Thursday, July 2, 2015

Ups and Downs

By Christie Buchanan

I didn´t make parole.  No real surprise, I suppose.  I waited about five weeks, trying not to anticipate or daydream.  Trying not to hope.  Then one boring Christmas Eve afternoon, some random commander catches me at the wing door on my way in from work and most unceremoniously hands me, print side down, the long awaited form letter that held my life in the balance.  And, for a brief, uncontrollable moment I thought, “What if!”  Stupid.  Virginia says it´s all about re-entry, but truth be told, it´s just one giant warehouse for people like me.  People who messed up royally due to extenuating circumstances.  People who deserve punishment.  People who also deserve a second chance, damn it.   My record´s clean both before and after the crime.  That day is an ugly, black scorch mark on my heart – one I´ve owned and taken responsibility for.  I´ve also paid for my part, I believe, in full. 

If I sound bitter, I don´t mean to.  I don´t feel bitter.  It´s just that I´ve come to the end of this phase of myself and I realize I am simply marking time, treading water, waiting for my turn to live.  Life is, and has been, zipping past me at remarkable space-worthy speeds.  If I stand real still and don´t breathe, I can catch glimpses of it (life) every now and then, but only glimpses.  The sad thing is I´ve become so accustomed to the isolation and loneliness that I didn´t realize they are my constant companions until some life-altering thing happens like a parole turndown.  Yes, life-altering.  Even though absolutely nothing about my day-to-day life changes when that big old ugly turndown rolls in, everything about my day-to-day living changes.  Each hearing is so unbelievably stressful my grip loosens a little.  Each “NO” is even more devastating than the one before it and my fragile precious sense of balance is knocked even further off center.  At first, I thought there was a period of time in which I recovered from the right-hook (the hearing) followed by the knockout punch (the turndown).  I was wrong about that.  I´ve never recovered from the first one – much less the last one.  There is no recovery.  There is only standing still, breathing deeply, praying diligently, and yes, hoping against all odds that something will change.


I can´t help it.  Damn it.

I can´t help wanting a chance to prove I´m not the person I was when I committed my crime. I can´t help wanting to redeem myself.  I can´t help wishing like hell I could take it all back but since I can´t, killing myself to crawl out from underneath it by putting the time and effort and elbow grease to change. I can´t help falling asleep most nights praying – begging God – “please…end it”.  I can´t help wanting to be who I´m supposed to be – who I am – not who I was.  Wanting to start over, rebuild, contribute.  I can´t help caring so much about a future that I don´t have.  Not yet, anyway.

There it is again.  Hope.

This is the end of this phase of myself.  That´s how I put it.  What I mean by that is the end of the person who blindly believed in a parole system that seemed fair and just.  The end of the person who hopefully set goals, worked hard to achieve them, and then started all over once said goals were accomplished.  The end of the person who thought that, with some sheer will and determination, life would be awesome once she got it back. I don´t know what´s left after all of that.  I don´t know where to turn from here.  I don´t know what the point is anymore, just that there has to be a point.  There must be, because otherwise hope wouldn´t be built into my DNA.

Like I said, I got my turndown December 23rd.  Nice.  In late January, pieces and parts of the Parole Board came to Fluvanna to visit certain programs, like Re-Entry and Braille.  I work in Braille.  Oh my.  We were simple told that some folks from downtown would be touring the shop and for us “to comb our hair (my boss is so funny, hahaha) and behave.”  This sort of thing happens all the time so no one really thought much about it – tours, I mean, not the board touring.  Initially we were scheduled to be off that Monday but that changed so we could be there, shinning brightly when they came.  No biggie, until we got to work Monday morning and our boss, Mr. Smith, was not there.  He left us “in the care of” another enterprise supervisor.  That was our first clue that these weren´t just any old schmucks from downtown.  They must be fairly high-level people in order for him to work it out so we could be there without him.

Usually, he drags the people all around the shop explaining in intricate details all the ins and outs of Braille – what we do, how we do it, and who we do it for.  Since he wasn´t running the show, everything would be different.  The woman in charge, Mrs. Apple, decided she was going to split the tour group in two and have one half on one side of the shop and the other on my side of the shop.  She picked two representatives to speak to the two groups.  My friend Tracy was to speak for our side.  I was fine with that.  I am not a shy person by nature, but I don´t relish the spot light either.  I was most content to be “support tech” for her while she explained and schmoozed.  Word got to us that they were on their way so Ms. Apple told Tracey and me, in a conspiratorial whisper, “It´s people from the parole board.” Hmmmmm, that´s interesting.  They´ve been here one other time but I didn´t have any interaction with them.  They just sort of stood around listening to Mr. Smith and then left.  I figured it would probably be more of the same.  Maybe a group of six or secen high-level administrators and secretaries – but not actual board members.

