Earning Freedom: Chapter 2
The court paid my public defender, Justin, to represent me after I cut ties with Raymond. Now that I’ve been sentenced, however, I’m without much access to legal counsel. Justin will prepare a direct appeal, but he won’t be available to help me understand how to navigate my way through the 45-years I must serve. I don’t even know what that means and I wonder whether the judge really intends for me to languish in prison for longer than I’ve been alive.
Unlike the federal time that I’m serving, most of the other prisoners in my housing unit at the county jail face problems with the State of Washington’s criminal justice system. From those men I learn that all 50 states maintain their own criminal justice and prison systems, with different rules and legal codes. As a federal prisoner, I have little in common with them. Still, by listening to the more experienced prisoners around me I become familiar with concepts like “parole” and “good time.”
The federal prison system is in transition, abolishing parole and significantly reducing the amount of good time possible. Since my convictions stem from crimes I committed prior to the date of the new law’s enactment, I’m part of the old-law system where parole still exists. Still, the statute under which I stand convicted, “the kingpin statute,” is one of the few crimes under the old law that doesn’t qualify for parole eligibility. Of the 45-year sentence that my judge imposed, I’ve learned that I’m only eligible for parole consideration during the final two years of my sentence, the portion imposed as a consequence of my perjury conviction. Still, it’s all very confusing to me and I don’t know how many years I’ll actually serve in prison.
To pass time I read legal books in the jail’s law library. From those books I understand that a good-time provision under the old law authorizes prison administrators to reduce my sentence if I remain free of charges for disciplinary misconduct. Still, according to calculations I make on a piece of lined writing paper, regardless of what I achieve in prison, I’ll serve more than 26 years. That doesn’t make much sense to me, as I didn’t have charges of violence or weapons, and only consenting adults were involved in my crime.
The length of my sentence doesn’t haunt me as much as Lisa’s legal issues. She’s now in Miami, where she receives more family support while her lawyer works through the best possible plea agreement. The entire situation is a mess I’ve created. I try to comfort her during our nightly telephone calls even though I’m powerless to protect her. Our only connection is on the phone, but the conversations we have don’t seem to be enough.
I ask her to pray with me, but she always snaps back “I don’t want to pray, Michael.” It stings as if she’s slapping me when she uses my name instead of a more endearing term. “You’re supposed to get me out of this mess,” she says.
“I’m trying, Lisa. I’m trying. No matter what happens though, we still have each other and with God’s help we’re going to get through this.” I’ve never been religious, but during these traumatic times I find strength through prayer and I want her to join me.
“How?” she wails. “How do you think we’re going to get through this if you’re in prison and I’m in prison? How is God or prayer going to help us through that?”
“You’re not going to prison, honey. God’s not going to let that happen. I can feel it. The judge sentenced me to far more time than everyone else, and I’m sure he slammed me with all the time he intends to hand out in this case. It’s over.”
“That’s not what my lawyer says,” she argues through tears. “He told me I could get five years. Five years, Michael! I can’t handle this. I can’t go to jail!”
“Don’t worry, Baby. It’s not going to happen. I know it’s not going to happen. At worst he’ll sentence you to probation. I need you to pray, to have faith in God.”
Lisa pauses on the phone, as if contemplating what she wants to say. “Raymond keeps calling me.”
“Why is he calling you?”
“He calls because he’s a pig, that’s why. Last night he asked me to come to his house for a soak in his hot tub. He said that a real man wouldn’t have put me in the position you did.”
The news sickens me. My former lawyer has taken everything I own and now he’s trying to seduce my wife. My losses continue. With only one place to decompress, I return to my cell, my haven from madness, and I lie on my bunk, realizing that the sentence is only the start. There is still more pain to come, farther to fall.
I want peace but I can’t escape the noise blasting through the cellblock. Rap songs blare from music television stations. There’s also a continuous chatter from the scores of prisoners roaming purposely and posturing in the common area, along with loud exclamations and expletives from each of the table games. From my bunk I can see a haze of tobacco smoke that lingers beneath the ceiling. I feel close to the edge, uncertain whether I’ll make it through without wrapping a noose around my neck or slicing an artery. Suicide seems so easy, so inviting.
My mom and Christina, my younger sister, are in Florida. The geographical distance that separates us is a relief. After all the lies I’ve told about innocence, I can’t bring myself to face my family, especially my mother.
Through a telephone call I learn that my trial has brought my mom and Lisa’s father together. His name is Hank. Although I’ve never met him I know that he shares a mutual grief with my mom, and that grief has led to a romance between them. My life has become an absurd soap opera.
“This is crazy,” I tell Christina over the phone. “How can Mom get together with this guy? She’s only been divorced from Dad for a year.”
“Give her a break, Michael. She’s lonely and sad. I’m glad she’s found love. No one wants to be alone and you’re no one to judge.”
Christina’s right. I shouldn’t judge my mom, or anyone. I’m in jail and I don’t even know my own family, just as the choices I made over the past three years resulted in my family not knowing me. “I’m sorry,” I tell her. “I want Mom to be happy too. The news just surprised me, that’s all.”
“That’s okay. It’s kind of funny when you think about it. I mean, for one thing, Hank isn’t anything like Dad. Besides that, when Mom and Hank marry, that means you’ll be married to your own stepsister and Hank will be both your father-in-law and your stepfather. Just like you don’t know Hank, none of us really know Lisa.”
My father and my sister, Julie, wait through slowly moving lines to visit me in the jail. Julie is a year older than I am. She’s totally independent and strong, holding our shattered family together as my conviction and sentence loom. Each weekend we visit through glass partitions, clutching telephone handsets as we cry in the booth.
“Tell me again, son. Why did you feel that you had to do this?”
The jail officers only allow me to spend 15 minutes in the booth, and when my father asks me these questions I press my hand against the glass to match his and cry.
“I’m sorry, Dad. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, Son. Don’t cry. We’re here for you.” He’s crying too, as is Julie. The sadness is hard to take, and at this stage, I don’t know how it will end.
“We’re here for you,” Julie repeats. “Whatever you need, we’re here for you. We just need you to be strong in there and to know it’s going to get better.”
