Forty-eight years ago, in 1972, I received a life sentence, and even though I have been eligible for parole for twenty-seven years now, I remain in prison. So, “What does one do if he or she has years or decades on the ‘inside’ or may not be able to leave?” The question makes me wonder, “Do people in the free-world believe there is a difference between their life and incarcerated life?” Life is life, regardless of one’s circumstances.
On this day, I’m sitting on my bed, back against the wall, tablet made in China, paper and pen in hand, looking out the window at the forest on the far, back end of the prison. My constant oversight supervises its growth and I see the beauty of life change through passing seasons. In the beginning the trees were just shrubs, but now they are giants. I love the view of the forest. It takes my mind off the concrete, brick, and steel that represents prison. A desolate landscape. In the spring, the trees of the forest begin to bud, and in the summer buds turn into green leaves. In the fall leaves turn yellow, orange, and red before falling off, leaving the trees bare again. It almost erases the sight of oneself in a cell for decades.
There are greater restrictions on an incarcerated life. Among the most pronounced is no intimacy with the opposite sex and the loss of personal decision-making over one’s own life. But neither of these major restrictions in my life bring to it a screeching halt. Everyone’s life has restrictions. A person living in the free-world cannot live in a house unless they work and pay for it; they cannot eat unless they work to buy food; and they cannot jump in their car and go as fast as they want when they want because there are speed limits. I have speed limits in prison, too. There is no running in prison, except at the rec yard. They assume if you’re running you’ve done something wrong. I can’t stop on the controlled walk to talk. If I’m on walk, I have to keep moving. So, as an incarcerated person doing decades, “What do I do?” It’s simple, I accept the restrictions on my life because it’s the only life I have to live at this time. Maybe tomorrow will bring a different situation.
In truth, what I do in life is not much different than what most who strive to survive life do. I have hope, which is essential to surviving decades in prison. Hope tells me that someday the prison doors may open. It reminds me not to give up. Hope enables me to live another day. When I came home from Vietnam, I had problems coping and adjusting. I showed signs, documented by the Judge, of severe PTSD which contributed to my crime. I was confronted with the death penalty. But, before my trial began, the death penalty was struck down as being unconstitutional. I know, deep in my heavy heart, that warehousing people without a glimmer of hope is wrong.
Throughout my life sentence, I’ve upheld a strong connection to faith. In Vietnam, I had Marine brothers stand beside me shot dead. I returned home without a single, physical scratch. 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 glaring up to climb. I stepped aside, and the pole that was supposed to be stable and set in rock, fell over and crushed him to death. Faith has guided me through, provided purpose. In prison, I’ve seen men stabbed and beaten to death. I have come to know my fellow inmates well as they allow themselves to be known. Their backgrounds cover a diverse spectrum: drug dealers, middle-class types, gang-bangers. Though each man’s story is unique, they are all viewed as evil and worthless.
Family has stood by me during my long prison sentence. Over the years, time has taken most of my immediate family, but nieces and nephews have stepped up to fill in. Such is the hallmark of a good family. My family send me “icare” food orders each month. These food orders consist of triple, bacon cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets with ranch dressing, nacho platters, French fries, to name a few. In all of this, the greatest gift of all that they send me is love. I know they will be there for me when others won’t. And yet men, like me, who have been locked up for more than forty years believe that the steps we’ve taken to redeem ourselves will matter to someone, someday. As long as there is life, there is hope.
As I look over the vast forest from my cell window, I admire the changing leaves. In the rebirth and dying of trees in the forest, I see the mimicking of human life. In the evenings, the deer come out of the forest to eat the sweet, tender shoots of grass that grow alongside the road that lie in front of the forest. If I’m lucky, Mama will bring her baby fawns out with her for me to see. There are some differences in our lives – mine and yours, but restrictions in life are constant. One can adapt to circumstances. Life moves on no matter where you sit.