Pages

Thursday, August 6, 2020

It's The Wait That Gets You Part III

By Nascimento Blair

To read Part II click here

“On the count!” 

Thade rolled out of bed again. It was Wednesday and he was hoping it would be a more eventful day than the one which had passed. He stood at his room door and went through the perfunctory morning ritual of the department of corrections. His mindset was different today. There was little hope that things would turn out in his favor, yet deep down he hoped that his number would be called before the parole board today. The count cleared and Thade retreated to his room. He turned on his tablet once more to listen to NPR’s news on his local radio station. For some reason he was still distracted at the power displayed by the parole board the previous day. He marveled at the idea some prisoners sell their families about being ready for that second chance; yet they explode at the idea of waiting for more than six hours. Truth be told though, Thade thought the parole board was very powerful, and they did not hesitate to show the convicts how truly powerful they were. A knock came at his door. He was in the process of brushing his teeth and noticed through the hole in his room door that it was Jeff. He walked over to the door and watched as Jeff smiled. 

“What’s up? You ready?” Jeff asked. Thade nodded his head and smiled while walking away towards his toilet and sink. He spat out the contents of his mouth and stood up as Jeff continued to steer the conversation. “Well, buddy I heard that they would not be here until 1:30 today, so that should give you time to take a shower and go cook some of that good Jamaican food you always be doing in the kitchen.” 

Thade paused for a minute. He wanted to measure his response appropriately. He was always amazed at how prisoners were privy to certain information. It was 7:00 A.M. and Jeff had told him something which required some amount of running around in the jail to attain. He spat again, after mulling over his response. He slowly looked up at his mirror, then at Jeff, and said, “How do you know that?” 

“Well, I heard yesterday that due to the impending snow and shit, the commissioners were gonna be late,” he finished. Thade paused again. His shoulders dropped and disappointment echoed inside his response. “What does that mean for us who did not go yet? Are we supposed to just, go about our daily routines like busy bees, or are we supposed to just sit and hope we are called soon to quell this agony of wait? Man, the nerve of these people. Would they inform the people who were slated to the board about their potential tardiness?” 

“You know I overheard the officers speaking about this yesterday when I was sitting on the bench outside the hearing. Listen Thade, that’s just how these people operate for years now. They do what they want, when they want and to whom they want. There is no accountability. Who is gonna stop them? The sentencing court will not intervene, and if they do they don’t want to let people go and something bad happens, so they leave things in the hands of parole. So parole acts as god almighty.” Thade was now washing out his mouth while still listening to his friend vent his frustrations over all these years with the parole board. 

“Listen man, my last two appearances lasted just fifteen minutes and the one  before that was just five. Now they have this bullshit law saying they have to go through everything, so they are doing just that, and that takes up a lot of time. These people don’t care, all they have to do is show up, and you make sure you show up too. I tell you, Bro, it's going to be a long series of events and this whole process is meant to unsettle you, so when you go in there looking mean and mean muggin them, they will say aha, we got one,” he finished. 

Thade looked inside his mirror again while rubbing the cocoa butter stick on his dry face and said, “I guess it’s the wait that gets you…”

“Exactly,” Jeff said, pointing to his friend and smiling because he made Thade realize, the parole board was all about the wait. Thade continued titivating and his friend wished him good luck and closed the door. It seemed he was in for another of those long series of ‘hurry up and wait’ which tells the story of the prison experience exactly. 

The hours dragged themselves by and Thade was sitting inside his room frustrated. Suddenly he realized he did not call his family the previous day due to the exhaustive experience of bullpen therapy. He went to the phone booth and quickly dialed his wife’s number. She answered, and in her frantic voice wondered if something had gone wrong. They had killed prisoners before in this facility, so he understood her concerns. They talked for the allotted half an hour and then he called his mother to give her the same reassurance of his safety. He informed both of his callers that he did not see anyone yet and was just exhausted because of the process. They both encouraged him individually to just be humble and patient. He thanked them and assured them he would call later. It was now 10:30 A.M. and he was as hungry as ever. 

The block sergeant had walked in the block, and Thade asked the blue shirt if he could have a word with him. The sergeant was a tall strapping Caucasian man who stuttered when he talked. Yet he was very professional, mild and easy to talk to. Thade asked him about the rumors of the parole board commissioners coming late. The sergeant assured Thade that that was the case had asked him if he were going to the board also. He answered in the affirmative and was told that the parole board would not convene until 1:30 P.M. that very day. Thade thanked the sergeant and walked back to his room. Jeff was right but he still had to know through his own research. After all, he did not come by his degrees by just listening and not researching things of his own accord.

The kitchen smelled pleasant due to Thade cooking his favorite curry cabbage with fish and rice. He shared brief conversations with people entering and exiting, who were drawn to the pleasant scent of his food. Enrique was returning from his asbestos program and looking a bit ruffled. He asked Thade if he heard about the delayed time and Thade answered, “yes.” Unlike Thade, Enrique was never called the previous day, so his nerves must have been shaken to its foundations. The 11:30 A.M. count was called and Thade ran to his room door to assume the familiar stance. When it cleared a few prisoners asked him how things had gone, since he had retired immediately  the previous night. He answered the best he could and went to finish his meal. He had not had much of an appetite the day before but was assured of the time today, so now he could at least eat something. 

After Thade ate, he decided to take a shower and just relax his mind and not allow the power displayed by the parole board to dissuade him. He listened to the BBC news as it blared over the radio broadcasting the various events the world over. He got up and started getting dressed; regardless of how poised he felt, it was the nervousness of the unexpected which still kept him off balance. Again, he was recalcitrant to put on his necktie because he did not want too many people asking questions. He slowly put his socks on and got distracted when he saw the industry tractor trailer pulling into the courtyard outside his window. He realized quickly that he was not the only one fascinated with the truck because many industry workers were also standing on the docks watching as the driver maneuvered his vehicle into the right spot, to pick up the prisoners finished product. 

“Walkway!” the officer shouted. Thade was snatched out his daze and knew business was at hand. A knock came at his door and he was told the officer wanted him. He put on his socks and shoes and walked to the C.O. 's bubble. The guard had a mild disposition and Thade knew her from another location which he had previously worked. She whispered, “I didn’t know you were going to the board.” 