“Santos!” The jailer yells in the booth. “Let’s go! Time’s up! I’m not telling you again. Move out!”
I pull my hand from the glass. Not wanting others to see my weakness, I rub tears from my eyes as I walk away. I’m going to ask my family not to visit anymore. Whenever I walk away from the visiting booth the devastation I’ve caused plays out in my mind. Those images come with pangs of guilt that linger like a dark cloud.
When I left the family my father was such a force. He was rough, a hard-working man who came to this country with nothing but ambitions to build a better life. While on a construction site, surrounded by heavy equipment, I could always find him as he yelled out orders to the men who worked for him. He and my mother wanted so much for me. I’m besieged by thoughts of what my conviction and long sentence has done to my parents. My father steered a small boat across 90 miles of the Atlantic, braving Caribbean waters and the unknown to escape Castro’s communism. But when I look in his tearing hazel eyes, see the new worry lines etched in his brow, or the way that his once black hair is turning white, I know he fears that I won’t survive prison. In the night, he has told me, he wakes in a panic and suffocates with anxieties that news will come informing him that I’ve taken my life.
“Promise me you’ll be strong enough to see this through,” he pleads with me frequently over the telephone.
“Yes, Dad. I’m going to make it. I promise.”
“Say it again!” He insists.
“I promise.” My father has lost his life’s work and his marriage and now his son. He’s only 53-years old, yet he’s tormented, blaming himself for the prison term I face. The guilt of it crushes me.
I struggle to understand the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. Existentialism centers on personal responsibility and I espouse the concept even though these writers reject the concept of God. I’m living hour-by-hour, and they sometimes feel interminable. Through prayers I find comfort, leaving me conflicted by the existentialists. I’m torn between embracing and rejecting them. Although I oppose their godlessness, I find their message about personal will empowering. Regardless of what social exposures influenced my judgments, values, and actions, my ego, greed and shortsightedness caused my problems. Neither prayer nor religion is going to fix my problems, but I feel a spiritual force moving me. Both prayer and the teachings of the existentialists convince me I can grow into the man I aspire to become.
It’s late summer of 1988 when a jailer opens my cell door early on a Saturday morning. “Santos! Roll up!” He throws two plastic bags on the concrete floor. “Dump your personal belongings in one bag, pile your sheets and blankets in the other. Move out! Now!”
With my hands and legs in shackles I carry the bag filled with letters from Lisa, her photographs, and a few books as I follow the jailer through a maze of corridors. He locks me in a holding cell with others. We don’t wait long before the U.S. marshals take control and herd us like chattel into a transport van parked in the jail’s basement garage.
My time in the county jail has come to an end.
“Can you tell me where I’m going?” I ask the driver of the van.
“You don’t know?”
I shake my head while shrugging my shoulders.
“You’ll find out when you get there.”
We drive south on Interstate 5 and don’t stop for several hours until we reach a landing strip at the Portland airport. After another hour in the van I see the plane’s tires hit the tarmac and the landing precipitates movement. The marshals and other law enforcement officers emerge from separate vehicles donning black armor vests and gripping their assault rifles firmly while taking positions to guard the plane.
I remember going through this drill before, when some of these same marshals transported me from Miami to Seattle for my initial court appearances. I shrink into my seat, watching the drama unfold and waiting for the requisite but dehumanizing inspections before I board the plane to some unknown destination.
I look through the tinted window of the transport van and watch prisoners leave the plane, hobbling down stairs in chains, with marshals inspecting them as if they are a lower species. I think how differently events might have unfolded if only I had made better decisions after I stepped off that plane last year.
I can’t blame anyone but myself for where I sit. My friends didn’t testify against me out of malice and I don’t begrudge them the evidence they provided against me. I miss them. We grew up as brothers and although we haven’t spoken, I sense that they empathize with my plight. Without delusions of acquittal I too could’ve accepted responsibility for my crimes. I knew I was guilty, but rather than accepting responsibility and putting the past behind me, I fooled myself into believing that since I didn’t touch the cocaine, prosecutors wouldn’t be able to prove anything and a jury wouldn’t convict me. Within days of stepping off that plane last year, I even orchestrated a cocaine deal from inside the jail.
The chains on my wrists, around my waist, and on my ankles feel heavy, but not as heavy as my guilt. From my understanding, I’ll wear them for at least 26 years. Since I haven’t been alive that long, it feels like an eternity.
“Where you headed?” A prisoner addresses me as I settle into the seat beside him on the airplane. He’s older, about 35, but I’m guessing. He wears a goatee and I notice the flame tattoos on his forearms.
“To prison.” I shrug.
“They wouldn’t tell me. Marshal said I’d find out once I got there.”
“Prick. I’m sick of livin’ like this, hate all these motherfuckers.”
“Where’re you going?”
“Lompoc, what’s that?”
“Whud’ya mean, ‘what’s that?’ Motherfuckin’ joint, that’s what it is. You green, just comin’ in or something?”
“I’ve been in jail for a year. Now I’m on my way to prison.”
“Go to trial?” His eyes suggest that he’s testing me.
I nod. “Guilty on all counts.”
“Cocaine,” I answer.
“What’d they hit you with?”
“My sentence you mean? Forty-five years.”
He whistled. “That’s some heavy shit. You old law or new law?”
“I’m old law.”
“At least you’ve got that goin’ for ya. You’ll be able to see the board after 10 years.”
“No I can’t. I’ve got a Continuing Criminal Enterprise, no parole.”
My neighbor whistles again. “That’s a bitch, young’n. Been down before?”
I shake my head.
He whistles again. “Least they’ll know you ain’t no snitch. How old’re ya?”
“You got an ol’ lady?”
“Cut that bitch loose. Can’t be hangin’ on to no woman when you’re pullin’ a 45 piece. Gotta be ready to do time, and can’t do that with no woman on your mind.”
“How long have you been in prison?”
“Eight motherfuckin’ years. Got two more to pull ‘fore the board’s gonna cut me loose.”
“What are you going to do when you get out?”
