Prison

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II’ve had the pleasure of knowing a lot of people who went to prison.

I’m not being ironic, either. When I worked with the homeless, I met this nice gentleman about 55 at what was called the Day Resource Center for the homeless in Fort Worth. We were, of all things, recruiting for the Union Gospel Mission Men’s Building. Our census was down and the boss wanted more bodies in the program, so I went down there to get people to move in. His name was Ronnie.

Ronnie was mild-mannered and kind. Didn’t really look like he fit in a place full of smelly-bodied miscreants and recalcitrant drug addicts. He explained that he had recently been released from “state custody.”

“What did you do?” I asked nonchalantly.

“Oh,” he replied as if I asking where he got his hat. “Murder. It was the second time.”

His IQ was Forrest Gumpish. As a young man he really liked alcohol, but it made him reckless and stupid. The first bar fight he killed a man in happened when he was 17. He did 10 years for manslaughter. Got out and spent a few years “free,” then got into another scrum in a juke joint and someone else ended up dead.

I asked him if he was a violent man. He smiled.

“I never was and never will be. Never been in a fight outside of those times. Except in prison. Everybody fights in prison.”

Something about this guy told me he was telling the truth. So I brought him into the shelter. He was a little like a puppy dog. I gave him a bunk and his bedclothes. Put him on the housekeeping schedule.

He was an excellent worker. Fastidious, even. Never complained. Was polite with everyone. Kept to himself, but not in a creepy way. He was friendly, but also comfortable with his own company. Never had to write him up for anything – not a towel in his bunk, never a messy locker. He was a model resident, actually.

The president of the mission asked if I’d let him take care of the chapel. That was a position where he’d be around volunteers, female residents, news media when they came around – he was basically a part of the face of a million dollar charity. I said he was already on the schedule to do it the next week.

He had never asked about him before so I hadn’t told him. Then he started prying. So I told him.

The proverbial expression rhymes with hit his hands and involves soiling leg wear.

“He’s a murderer?”

“No Don. He’s a man.”

In 43 years, two degrees I never use, a “calling from God” that wasn’t and more career changes than I care to count as well as the worst choice of a spouse known to man that didn’t result in murder or castration, I can’t look back on a lot of proud moments in my life. But that’s one of them.

And for once, I was right. Ronnie was the best housekeeper we had in my five and a half years at that place. Did all his work in about a third of his six hour shift. The rest would go outside and smoke or goof off. He asked me for more to do. So I had him polish the furniture, clean the stained glass with a pole, change light bulbs that had burned out….whatever was needed, he did it. Never an incident.

Of course, our job was to rehabilitate people, so from day one, I had been working with a bunch of other people and agencies to get him a job, housing, health care and the rest so he could have a new life.

Finally the day came, and we helped him move out. He had tears in his eyes.

“Nobody’s ever treated me like you folks did. I really appreciate it.”

Ronnie was a man of few words. I have never shut up since I learned how to talk. But for once I had nothing to say.

Another guy named Terry came to us directly from prison. He had shot and killed two people and we were getting a couple hundred bucks a day to house him while TDCJ figured out what to do with him.

He was a tall guy, about 6’4” and was prison skinny. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, it’s just a look I’ve seen so many times I can spot it a mile away. His hair was all over the place and his hands never stopped moving. His eyes darted in every direction when you tried to talk to him and he could barely talk in coherent sentences. I didn’t want to take him in under any circumstances because the guy was a less-stable version of Sideshow Bob. I could tell a mile away that he would be a distraction and a hindrance to the guys on the bubble about whether to buy into our program.

Besides, we didn’t have the appropriate facilities to do anything for him. The guy needed a padded room, not a bunk in a dorm with 60 other men. Money talks, though. So they made me admit him. Weirdly enough, the guy couldn’t see that I thought he was a few apple slices short of a healthy Happy Meal and warmed up to me. I had a glimmer of hope that maybe we could get through to him.

He came to my office at about 9:30 the first night and told me about the people he had heard whispering in the bathroom who were wanting to kill him and how he was going to catch them in their sleep and bash their heads in.

I kicked probably 1,000 people out for ignoring the rules – bringing in drugs, smoking in the building, fighting, you name it. But I knew I couldn’t kick this guy out. He might kill somebody on the street, so I called 911. Once, when one of my coworkers called the cops, they asked him “is this Samuel?” before he could give them his name. It was my job to protect the guys who wanted a better life, not to enable and coddle the shitheads. If they didn’t want to change, there wasn’t much I could do except give them a more suitable environment for their behavior. And anywhere was more suitable than in the bed next to a guy who was literally fighting for his life. I had zero regrets about it. Ever.

Still, this was new. I had to think about the public’s interests. Not just those of my guys. So I got a cop on the phone.

“He said what?” was the first question.

I told him.

“That’s fucked up,” came his reply. “What do we do?”

“Umm, that’s your job, Officer. He ain’t sleeping here, though.”

Eventually, we had him arrested for making terroristic threats or something. They took him away. The guy was certifiably insane and homicidally so. The social workers weren’t happy with me, but per usual, their opinion meant absolutely nothing.

Then there was Quint. Quint had been classified as a rehabilitated criminally insane former prisoner. He still got monthly injections of this stuff called Haldol that made him a zombie for a few days. I didn’t give him any duties during those days. He did what the other guys called “the Haldol shuffle.”