Thade nodded and smiled and then she wrote his pass and told him, “Good luck and kill it.” He smiled and thanked her. Thade walked back to his room, got completely dressed this time and left for his chance at freedom. He was more relaxed. Surprisingly, Enrique was right behind him walking and dressed to impress this time. The two walked slowly along the walkway. Enrique was noticeably nervous and perhaps rightfully so. This was his second time going to see the commissioners. He had done seventeen years already, went home and caught a new bid within four months. Thade was thinking perhaps it was that, some people developed habits in prison, which they were unable to extricate from themselves before leaving prison. The two men walked up to the infirmary gates and then the big blue door again. The buzzing reminded Thade of his tedious experience the day before. This time however he was glad to get inside because it was snowing and bitterly cold. They walked into the bull pen and Enrique gave the officer his pass, and then went to speak to a few of his friends. Thade followed suit, but noticed Shakim was sitting inside the bullpen. 

There were noticeably more men sitting inside the bullpen on this day as opposed to the previous. Thade counted about thirty-four people this time, but at least fourteen were from yesterday. He greeted all the other men and then hugged Shakim. “What happened yesterday?” He noticed how visibly frustrating Shakim’s response was. Shakim started to shake his head and said, “Man, these people just do what they want. I was the last one sitting on the bench and suddenly they came out and said the board will not see anyone else. I’m telling you, Man, you just have to remain vigilant because these people have the power of your life inside their hands.” Thade listened carefully as his friend explained away his frustrations about the parole system. 
“Did anyone go see them yet?” he asked Shakim.

“Nah, they not even here yet”

“What, how come?” asked Thade. 

“Man, listen, you are learning how these people really feel. They think because we here already, they can just come and go as they like, and we better not go into that room looking pissd off either because that is exactly what they want.” But this time, the rest of the bullpen was feeling a bit rowdy and the frustrations were beginning to surface. Lopez was sitting on the edge of one of the benches and looked as if were getting ready to explode again. The chatter became louder and then one of the guards walked inside the bull pen and asked for everyone’s attention. He was young, black and everyone thought he was gonna scream ‘on the noise’ like most of the guards usually do whenever they want to show they have control. Except he did not! 

“Pardon me for one second fellas,” he said. “Listen, I know some of you guys are nervous, but this is how the process works. We have word that the commissioners are running a bit late but will be here by about 2:30 P.M. Just try and bear a little bit. What will happen is whenever they call for you; you will step out and proceed down the hallway to the officers sitting outside the hearing room. You cannot take anything with you except for a copy of your parole file and the necessary documents. No lighters, no pens or anything of the sort. Gentlemen as soon as you are called just check yourself so that the process can be a bit more expedient. Now thank you and just please keep the noise level to a minimum.” Wow, Thade thought; this guy was very informative and professional. None of the officers did this yesterday. He watched as the officer exited the bull pen. The occupants started nodding their heads in an agreeable manner. 

“Well there you have it” Shakim said to Thade. Everyone was a bit more at ease this time and the noise level was taken down a notch. The occupants of the bullpen decided to distract themselves with the contents on the TV this time, and their particular conversations. The house was stating their reasons for impeachment of the US. President. CNN could not seem to get enough of Donald Trump. Thade sat and wondered how every media was so caught up on one person, when there were so many things happening all over the world. Thade and Shakim sat and talked about his past experiences with the parole board. Shakim spoke about the letdown he felt yesterday being called last and then just being denied at the last moment. He went on for a few more minutes about the power these people have over incarcerated people. Thade listened intently, because these were lessons he thought would be useful whenever it was his turn. 
The two continued their conversation, occasionally allowing others to butt in here and there. Thade had another friend who was a member of his religious community going to the board that day with him also. The time was flying, the usual impatience of the incarcerated persons in the bullpen starting to manifest. It was now 2:30 P.M. and the shift change was still in progress. The occupants watched as the guards came and went and watched them. It seemed like this eerie ritual was happening, where the eyes watched and the bodies spoke of a deeper understanding of what each person was doing there. Purpose was the fulcrum, which pulled the institution of participants back and forth, the guards knew why the men sat in the bullpen; and then men in the bullpen watched as the guards wore their disdain on their faces.

Thade watched the members of the House one by one make their cases for impeaching the President of the United States. There are many phenomena which occur in prison; that day Thade was privy to witness one of the most paralyzing ones. 

For some reason everyone in the bull pen turned their attention to the big blue door at the south side of the seating. It was 2:35 P.M. Two people walked through the door. A guard walked in front of them as their escort, and Thade noticed they were wearing large winter coats. “It was them.” The whispers started as soon as the two people were recognized. The two walked charismatically on the opposite side of the bull pen, directly facing the hallway to the hearing room. Then the phenomenon occurred. The male figure walking behind the guard was identified as the parole boogeyman himself. 

It was Commissioner Burze. 

His debonair attitude exuded from his steps and the occupants could tell by his professional demeanor that he knew what his purpose was. He wore a gray suit and red necktie, with a large winter coat opened in the middle. It was like a ten minute exchange between the occupants and the two commissioners which actually took place in less than three minutes. The Commissioner’s acuity proved itself and he immediately knew who the occupants of the bull pen were. In one evidently, calculated act, the boogeyman waved and greeted the men of the bullpen. They were stunned! Some mumbled under their breaths a low hello, at the risk of being looked at by their peers as traitors. Thade, being the naive gregarious individual he was, waved in response to the commissioner. The battle lines were drawn, and Commissioner Burze had won the first round effortlessly. 

His move had exposed the temperance of many in the bullpen, their lack of emotional intelligence. It was a victory dance by people on separate parts of the ideological spectrum, and the occupants of the bull pen were already set ablaze because of the audacity of this one man. This one man who will decide if prisoners would go home to their families, have a longer duration or a shorter one. This man who Shakim once said represented the victims, or members of society. And yet these men who wanted to be redeemed by society were so cold to him. How could he not have seen that? Was he smart enough to remember all those who waved, said hello or just stood there like a deer in the headlights of a car facing inevitable doom? How these potential chess players could get checkmated in one move. It was as if they were not even playing the great game of life to begin. Who were they fooling, or did this really mean anything? Thade looked around as the men in the bullpen sat down and the nervousness was visible. Everyone watched as they disappeared down the hallway. The stage was set. There would be no mystery, because the occupants of the bull pen knew who was there and they already knew some of what to expect; because the legendary boogeyman was in the building and any heart not in the right place could be exposed and could continue to dwell in the abyss of the prison system. 
The conversations continued and Thade and Shakim continued to speak about the many current affairs which were plaguing the nation, which the media seemed too obsessed with Trump to report. Time, more importantly, was still going and it was not 3:10 P.M. By then the more guards were walking around the bull pen and it seemed like a completely different crew of people from yesterday. 

