On New Year’s Eve 2002, I watched a man shake hands of those who were his friends. A man, who for many hours ironed the jumpsuits of others who were preparing to go on a visit but he, himself, never have. A man, I learned, here for four years, being released, late in the evening. I thought, although the weather warm in Puerto Rico and the soon hours of celebration, how well would he do having been confined for so many years. Wondering what it would be like to have received my freedom once again, to walk out of here and hoping never to return. Now, it is my turn.
There was a conflict between myself and administration about the actual date. I had it falling on the Friday before the Monday they determined. I was wrong. My actual date fell on a Sunday and not Saturday so I had to give them an extra day since there are no releases done on weekends. Though recently new in this unit, I had friends who I met or later joined me from other units. There is a community among inmates, just as strong as the ties found outside these bars. These men become your family, friend and confidant. You find friends who you can tell your thoughts, receive help when you’re emotionally down, given a piece of candy or something to eat when you weren’t able to get commissary, and through some other inmate’s family you are able to get a message through to your own loved one, or maybe you didn’t have any money available in your account for a phone call or restricted because of disciplinary action. These men regardless of what they might have done to someone else are your friends. An outsider could not possibly understand being on the inside, with killers, drug dealers and/or addicts, rapist and molesters can become a friend who is closer than a blood-relative. It’s a community which is felt in the heart and when someone is granted the okay to leave, sure it strikes envy within your own heart but in some way you are leaving with that person, to enjoy that first meal or drink, the love of a woman or at least the first sexual experience revived, in the life of that man who has heard those words from the Unit Officer, “pack it up”.
As I neared the day of my release, I subsisted on things already purchased to make what I had left in my account last so I didn’t have a locker full, which in the past was so important for me, and also placed on the library cart all the books I thought I would have time to read but didn’t. I gave away to those who were needier deodorant, soap and toothpaste which doesn’t come as freely to them as it did me because I had others who cared enough about me to send money. This is what made my stay just that bit more tolerable. There are others who will take your recently washed t-shirts or jumpsuit if it is in better condition than their own because there is no telling when they might be able to get something themselves. To pack that commissary bag with your legal papers is all you will take along with your personal letters received from loved ones, for they held those precious moments which enabled you to make it through the lonesome times. (Note: Written October 26, 2007 as I edit this chapter and prepare to move to Atlanta, Georgia, I just threw away—finally, that bag of legal papers and letters. It was time to let go of the past as I reach forward to new adventures in the future. I might add, I just didn’t have room to take them!) To strip your bed for the last time and bundle the sheets and blanket and pillowcase along with your towel to be discarded in the laundry cart for washing and distribution to the next unfortunate person who will take your place.
There is a certain uneasiness of returning to the outside world no matter how much discussion among inmates, of how much they cannot wait to return. What they will do, eat and say to those who were left behind? The uneasiness comes because you are not really sure what to expect. Where will you live if your family has moved on without you? What job will you be able to have if you worked the type of work where having a felony conviction will now prevent you? How will you live? What kind of assistance is available until you can resume some type of independence? Just how will you make it? You began to understand the uneasiness of these questions recognizing, although not admitting it, being locked up and having your needs provided for was in fact an easy way to live. Certainly, no one wants to remember the personality conflicts you might have had with certain guards or other administrative staff but the truth is, it is much easier to live where you’re taken care of than to make it on your own, especially when your life has been interrupted for any length of time.
You not only hear but you have seen the ones who have left earlier and are back again because they couldn’t satisfy the requirement of the probation officer. There is much discussion of wanting to just stay and “max out” instead of being subjected to the whims of a “wannabe” police officer. Those were the fears I had within based on my previous experience with probation. I was apprehensive and wanted to just not have to deal with the whole issue but in the federal system, that’s the way it is. But you put all these thoughts in an order of knowing you are going to deal with them, when the time comes but for now, only one thought is important: Living long enough without coming to some crazy and tragic end, anything to prevent you from walking through those doors to freedom, right now, when you’re supposed to go. You hear about other men who are jealous of short-timers and will do whatever they can to keep them there. It happens. No one wants to be stabbed in the back on that day and have to leave feet first.
I had gotten to know the Food Services Manager, Mr. Del Hoya very well from writing him humorous letters regarding the food and, from time to time, when he was in the unit we would share talk. He informed me he was writing a book about his experience in the prison setting and asked me if I would be willing to write something prior to leaving. I did and I placed it in the mail on my way out. Here it is for your enjoyment as well:
“Some time ago you requested if I would, prior to leaving, would offer to you “My Final Thoughts” regarding my stay here. Here it is. I hope you will find it enlightening, encouraging and inspiring:
Over 250 years ago the Quakers began a penal system for offenders called “Penitentiary”. There a man, most ordinarily, would be taken to a room, given a bucket for his bathroom, a hay bale for his bedding, and a Bible. Daily, while locked in this room he would receive in the morning bread and water and in the evening a gruel-type porridge. It was warm at the least and on Sunday a slice of meat to go with it. He was confined in this way for only one purpose, to reconcile with God regarding his behavior. The recidivism rate was nearly zero percent. No one wanted to return! They did not have to, was closer to the truth. Why? The problem was fixed.
Today, one is given a room with running water in two places, a possible friend for association, three meals, television, telephone access, etc., etc. The recidivism rate is quite alarming. Over 80% will either return or be arrested within five years! I am proof of this. I was arrested the first time in 1997, September. I was arrested for this offense September 2002! You do the math. I have not seen the stats for repeat offenders for the third time nor do I care to see them for obvious reasons.
