The forward for my upcoming book: Any Day Now, Travels Through the Criminal Justice System. A narrative non-fiction, pretty much travelogue of the system as it really is. No camps with colorful characters ala Piper and Mr. Smith, just the real thing.
I was released from prison by court order. Immediate release. Immediate and prisons do not mix well. A universal fact of every prison I had passed through – they shut down, literally and metaphorically, when presented with anything out of the ordinary. A court order delivered at 2 pm was most certainly out of the ordinary.
So it came to pass that despite being a free man for over three hours, I stood in a holding area while a bewildered lieutenant tried to figure it out and the CO waiting to escort me off the premises read through my file like it was my prison league baseball card.
Done, finally, discharge paper in my left hand, brown mesh laundry bag filled with my journals and novel clutched in my right, my escort and I headed to a yard and the way out beyond the fence.
The last CO I ever spoke with was tall, almost consumptively thin, first generation Lebanese-American, and a true believer. In Christ and the Department of Corrections.
The moment we were out of earshot from the still shaking-his-head-in-wonder lieutenant, the CO asked, “So you were in Devens, huh?”
“Yeah,” I replied absently, somewhat understandably thinking of other matters.
“Lotta’ mob guys there?”
“Of course,” I muttered, couldn’t help but notice he had veered toward a van, “Ah, are we driving?”
“Have to, DOC rule, discharged inmates have to be driven off the premises.”
It’s a testimony to the four and one half years I had just endured that I didn’t point out that the parking lot we were going to was closer than the van by a few hundred yards.
“So, about the mob guys,” he obviously was not going to be deterred, I knew exactly where he was going for the simple fact it’s where everyone who found out I had been in Federal prison went – still goes – but I made him work for it.
“What about them?”
“They live like the guys in Goodfellas?”
“You mean slicing the garlic with a razor?”
“Exactly,” pleased I made the connection.
I nodded, blurted out something about how they managed to hang out in the hospital, had their own TVs, ate well, slept on hospital beds instead of paper-thin mattresses over sheet metal, probably a lot more while I watched the double gates lurch open, stared up at the razor wire as we passed under.
We stopped fifty feet past the now closing gate, he turned to me, stared me in the eye, stuck a hand out, “Those mob guys,” he went on, oddly morose, “I mean, that’s not really the point of all this, is it?”
I shook his hand, left the van and the question unanswered.
‘That’s not the point of all this.’
I’ve thought about that on and off over the past few years, have tried in vain to figure out exactly what the point of it was and is. I have nothing. I try to think of what I learned. Some things, like it’s impossible to look ‘not guilty’ in a yellow jumpsuit, have no applicability in the real world. Others, like a few hundred ways to prepare Ramen Soup, actually do, would that I could even stomach looking at the things on the grocery self.
What I do have, in droves, are nightmares about prison. I don’t anticipate them going away anytime soon.
These nightmares are not what you would expect – they sure as hell aren’t what I expected. No fights; psychos; evil guards; the hole; small, sad, brutal moments like instantly escalating conflicts over Jerry Springer v. Maury Povich; no cuffs, leg irons, or black boxes; overcrowded holding cells, back, hips, neck in agony; the stairwell ninja; any of a thousand, thousand little things that almost convinced me that Sartre was right, hell is other people.
My nightmares were – are – none of those things. Nor are they specific to any one prison, they inevitably take place in some composite of every prison and jail (yes, there is a difference) I was in with a little bit of my college’s campus tossed in for good measure. As I went to a Catholic school, I’m not planning on exploring the reasons for that any time soon.
The dreams: I’m in prison, somewhere, sometime, someplace fairly open where I already have a ton of commissary and writing supplies and books and, seemingly, the run of the place. As in doors magically open wherever I go; deference, if not outright obsequiousness from the COs. The inmates are respectful at worse, outright kind at best.
In other words, conditions I never came close to experiencing anywhere but would have killed for from August 28, 2005 through April 5, 2010. The thing is, though, in the dreams I have no idea, and no one can tell me, why I am in prison or when I’m being released. Usually, I can’t get to a phone, literally – like something out of Greek mythology I can see the phone banks, no matter how long or fast I walk they never get any closer. Sometimes, worse yet, I get to a phone, dial a number, the phone’s answered by the unidentifiable voice of the person I know can fix everything and we get cut off after ten seconds; I redial but can’t remember the last digit, try guessing, with each successive call I forget an additional number. By the end, if I haven’t woken myself up and headed for a few hours of late night TV, I only remember the area code.
If I stay asleep it escalates and frustration follows frustration until I explode in rage, scream that I know the law, threaten lawsuits and everything else in my legal and extralegal arsenal . . . to no effect.
Concern, some of it genuine, some of it patronizing, thin smiles from vague people, shallow nods, condescending ‘do what you have to do’s, but no one acts. Not surprising, it’s clear from the beginning that the only person who can do anything is on the other end of the phone line that always – always – clicks off ten seconds into the call. My only two options are to keep screaming or to just shut up. Usually, I shut up.
I never dream of the day I won my release.
Until I figure out the dreams, or figure out a way to change them, or figure out a way to get out of the dream prison without the phone call, or stop having them all together, I may not be the best person to dive into what ‘all this is about.’
This book is about what happened and what it was like. Everything else – conclusions about me, the criminal justice system, prisons, inmates, attorneys, judges, monolithic bureaucracies, crime, punishment, the United States, the World, I leave to the reader.
You’re in a better position than I to decide who’s right: Tolstoy or Mike Tyson.
Tolstoy: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
Mike Tyson: “When I was in prison, I was wrapped up in all those deep books. That Tolstoy crap – people shouldn’t read that.”