This time a heavyset black officer stepped inside the room. He called five names for the board. Shakim got called along with four other of the men who’d been sent the previous day. Thade wondered why he was not called since he was waiting from the previous day also. He hugged his friend and told him good luck. It was a chorus of well wishes from the occupants of the bullpen. Everyone was wishing all five men good fortunes because they knew who was there. 

Thade sat down and started having a conversation with his friend from his religious community. The two spoke about the necessity of the faith but expressed how important it was for one to believe in their own potential also. The conversations continued for more than two hours. The usual feelings of anxiety started to set in and boredom caused many of the occupants of the bull pen to walk around to relieve their tight muscles. Thade noticed as Enrique leaned against the wall in conversation with two of his friends. 

It was now 4:00 P.M. and another guard came inside the bullpen to do the count. The men had to be seated and the guard announced, “Clear,” when he was finished. The chatter continued and the men decided to drown out all the wait and boredom with Pix 11 news at 4. There was video footage of this girl being kidnapped, her mother pushed to the ground which upset many in the bullpen. This would be a feast for deviant Sociologists. “These people are bugging” Came one comment and they kept on coming until the food came in at 4:35 P.M. Surprisingly, this time along with the food came the fat dark skinned guard. Everyone looked at him because they knew he was going to announce another name. It was as if the price was right was going on and every one was waiting to make a deal. It was a tense four seconds. For a while, the officer sounded muffled to Thade. It was his name the guard called. He stood up and put on his jacket and grabbed his folder with his paperwork. He hugged his religious community member and was wished good luck by the occupants and walked out. 
The hallway was shining and clean. It was as if the porters had put down five layers of wax on the floor. The walk was long and the guard escorted Thade as he did the Commissioners. 

He arrived at the next point only to be told that he had to empty his pockets and the contents of his folder. “Take your jacket off and place it on the chair. Hands flat on the wall and legs apart,” were just some of the instructions which Thade had to adhere to before proceeding. He was searched. He complied, and was told to gather his things. “Have a seat on the edge of the bench, where the last person was sitting,” the guard said. Thade gathered his belongings and walked over to a bunch of chairs placed together, where the other men who’d left the bullpen had to sit. There were three people sitting, waiting to be called inside to see the commissioners. He sat down, greeted the men and exhaled. Thade leaned his head against the wall looking up at the ceiling to keep his concentration. It would all be up to him from this point forward.
One officer was stationed outside the door, so close he could listen to what was transpiring inside the room. The others were just sitting and making the usual non sequitur conversations they do to occupy the time. They laughed, talking while the men on the bench worried and fretted. Suddenly, the door opened and one of the men who was amongst the first to be called from the bullpen emerged. He was visibly pissed off. He grabbed his jacket as if it were an insolent child and made a hissing sound. One of the men on the bench dared ask him how it went and he said, “Pschhh, two years.” That caught Thade’s attention and he began thinking about the bogeyman Commissioner Burze. Thade looked at his watch and saw that the time was going. A caucasian woman wearing blue jeans, a gray sweater and a dark blue jacket came out of the room and told the guards sitting at the desk to send back “Martinez, Fisher, and Lockwood.” Martinez was Enrique’s last name. 

Another prisoner was called into the room and Thade knew him a bit from the department where they both worked. He went in and suddenly Thade moved up a bit on the bench. He had started to believe his prospects were getting better and maybe he would not have to be so exhausted like he was the day before. At least, he would be able to give his spiel and be done with it, come whatever may. 

Half an hour passed and the former occupant of the bench was still inside the hearing. Thade looked at the other two men and wondered what could be taking so long. It was 5:05 P.M. The new occupants of the benches sat and watched as four more men were escorted around to sit on the benches form the bullpen. Thade remembered the cut off time was 6:30 PM. One of them was an initial like Thade, and the rest were reappearance. 

The door opened again and the guard quickly jumped up. Strangely enough, a prisoner walked out and saw the other men sitting on the bench. “How did it go?” asked Thade. The guy turned around with a nonchalant demeanor and smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Hmmm, maybe eighteen months.” Fear began to saturate the tiny space which had become a refuge for these men occupying the benches. The door never closed though, and while the prisoner was grabbing his stuff to walk away, the boogeyman himself walked out of the room. Yes, Commissioner Burze walked out of the room, immediately turned towards the men sitting on the bench and waved again. He repeated this once more. Was that his strategy? Thade thought, or was he just a genuine human being doing his paid job? Did he just declare war, again, on these poor unsuspecting felons? Or did he secretly destroyed his prey by psychologically breaking them down so he could tell if they were sincere or not? Whatever was his motive, this time all the men greeted him and called his name. He disappeared through another door with the words ‘bathroom’ above the door frame. Thade sat and watched  how the men decided to sit up straight and pay attention. Whoever had their heads down, dared not display this, at least not until the Commissioner was out the bathroom and into the hearing room. There was no chatter amongst the now occupants of the bench. Everyone was attentive. 

He emerged once more and everyone was a bit more relaxed. Everything went back to normal. Another name was called and he stepped inside the room. This took another 20 minutes. The prisoner, Lopez, from the previous day was also called. As per his usual impatient attitude, he was asking the guards if he would be able to make it to the law library. The guards looked at him and cracked up a bit, but not before telling him “it depends on when you are finished.” Thade found this strange since this man was there to see these people about going home. 

He thought again about those men who tricked their families about coming home, yet, their actions during incarceration are anathema to their survival if released. Another prisoner sat beside Thade and introduced himself. It was a case of verbal masturbation for this man. He kept on about how he should not have been called to the parole board because he was granted parole in September. Thade listened to his cacophony of complaints. You could almost see the cringe in Thade’s face because the man kept going on about the same thing. “So why don’t you tell the officer to send you back…” Thade interrupted. 

“Well, I think I’m gonna have a short hearing. They only want to ask me why I have not paroled out of state yet,” the man replied. Thade noticed he put his walking stick on the ground and opened his jacket to assume a more comfortable position,. “Listen, I have been locked up 32 years, and they finally gave me parole from the box in Comstock…”

“But here you are in Fishkill…” Thade pressed.

“Yeah, that’s why I know I will only have a short hearing, because I have already made the board.” The more he spoke, the more Thade realized he was full of shit. This prisoner kept on giving Thade a history lesson of his entire incarceration and how he cannot parole to New York.

“So why can’t you just parole to a shelter then? I’m sure that beats staying in prison and allowing these people to treat you like the scum on the bottom of their shoes?” Thade again pressed.

“Nah, see my nephews live with my sister, and they are some bad ass kids. They are in the street and if I parole to a shelter, my sister is gonna want to come get me. I don't come back to this shit man. Look at what they did to my leg?” The man demonstrated to Thade how his leg got broken. 