During my stay here I have utilized the technique that worked in the 1700’s. I locked myself in my room basically for 795 days. I did not watch television at any great length because I never purchased a radio so I could hear the programming. I did not come here to watch television. I was only in the recreation yard for no more than five minutes at any time, except when we had shakedowns in the Unit. I never played a game of chess although I have beaten my own computer at home!
I did not come here to waste time allowing myself to become distracted from my purpose, even at the threat of sanctions, because I refused to work. Work is fine. Work is a blessing albeit a curse, too; but, I did not come here for that. I came to fulfill one objective: to reconcile with God regarding my behavior.
I would like to report: Mission Accomplished! I have left but only after achieving my goal. If you look at my court transcript, you will see on two occasions I requested the Judge for more time! My goal was not complete at those points. He listened and granted me my request and I further set out to answer questions asked of me by God:
- Why are you here?
- Where are you in relation to Me?
- Who are you?
- What do you want?
- Where are you going?
It was only when I answered these questions, not from an intellectual deduction but from my heart, I begun to understand my purpose in life. Try it! Pick one of them and try to answer it. It is not as easy as you might think. For example, when I was able to answer the first question, I would ask another inmate and he would say because of a criminal act. I would suggest to him this is what ‘brought’ him here, not ‘why’ he is here. So, my friend, why are you here? If it is money or because of a job, you, too, have missed the point. Yet, and this is strong: If it is the only reason why, you are no better than the convicted person, for at least we know what we did wrong to get here. What did you not do right to get you here? For the mere purposes of collection a pension?! A poor excuse to leave my home and voluntarily be locked up! Who’s the sicker person?
We have had fun, haven’t we; regarding the food that is served here and yet even here God taught me a lesson. You see, I asked Him for help for my addiction and He brought me here. Similar to the Children of Israel who requested God to end their slavery in Egypt and they complained about the food He gave them! How dare us! For some of us, we’ve never ate so well and some leaving here will not again for various reasons. For one, some will miss the regulated bringing of their meals. How blessed we are and we don’t acknowledge it because we do not sit down long enough to consider our situation. How many people in the streets in Hato Rey and Santurce would love to receive one of these trays? You would not have to even clean them for their hunger would have taken care of any food particles from being left.
My final thought?
Thank God for you and this place. And the blessing is: If I ever need to come back here again, it’s available to me. Because the truth is, I would rather be here and be free than to be out in the streets and imprisoned by addiction.
To hear my name called that afternoon was a little disappointing because I wanted to hear that call in the morning, but mine came just after lunch. Why is it I just cannot seem to get out of any prison in the morning? At least I know one thing; no other jurisdiction is coming for me this time.
“Pack it up, Martin. They’re coming for you in a few minutes.”
Those words were in vain because my things had been pretty much packed just after breakfast in anticipation of leaving then. Now, it was just a matter of shaking hands, taking addresses, making the vain promises of staying in touch—for what? And then to stand by the door which will open once more for you and then close behind you, and this time you’re on the side of preference where you can continue walking down the hall to the center corridor to take the elevator down to the main floor. I don’t remember even looking back at the door of the Unit as it closed behind me. What would I have seen that was different from what I already knew? My focus was on the back of the officer escorting me, this time not for a medical visit, or family visit or a visit to the Lieutenant’s office which will ultimately result in my being sent to “The Hole” again. This time I am leaving in the same way I began this journey, through that door.
My bag was searched, I was given a pair of jeans, socks and a shirt and the shoes I wore out of the Unit and asked my name and registered identification number and given my monies leftover from commissary, which was disappointing because I thought I would be given something more upon my release, just as they do in the state facilities and then escorted to the main entrance/exit where Mayra and everyone else has come through whether for a visit or an employee. Shown the main door, opened it and walked through into the hot air and sunlight. It never felt so good before. I placed my bag on a table, bought a soda for the first time in twenty-six months with my own money and placed a call to Mayra but unable to reach her. Just voicemail. On the wall, nearest the phone, was conveniently labeled “for taxi service” a number I dialed. I stood there for about a half hour, looking back into the doors I just left, the green grass, some of the inmates working outside, the fencing I used to observe for many hours, this was in the same direction of my first cell #106 when placed in “The Hole”. I couldn’t see as much now standing on the ground floor as opposed to being on the fourth floor. But no matter what I could or couldn’t see, I was free. I intended to see a lot more than what I had seen in those two long years and change and I wouldn’t be taking for granted my liberty any longer.
The taxi drove up and I got in to exit the facility and it felt good to be driven through the gates. I told the guys I lived so close to the facility I would walk if I choose but that thought didn’t occur now, only as I write today, March 27, 2006. We reached the highway where I used to pass daily on my way to work being reminded how I used to look over at this place wondering what it would be like to be inside. Now I knew for sure. Along the familiar highway, some buildings now built which were only being started when I came here. I thought for a moment, if I were now as complete as these buildings now stood and not as incomplete when I first came here. I enjoyed the freedom of travel, making decisions again, living life.
It was a nice drive, soon to be in front of Mayra’s home. The car sitting in the driveway—was a good sign, but I wondered why I was not able to reach her when I called earlier. I could hear sounds of people moving about, the door opened. It looked older, the house. The driveway smaller, it seemed. It didn’t feel like I was home now. Just a place I used to live, a place once filled with memories. It didn’t seem as though I had been away for so long and yet it was a long time. It appeared life stood still, waiting for me? No, it wasn’t waiting for me. The only thing that really changed was me. I wasn’t the same man. I had different ideals and goals in mind, it’s just I wasn’t sure what was ahead for me. At least now the gate I was opening to gain entrance to the house was a gate I could control. I used to have a key to the lock which fastened it securely. I was free—now.