“Alright,” I asked the men standing next to my Accord, “where did you do your time?” The surprise both of them affected in response was, I felt, at least partially genuine. How did the long-haired guy in the Turnbull&Asser three-button-cuffed shirt recognize their state-issued post-release mufti of grey crew-neck sweatshirt, dark-grey sweatpants, and blue watch cap? After a moment that stretched a bit longer than any of us wanted, the stooped and greying white guy said,
“The Wall. Mansfield. Just did fourteen years. But I ain’t been out more than nine months in a row since I was nineteen.” His companion, a broad-shouldered black fellow with blue ink tattoos on his hands and an expression made owlish by the state-issued aviator-style plastic glasses, nodded.
“Yeah. Mansfield for me, too. Ain’t been down as long as all that, though.”
“Well,” I responded, “let me see if I can figure out where that McDonald’s is.” They’d stopped me as I was getting into my car, asked me if I knew how to find the nearest McD’s. They didn’t say why, but I could guess: along with the grey sweats, they’d been given a meal card of some type. Surely they were hungry. We were standing outside a line of hipster-friendly lunch spots, full to bursting with self-consciously vibrant and diverse locals, but I could see the suspicions behind their eyes. After a few years at Mansfield, they’d have a native antipathy to the deliberate darkness and crowding of those restaurants. Their instincts would tell them that places like that were good places to be invisibly and unexpectedly hurt. Three things any prisoner wants: a wall or empty hallway to your back, clean bright light on clean surfaces all around you, and free space, measured by two steps and an arm’s reach. Then you can ratchet down from the immediate animal responses of violence and scuffle to the merely human ones of observation and conversation. A drone hovering overhead would have remarked on the neat triangle of our respective positions, each of us more than an arm’s length apart.
“You gonna call them?” The white guy was confused, because I had my phone out and was poking at it.
“No,” I said, “I’m looking up directions.”
“Jesus,” he replied, open-mouthed. “You can do that on a phone now?”
Although there are exceptions, not all of them intentional, Ohio inmates are by and large unable to access the Internet in any form. There are legitimate reasons for this, but in the modern era where few people can be bothered to write a letter by hand or even answer their phone when it rings the net effect of prison Internet policies is to further isolate inmates from society. To be in an Ohio prison is to be asleep after a fashion, Rip Van Winkle dozing through years of unchanging surroundings and fixed routines and sharply constrained horizons. The mile or so they’d walked from the downtown jail to the corner of Main and Fourth was a greater distance than any they could have covered at Mansfield without crossing their own tracks. You think things like that don’t matter and then you start to consider what it would be like if you spent fourteen years never having a chance to see anything different. Even as we spoke, the black fellow was swiveling his head around, looking at the ten-story building next to us the way tourists in New York gawp at the Freedom Tower.
“Take a left there,” I pointed, “and then the McDonald’s is on your right after a ten minute walk.” We could have ended the conversation there, but we did not. Chattering in the cold, we talked about conditions at Mansfield, the job market, and the oddly arbitrary phenomenon known in Ohio as post-release control. This state doesn’t do parole. You serve your whole term and then you’re subject to the whims of a “PRC” officer. They can keep you from traveling, pick your job. You might defy all the statistics and all the stereotypes and start your own business and make a stack of money and buy a beautiful new house ten months after you get out of prison only to find that your PRC officer, whose house is half the size of yours, won’t let you move in for half a year. Just because he doesn’t personally approve of you having a house.
There is little love lost between prisoners in Ohio and the system that guards them. Two or three prisoners are killed mysteriously every year. During the Lucasville riot in the Nineties, one guard was strangled. It is also commonly believed that seven of the correctional officers were gang raped.
I had a couple bucks in the car. I pressed it on the white guy; he objected twice, like a Japanese executive being presented with a gift, then took the money. “You two have a couple of drinks on me. Where are you going next? You got family waiting for you?”
“I ain’t got anybody left,” the older man said. The black fellow looked at the ground, flexing his hands in and out.
“I’m hoping that I do, but I ain’t heard in a while. Gotta get on that bus and find out.”
We shook hands. As they turned to walk away, I felt compelled to say something else. “It’s a hard road ahead,” I stammered, uncomfortably aware that I sounded like a bad mix of a self-help book and a pre-electric Dylan song, “and there will be times when you might feel like you have to whip some ass. ‘Cause that’s what you would do inside. But that’s not a reason. In fact, there’s no reason for that. There’s no reason to go back. I’m right, aren’t I? We’re all grown. There’s no reason to go back.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” the black man said. “No fuckin’ reason.”
“No reason,” his companion agreed. The three of us smiled, ruefully. Because it wasn’t as true as we wanted it to be, because you don’t wind up in prison in the first place without being the kind of man who sometimes strikes without thinking. Then the two men squared up their shoulders and walked away, like you would on the yard. Eyes up, alert, not a hint of teenage swagger but also no suggestion that you’d move out of the way if you were shoved. Successful prisoners have a remarkable amount of inertia in their physical carriage. The survival of the monarch butterfly comes solely from its ability to not be worth the trouble to eat.
“Oh hey,” I yelled, because I’d forgotten. “Merry Christmas.”