“You are still here in prison knowing that the officers did this to you” said Thade.

“Yeah, but I put some work in too, this shit isn’t over! I’m suing these sons of bitches. I’m gonna get paid,” he finished. Thade realized what the punch line was. This man was a liar and a conman. His frustrations with this prisoner were growing now and he started to look at the ceiling once more. Then, as if the heavens heard his cry and brought him relief, the guard at the door to the hearing room jumped up and the prisoner who was in the there exited. He was visibly pissed, not acknowledging anyone. Instead, he just grabbed his belongings and stormed off. This distraction proved fruitful because the conman sitting beside Thade was called next. Thade was a bit perturbed but glad to be rid of him. This was to be the first of many people who came before Thade, sat on the bench and saw the commissioners before him. The door closed and within five minutes opened again. The conman was smiling and looked at Thade and said, “I told you, a quick hearing.” He walked off back down the hallway and another went inside. 

This time it was Lopez. “I want to go back to my cube, and to the law library.” He was up next. How could this be? Was this the universe’s way of punishing Thade? Or was it God telling him to be patient because he had something in store for him? Regardless of what; he had to wait and displaying impatience would be a detriment to his goal. Surprisingly it took only ten minutes. It was now 5:35 P.M. and Thade was watching the clock with newfound fervor. The next man up went in and the lady stepped out again. She asked the guard how many others remained and the guard pointed to Thade and one other man on the bench. She told the guard that no more after these two, which placed Thades’s mind at ease somewhat. He thought at least he would get over with today and done. Another five minutes passed and the prisoner exited. For some reason these men seemed to all have brief hearings. The hope was growing now for Thade. “Hey do you want a tray?” one guard asked Thade. His mind was too far from eating food. “No thank you I’m not hungry right now…”

“Yeah, but its pizza…” the guard interrupted Thade’s response to tell him. Thade was beyond livid. Here he was about to convince some strangers why he should be let back into society and they were bothering him about some jail food. “Officer, with all due respect, food is the last thing on my mind at this point” he replied. Maybe it was a test he thought. Was this what these guards at this point did? “Well I'll give the tray to the other guys in the bullpen” he finished. Thade turned towards the guard’s direction and barely cracked a smile. He started looking up at the ceiling once more. All he wanted to do was get beyond this wait. 

It was 5:40 P.M. when the next person went inside the hearing room. Thade had noticed how quiet he was when he came to sit on the bench. The guards started to get a little louder discussing what they will do next. One guard, an obese caucasian, with a mustache, and glasses, resembling a knock off Tom Selleck, started to look at Thade in the often obsessive, fascinated way most guards looked at convicts. He started to make jokes about Thade sitting on the bench. 

“Well how do you think this one will go?” he asked. The other guards looked at Thade and started to come up with all sorts of scenarios. “Well I’m kind of bored; maybe we will get some action.” They all laughed and stared at Thade hoping for a response. Thade was neither impressed, nor was he interested. He had seen these kinds before. They were the ones who provoked convicts and jumped on them, came to court to testify and get compensation. That was how the state apparatus rewarded its beasts. They did things to keep the jails full, and the state loved them for it. Surprisingly though, there was this one guard sitting down laughing with all the rest. She was chubby, of Hispanic descent and was quite familiar with Thade. He knew her from another jail and she was not like this. As soon as they are amongst their kind, he thought, you see who they truly are. 

At 5:50 P.M. the door opened and Thade was called in after the other convict excited. Thade looked at all the guards' faces before he entered the room. For some reason he was not nervous. He sat down and saw the boogey man himself. It was Commissioner Burze. That was who had his lead. Commissioner Bree was also present and only two people were sitting before him that day. He looked at the lady who usually came out of the room and saw that she was the stenographer, and the facility’s senior counselor sat behind him. A chair was leaned against the table where the senior counselor sat and that was where Thade was told to sit. He complied. The commissioners were professional. The boogeyman looked accomplished, wearing a suit, hair slick and curly with a little salt and pepper flavor, and another thick Tom Selleck mustache. 

He started off the hearing by congratulating Thade on his accomplishment and making it to his Limited Credit Time Allowance - LCTA - hearing. His first question caught Thade off guard. “How did you get here?” He asked. Thade responded by telling the commissioners about having a mentor in prison who helped him to navigate these troubled waters. “No, matter of fact get out” The Commissioner interrupted. Thade did just that and gathered his folder and walked out without incident. The fat caucasian guard was right at the door. Thade thought he just wanted to touch a fascinating black man with dreadlocks, so he mostly ignored him. “What happened?” the overzealous guard jumped up and asked. By now, they were all standing and walking towards Thade, thinking he had done something wrong. Or maybe they were just fascinated with how long his locks were. “They told me to stand out here,” he answered. 

“Oh, I thought we were about to have some action,” said the guard.

“Listen, the only action you are going to get from me will be four months from now when my day comes to be released and you people will have to escort me to gate two,” Thade responded firmly. 

“Well I do that too…”

“Well, remember my name,” he said, looking the Spanish female in her eyes. He was wondering what she had become at the same moment and if this was her plan for convicts. Thade stood with his back towards the door of the hearing room. The door opened and the stenographer exited and called him back inside the room. He went in and sat down once more in the same seat with the same poise and confidence. He finally realized it was the waiting that was the science of the parole board.

The End


Nascimento Blair has been released from prison
Nascimento Blair is an aspiring writer and poet at heart. He has spent the last decade writing a collection of poems and romance novels giving his characters palpable glimmer. Nascimento has a Bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Sciences from Mercy College, N.Y and recently achieved a Master’s degree in Professional Studies at the New York Theological Seminary where he is also the former Vice President of the Alumni Association of the North Campus Chapter. He enjoys playing soccer, chess and cooking and spends his spare time with his wife and son.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Delusion of Reprieve

By Z.A. Smith

Since the first day of the Missouri 2020 Legislative Session, offenders have been spreading a rumor about a law being passed for life without offenders called “The Hard Thirty,” saying Missouri Governor Mike Parson is planning to reduce all life without parole sentences to thirty years, via executive order.

In Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl, Frankl discussed a psychological phenomenon known as “delusion of reprieve.” Immediately before his execution the condemned man is overcome by the illusion that he might be reprieved at the last minute. Has it happened before? Yes. Can it happen again? Sure. Will Governor Parson exercise his executive power to commute all life without parole sentences? Who knows? 

