.
Dr. DiIulio agrees with all I expressed in my letter but says that the limitation of an op-ed piece doesn’t permit him enough space to elaborate on all his thoughts. After informing me that he has published extensively on the subject of prison management, he offers to send books I can read and comment on. It is the beginning of another fascinating correspondence.
To broaden my education, Bruce insists that I read classic literature, especially the plays of William Shakespeare. He sent me a complete anthology. Although I’m not smart enough to find much value in the poetry, I’ve read every play and I enjoyed many. From Julius Caesar, a line stays with me:
There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in the shallows and in miseries.
In Dr. DiIulio’s offer to correspond with me, I find a new opportunity to read critically and to challenge opinions with confidence. It’s as if my tide has come in and the flood is leading to fortune. I feel it. If an Ivy League professor finds me worthy of his mentoring energies I’ll have an incredible resource, another strong academic reference that will distinguish me from other prisoners.
May 12, 1992 is a day I’ve been working toward ever since guards processed me into USP Atlanta. I’m so excited. I feel as if I’m being released, and in a way, I am. I’m being lifted above a life of insignificance, distinguishing myself as a college graduate. It’s a credential I’ll carry for the rest of my life. A sense of liberty comes with this accomplishment, because regardless of how the prison system tries to direct me, I know where I’m going. I will leverage my degree to pry open new opportunities, and on this day, at least, I’m more than just a prisoner.
I wrote and rewrote a speech for the commencement ceremony, four single-spaced pages. For the past six weeks I’ve practiced my delivery at every opportunity and after hundreds of rehearsals I’ve committed each word, sentence, and paragraph to memory. I knew this day would have significance. Now that it’s here, I’m glad I took the time to prepare. When it’s my turn to speak I think I can stand onstage with confidence that the penitentiary is powerless to repress.
Immediately after the guards clear the afternoon census count I walk with a hundred other prisoners to the education building. The carefully scripted ceremony will begin at five in the chapel. Mr. Chandler and his subordinates have taken care to prepare and honor the dignitaries from Mercer University who will share the stage with Warden Stock and members of his executive staff. Although I want to impress those community leaders, mostly I’m eager for Julie and Sarah to see me.
The prisoners who’ve earned their GEDs cheer. During my speech I want to inspire them to continue their education, as I plan to do myself. We have a responsibility to change this system. The best way to bring change is to develop skills and credentials to ensure we emerge into society successfully, as well-educated citizens, ready to contribute. As a prisoner, I also want the Mercer administrators to leave with a clear understanding of the need for more educational opportunities in prison. And I want my speech to inspire everyone in the auditorium, especially my sister and Sarah.
Julie is 29 now, working as a young executive with an international cosmetics company. We’ve only visited a few times since I arrived in Atlanta. Her professional responsibilities, an active social life, and the geographical distance between us make traveling to Atlanta difficult. For years she has accepted my collect phone calls, sent me money to purchase goods in the commissary, and paid my educational costs. She is vested in every choice I make and I’m determined to show her that her trust and support are well placed. With Sarah, I have different motivations. I’m a man and I want a woman in my life.
The music opening our graduation ceremonies begins, and I walk at the head of the procession, leading all the graduates who are now in matching black gowns and caps with tassels. In the audience I see a dozen people I presume came from Mercer; Julie and Sarah sit in the front row. Dr. Colin Harris, one of my favorite professors, is on the stage with Jean Owens, Mercer’s outreach program coordinator. Mr. Chandler sits beside them with the warden and several other staff members. I can’t quit smiling, grateful for the recognition. I walk to the front row to take my seat.
As Mr. Chandler opens the ceremony with obligatory expressions of gratitude to the warden and other staff members, I exchange glances with Julie and Sarah. Then, we all bow our heads as Dr. Harris, Professor of Religion, gives the invocation. Next, Jean Owens delivers the keynote, turning me crimson as she tells the audience about my work ethic and determination. She describes the bright future that opens with education. Using the catchy slogan to promote Michael Jordan’s basketball shoes, Ms. Owens encourages those in the audience to “be like Mike,” referring not to the basketball legend but to me, and she urges those in the audience to continue their studies.
