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Conversation Pieces XVI: The Convict
By: Wayne Brown
I think sundown might be the worst time of day for me. I can’t actually see the sunset, but I can sense it, much like a blind man senses the presence of another person in the room. There’s a change about and it makes it presence known everyday at about the same time. Sundown is when I feel the most lonely; the time when I miss the family; the time when I realize that yet another day is coming to an end and I have witnessed it wasting away much the same as my life is wasting away in this prison cell.
I am on my fifth year of a ten year hitch for armed robbery. So far, I am on good behavior so I could possibly see parole by year seven. I will come before the parole board for the first time next year but I really do not expect to make it the first time…most guys don’t. Besides, I am a repeat offender so I had a record coming into this hitch. My previous crime was just simple theft but it was enough to put me on parole for three years. I almost made it through the parole clean but then six months before my third anniversary, I lost my job and couldn’t seem to find anything else. The money ran out quick and I had not real place to turn as I had more or less turned my back on my entire family in my younger years. Robbing a convenience store seemed easy enough; after all those guys are told not to resist. I managed to pull of the robbery and get out of the store but I did a lousy job of planning my get-away assuming the cops would be slow to respond. They caught up with me two blocks down the street…red-handed with both the money and the gun.
The judge gave me ten years for my crime…the most he could hand down in that type of conviction. He said I was lucky that I had not shot anyone and made things more complicated for myself; told me that it was time that I learned a lesson so he was going to give me plenty of time to think on it. At the time, I didn’t think much of what he said to me. I had never been in prison so there was no reason to think that it would be that bad. But then the reality of ten years hit me when they took me back to the jail cell and locked the door. Ten years was going to be a long time out of my life…much longer than I wanted to give up at that point. I was twenty years old at the time and it dawned on me quickly that by the time I was out on the street again, I would have spent a third of my life behind bars. It was a sobering thought which stayed in my head.
Mom and dad were there at the jail the morning they loaded us prisoners on to the prison bus to take us away. The Sheriff had us all shackled in chains at our waist and our ankles were chained together so we could not run just in case that “rabbit” hit us there at that last second before boarding the bus. The bus sat with its diesel engine clattering away. All the windows were covered with heavy steel mesh and there was a cage inside behind the driver basically forming a rolling jail of sorts. The deputy told us that once we were seated that we would be chained to the floor so we should pick a spot we would like for the whole trip of two hours. I was elated to know that we would have our choice of seats. Little did I know at the time that this would be one of the last “choices” that I would have for a long, long, time.
As we trudged out of the building single-file with our chains jingling lightly, I glanced to my right and saw my mom and dad standing on the sidewalk just down the street from where the bus was parked. I stared in their direction for a long moment and they stared back. For the first time in my life, I felt ashamed. I wanted to scream out to them and tell them how sorry I was for what I had done and how awful I felt embarrassing them in this way. Funny, a few months back, I would not even take the time to stop by their house to say hello. Now, I was sorry for that too. Dad gave me a slight nod of the head but his face remained expressionless. Mom turned away and began to cry when she saw the chains around my legs. I guess the reality hit her in that moment. I know that it hit me. I felt naked and alone…as ashamed as Adam and Eve when God found them in the Garden after their sinful encounter.
Prison life was a shock to me to say the least. I had thought about it but had no idea what I was really in for until I arrived there. Rules, rules, and more rules. Everything is done on schedules and a routine. Choices are none existent except for the choices one can make within the prison society. These are simple choices in which a man can go either way. The bad can get worse or they can get better. It’s their choice. Many make the wrong one and either die there as a result of the violent environment imposed by gangs and sects within the prison population. Even if they survive that, they still come out more rotten than when they went in and it is just a matter of time before they are back there for yet another crime. For some, it is the only way of life they know and they seek to be part of it…the only place in the world where they hold any positions of importance with their fellow man.