For about two weeks after that, he’d be very functional. Actually, he was quite helpful during those times. Just filled in with whatever we needed done. He was a genuinely funny man, with a wit that matched anyone I’ve ever met. Mental illness doesn’t mean you’re stupid. In his case, it did mean he like to steal things. Anything that wasn’t bolted down.

The last week of the month, he’d be berserk. Telling us stories about how there’s AIDS in the water and how people in France don’t get AIDS because of something they put in the water. We had this one very diligent, very devout Methodist pompous ass of a volunteer who would get mad at me when I removed someone from the environment and loved to play the “God loves us all” card when he found out I’d given a guy the choice between rehab and leaving when we found a crack pipe in his laundry. He drove a Prius because it was good for the environment and had a “Coexist” sticker with the symbols of the world’s major religions on the bumper.

“It’s not right to do that to those people,” he’d lecture.

At first I listened and pretended to care. He was a volunteer and a donor, after all. But one day he went over my head and got me called into my boss’s office. Getting lectures from earnest Methodists and overweight lesbians with God complexes was too much for me.

“I’ve got an idea, Gene. I want for you to work with Quint this afternoon.”

It was the last week of the month. Gene kept sending money and kept volunteering but never questioned my judgment again. It really is the little things.

Eventually, we realized Quint wasn’t a fit for our services. I got a mental health warrant for him after he snapped and threatened a guy with a screwdriver he had stolen from the guy earlier in the day. Actually, I hadn’t thought about Quint since then until I started the second draft of this whatever this is.

There was one guy I got closest to of all the former inmates. His name was Ruben. He was a tall Mexican-American guy. Heavyset and funny, he loved to make gay jokes. Called me sweet cheeks and would pinch my ass when I walked by.

Ruben has been on the inside a few times, always related to his love for heroin. He liked using it. He liked selling it. He loved the stuff the way socialites love gossip.

But there was something he loved more. Her name was Gabby. And when he wasn’t talking about dope, he was talking about his little girl.

Like a lot of junkies, Ruben got low a lot of times. The jokes would stop. My ass got a rest, which was welcome. But in those times, we’d sit in my office and talk about life, God, purpose….anything to distract me from actually doing my job and him from what was on his mind.

One afternoon, I found him in his room. He had been exceptionally low for a long time. Hadn’t seen his daughter since he got out the last time. He was afraid he’d never see her again. Her mother was as big a junkie as he had ever been and was about to lose custody. Either the state was gonna take her or his 70 year old parents would raise his eight year old.

He had a needle in his hand. He was about to nod out, maybe for the last time.

I wish I could say I did something heroic or even kind. I just said, “you selfish son of a bitch, you’re all she’s got.” He began to cry. He went to rehab for the eighth or ninth time.

This time it took.

Six months later, he graduated from our program. Around that time, Mark Zuckerberg’s invention hit the world. We became friends on Facebook. He worked a couple of jobs. He’d stop by in his work clothes – he was working on a road crew – and make the same old gay jokes.

“Where’s sweet cheeks at? I wanna give him a kiss.”

Not long before I left Fort Worth, he came by one last time. He wasn’t alone. The cutest little brunette you’ve ever seen was in tow. With 18 months clean, he had gotten custody of her and she was moving into his new apartment with him. Mom was in prison.

He started some really awkward thank you thing and I waved him off. I told him he did it and he did it for the right reason. That’s why it took.

We kept up the friendship online as life took its twists and turns.

Around the Fourth of July one year the “likes” stopped. His hilarious posts disappeared. I sent him a direct message and he didn’t reply. Gabby had graduated from school and grown into a young woman, but I hadn’t seen her in years.

Still I recognized the picture when she posted on his timeline.

She had been out of town with friends. Sometime over the holiday weekend, he had died at home. His heart had not been able to withstand the drugs and alcohol he had inflicted on it in his 40-odd years. She found him, looking like he was asleep in his easy chair at the house they were renting.

In our last conversation, we had briefly discussed prison, of all things.

“Dope was harder than summer camp,” he had said. “But now, with her, I feel like I’m free for the first time. I still wanna use sometimes, but….”

Then she started acting up and he had to attend to her.

In a piece of this type, this is where you’re supposed to talk about the prison within and all that. I’d rather not be a cliché if I can avoid it, so I’ll ignore the low hanging fruit.

I think what I learned from all that can be summed up not in a few trite sentences but in the realization that all that came out of those men was what was already there. Ronnie was a basically decent human being who had made some mistakes. Ruben ran from his problems until he found a reason not to. And Terry and Quint were just bat shit crazy. My part in all of their dramas was very minimal.

The father of medicine was a guy named Hippocrates. His famous oath includes the phrase “first do no harm.” That’s really all I did. Most people have hurt enough. Let them be safe for a minute and see how they react is all you can really do.

I don’t believe that everyone can be redeemed from what they are. That’s not a theological statement, so hold your fire, fundies. You would have run from all three of these men, anyway, so get off your high horse.

But you can give people to chance to grow beyond what they’ve done and see who they are. You can remind people of what they have left to stand and fight for. A lot of times you’d be surprised what they do once they realize the cell door was open the whole time.

Frank said something to the effect that life is testing us every minute of every day. I’ve definitely found that to be true. The twist is that unlike school, you can retake the test every day. In fact, you are retaking the test every day. And just because you’ve failed spectacularly and gotten caught doesn’t mean you can’t pass the next time.

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