“Fuck if I know. I ain’t thinkin’ ’bout no streets. One thing you’re gonna learn in prison, ain’t no one out ’til they’re out. Anything can happen. Best forget about them streets.”
This guy paints a somber picture for me. We haven’t even exchanged names and he has already advised me to give up on the world I once took for granted. He sounds so bitter, devoid of hope.
“What’s it like to serve eight years in prison?”
“A motherfuckin’ bitch,” he admits as his head presses into the headrest and he closes his eyes. “Got the man breathin’ down yer neck ever’ day. Fuckin’ family and friends from the streets desert ya. Parole board shittin’ on ya. Board could’a let me out a year ago. Said I wasn’t ready. Like they know what it’s like to live in the pen. They gave me a date, got me walkin’ on egg shells tryin’ not to catch a shot ‘til then.”
“You mean a ticket?” I ask if he’s referring to disciplinary infractions.
“You’re in the feds, young’n. Better learn the lingo. Tickets is in the state joints. In the feds we call ’em shots and you can catch ’em for just ’bout any motherfuckin’ thing.”
“Anything. Look at a bitch’s ass, catch a shot for reckless eyeballin’ and lose your parole date. Show up late for work, catch a shot for bein’ outta bounds. Lose your date. Get caught with food from the kitchen in your locker, catch a shot for stealin’. It’s all bullshit. Motherfuckers’ll give you a shot for jackin’ off. They don’t want no one gettin’ out.”
He sleeps while I digest what he’s told me.
The plane lands in Oklahoma. After stepping off I exchange my plane seat for a bus seat and a road journey to El Reno. I recognize the high fences, the coils of razor wire, the guards who drive in white vehicles continuously around the medium-security prison’s perimeter to discourage escapes. I passed through the same gates on layover the year before, when I was being transported from Miami to Seattle for the trial. This is not new and I know what’s coming: crowded bullpen cages, processing forms, fingerprinting, mug shots, and hours of standing before I get locked in a small cell with a stranger.
The cell house is an old design with long rows of sliding steel bars, the type from classic prison films, that clank when slammed into place. Midnight has long since passed by the time I climb onto the top rack. The prisoner on the steel bunk beneath me snores, oblivious to the putrid stench hanging in the cell or the oppressive late summer Oklahoma heat that suffocates me. Moonlight blends with the prison spotlights to cast a glow on the cracked concrete walls, just enough to illuminate the roaches that scatter along the edges of light.
Despite a restless night, I’m eager to explore the prison surroundings when I hear the guard crack the cell house gates open at six in the morning. I climb down and glance at the prisoner on the lower rack who sleeps with his pasty overweight belly and chest exposed, his hand in his shorts. Since I don’t know the protocol of this new environment, I deliberate but finally resist the urge to use the stainless steel toilet or tiny sink next to the bunk.
Unwashed, I slide into blue slip-on canvas deck shoes and follow the herd of prisoners walking toward the tier’s stairs. When I passed through this prison last year guards processed me. Then, hours later, in the middle of the night, they shackled and processed me out to continue my westward journey. I didn’t have an opportunity to walk around. During the year I spent locked in the county jail, my freedom of movement didn’t extend beyond the cramped quarters of the housing unit. I take in everything: the grass, the flowers, and the design of the buildings. It feels good to walk around.
The chow hall is a large, buffet-style cafeteria. I advance through the line, accept a pastry that a prisoner worker in white clothing places on my tray, and I fill a plastic cup with milk. It reminds me of my time in high school, except we’re all guys and we’re under the scrutiny of suspicious guards rather than bored teachers. I eat alone and then walk out to explore. It’s early on a Sunday morning but the burning sun and high humidity trigger a sticky sweat that instantly dampens my armpits and trickles down the front and back of my torso.
I fall in behind a group of jive-talking prisoners walking with weight belts and exercise bags who head to the prison yard. After passing through a few gates and an unguarded metal detector I see the large track. Scores of prisoners work out on a massive outdoor weight pile. Three tennis courts to the left appeal to me; I played regularly when I lived in Key Colony and developed a decent game. I walk around the large oval track that circles the soccer and softball fields. Just when prison begins to feel like a park I see the stark, grim reminders that it’s not a park at all: tall, double fences with endless coils of glistening razor wire separating them surround me in every direction.
The recreation area includes a gymnasium with a full basketball court. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors cover the walls of an adjacent indoor weight room. I watch as a beefed-up prisoner pumps out reps on the bench with four plates on each end of the bar. He’s throwing up 405 pounds as if it’s a broom handle. I’ve kept fit with thousands of pushups each week in the county jail and I wonder if I’ll build such Herculean strength during the time I serve. I want to start at once.
“You be likin’ them muscles, don’chu?” Another prisoner sneaks up next to me, flexing in his tank top and smiling with a lascivious grin exposing a mouthful of gold teeth. “Dat wha’chu need up in here, a real mans.”
That’s my cue to leave. Outnumbered and out of place, I walk out, lacking the courage to confront him for the insinuation he made. I’m not ready to take a stand.
“Don’t be actin’ like you don’t like it now,” he chuckles behind me. “Daddy goin’ see you later, belie’ dat.”
I’m younger than most of the other men. As I walk through the gates toward the library I’m conscious that my absence of tattoos and whiskers stand out. The encounter in the gym puts me on high alert and I realize that to survive in here I may have to battle more than the long sentence. To some prisoners, I probably look like the proverbial rabbit among wolves. Stay vigilant, I remind myself, as I open the doors to the law library.
I don’t really know what I’m looking for, so I pick a random law book from a shelf and start flipping through the pages. The episode in the gym bothers me and I’m not able to concentrate. I pretend to read, though I only stare at lines of words that I don’t absorb from the page. These encounters will happen again, and I’d better anticipate them. My response can’t leave a doubt that I know the score and that I’m capable of defending myself.
But am I? Is this what I’m going to become? What options do I have when confronted with predators? I haven’t been on a prison yard for two hours and someone has already mistaken me for a punk. I haven’t been in a fistfight since junior high. Somehow prison doesn’t seem like the kind of environment where fistfights settle confrontations and I can’t envision myself picking up a weapon.