I have been quite lucky so far. I have kept to myself and chose my friends very carefully. I stay off of the gang turf and away from the tattoo artists. I want my body to be as clean coming out of here as it was coming in. I owe that much to my mother when would expect nothing less of me. Still, each day brings new challenges; different people, new guys with chips on their shoulder just looking for someone to take their anger out upon. After a while in this place, you learn to spot those guys quickly and stay as invisible as possible. Some laugh and say that the easiest thing to get in prison is a shive shoved into your guts. As ironic as that might sound, it is totally true.
After the first six months, I began to write letters to mom and dad to let them know that I was okay and to try and mend the fences I had cut. At first, I heard nothing in reply, then one day, a guard came to my cell to say that I had visitors there to see me. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw mom and dad waiting there in the visitor’s center. I had to hide the tears as much as I could. What a relief that they had not yet disowned me completely. We talked for a couple of hours and things became much more comfortable toward the end. We began to say what was really on our mind as opposed to making just small talk. We made a lot of progress in the last few minutes of that visit and it set the stage for all the more visits to come in the future. Honestly, waiting for the time to tick by until the next visiting period is all that keeps me going sometimes.
I read a lot although I was never much of a reader in my younger days. It’s funny how much more focused a man can become when he is locked up and unable to move about at will. A good book becomes a welcome reprieve from the four walls of the prison cell. The mind can actually escape even if the body cannot. Books take me to places and sedate the pain of incarceration which gnaws at a man’s guts constantly in this place. I have also began studying law. I am not sure what that will amount to in that I cannot envision a former convict actually ever being able to practice law although we just might bring a different perspective to both the client and the courtroom. For now, it serves as a pacifier for me and whets my curiosity as to how our legal system works. I am also hoping that it will serve me well when I go before that parole board for the first time.
When I awake in the mornings, I am refreshed from my night’s rest. I am ready to face yet another day of monotony in this hell hole. There is a certain peace in the quiet solitude of early morning that is lost on the rest of the day in prison. I purposely rise early to savior and enjoy those quiet moments. Soon, the doors began to clank open and shut as guards begin moving about on shift change and taking prisoners to various places. Then it is breakfast time and the mass march to eat yet another day of slop begins. The only good thing about the food here is that it reminds one how good the food is on the outside and makes one desire it…dream of it. Some days that is my focus…planning my first good meal when I get out.
Still, I have a long way to go whether it’s just another year or another five years. I can’t think about that too much right now. I do get apprehensive when I think of the possibility that the parole board will turn me down. What then but to sit through another long year to repeat the process once again. And what if I fail on that try? How much rejection can one man take while he is locked away? I don’t know but I suppose I will find out soon enough.
Mom and dad have been great for me all this time and we are all closer than at any other time in my life. I have made myself a promise that when I get out of here I will be going straight and walking the line. No more crime for me; no more tears and heartbreak for mom and dad. Of course, I don’t have the slightest idea how tough the life of an ex-con might be. Based on what I know, it is clear that one does not just get out of prison and lose their identity as a convict. Like a brand on cattle, it seems to be there for the rest of one’s life. I pray that I am a stronger and less selfish person when this is all done. I will need that strength to endure. I don’t want to find myself staring down a pistol barrel as I attempt another robbery of a convenience store to survive in the world…there is more to life than giving up and doing that.
I guess that old judge had a point. He said I need to time to think about all of this and decide for myself how it was going to be. He gave me that time and I hated him for it for the longest. I don’t feel that way now. In fact, I really would like to thank him for giving me the opportunity to find myself though it is an opportunity I would not recommend to anyone else who needs guidance in their life. I just know that it worked for me when everything else seemed to fail.
When I do get out, one thing is for sure. I will never again have to imagine a sunset from inside walls without windows. I will be able to watch the sun go down on my own time and appreciate it like a blind man with a new set of eyes. I can’t wait to watch the sunset from my our old front porch.
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