“It’s a gift to exist” by student-offender

Forty-seven years ago, I received a life sentence, and even though I have been eligible for parole for twenty-seven years, I continue to live a restricted life in prison. What does one do if he or she has years or decades on the inside or may not be able to leave?

On this day, I sit on my bunk with my back against the wall, holding my tablet made in China, looking out my window at the forest in back of the prison. I remember when the trees were just shrubs, but now, twenty-three years later, they are giants. In winter, when trees are bare, the squirrel’s nests made of dry, brown leaves are visible in the forks of the trees. I watch them as they run and jump from tree to tree, and I remember a time when I was in the woods squirrel hunting with my Dad and brothers. I felt a deep-down yearning for those days gone by. When watching the forest, I’m able to escape the concrete, brick, and steel that represent the desolate landscape of prison. But my escape is only temporary.

To be clear, prison life is not the only life that lives with restrictions. Everybody’s life is restricted to some degree. In what is allegedly a free society, one cannot jump in his or her car and go as fast as they want because there are speed limits. Neither can one take in the good life without paying for it. Nothing is free in our capitalist society. For a roof over your head, food to eat, and bills paid, one must work. Otherwise, you will become homeless, hungry, and indebted to life. There are, of course, greater restricts on the prisoner’s life. No intimacy with the opposite sex and no decision-making over one’s personal life are among the most severe. These two restrictions took some getting used to, but neither one brought life to a screeching halt. Restrictions can weigh heavy on our lives, but they do not change the living, breathing nature of life. Life is life no matter where one lives.

So, “What does one do?” One thing I do is I keep hope alive in my life. Hope is vital to prisoners doing decades in prison. Hope makes me believe in the impossible; it reminds me to never give up, and it enables me to go on. For decades I have hoped for a better life. I realize that a better life may never come, but still, I keep on hoping and I keep doing the very best I can with what life I have. When I came home from Vietnam, my hope was shattered. I suffered from full-blown, chronic PTSD-documented by the VA. I had problems coping and adjusting to life. Consequently, I committed a horrible crime that left me facing the death penalty. It was then that I realized the hypocrisy in America’s promises to veterans who fought to protect her. She sent me to war where it was kill or be killed, she abandoned me at home to face the demons of war alone, and when I failed and could not cope with the horrors of war, she wanted to execute me. Despite that realization, my hope never wavered, and before my trial began, the death penalty was struck down as being unconstitutional. Afterwards, I was put in prison for the rest of my life as if America was bound and determined to hide her hypocrisy from public view. Concerning hope, I have seen that warehousing prisoners for life without a glimmer of hope is not only wrong but cruel, and that it’s contrary to God’s will towards humanity.

I have had faith in a higher power throughout my life. Out of his abundance of mercy, he shielded me from the death penalty. I was not surprised. In Vietnam, he protected me from death as fellow Marines standing by me were shot dead. Later, when I worked for the power company framing 50’ poles, a fellow lineman argued with me that it was his turn to climb and frame the next pole that I was preparing to climb. I stepped aside, and the three-thousand-pound pole that was set too shallow fell over and crushed him to death. I felt horror-stricken and confused as I watched emergency-workers lift the pole up and cut his toolbelt to dislodge his body from the pole. In prison, I’ve seen men stabbed, beaten, and burned to death. But in forty-seven years, I have not received as much as a scratch. I do know why he blesses me, but I faith.

During my long stay in prison, I have been blessed with an unwavering family. They never forgot me. Their love is constantly shown in all that they do. They still support me with “icare” food gifts. They keep money on my phone account. Pictures and emails arrive regularly. The first few years in prison were the hardest on me. They worried about me constantly. Learning prison routines, schedules, and rules, getting used to the constant noise, meeting new people, which is always stressful, finding out who to hang with and avoid – it all takes time. Unfortunately, most prisoners come up short when it comes to family, and family is necessary if a prisoner doing decades is going to survive. Speaking of surviving, I make my escape to the forest.

The forest is beautiful. In the spring, the trees begin to bud, and in the summer, buds turn into shiny, green leaves. In the fall leaves turn yellow, orange and red before giving up and falling off, leaving the trees barren again. In the dying and regeneration of leaves on the trees in the forest, I see the nature of humanity. In the evenings, the deer come out of the forest to eat the sweet, tender shoots of grass that grown alongside the road that lies in the front of the forest. If I’m lucky – Mama may bring her two fawns out with her for me to see.

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