I chased down the circulating rumors and caught each one by its tail. There is a bill in the Missouri Senate, SB 2034. It was originally House Bill 352. It is for offenders serving life without parole for a minimum of fifty years or more and who were sentenced under section 565.008, for offenses committed prior to October 1, 1984. The offender must be sixty-five or older, have no felony convictions for dangerous felonies as defined under section 556.061 prior to the conviction for which he or she is currently incarcerated, and not be a convicted sex offender. If the offender meets these criteria, and has served thirty years or more, he or she will receive a parole hearing. Update:  this bill was passed by the Missouri Senate on May 15, 2020, along with several get tougher on crime bills included in SB 600.

Offenders serving life without parole or 85% of their long sentences do not have any incentive to attend rehabilitative programs to rehabilitate themselves. Instead, many offenders, both short and long term, engage in illegal and nonproductive activities to distract themselves from the reality of being in prison. And since most offenders do not have paying jobs, they resort to “prison hustles” (gambling, stealing, extortion, drugs etc.), or they rely on the generosity of family and friends for financial support, which only perpetuates co-dependency and antisocial behavior, practically guaranteeing recidivism. Missouri offenders receive $7.50 (without a GED) or $8.50 (with a GED) once a month from the Missouri Department of Corrections (MODOC). The average premium paying job is $10.00 a month and there aren’t enough of them to go around. 

When these offenders are released, the antisocial behavior and mental health issues remain. They are not rehabilitated but likely learned how to become better criminals (especially the short timers). They return to society bitter and broke, and will more than likely seek out opportunities to release the years of pent-up anger and frustration by committing more crimes, violent and nonviolent. 

It appears however, that twenty-five years is the magic number for punishment and rehabilitation (that is unless Governor Parson just wanted to limit the number of clemency applications being filed). After Governor Parson’s office was bombarded with questions from the media about the 3,500 or more clemency applications awaiting his decision, Kelly Jones, Parson’s spokeswoman, told the St. Louis public radio that Parson’s office was working on a system for handling clemency requests. On January 1, 2020 Parson exercised his executive power and amended the clemency process in Missouri, changing the eligibility criteria for requesting clemency. The new procedure states, any individual confined in the Division of Adult Institutions (DAI) has the right to petition the governor of Executive Clemency if they meet the following eligibility requirements:


  1. Claims innocence; or
  2. Served 25+ years; or
  3. Is age 70+ and has served 12+ years and
  4. All judicial remedies (appeals, etc.) have been exhausted


The applicant cannot have been denied an executive clemency within the past five years. The five year time frame begins on the date the governor has denied Executive Clemency. 

The only reference to life without parole is on the clemency form itself, which states under the partial commutation box option: A partial commutation may remove restrictions attached to a sentence or can reduce the sentence to a lower level, which could still involve an obligation to the state (for example, the governor could commute a life sentence without the possibility of parole to a life sentence with the possibility of parole). 

No factual information has been forthcoming stating that Governor Parson has any intention of commuting life without parole sentences; the form merely uses it as an example. Out of more than 3,500 clemency requests Parson has acted on just one case. In September of 2019, Parson denied offender Russell Bucklew clemency and he was executed. 

Society, or should I say politicians, do not favor the practice of executive clemency. Just recently when Kentucky’s former Republican Governor Matt Bevin exercised his executive power to pardon and commute hundreds of offenders’ sentences before leaving office. the FBI was asked to open an investigation and lawmakers are now calling for a proposed constitutional amendment to limited future governor’s ability to issue end of term pardons and commutations (see www.courier-journal.com).

On January 15, 2020 Governor Parson gave his “State of the State” speech and called on Missouri lawmakers to increase mental health resources, to toughen violent crime laws and to ramp up witness protection to address violence in Missouri’s biggest cities, St. Louis and Kansas City. (On January 28, 2020 Kansas City had its fifteenth homicide of the new year; only six of them were solved according to Fox 4 News).

Passing tougher violent crime laws hasn’t made society safer; it has led to mass incarceration. During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the get tough on violent crime rhetoric resulted in the passing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, signed into law by then President Bill Clinton. The act known as the Crime Bill, created a Violent Offender and Truth in Sentencing Incentive Grant Program. To participate and receive money from the $3 billion federal fund, states were expected to build new prisons or expand the capacity of the old ones, and pass laws that required violent offenders to serve 85% of their sentences. From 1996-2001 every state partook in the program. Some states even ended their parole systems and enacted laws mandating offenders to serve 100% of their sentences. 

Polls show that the majority of Americans favor rehabilitation over incarceration. In a November 2017 survey conducted for the ACLU’s campaign for smart justice, 71% of Americans agreed that incarceration for long periods of offender’s lives is counterproductive to public safety due to the lack of effective rehabilitation programs in prisons. (www.aclu.org www.citylab.com www.shadowproof.com www.crimereport.com www.vera.org). In a November 2018 poll conducted for the Justice Action Network (JAN) 85% of poll participants agreed that rehabilitation should be the goal of the criminal justice system instead of punishment. (Ibid.) 

The prison system however is not setup to rehabilitate offenders; its setup to punish them. Its programs do not address offender’s antisocial behavior or their underlying mental health issues that pervade daily prison life, choking many offenders’ attempts at self-rehabilitation. The long-term effects of the negative prison environment not only impact offenders but also effect the department of corrections employee turnover rate, resulting in a shortage of staff, making prisons more and more dangerous. 

Lawmakers throughout the United States need to propose bills that will help heal the broken and downtrodden offenders and get the process started of turning them into law abiding productive members of society. In order to do that, the 85% laws MUST be eliminated. This is common sense criminal justice reform. Releasing offenders after serving 85% and not supervising them for longer periods is not working. By repealing the 85% law more offenders will be encouraged to attend programs and rehabilitate themselves before being seen by the parole board. Offenders who are required to serve 85% do not need to do either, and some will be released regardless, only more bitter and still suffering from mental illnesses and antisocial behavioral problems. With offenders having an opportunity to be released after 50% of their sentences, they will be less likely to engage in violent behavior while incarcerated, making prisons safer and easier to manage and control, despite the nationwide shortage of staff problems. 

Eliminating the 85% laws will not affect my sentence nor many others, but since being in prison for twenty-five years, I have objectively observed the behavior of offenders and know that passing laws that give long-term offenders hope of a second chance to make a life for themselves is a move in the right direction. 