It’s impossible to read with these worries muddying my concentration. I close the law book and walk out. Other prisoners in the corridor carry Bibles in their hands as they walk into a chapel. While in the jail I was comfortable praying alone, but now I need something to take my mind off the guy in the gym.
I sit in the back row and observe several prisoners working together to lead the service. Their level of preparation impresses me. It’s clear that religion plays a central role in their lives and the congregation respects them, addressing them as Brother Tom and Brother Frank. When it’s time to sing the men don’t show any awkwardness or embarrassment. Some surprise me with the way they sing–eyes closed, arms and open hands stretching heavenward. With all their tattoos and goatees they strike me as being a bit over the top, both dramatic and comical.
I’m more self-conscious. Although I can embrace God’s presence in my life when I’m alone and silently praying for guidance, group prayer doesn’t work for me. When the service concludes and several of the leaders approach with genuine warmth and invitations to participate in Bible study programs I thank them but decline and request a Bible to read on my own.
Following the chapel service I return to my cell where I catch the guy assigned to the rack below me. He’s in his 40s and not particularly intimidating, standing barefoot in boxer shorts splashing water under his arms; it’s a birdbath in the tiny sink. Still, I feel awkward as I stand outside the open gates of the cell.
“You the new guy?” he asks, sensing my apprehension about walking in on his personal routine.
“Yeah, got in last night.”
“Well, you’d better come in. Count’s about to start and you don’t want to be out on the tier when those gates roll closed.”
“Michael,” I offer and stretch out my hand to shake.
“Buck,” he responds and closes his hand into a fist. I realize he prefers to knock knuckles in greeting. “Where you headed?”
“What do you mean?”
“Next stop? Where you going?”
“Don’t know, here I guess. I’m just starting out.”
“You might be starting out, but it won’t be here. This here’s Oklahoma unit. Every swingin’ dick in here’s in transit, on the way to the next prison. If you were stayin’ here, you’d ‘a been in one ‘a the permanent blocks.”
“Well I don’t know where I’m going then.”
I set my Bible on the top rack as the cell gate rolls closed and locks us in. We hardly have any floor space. Buck sits on the lower rack.
“Have a seat,” he gestures to the toilet. “Count won’t be for a while. Where’d you come from?”
“Seattle.” The quivers in my stomach settle when I realize that he’s friendly. “I’ve been in jail going through trial for the past year,” I add.
“Yeah I can see that you’ve got that jail skin color. No sunlight.”
“This’s been my first time walking outside since last summer.”
“You might ‘a liked it this mornin’, but by afternoon you’ll be wishin’ you was still in Seattle. Gets to be over a hun’erd degrees here, humid as a swamp.”
“I felt it last night.”
“The nights ain’t bad. It’s the late afternoons that’ll bake you.”
Buck and I pass the day together exchanging stories. He’s serving a 20-year sentence for armed bank robbery. It’s a crime that surprises me as I associate bank robberies with old westerns rather than crimes that people engage in today. He has spent the past four years at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth. The parole board has taken his good behavior into account and agreed to release him in two more years. Buck is transferring to a medium-security prison in Memphis where he expects to finish out his term.
“You can find out where you’re going tomorrow,” Buck tells me. “There’ll be a counselor holdin’ open house in the office downstairs. Tell him you’re new and you want to know where you’ve been designated.”
“Where’s the best prison to serve time?”
“The best spot is them prison camps, but with 45 years you ain’t going to no camp. Forget about that. You might go to an FCI since you ain’t never been locked up before but there’s a good chance, with a sentence like yours, you might be headin’ to a USP.”
As I lie on the top rack listening to Buck talk into the night I feel like a kid listening to ghost stories by the camp fire. The lights are out and a large fan at the end of the tier makes a rickety noise while it stirs the air. “What’s the difference between an FCI and a USP?”
“Gonna see a lot more blood in the USP. Lot ̓a the guys inside them walls ain’t never gettin’ out so there’s pressure, somethin’s always cookin’. Ain’t a week gonna pass without some’n gettin’ stuck, or some head bein’ busted open with a pipe. Bloods always flowin’ in a USP. FCI’s is more laid back, like here.”
“This place doesn’t seem so laid back to me.”
“What do you mean? What’s not to like about this spot?”
I tell Buck about the morning encounter with the guy in the gym. Although I walked away, the remembrance of what was implied still unsettles me. I’m consumed with trying to figure out what to do if a predator approaches me again. A violent altercation isn’t what I want but circumstances may force my hand.
“I wouldn’t worry about anything here.” Buck yawns and rolls over on the bunk beneath. “You probably won’t be here but a minute. When you get to your next stop, that’s when you need to act.”
“Can’t be lettin’ the bulls come at you. Not less you want to start suckin’ ever’ dick in the pen.” He laughs as if such a thing could be a joke. “Gotta take a stand. First thing you’re gonna wanna get is a piece. Someone comes at you wrong, put holes in him, send him away leakin’. Do that once an’ fellas’ll get the message that you ain’t no punk.”
I know that I’ll do what it takes to survive, but the penitentiary wisdom Buck dispenses doesn’t sit well with me. “Did you have to stab people when you were at Leavenworth?”
“I had to get my respect, but things is different ‘tween me and you. You ain’t barely 20. I’m just sayin’, that ain’t but a baby in the pen. Guys is gonna try you more readily than they gonna try an older dude. Bulls is gonna try to get over on anyone that’ll let ’em, but the younger guys who ain’t got no backup gotta make ’emselves known quick. The gangs is getting real fierce in these parts.”
“How’d they try to get over on you?”
“Couple ̓a young dudes came at me thinkin’ they’s gonna get me to pay rent for livin’ on the tier. I wasn’t havin’ it. I didn’t have my piece with me at the time, so I just slow played like I was gonna pay. When they come to collect on store day I was ready. After I laid one out by smashin’ him in the face with a mop ringer, they both got the message that they’d better find someone else to play with. Didn’t have no more trouble after that.”
“Weren’t you thinking about your parole date or what would happen if you got caught?”
