A long, long time ago deep in the frozen underbelly of the Clarksburg County Jail, I looked down at my wrist and examined the plastic bracelet secured around it. The bracelet was a human-sized version of the sort of tag that naturalists and pet-stores use to track animals.
Snapped on with a thick metal fastener and listing my institutional biography, it was a surreal reminder that I was now and would forever be Property of the State – that was the phrase the detective had used as I hugged my Dad good-bye after turning myself in within the same room I’d given my canary-inspired confession. And fingering that plastic ID tag and looking out the tiny window of my cell I saw the same theme then as I do looking up from my desk now: Cold sodium lights casting a steady glint off the concertina wire which tops impossibly high perpendicular chainlink fences, running lines out to forever through a soft dusting of snow. Nothing moving, nothing changing.
Then as now, I’m starting to get truly cold alone in my prison cell.
Back in that tiny suicide-prevention cell, outfitted only with a five-foot plastic cradle that held my almost insubstantial synthetic mattress - the only thing at all breaking up that cell’s emptiness other than the ubiquitous prison-issue metallic toilet-sink combo - I remember stuffing toilet-paper into my prison-issue jumpsuit for insulation and desperately wishing for a way to escape what my life had become, as the chill fought its way up through the soles of my feet and I stared desperately out the narrow winter window.
Three years later, and once again I can feel cold tendrils swirling angrily around my prison cell, and not much has changed. Except for the jubilant OneRepublic bumping into my padded Koss R-80 headphones, part of a 1,642 song playlist compiled on my X-Box which I’m taking a break from playing Skyrim on to compose this letter, writing on my wood-veneer nightstand which holds nearly all of the toiletries I’d have at home as well as my coffee, tea, cocoa powder, creamer, sugar cubes, protein powder, and vitamins.
A nightstand that’s lined up next to the cardboard-box cum entertainment center under my fifteen-inch television which is next to my locker that holds another set of thermals and extra sweats and a eight pairs of socks and plenty of shirts and roughly a dozen books I’m excited about reading. My locker is across from my metal-frame bed, that’s stacked with two mattress and six folded up blankets and towels for extra padding, and below it are two-dozen more books I’m reading or plan to soon.
And the only reason the cell is this cold is because I just realized my dumbass left the window cranked open while I took a hot, lazy shower alongside Moose, a garrulous well-respected Lifer who I’d just spent I don’t even know how long trading nostalgic high school football stories with, as we steamed and laughed and remembered.
In Clarksburg I remember how desperate for, and yet terrified of, human contact I was: When the guards frisked me, just being lightly touched was a warm embrace - and yet every moment simply standing next to another inmate was vaguely terrifying. On my way into the system, I remember stripping naked and bracing myself for what I’d thought would be an inevitable latexed finger up my ass. It never came, although lots of jokes about it would in the years to come.
And earlier today, Moose and his cell-buddy Sarge made a playful manwich out of me in their cell after I took Sarge up on his playful Brothers don’t shake hands, brothers hug! reprimand. Stuck in the manwich, Moose dug his furry goatee into the side of my neck as they both chortled and squeezed and I squealed that My attorney warned me that this was going to happen to me in prison!!
Okay yeah, I lied.
My bed also has the canned corn, provolone, summer sausage, and noodles that I’m kicking out for a New Years Eve hook-up with four other guys laid out on top of it. And my locker additionally has my electric beard trimmers and a CD player-radio in it. As are a half-dozen more X-Box games that I own or am borrowing from other guys on the tier.
And honestly? The view outside my window, a view that was once so stark and hopeless and forever – it’s become simply serene and reassuring. Because that fence just doesn’t keep in me in here, it keeps the rest of the world out. And this world has become far more welcoming than that world out there ever will be again since everyone around me holding a smartphone will be a few taps from a brutally sensationalized version of the worst thing I’ve ever done, my worst decisions put through a hyperbolic meat-grinder.
Earlier today I read some of a Newsweek article about Chicago’s burgeoning gang violence, Murder in the Wind, with one of my former students, whose first memory is watching his father get shot and bleed out on their kitchen floor. Had Baby Frank been born into a different family he would’ve captained your local football team and helped you hammer the homecoming float together every fall as you chatted about the upcoming season. But he wasn’t.
Like me, this place will forever define him. His crimes will dictate more about his future than all that had come before in his life, eclipsing everything else he’d ever have done or wanted to do as these penumbral walls close in around his dreams.
Hold on, lemme close this damn window.