Zachary A. Smith, #521163/4D-270
Crossroads Correctional Center
1115 E. Pence Road
Cameron, Missouri 64429

Email: www.jpay.com



Zachary A. Smith was born on August 8, 1975, and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. He is currently married to the State of Missouri til death do them part (divorce pending). He has studied and practiced law for over twenty years, and has earned a paralegal degree, with distinction, from Blackstone Career Institute. He is not a convict, just a man who lost his way and got caught up in the system nor a criminal but committed crimes in his youth. In his leisure, he enjoys reading books, walking outside, and corresponding with family and friends. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Finding Solace In Separation

By Terry Daniel McDonald

Solitude means being aloof from the influence of society. It may be practiced alone or in company, just as emotional dependency can be practiced alone or in company. One who is physically alone yet still under the influence of other people is not solitary. One who abandons the world in favor of isolation is still not solitary either, because the world is still a companion by virtue of ongoing relation, even though that relation be one of rejection.
         -- Thomas Cleary

For over a month now, I've followed the spread of covid-19--from those early days of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, to the worldwide pandemic it became. That it continues to be. Fear of sickness and death brought Nations to their knees. As a result, social distancing has become the norm, requiring each individual to reorient their lives--to, at times, make hard choices.
   
All the while my life has remained largely the same. My current housing in administrative segregation means that I am in a cell by myself, protected by a steel door with a plexiglass shield affixed to it. But I'm acclimated to this environment after 10 years, so the current lockdown and meager meals are only a minor discomfort. Even so, it is while here, as I've listened to news reports, or read various articles on how people are being affected by the coronavirus around the world, that I've spent time considering the influences and conditioning which contributed to my growth and ability to adapt in this reality. 

Because I have been separated from society for so long, I recognize that my situation may be a singular one. There is no doubt that being housed in administrative segregation is atypical by even prison standards. So perhaps my overall perceptions are tainted by the restrictions I have had to endure. And yet, isn't that the crux off the matter to some degree? Restrictions are devised with the goal to alter behavior regardless if an individual has a desire to change. The conflict arises because we are social, habit-forming creatures.

Social distancing then, or any separation from normal life patterns can have myriad effects, mentally and physically. Leading to situations on par with the Archer's paradox: You can't hit a target by aiming straight at it because the shaft gets in the way. Similarly, it is our desire to remain attached to what we will lose through separation that inhibits our ability to adapt to the situation. 

***

A friend of mine, Jose Moreno, went through many different types of separation throughout his life. Beginning when he was abandoned by his birth parents, thus separated from the chance to know them--to have their love and support. Fortunately he was adopted by a loving couple in San Antonio, Texas.

The man Jose would, without hesitation, call his father worked several jobs to provide for the family. Jose's adopted mother was often home, and it was with her that he forged deeper bonds.
   
Which were shattered into a quagmire of grief when she died. Jose was no older than 15, and even though his keen intelligence was already opening doors to higher education with his acceptance (and scholarship) to a private academy, the rest of his life deteriorated due to the separation from his mother's love. Her tenderness. To whom could you share the grief and rage over such a loss?
  
Surely he deserved a different life-arc with the assistance of a mentor to find order in life. Instead Jose roamed the streets, finding a diluted sense of identity and worth through erratic behavior.
   
Jose suffered from an unspeakable anger--a frustration that permeated his being to the point of eluding rational thought. To find freedom from what existed in his mind and soul, he turned to drugs and alcohol. Perhaps it wasn't the same for the others he shared those intoxicants with, but Jose sought a separation from the past, hoping to blur or even erase what swirled in his mind regarding his mother. The natural consequence was that he locked himself into a dismal reality without any consideration of the past or thoughts of the future. His perspective deteriorated, narrowing into defeatist fanaticism which impaired his true inner character.
   
From his mother, Jose was taught compassion and goodness, from his father, to value a solid work ethic, but a lack of life experience shattered Jose's awareness of what it meant to be alive. The immediacy of his mother's death lifted the veil of innocence and, sadly, served as the catalyst towards his zest and urgency to live recklessly. With wild abandon he raced motorcycles on back streets, chased women, and tried every illegal narcotic that was available.
   
Jose shared his stories with an understanding that he had likely formulated some sort of subconscious death wish. In such a state, his intelligence worked against him. A new conditioning based on identifying as a victim made justifying aberrant behavior normal. He had separated himself from the world once associated with his mother. Thus he detached himself from reasonably being able to discern the ripple effects of his actions. 
   
In 1986-87, Jose was convicted off capital murder. An elaborate scheme was thought up by the group he ran with to kidnap and ransom a guy with a known trust fund. The kidnapping was successful, but the subsequent negotiations over payment led to the man's death. Which is how, at 17 going on 18 years of age, Jose became forcibly separated from society and placed into the isolated confinement cells where those on Death Row were housed. 
   
Did he understand his wrongdoing? In those early days, to some extent, yes. But he wasn't ready to admit the problems that existed within. Even when thrown in a cage, away from the distractions that had helped him evade that reality, the conditioned instinct to cloak his suffering with rage and self-destructive behavior was too great.
  
"When I was in county jail I joined a gang because they told me they ran things in prison," Jose once told me. "Being in that gang made it easy to get drugs or anything else I wanted. But I was out of control. I can't tell you how much money I wasted on drugs or alcohol. And I stopped counting how many disciplinary cases I ended up with for fighting the guards, or other behavior that required them to use force to subdue me."
   
For over 20 years Jose was on Death Row, in a cell alone. Eventually he came to realize that the gang truly wasn't for him, so he separated himself. He also turned away from alcohol and drugs. Slowly he began to value others again, developing meaningful relationships with neighbors and those outside of prison. Feeling powerless over his station in life transformed into an appreciative desire to fight to live.
   
Jose also returned to the realm of academia, honing his mind relevant to his interest in psychology, physics, mathematics and architecture. In doing so, he rekindled the youthful passion he once had for learning with an eye towards finding purpose and meaning each day. 

"I don't know how much good it will do to learn every possible thing about physics," he shared with me, "but at least it may motivate me to move on to what I can only call true unity."
   
The fight for Jose's life took a lot of sacrifice and dedication. Jose's father used his life savings on the attorney whose work became the technical fulcrum to alter Jose's sentence. But the specter of death shadowed Jose into 2008.
   
We discussed how he felt while waiting to be executed. "I was at the point of feeling so distanced, so alone in the world," he said. "While on the phone talking to my dad I couldn't stop crying. Then they came and told me to get off the phone. I wanted to argue. Surely it wasn't time yet? But the guard told me I'd received a stay of execution. It didn't take them long to transfer me back to the Polunsky Unit." 

Leaving his friends behind, getting into a van with armed guards, and being transferred to deathwatch on the Walls Unit was harrowing for Jose. The stay of execution was certainly a relief, and seeing his friends again was a pleasure, but the acute tension and anxiety over the underlying terror of having to endure that process again remained. 
   