“Shit. When you’s in the penitentiary it’s livin’ day by day. Better not be thinkin’ ’bout no release date or parole board or what the man’s gonna think. All I’m thinkin’ ’bout is one day at a time, gettin’ through. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. You’ll see.”
Before drifting into sleep I think about Buck’s advice. I’m hoping the counselor will tell me that I’ll begin my term in a Federal Correctional Institution, an FCI, but my intuition tells me that I’m on my way to a USP, a high-security United States Penitentiary.
A few hours later I wake when a guard rolls the cell gate open. I’m hoping that he has come to take me on the next phase of this prison journey. No such luck. The guard calls for Buck. We wish each other luck, then he walks out. After the guard slams and locks the gate I lie awake for a while longer, intrigued by the roaches racing across the wall without apparent purpose.
Buck’s advice troubles me because I can’t see myself serving my sentence day-by-day. Living for the moment may be the conventional adjustment pattern but I don’t want to forget about the world outside. There’s got to be a way for me to make it through my sentence without violence. Join a church group? At least then I wouldn’t struggle with loneliness, vulnerability. I hate this weakness that seizes me, and I’ve got to do something about it, but I don’t know what.
Instead of getting up when the gates open in the morning, I doze on my rack. The solitude of the cell gives me space to think. I read the Bible while I wait for the counselor to arrive.
The Bible encourages me, though some of what I’m reading doesn’t make sense with what I’ve come to believe about a forgiving God. The concepts of eternal damnation and one path to God aren’t beliefs I can embrace, so I pray for guidance, acknowledging that neither Bible groups nor religious programs are going to carry me through this term.
I see the counselor and receive the confirmation I’ve been expecting. I’m on my way to the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta. I’ll deal with it because I have to, because I don’t have a choice.
“Can I make a phone call?”
“Three minutes,” the counselor says without looking at me. “What’s the number?”
The counselor dials the number I give for Lisa. When she answers, the counselor tells her that she has a phone call from a federal inmate. Then he passes me the handset and fixes his eyes on me. I want to wipe the phone clean, as if I can wash off the filth of prison.
I feel awkward talking to her with the counselor looking at me as he sits across the desk. To him I’m not a human being.
“Michael! I’ve been so worried when you didn’t call. Are you okay? Where are you?”
I tell her that I’m on my way to a prison in Atlanta and that I’ll be able to use the telephone once I’m there. When the counselor taps his watch, I tell Lisa I love her and promise to call again when I’m able.
Sadness makes me sluggish as I walk aimlessly from the counselor’s office, thinking of Lisa’s voice and remembering how wonderful it felt to hold her in my arms. I’m lost, without a clue of how I’m going to keep our marriage together. Not wanting to dwell on home, I head toward the law library. Feeling sorry for myself makes me vulnerable in a predatory population, which isn’t good. I need a toehold and the strength to climb out of this hole.
The law books serve a purpose. Although I want relief from my sentence, the reality that I’ll spend a long time in prison has begun to settle in. A year has already gone by since my arrest, so I’m not a beginner, and I know that many more years will pass before anything changes. I need a plan to make it through. The law books begin to help me understand more about the system that traps me. Like an endless riddle or puzzle, each paragraph I read steers me to other books for clarification.
Studying the law distracts me from misery. As with the philosophy books that helped me through the months in the county jail, the main lesson I learn from these studies is the depth of my ignorance. I berate myself for not having continued my education after high school.
“Looking for anything in particular?”
I don’t know whether the man who stands beside my table is a prisoner or a staff member. He’s in his thirties, trim, with thinning blond hair, and I notice that he missed a spot shaving. He wears the khaki pants and white t-shirt of all prisoners, but he has an authority about him that confuses me with respect to his position or status.
“Just reading,” I answer.
“Are you designated here or are you in transit?”
“I’m in transit, on my way to USP Atlanta.”
“My name’s Brett.” He extends his arm with a clenched fist.
I introduce myself and tell Brett about my sentence. I’m trying to learn more about the system and about the Continuing Criminal Enterprise charge.
“Have you filed your appeal yet?”
“I have a public defender in Seattle who’s putting the appeal together.”
“If you’ve got a 45-year sentence you’d better get more than a public defender to write your appeal.”
“Why? What’s wrong with the public defender?”
Brett shrugs his shoulders. “It’s not that there’s anything wrong, it’s just that they’re overworked. They’ve got so many clients to worry about that they can’t give too much attention to one appeal. You need someone who specializes in convictions like yours.”
“What I need and what I have are two different things. I don’t have any money to hire specialists. Besides, the last specialist I hired took me through the trials that got me my sentence.”
“I’ve got a guy you should contact. He’s a law professor in Indiana and he writes appeals for these kinds of cases. Once you settle in Atlanta you ought to write him. Tell him about your case and that you’re on appeal. He might be able to help.”
Brett’s concern for my predicament seems genuine but I’m burned out with legal procedures. I don’t even care about the appeal. The philosophy books I read helped me accept my guilt. Thinking about an appeal might put me on an emotional roller coaster. I don’t want to live in denial anymore. My focus is on living the lessons I’ve learned from those great philosophers. I want to acknowledge that I’m responsible for what I did, and for what I am, and for where I am, and I want to begin to make decisions that will improve my character and my life.
“What about a Rule 35? Do you know anything about that?” I ask.
Brett laughs when I ask about a legal motion that I want to file for the judge to reconsider my sentence. I’ve read about the motion in the law books. Under the old law, defendants may file the motion after the conclusion of all appeals.
“Rule 35 is a joke,” Brett tells me. “With a sentence like yours you better have something more up your sleeve than a Hail Mary.”
“So you’re saying no one ever gets relief from the Rule 35?”
“Rule 35 motion goes before the same judge who just saddled you with 45 years, Bud. Think he’s going to reconsider the sentence? Better think again. If he wanted to give you less, he would have. That motion doesn’t carry any weight. This system’s about finality, and the only way to change a sentence is through the appeals court where three or more separate judges review the proceedings at trial.”
The meeting with Brett is discouraging but I walk away with my resolve intact. I’m okay. I’m going to live through decades in prison, I tell myself, so I better accept it’s reality and prepare my mind for what’s ahead.