I think I might have to excuse myself and find a bathroom, but when it’s my turn to speak, I walk with assurance to the stage to deliver the valedictory address, all else forgotten. I feel so tall at the lectern, like I’ve just grown six inches. I turn to my left and thank those from Mercer University, then to my right to thank the prison staff, and then out at my audience of graduates, staff, and guests in the cushioned seats, thanking them for attending.
Without notes I deliver my speech that I’ve carefully rehearsed hundreds of times. Julie beams with pride in the front row, and I see Sarah grasp her hand. They’ve only just met, but in their support of me they’ve come together. Those 12 minutes on stage feel as if they’re the most positively energizing of my entire life.
The audience gives a standing ovation. Even Warden Stock stands and gives me an affirmative nod when I look his way. Elated, I return to my seat, squeezing my sister’s hand as I pass in front of her. The other prisoners and I then receive our diplomas. Mr. Chandler gives closing remarks and ends the ceremony in order to maintain the schedule. We don’t have time for a reception. After all, this is a penitentiary. I’m the only prisoner with guests, and no allowance is given for further visitation. At least they were allowed to come for my memorable moment, and I’m in high spirits.
“You were awesome!”
“Send us a copy of your speech.”
“I’m so proud of you.”
Though it’s involuntary, a smile stretches across my face as I walk between my sister and Sarah through the corridor. I stop at the entrance to B cellblock and, under the watchful eyes of the warden, I give each of my guests a hug good-bye.
I’m paged to the mailroom, and when I show up, Mr. Chandler is standing at the door. “Boy, all the years you done been locked up and you still ain’t learned nothin’?”
I know this routine and I stand waiting for the head of the education department to continue his reprimand, though I don’t have any idea what he’s talking about or why he paged me to the mailroom.
“I done tol’ you befo’ ’bout havin’ yo folk’ send boxes to my depar’ment without axin’ me ‘forehand.”
“Yes, I remember. I haven’t had anyone send me any boxes.”
“If you ain’t had no one send no boxes, then why I gotta go through this mess lookin’ through books that done come from Princeton University?”
A month has passed since my correspondence with Professor DiIulio, and when I wrote that I would welcome the books, I wasn’t thinking about the mailroom rules. If books come from a publisher or bookstore in an envelope, we’re allowed to receive them. For a prisoner to receive boxes, a staff member must provide advance authorization.
“Don’t be standin’ there with your mouth all hangin’ open like you ain’t know these is comin’. Letter’s addressed to you.”
“I thought the books would come in an envelope from the bookstore,” I say in way of an apology and explanation. “I didn’t know there would be so many.”
“Who this Professa D’oolioo? You know ’im?”
“Not really. I just wrote him. He teaches at Princeton and writes books. He wrote that he would send me some books but I didn’t know they would come like this.”
“Boy you a real piece a work.” He handles the books one by one and squints while reading the titles and flipping through the pages. “Guv’nin’ Prisons, No ‘xcape. This professa be writin’ these books?”
“I guess so.”
“What business you got readin’ all these books ’bout prison. Ain’t you know ’nough ’bout prisons yet?”
“I’m still learning, sir.”
“I hope you done learnt ’nough to stay out.” I sense Mr. Chandler likes me. My graduation from Mercer and the speech I gave during commencement put a positive spotlight on his department. His gruff demeanor doesn’t intimidate me anymore because I know it’s just his way.
“Well go ’head on then. Next time make sure you see me ’bout auth’rization.”
Jubilant, I carry the box of books back to the business office where I work. Dr. DiIulio sent 17 books, two of which he authored. I sit at my desk and clear a space on the bookshelf behind me. Reading the books will help me build a relationship with him. I intend to write him about what I learn from each, and I especially look forward to reading the books that he wrote. My small personal library will provide ample research material as I begin my studies at Hofstra.
Since I can’t earn an accredited law degree from prison I’ve had to think about what I can study. Although reading the Wall Street Journal, and studying the stock market and finance interest me, I don’t want to pursue an MBA. Instead, after consulting with Bruce I propose to Hofstra that I study prisons and the people they hold. My Hofstra advisor is Dr. Al Cohn, Professor of Psychology and he approves of my plan. We establish an interdisciplinary curriculum, with studies in sociology, cultural anthropology, and psychology. To complete the program, Dr. Cohn and other Hofstra professors will evaluate my research reports and the lengthy thesis I must write to earn a Master of Arts degree.