In imagining the process, echoes of other truths have been revealed: 
   
How the State dispassionately approaches executions; How, considering Jose was barely a young man when convicted, no thought was ever given towards who he became.

The State did not care about Jose. Only that he was condemned to die. Such concepts as atonement or redemption were irrelevant. Compassion … mercy? Ridiculous! Jose absolutely cared, though, and he worked diligently with his attorney to secure a plea agreement. In short, Jose agreed to accept several life sentences in lieu of being resentenced to death. Additionally, he agreed to never accept parole. And all of the years he had been incarcerated were waived, so he did not receive any time credit. 
   
In 2008 Jose was given a chance to appreciate being truly alive, with the idea that every sunrise was his to view, every sunset was his to enjoy. But there was a cost for such a change. He was forcibly separated from decade’s worth of relationships and memories and sent to Michael Unit. Every person that crossed his path became an event, a memory, good or bad, filling in the hours with experience instead of tedium. And he was blessed to retain several pen-pals who continued to write and support him even after he transitioned.
   
By the time I met Jose in 2011-12, he was kind and gentle and content. In a cell alone, his life was very ordered, managed so obsessively that he would suffer anxiety attacks when his routine was disrupted. Coming out of the cell was something he avoided, but he associated with others well enough. He could have gone on living that way indefinitely, I'm sure, but the winds of change had other plans.
   
In 2016, the administration of Michael Unit began taking steps to transform the majority of 12-building into the Mental Health Therapeutic Diversion Program. To do so, over four hundred men in administrative segregation needed to be shipped to other units.
   
Jose followed all the rumors because he did not want to leave. "You're right about the anxiety," he wrote in a kite to me, "I may have a heart attack long before I get transferred. The Michael Unit has gotten rather nice over the years. I just can't imagine many other places where it could be better." He also understood his limitations. "It’s no wonder I have anxiety as that is the most common symptom of prolonged exposure to solitary like confinement," he shared. "I would say that I'm doing exceptionally well considering that I'm going on 30 years in seg. But relocating does stress the fuck out of me. It is a mental thing." 
   
It came down to the end for him; he got close to avoiding the transfer. But when they came and collected his property, he knew his fate. He also knew that he would again be separated from a place of comfort where he had made friends.
  
"I can't believe you're still here," he wrote. "I wonder why they're saving you for the last too? I really hope that you are on the chain for Monday morning because there is a chance we could go to the same destination. Otherwise this will truly be my last kite and then we won't ever be able to have any long talks anymore."
   
On Monday morning I stayed behind. And unfortunately for Jose, he ended up going to the place he had hoped to avoid: Eastham Unit.
   
They call it "The House of Pain," which became an understatement for Jose. There was no comfort in the tiny cell with bad air. The guards were rude, the shakedowns demoralizing, and ohh was it hot! 
   
Jose once told me: "Even though I separated from my gang, I have no intention of going to the G.R.A.D. program." He couldn't stand the thought of having to share a cell and walk everywhere. After 30 years he had conditioned himself to live a certain way alone. 
   
Well "The House of Pain" caused Jose such intense suffering--most of it mental--that he finally broke down and signed up for the Gang Renunciation and Disassociation Program. A year later he was there.
   
Ellis Unit was another older unit and surely as hot, but Jose was simply ecstatic to have escaped what, to him, was a horror. Besides, he was originally incarcerated on Ellis up until 1998-99. Then an escape attempt took place and Death Row was transferred to Polunsky Unit. Jose lamented that fact because, he told me, "On Ellis we had more freedom. More art supplies. There were TVs, and other things that made doing time much better." Once on Polansky it was pure lockdown status, minus the one hour each day for recreation.
   
Each instance of separation, social distancing, and reintegration caused significant changes in Jose's life, requiring him to alter his conceptual views of how he was going to manage his time. The G.R.A.D. program put him through phases, where he attended classes with others and was slowly reintegrated into living in a cell with someone else. The end result was Jose's graduation to population, to the need to walk everywhere for everything! 
   
In essence, Jose endured over 30 years of social distancing, and then was thrust back into the more typical prison society where sacrificing time and space was necessary. Something he deeply resented. Adapting was a grueling process for him because he was mentally locked into craving a return to the past.

When he started looking beyond himself, he developed a more wholesome purpose. On March 28, 2020, he wrote his friend Ines Aubert: "I wish I could say that helping others is a joke I'm telling. But that's the direction my life is going. I didn't pick this for myself. If you could see my daily life you would agree. Think about this: My three daily associates that I met on this wing have all gotten beat up by their cellies. These guys have problems adjusting to prison and it's obvious. When I see these guys--and I see a lot of them--I immediately recognize them and I try to help them by giving them all the valuable information I have acquired over the years. I helped them get good jobs, make commissary more promptly, and basically stay out of trouble. It doesn't even cost me anything monetarily."

After years of urging and encouraging him to embrace change and find ways to use his experience he finally found the inner strength to become a mentor to others. The mentor he never had.

Then four weeks later, on April 23, 2020, Jose died.

***

My personal journey with different forms of separation, including the intense social distancing I endure now, have led to profound changes. Some of them I am aware of, others I am only beginning to understand.
   
Our biological responses to the outside world are quite strong. "Hormones associated with … social connections can light up our nervous system and give us a health boost," Jeffrey Rediger, M.D. explained in his article: Love Medicine: How human connection--or a lack of it--affects our hearts and hormones. "The results run deep in the body, down to the very rhythm of our hearts." 

Feelings of connection cause our brain to release a cocktail of hormones and chemicals--"some combination of dopamine, testosterone, estrogen, vasopressin and oxytocin," Dr. Rediger shared. All release through the vagus nerve: the most powerful neural network in the body. "It regulates heartbeat, lung function, and digestive flow, among other vital systems. Our hearts, guts and stomachs are hotbeds of neuroreceptors.“

Experiencing a connection with others sets the vagus nerve ablaze with positive signaling. Even small moments of positive interaction with the people around us improves the neural pathways. Or as Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill would suggest, a sort of "falling in love." To her it's a series of "micro moments of positive resonance" experienced repeatedly. And those moments are very important, because it amounts to bonding, or working out the vagus nerve.

 "The same way I work out my leg and heart muscles when I go for a run," Dr. Rediger explained.
   
Social mindfulness is a profound concept, and perhaps an undervalued part of our daily lives. I mean, how often do we work on cultivating feelings of love, compassion, and goodwill towards ourselves and others? How much of our ability to be socially mindful is stripped away when we face forms of separation? Through the use of practices such as loving-kindness meditation, or LKM, it is possible to increase positive emotions. Being more positive leads to an increase in social interactions. But the opposite is also true: when we neglect to interact with others, negativity and despondency are natural results.
  