I’ve already made it through the first year since my arrest.
A Rule 35–the legal motion that will petition my judge to reconsider my sentence–may be a “Hail Mary,” as Brett mocked, but a prayer might be all I have. Before I can file the motion I must exhaust all my appeals. I’m not thinking about reversing my conviction. In fact, my experience through the judicial system has been misguided and I feel a little dirty because of it. I’m not going to contest my guilt any more. What I want is a do-over, an opportunity to accept responsibility and express remorse. Forget about winning on appeal, I tell myself. The only way to purge this overwhelming guilt is to atone.
Since procedure dictates that I can’t file the motion for the judge to reconsider my sentence until my attorney exhausts all appeals, I write a letter to Justin, the attorney assigned to my case by the public defender. I urge him to focus on stalling for as long as possible. The object for me is not to win through some legal loophole, I explain. Instead, I want time to distinguish myself in prison. I don’t know how I’m going to do that, but if Justin can succeed in delaying the process for a few years, I expect I’ll find opportunities to demonstrate my remorse and my worthiness for reconsideration.
From what I’ve read of the law, timing is a critical factor. The established procedure requires that I file the Rule 35 within 120 days of the time that the final appeal affirms my conviction and sentence. After 120 days, the law precludes the judge from modifying my sentence. Before that time limit expires I need to show significant progress toward redeeming my crimes. I don’t yet know how I’ll reconcile with society, but I know the clock is going to start ticking when the appeals court makes its decision. I’d better be ready by then.
Returning to my housing unit, I notice a schedule for college classes posted on a bulletin board. The signs announce courses in English, math, history, and other subjects that could lead to a university degree. Earning a university degree would provide the kind of clear, compelling proof of my commitment to change, and with the news of its possibility, I find hope.
Judge Tanner would probably resist a motion to reconsider my sentence if nothing changes. Earning a college degree, however, would provide tangible evidence, showing discipline, character, and commitment. The choices I made that led to my conviction suggest such virtues were absent in my life, but earning a college degree might alter and soften the system’s judgment against me. I don’t know whether the penitentiary in Atlanta provides opportunities for collegiate study but the possibility encourages me.
I have a lot on my mind, and sleep isn’t coming easily. The prison is a population of more than 1,500 men and I haven’t crossed paths with the predator who tested me in the gym. Still, I know that confrontations will be a constant in prison. How am I going to handle them? If I’m to invest myself fully in building a string of accomplishments that will persuade the judge I’m worthy of reconsideration then I can’t allow a single blemish on my prison record. Not one.
The trouble isn’t with me. I can control my actions and behavior. Regardless of how I choose to serve my sentence, the real threat comes from how others choose to live in a high-security penitentiary. I won’t be able to control the ways that others serve time, but as I experienced in the gym, the decisions of others could have an immediate impact on my life. I’ll have to learn how to manage in this twisted environment.
But it isn’t only my early adjustment and assessment of my environment that bothers me, as Lisa’s predicament is still unresolved, troubling me. Her sentencing isn’t scheduled until the fall, but the possibility of her imprisonment isn’t something that I can totally dismiss. Everyone has a breaking point and her imprisonment could be mine. I’ve got to put this out of my mind, at least until her sentencing date comes closer. It’s just too much to worry about for now.
The gate to my cell rolls open. “Santos!”
“Yes,” I sit up from my rack instantly.
“Roll up!” the guard orders.
I’m on my way, with new anxieties. While locked in the county jail I read Homer’s epic The Odyssey, describing Odysseus’s 20-year journey home. My odyssey might take longer. I don’t know. Moving forward helps, even if my fear of the unknown accompanies each step.
It isn’t concern about conflicts with other prisoners that drive my anxieties. I’m 24 and I’m strong–confident that I can give as good as I get if it comes to fighting. But I don’t want an altercation. I want to turn this page of my life, to start writing a new chapter. I need to think about how others will judge me by what is written from now on. Every decision I make will have more than immediate consequences, but those decisions will also dictate where I stand in months, years, and decades to come.
After marshals yank on my chains and manacles, I fall into line with others and hobble up the stairs into the airplane. It’s already packed inside and by the time we take flight every seat is filled with hundreds of prisoners who deal with the crisis of imprisonment in his or her own way. Doubting whether any of them have a sentence as long as mine, I close my eyes and rest, wondering how many real killers are on board.
My ears pop as the plane descends and lands in New Orleans. We pass by hundreds of private jets and I realize that the airport is busy because the Republican National Convention is in town. President Reagan’s second term is approaching its end and the news reports I’ve read suggest that Vice President Bush will prevail over Michael Dukakis in the fall election.
A massive dark plane catches my attention. The words “Forbes Capitalist Tool” decorate the plane’s tail in large, bold letters, distinguishing the jet from smaller, white, sleeker models. The centers of corporate power and wealth have converged upon New Orleans to celebrate the anticipated new leadership of George H.W. Bush.
Only a few years ago I came of age and pulled a voting-booth lever for the first time. I considered myself an up and coming businessman, proud to vote Republican, for the party of business, for Ronald Reagan. That was before I considered selling cocaine, before the television series Miami Vice, or the big screen hit Scarface. Now I realize those glitzy shows influenced me. The fast boats, exotic sports cars, designer clothes, and incredibly seductive women presented an exciting image of cocaine trafficking.
As the marshals call names for prisoners to disembark I continue watching the fleet of corporate jets. Conservatives have won the marketing campaign of the 1980s, convincing me that they were the party of elites, the ruling class, and the group I wanted to join. Not understanding or caring about the broader implications of governance, I bought into the campaign propaganda painting “liberal” as a pejorative term, as a party of losers.
Although I’m not a scholar by any means, the concepts of liberalism and conservatism mean something different to me now that I’ve read essays by John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Those essays convinced me that political parties and political thought dictate the direction of society. When I bought into the Republican theory of conservatism, without even knowing what it was, I rejected the liberal philosophy of John Locke that makes so much sense to me now. Yet as I stare out the window and look at those symbols of power, it’s clear that the conservative philosophy of Thomas Hobbes prevails in the 1980s. I’m an outsider, no longer a man or citizen. I’m a prisoner, stripped of the delusions and pretensions I had about taking a shortcut to a life of comfort.