Well, in walks a crowd of close to fifteen people of various sizes, shapes and colors, ages and genders, accompanied by several top level people from the institution including one of the assistant wardens. Tracy stood up (I didn´t).  Smiles and hellos were exchanged and then the assistant warden points at me and says, “You. Talk.” Boing!  I popped up out of my chair in shock and started runnin´ my mouth.  I am a bit of a ham when I´m confident about what I am speaking on.  My audience was fully engaged and interested in what I was saying and asking really good questions.  It was a most comfortable conversation.  At one point a woman steps up from the back to ask a question and I immediately recognize her as the Board´s Investigator, who I happen to like very much.  She filled in for the parole examiner one year.  Happy to see her, I smiled real big and said, “Hey! How are you?”  She responded kindly and we shared small talk for a moment.  Then she apologized because she remembered me but not my name.  So I told her – them, actually – and continued on with my spiel.  During a back-and-forthwith one particular very dapper gentleman, I was asked when I go up for parole.  I told them I just got another turndown.  The room kinda fell silent and crickets started chirping.  What do you do with that?  I made a joke by singing “awkward” and they laughed – thank God – so I continued on.  Eventually I ran out of things to say about Braille and my job so they wandered off to other places.  The investigator, Ms. Harris, came to my desk and told me I did an excellent job.  She asked me to spell my name and give her my number, which she wrote down, and we parted company.  I didn´t really think too much of it other than I was glad to be done with it. Tracy and I were talking about what it could mean that people from the Board came to prison when Ms. Harris came barreling back toward us.  Tracy nodded in her direction and said, “She´s coming to you.”  And she did, straight to me.

“When did you get your turndown?” she asked rather forcefully.

“December 23rd.”

“Appeal it! Now!

I spaced out a little.  “What?! Appeal it? On what grounds?”

“I don´t know, but you made a serious impression on one of the Board members so put your heads together and figure it out.”

After she left I got all choked up and so did Tracy.  It felt like something out of a book.  We didn´t even know the actual Parole Board members were here.  Like I said, we just thought they were important.  That was Monday.

We were off Tuesday so I spent the entire day trying to get the wording just right on my appeal.  I felt high and panicked and giddy.

I felt hopeful.

I mailed my appeal Wednesday morning with lots of prayers attached to it and went to work.  By mid-morning I had managed to put it firmly out of my head. Mostly.

We got sent in early for reasons unknown to us so I thought I´d eat some “oodles of noodles” (Ramen) and chug a nice quantity of caffeine while I waited for the call back to work.  During count, however, the officer came over my squwak-box and said, “Buchannan, as soon as count clears, go to nine.”  Building nine is watch command and it´s usually not a good thing if you get called up there on a weekday.  My guts soured and I broke out in a sweat.  “Oh shit,” was my reply.  And of course it took count forever to clear.  Walking over there I felt like throwing up or falling down.  I kept thinking over everything I´d gotten myself into lately.  What I had in my cell, who I said what to and kept coming up empty.  There was no reason for them to be calling me to watch command.  Not that I could think of anyway.  A very nice lady (I have no idea who she was) met me at the door, directed me to a chair, and told me Ms. Harris was here to see me.  Relief flooded my system so fast it´s like that liquid stuff that freezes you instantly and then shatters you into a zillion pieces when you fall over.  “Nothing´s wrong! Nothing´s wrong!” My nerves screamed at the top of their little nerve- lungs as I sagged into my chair.  After about an hour of wondering what was going on (she had other people to see), I got ushered into an attorney room by Ms. Harris herself.

She didn´t waste any time on small talk and got straight to the point.  The Parole Board member I made such an impression on happened to be the Vice Chairman.  This was the dapper fellow I had such a pleasant exchange with on Monday.  He´s also who asked me when I go up again, although I didn´t know that at the time.  She explained that she was going to investigate my case and I better not lie to her.  She said she was going to ask what may seem like totally bizarre questions - but to just go with it – she was trying to help me.  And I better not lie to her.  She also said she wasn´t making any promises, she was just lookin´ into it.  She informed me that she´d read everything several times and probably knew things I didn´t know, and don´t lie to her.  I couldn´t help but grin ear to ear.  We spoke for the better part of two and a half hours.  It was beyond difficult because some stuff I just don´t remember. (“Don´t lie to me!”).  Hell, it´s been nearly 30 years.  Other stuff I swear had nothing to do with me.  And the subject matter was all about the most horrible thing in my life – ever!  Through all of it I felt transparent, like I was going to disappear.

When it was over she told me I had lied to her several years ago about something but today I didn´t.  I´ve no idea what it was and was too wrung out to ask.  I had nothing left in the tank it was so intense.  I wanted to sleep for a while – a week.  We parted company kindly – like I said, I like this woman very much – with her telling me to stay steady and don´t get my hopes up – no promises.  So of course I ran right out and threw my hopes, every last one of them, up to about cruising altitude for the international space station.  It was January 28, 2015.

February 25th I got my second turndown in two months.  In December their reasons were:  serious nature of the crime, and release at this time would diminish seriousness.  63 days later I get those two reasons plus crimes committed and (my personal favorite) do more time.  I´d be lying if I said I wasn´t crushed. And I was pissed off because they added on reasons that two months before were apparently unnecessary.  So what changed?  How did I go from bad to worse in 0.6 seconds when nothing changed in my behavior or record?  Why all the hurry up and appeal?  I don´t blame Ms. Harris, she was trying to help.  It´s the nature of the beast. I hate the beast.

So here it is about sixty days after all that.  I didn´t get angry at the universe or scary depressed.  Haven´t really told anybody about this second turndown.  That would involve telling, well, everything you just read and some things are too exhausting to share with family.  They are affected as deeply as I am by this process, although in different ways.  They fight against rising hopes and crushing denials too.  They hurt and rage and wish and pray, too.  And they go on, as best they can but without me.  They are who I glimpse passing by at space-worthy speeds if I stand real still and don´t breathe. 

Christi Buchanan 1003054
Fluvanna Correctional Center 1A
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974

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