“[L]oneliness, social isolation or both were associated with a 29 percent increased risk of heart attack and a 32 percent greater risk of stroke," Dr. Rediger stressed. Fewer social interactions leads to "disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, higher inflammation and greatly increased levels of stress hormones." 
  
 Even gene expression is affected.

The problem with being alone is that a greater tendency exists to see the world as a threat. Dr. Rediger made it clear that "loneliness is contagious and heritable," affecting "1 in 4 people … and increases your risk of an early death by 20 percent."

John Cacioppo, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago, explained in a 2016 interview with The Guardian that he would add the instructions, "do not house in isolation," if a zoo was built for humans.  

***
It's suffering that helps us look beyond ourselves, to find common ground with others--and appreciate the joys we otherwise take for granted.
               -Dalai Lama

A path with a new turn can cause disorientation. As time passes and the path continues in its new direction, there's a tendency to believe it will remain that way forever. Then the truth presents itself: A path once bent is always susceptible to change, especially when it's caused by manipulation from an outside source.

Losing control, the ability to choose--free Will--is difficult because we live, each of us, according to our morals, our principles. But we are also asked to live in a way that serves the interests of the communities we are a part of. Or, at least, we should.
   
If we cannot understand the joys and pains of those around us, if we cannot share in a greater community, then where shall a life purpose be found? Connecting with others requires empathy. It is sharing in the joint pain, laughter and tears that so fully reflect a passion for friendship, even love. Thus empathy leads to purpose; purpose leads to satisfaction; satisfaction leads to contentment; contentment leads to joy.
   
Is empathy how we can reduce the suffering instances of separation or social distancing causes? Perhaps. Archers for hundreds of years came to understand the paradox of their profession and learned to compensate. The stiffness and weight of the arrow matters. The fletching. So does the bow set up and finger release. Conditioning through practice helped those archers develop a consistent, instinctual aim. 
   
How we condition ourselves truly matters. 

Just like awareness matters: of our personal limitations, and how we affect others, directly or indirectly; of our perceptions--the tendency to judge or ridicule, to be positive or negative; of our personal needs, the sustenance to live; of the world as it is, to accept that reality; and of our ability to understand the impermanent nature of things. 

Ultimately, I think, a basic need lives within the majority of us for some sort of control, ownership, or at least stewardship. To find our place in a world that can be confusing, overwhelming. But seeking order in a little corner of this big, at times uncontrollable world is complicated. Because peace is not a place, nor is it found in things. The irony of material acquisition is that it inherently works against any hope of true serenity. 

Solace can be found, though--in the kingdom of the heart and soul, defended by the security of honest love and friendship and the warmth of memories. Live with the hope that the future will be better, and work to make it so. Once you've developed a clear sense of where you wish to be emotionally, the effort you put into being positive and more socially active will provide a deep sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, and joy.

***
Jose was a part of my life for nearly eight years, but we were only around each other infrequently. Because of my High-Security status (due to an escape attempt in 2010), I was rotated each week. Sometimes I landed in a cell near Jose. A few times I was his direct neighbor. Or I simply landed in one of the eighty-four cells on the pod he was located on. No amount of separation kept us from taking advantage of the opportunities to open our minds to each other. We wrote kites. I would coordinate with the guards to go to Jose's day room. Or we asked the guards to place us outside together. Then there were the instances of hooking up the mic-system, talking late into the night when we were close enough to do so. After he was transferred in 2016, we continue to stay in touch because it was important to us. 

I'd love to say that I came to know him, but is that true? Perhaps his patterns of behavior simply matched my expectations: what I felt were indicators that a person had changed and grown, bettering themselves. I did not live in Jose's mind, though, so my perspective could be interpreted as an arrogant presumption if I were to demand it was true.

Ultimately, appreciating Jose's perceptions toward the experiences he lived through is key. I can only relate that I believe he shared the truth with me as he knew it. My surface reasoning does not have to compete with his inner complexity, or challenge how he might have changed. I felt that he did. His words resonated. More than anything, I feel blessed to have been included in his life journey.

Much like I will forever be grateful to him for introducing me to Ines. She helped Jose and I stay connected, but her and I also became close friends. On May 2, 2020, she notified me that he passed away. 

"I'm crying," she wrote. "Jose died on April 23rd. They won't tell me anything more though. I'm so sad ..."

Just two lines of text, as if she were holding a phone stumbling over words as the tears fell. My shock quickly turned to sadness. I had been living with the hope that Jose was striding purposefully, beginning to find value in change, so it was inexplicable to me that he was … gone. At 53 years of age.

For over a week I contemplated the time we spent together. Our conversations. I even pulled out old letters.

I was reminded of his humor: "Now let me exalt the many wonderful qualities of Heritage Laundry Detergent: 1) purposely made laundry detergent contains chemicals to loosen soil/feces in your dirty underwear wider than what it actually is." 

He could be self-deprecating: "For someone that never leaves his cell and only has one ear, I sure do come up on a lot of info, don't I?"

Anything related to science or technology drew him like a moth to a flame. And he was fantastic at chess. We played numerous games over the years (most of which I lost!) the two games we were playing through correspondence will forever remain unfinished.

Losing one of my few precious friends is a wound to ponder, because the grief I suffer is a natural reflection of how I feel enriched by having known him. And I can find solace in this new instance of separation because I believe we are still connected by the wheel of life.
   
In a letter to Ines, I suggested that I wanted to write a longer eulogy to honor Jose. Maybe that is what this is. But as I consider all I've written, it's likely that I already shared everything meaningful with her: 
  
“His mind was a galaxy of Passions. He could equally comment on quasars or the price of concrete. The details mattered to him. Perhaps it was a quest of perfection. I knew him to always be ordered, tentative, respectful. He once told me that our path to friendship became possible because I didn't ask for anything from him. I didn't expect anything from him, but I couldn't resist his wit, insight, deep intellect.
   
"In his study of physics, I think he came to believe in Masters who could visit us, guide us. I want to believe that he found his own mastery. Surely he lived long enough to develop a greater sense of appreciation of life as a whole. Some might seek to simply judge him by the death he contributed to. Others will likely say that it was impossible for him to atone for. Such hawkish nonsense could never understand the gentle man he became.
   
"He was my friend. I will miss him."
   
I called him "Lord One Ear," he signed his letters with, "You Know Who."

Now I lay the King gently on its side. Rest in peace Jose.

Terry Daniel McDonald 1497519
Michael Unit
2664 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75886