With the exchange of prisoners complete we leave the corporate jets behind and fly east. Eventually I deplane and board a bus with other prisoners. We ride through the busy streets of Atlanta and as I look at the glass-faced skyscrapers, the places of commerce, the people, I try to soak it all up, knowing I’m not going to see a big city for a long time.
My stomach churns as the bus speeds across a dip in the road. And then I see it. For the first time I stare through the window at the fortress that will hold me, a monster, with an intimidating façade and a 40-foot high concrete wall that encapsulates the penitentiary’s perimeter. Coils of razor wire top tall metal fences that surround the outer wall as added protection against escape. Gun towers are evenly spaced about every 50 yards, standing ominously around the wall. I see guards inside–alert, at attention, with automatic rifles in their hands, watching as if our approaching bus carries enemy combatants. Perhaps that is the guards’ perception of us.
We cross an intersection and turn into a semi-circular drive. The bus comes to a slow stop in front of the dramatically wide steps that ascend to a majestic entrance. The architects who designed this awesome edifice of granite blocks and steel intended to send a message of permanence, of finality. The penitentiary symbolizes something, but I don’t know what. It might be justice, it might be vengeance, or it might be power. I don’t know. As I sit on the bus looking at the penitentiary from the outside, I also perceive an absence of humanity. The guards wear matching outfits of gray slacks, white, long-sleeved, button-down shirts, and maroon ties. Those with an air of authority wear dark blue blazers and carry clipboards. Others surround the bus wearing navy blue windbreakers with large gold “BOP” initials on the back. Instead of clipboards they carry assault rifles.
When the guards complete their preparation one of them calls us to the front of the bus, individually. “Listen up! When you hear your name, stand and walk toward the front of the bus. Give me your registration number. Then step off and walk directly up the stairs and into the penitentiary. Look straight ahead and don’t even think about trying to run. We will shoot.”
Chains bind our ankles, more chains wrap around our waists, and handcuffs weave through the chains in the front to lock our wrists in place. Who could possibly run?
When I hear my name, I stand and shuffle my way through the cramped aisle toward the front of the bus.
“Number!” The guard demands while comparing my face to the mug shot on his file folder.
“Date of birth?”
“January 15, 1964.”
Passing inspection, I make my way off the bus and keep my eyes dead ahead. I don’t know how I’m going to climb all those steps but I begin, taking it slowly as I advance through a gauntlet of armed guards. They stare at me through mirrored sunglasses and I know I’m being assessed. I make it to the top and follow the procession of prisoners through a series of metal gates. I’m inside the walls, walking into the penitentiary’s main corridor, the belly of the beast, as another prisoner once famously called it. It’s a stretch, longer than a football field, 20 yards wide. The marble floor is highly polished and buffed beige, surrounded by white concrete walls and steel side doors. This place is solid and eerily quiet. Our lumbering steps with dragging chains are the only sounds I hear. Other than those of us moving through, I don’t see any prisoners.
We turn to the right and walk downstairs into a basement. The familiar series of cages await us. I march into the bullpen, part of the herd. Guards unlock our chains and we begin the interminable wait for the processing to begin. The gates finally lock with 42 of us inside. I sit on a fixed bench that runs along the wall, shoulder to shoulder with strangers in the cramped cage. Trying to understand these new surroundings, I feign indifference as I listen closely to the conversations around me.
“Yo, you’s up in Lewisburg, back in ’74?”
The large prisoner to my right isn’t talking to me, but initiating communication with another prisoner who stands in front of us. I’m calculating the years as I listen; he’s asking about another prison 14 years ago, when I was only 10.
“Dat’s right,” the man responds. He sounds suspicious, as if trying to figure out whether the man questioning him is friend or foe. Neither man looks as if he knows the concept of fear. The welts and scars on their skin tell me that prison, confrontation, and violence have become extensions of life for each.
“Used to run wit’ Big Smoke and ’em?”
“Smoke’s my dog, yo! Where you be knowin’ Smoke from?”
With a mutual acquaintance established, genuine enthusiasm seems to replace the suspicion.
“Shee-it, Dog! I’s up in da ’burg wit’ you, D-block, Dog. I’s da one split Tone Loke open, left his guts fallin’ out all up in his hands outside da gym an shit.” This guy’s obviously proud of his reputation.
“Oh yeah, yeah, right. Used to be runnin’ wit Big-O and shit.” There is recognition between them.
“Dat’s what’s up, Dog.” The two muscular men, both bald with goatees, bump fists.
“Where’s you comin’ from, Cuz?”
“Man I been on tour Dawg. Lockdown at Marion, few at Leavenworth, I’m comin’ out ‘a Terry Haute right now. How ’bout you? Where you been at, where you be comin’ from?”
“Shee-it, I been out Lompoc, yo, kickin’ it and shit.” Then he turns to me. “Yo young’un, why on’t you step off for a minute? Let the Big Dogs kick it.”
It’s not really a question. He’s telling me to move, telling me that I’m irrelevant in this world. I’m an insect, a nonentity unless I choose, at a moment like this, to define myself as something different.
The prisoner would not have considered challenging a man he respected in such a way. But in my face, and in my eyes, and in my movements, he reads that I haven’t yet earned respect in this world that is so unfamiliar to me.
In a split second I have to decide whether to stand my ground and follow consequences to their end, wherever they take me. I’m calculating at the speed of light, certain that my response can influence where I am in 10 seconds and in 10 years. The penitentiary requires aggressive force–instantly and without hesitation–for respect. But I don’t aspire to have the penitentiary define me. It’s much more important for me to earn respect outside of prison walls. So I stand to surrender the space I had on the bench. This isn’t the time to assert myself. I’m my own general in my war and I need to choose which battles are worth fighting.