The books from Dr. DiIulio give me a theoretical understanding of the functions prisons should serve in society:
- Prisons should deter citizens from engaging in criminal behavior.
- They should punish those who stand convicted of having committed crimes.
- Prison terms should incapacitate those who serve them from committing additional crimes, at least during the term of confinement.
- And prisons should rehabilitate offenders in an effort to help them return to society as law-abiding citizens.
After reading Governing Prisons, Dr. DiIulio’s comparative study of management in three separate prison systems, I begin collecting information to write my first term paper on prisoner adjustments. The book leads me to several other books and inspires me to develop a questionnaire to conduct original, ethnographic research to be tested on my fellow prisoners. The resulting term paper, which I entitle “The Crusonian Prisoner,” is accepted for presentation at an annual conference of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences in Chicago, boosting my self-confidence as a student.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that my research leads to findings that differ from the distinguished Princeton professor. He calls for tighter controls in American prisons while my observations and experience convince me that administrators should run prisons like leaders run business. They should govern through the use of incentives rather than threat of further punishments. In a letter to him, I offer reasons to support my conclusions and I also send a copy of my academic paper describing the Crusonian prisoner.
“I want to kiss you.” Sarah has come to visit five times since my graduation ceremony last month and our letters have become much more personal. Her lawyer privileges allow her to visit whenever she chooses, making the regularly scheduled visiting hours irrelevant. Today is Tuesday, not a visiting day, and it’s early evening as I sit with her in one of the private rooms reserved for lawyers and law enforcement interviews. In these lawyer rooms, surveillance cameras do not monitor us. The guard sits at his desk, fifteen yards away on a platform and down a flight of stairs. The intensity of our gaze on each other tells us what we haven’t previously expressed in words. I lean across the table when she says it.
“Kissing is something better done than said,” I say as I sit back down, still savoring the sweet taste of Sarah’s lips, the moist warmth of her tongue.
“You should send me a visitor’s form so I can visit you regularly. I could have a problem alone in a room like this with you.” She closes her eyes while gripping the edge of the table.
“But this is so much better to visit alone, privately.”
“It’s dangerous for me, the temptation. I could get into trouble for abusing privileges. The prison could deny me access.”
I stand and take two steps toward the door to peer through the narrow window. “Come here. Look at this. The guard at the desk to our right can’t come toward us without us seeing him climb the stairs, and the only other entry is from the corridor, requiring unlocking a door to the left. We’re alone. I don’t want to give up this privacy.”
Sarah runs her manicured fingertips over her gray skirt as she stands and walks over. I surrender the window and move behind her. She looks down the hall to the right toward the guard’s station and to the left toward the heavy steel door leading in from the main corridor. I’m directly behind her with both of my hands on her hips. With my face I push her hair to the side and I kiss her neck.
“Stop,” she whispers while her body presses back.
“Watch. You can see the guard. Tell me if he moves.” I continue kissing her, touching her, feeling her, moving with her. For this moment, right now, I’m not a prisoner. I’m a man, 28 and virile, alone with a woman for the first time in five years. My prison record doesn’t matter, my goals don’t matter, and my freedom doesn’t matter. I’m not thinking about her professional standing. In the passion of this moment, neither is Sarah. The decades I must serve seem too far away. I need release, and Sarah is the woman who gives it to me.
When we return to our seats perspiration has glued my shirt to my skin. Sarah is disheveled but glowing.
“My God! What are we doing?” her smile belies a mixture of nervousness and exhilaration after the forbidden interlude.
“Nothing. We’re not doing anything,” I protest.
“You call that nothing? I could lose my license!”
“For what? As far as anyone is concerned, we’re just a lawyer and a client in here. There isn’t anything different now from when you walked in here, nothing different from any other time you’ve visited.”
“Your shirt’s wet. What are you going to say when you go back in?”
“It’s hot in here. Just stay for a while longer, it’ll dry.”
“How do I look? Can you tell?” Her hands shake as she pulls a compact from her purse. She looks into the tiny mirror.
“You’re sexy. I can’t take my eyes off you.”
She smiles and applies makeup. “You’re going to get me in trouble.”