I’m learning, absorbing everything going on in this cage. Survival means more than fitting in to the penitentiary. I want out, but every step counts. Instinctively, I’m taking the first steps, but I’m walking across a high wire, a tightrope. Every decision I make determines whether the privilege of another step will come, or whether I’ll begin a free fall to my demise. Deliberate, careful, calculated steps will lead to the other side.
I berate myself for having sat in the first place. This is not a game, this is life, and I can’t allow my senses to dull. I must stay alert. Like an antelope crossing the plains of the Serengeti, I must use all of my innate intelligence to avoid succumbing to the perils that lurk here. And there are many. I can’t forget that every movement, every choice, every word will influence what happens next. Had I not taken space on the bench the other prisoner would not have spoken to me, challenged me. I have to think, to ensure that every move has a purpose. I have to remind myself that I don’t want to be “the man” in the penitentiary. I want to go home, and when I do go home, I want to go home ready to succeed.
I stand in the crowd, using peripheral vision, listening. The other prisoners are sturdier. I don’t know whether the skulls and demons and gang signs indelibly inked on their arms, necks, and faces cloud my judgment, but these prisoners seem as if carved from material more calloused than flesh. Some, I gather from the chatter, serve sentences of life without parole. They accept the penitentiary as the last stop.
I move through the admissions process. Guards pass out administrative forms with question after question that I must answer. When it’s my turn, I sit with various staff members who evaluate my responses.
I sit across a desk from a psychologist. “You’ve never been incarcerated before?” he asks. He’s skeptical about the veracity of my response given the length of my sentence.
“I’ve been in jail for the past year but I’ve never been incarcerated before this arrest.”
“And you don’t have any history of violence?”
“No weapons, guns, knives, gang affiliations?”
I shake my head and tell him no.
He rests his elbow on the desk, using the back of his hand to prop up his chin as he evaluates me. He seems confused that I’m serving 45 years for a first offense without a history of violence or weapons. After a minute, he offers some advice. “Perhaps you should consider growing some facial hair.”
The psychologist may mean well. Still, I consider his unsolicited advice an insult. Knowing that I’m out of my element, I acknowledge with a nod, swallowing my pride. My efforts at projecting a stern, no-nonsense disposition have failed. I take his comment as it was intended, an insinuation that my clean-shaven face could lead to unwanted attention from prison predators.
My next stop on the circuit of staff interviews is the office of a case manager. The gray metal desk looks as heavy as a tank and crowds the room. As he flips through pages of a file on his desk, I sense that the case manager isn’t particularly concerned with my anxiety during these first hours in the penitentiary.
“Sit!” he orders, without looking up. “Which one are you? Santos?” He fingers the file in his hand.
He emphasizes his American accent. The sneer in his tone suggests that he’s trying to establish an air of superiority. The question annoys me because he is reading from a page of responses that I wrote in English. I don’t like the insinuation that we’re different, that just because of my name I’m not an American. But when he looks at me I only nod in response.
“Never been locked up before. Forty-five years. Out date 2013.” He whistles after reading through personal identifiers from my file. “See ya, feel ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya,” he chants. “Any reason I can’t put you in gen pop?”
“What?” I don’t know what he’s asking.
“Can you make it in general population?”
“What do you mean? Why couldn’t I?”
“I’m asking you! Ever work for law enforcement?”
“Ever testify against anyone in a court of law?”
He flips through more pages in my file, considering my responses. “Why’d you leave this blank? Don’t got no one who wants you?”
He asks why I didn’t respond to a question about whom the prison should notify in the event of my death.
“I’m only 24. I’m not going to die in here.”
“Fact is, no one walks into the pen thinkin’ he’s gonna die. Few months ago we had us a major disturbance inside these walls. Inmates took 90 officers hostage. No one s’pected that either. Shit happens. Now who you want me to call if something happens to you?”
The animosity in the interaction shakes me. His use of the word “inmate” sounds contemptuous, as if he suspects that I may have been in allegiance with those who rocked the penitentiary with violence during the disturbance. The tension differs from the transient nature of the jail and detention centers. A line exists between us and I’m on the wrong side of it. I give him Lisa’s name but I’m too shaken at the moment to recall her address and phone number. I’ll give him those details later, I say.
After finishing the admissions process I grab my roll of bed sheets, blankets, and a pillow, then I walk with six prisoners toward the housing units. We wait behind a locked gate that separates us from the main corridor. From the aggressive, hostile tone two of the other prisoners use toward staff members, I can tell that neither authority nor the threat of punishment faze them. One curses out an officer on the other side of the gate so thoroughly that the roles of power seem reversed, as the officer simply ignores the enraged prisoner who grabs and shakes the gate, screaming to be let out. I’m intimidated and I doubt the front I’m making at being cool convince anyone.
When an institutional loudspeaker blasts out an announcement for a scheduled “controlled movement,” the guard finally unlocks the gate. With shaking legs and growing rings of perspiration beneath my arms, I walk with my bedroll toward A-cellblock just as the other guards unlock doors from all the housing units in the penitentiary. Hundreds of prisoners converge into the corridor at once. The frenetic movement reminds me of the Kingdome after a Seahawks game, with all the fans rushing toward the stadium gates at once.
The announcement may have called the movement “controlled,” but the madness doesn’t resemble control at all. Hundreds of prisoners charge in both directions, hastening through, shoulders bumping shoulders. I feel like a pinball as I bounce forward with the forceful momentum. While I’m trying to get to my housing unit for the first time, everyone else uses the main corridor to move to or from the recreational areas of the penitentiary.
“Man down, man down!” I hear guards yelling ahead of me. “Make a hole.”
“Let da muthafucka die!” yells a voice from the crowd.
“Put ’im out his mis’ry.”
Just before I reach the entrance of the A-cellblock I see the cause of the commotion. Two guards lean over to assist a prisoner bleeding on the floor. They clearly try to help him while fellow prisoners, apparently unmoved by compassion, keep walking toward their destinations. Suppressing a natural human instinct to look and to help I, too, step over the pool of blood and turn right into the housing block.
The housing unit guard sits at his station to the left. I pass him my identification card.
“Santos,” he drones as he leans back in his chair. “I’ve got you in cell 517.”
I’m on my own as I climb the stairs to the fifth tier.