By Eduardo Ramirez
I was nineteen when I started this road...though how long it would be I had no idea. And that it would be a road I had to walk at all was a surprise to me. I had been questioned by the police a year and a half before, but their parting words were only that I should be more discriminating when it came to friends—giving me every reason to believe that they had discredited the lies that had been told to them.
I would later come to learn that detectives suspect everyone until they rule those not involved. And when they can't pinpoint a suspect just about anyone will do. But why it had to be me I will probably never know. I have my suspicions, but I might
never know for sure.
But this isn't about how the road was paved. This is about how that road had been paved for sure—and that I would walk it for some time before it dawned on me how long, how difficult, how lonely, and how utterly frustrating it would be.
A little background info for the uninitiated: wrongful convictions are as real as the sun. And just like the sun, its brightness can either illuminate a reality that is desperately in need of resolution and reconciliation or blind the fearful into ignorantly shading their eyes. Here's an inconvenient truth: no one can deny that innocent people are in prison (as many as 50,000). Somewhere along the line, as you read this, you have to ask yourself how much does it matter? Not enough to check into or so much that you can't sleep at night without thinking about it. There is no in between.
I'll admit that twenty years ago innocent people in prison weren't even on my radar. I just didn't think that such tragedies occurred often enough for it to be a concern. I'll admit this too: I'm left restless at night thinking about all the people that might die in prison for something they didn't do.
I know this kid who was a wannabe thug. I knew him to be the Sunday school type who had hidden hip hop tapes from his mother. (This was back in the day when cassette tapes were a thing. Do they even make those anymore?) Growing up in the neighborhood he started hanging out. And while other kids might have been bad seeds this kid still had Similac on his breath. He started to think he was real cool-like, got himself a little hooptie so he can rap to the girls. One day he gives a ride to a real gunslinger. Out the clear blue Johnny .45 spots someone who owes him money, so he jumps out the car and runs up on the dude and POP! POP! POP!—turns out the kids lights. He shot an old man in the process just for bad measure. This crazy mother fucker jumps back in the young boy's car and they speed off. Around the corner and a few blocks down youngin' kicks the shooter out the ride. He tries to calm his nerves. Maybe it was the wet that had him hallucinating, he thinks. He drives back to the scene of the crime except by this time he has his cousin and a few other kids in the ride with him. (Curiosity certainly did these cats in!) Witnesses at the scene couldn't identify the shooter. But they did identify the car. A year later the four of them were sentenced to life.
Here goes a bit of irony for you. The actual shooter was later picked up for a different murder. He pleads guilty to avoid a death sentence. Maybe he has a come-to-Jesus moment, but he starts to admit to other homicides. You would think that the guys convicted for those murders would get a fair shot, right? Wrong. The D.A. convinced the judge that he was only confessing to set other murderers free. And the judge bought it hook, line, and sinking four young boys who are growing old fighting their own injustice.
I've lost count of how many times I've thought of these guys over the years. I've thought of their families that miss them and of the opportunities they have missed out on.
At first I didn't notice time passing by. Hope kept me busy and I kept saying to myself, "Any day now, Eddie. Just you be prepared to fly when the gates are thrown open." Of course, I thought it would be a matter of days. I expected bail or something. And when days turned into months I absolutely expected to prove my innocence at trial. But I turned old enough to buy a drink before I went to trial. My day in court came and went and nothing changed. That drink would have to stay on ice awhile longer.
All this was going on and I still kept thinking that it would all be over soon. A quarantine period had me waiting to be medically cleared before I could be assessed by the D.O.C.; then I had to wait another six months before I could enter the general population. Before I knew it I was twenty-two. But still I was as hopeful as ever.
I watched my mother's hair turn grayer and grayer; her skin softened and sagged like a pumpkin left too long on the kitchen counter. My father, remarkable man that he is, didn't appear to age. To this day I suspect that in some dusty attic there is a portrait that shows his bones bending and turning into petrified wood. My older sisters carried tears that left their eyes red-rimmed and always glassy. I have five nephews and one niece who were children when I left them. They are grown now and I am an alien to them; the years have forged a distance between us that has left us as strangers to each other.
These things happened in real time but I really didn't pay attention. I didn't mark time by the arrival of news from friends who had gone off to begin their adult lives: the marriages, the newborns, the mounting bills, the families that fell apart and into bitterness and divorce. I didn't take stock of my own aging body as my belly pouched out like a Buddha and my hair thinned to reveal a pale scalp beneath. These things escaped my notice for the longest time.
There's something about numbers that make things seem complete—or incomplete. Like, who buys three tires? A pack of socks always comes in even numbers. And this isn't an obsessive compulsive thing. We like for things to be orderly. It's why we look back on the past by the decade.
My teens were unremarkable in almost every way. I didn't play sports, wasn't a standout as a student, I did okay with girls but most of them were as blah, blah, blah as I was. I cannot look back and say that my high school years were the best of my life. I can hardly remember them anymore so they couldn't have been that great.
My twenties, though, now they were special. Not for anything good that came of them, but for the heartache and struggle that was playing out whether I noticed or not. And by the time I came to notice it was so late that there was nothing I could do.
I bounced around the state for a while. These transfers helped to "break up the bid," as we call it. But once I got settled into the fabric of Graterford—the hustle and bustle of progressive residents who politicked with local pols and set up charitable events—I stayed pretty busy doing the same. For ten years I shared a cell with another guy so the conversations and games of Rummy did a good job of keeping my mind preoccupied. It wasn't until I earned the "privilege" of being in a one-man cell that the quiet storm started to speak to me. I started to miss everyone so badly that I recreated the past in my sleep and in my waking dreams.
I remember the date: November 9, 2006. I was listening to a late-night love song dedication show on the radio and that old loving feeling started to tug at the edges of my soul. My homie tells me that he can't listen to R&B because it reminds him of things he'd rather forget. For some guys that's how it is: try not to think about what's being denied.
But what kind of a life is that? A meaningless one, that's what.
No, I like to push up against those memories and—like a cat—rub my spine up against something warm and familiar. So there I was, cast in the dim glow of a 50-watt light bulb, barefoot and sprawled out on the concrete floor studying while the quiet storm played in the background. Man, I had to put the book aside as my skin went all tingly from the sounds of Lady T:
Dear Lover I hope this letter finds you,
Dear Loverrrr. And that it comes in time to
Say those C'est La Vies-
Ba-byyy ahhh oohhhh....
That lady could leave me in a puddle of my own tears. Always could, ever since I was a kid trying to be a playboy for the girls.
The host of the show was reading off a list of "Locked-Down Love" dedications. Her voice wasn't the sexiest but she tried. She leaned in close to the mic and warmed the airways with sultry breath and whispered the names of guys whose lovers had taken the time to send a little kiss over the cool, autumn air.
Shawn, Lisa wants you to know that she misses you.
Teddy, Sandra says that a house is not a home if
you're not there. James, don't worry, boo, we're
gonna get through this together....
It was called "Locked-Down Love" because the segment was dedicated to guys like me who were in the pen. (Although, truth be told, it would have been nice for some of the ladies on lock to get a few shout-outs.) It's a lonely experience being locked up. You see the same group of faces day in and day out. Some of them play it real cool and others are as sour as vinegar. But deep down you know that, in addition to being free and rejoining their families, what most guys want is to be with a woman again. The hours of deprivation can feel like they're endless. The metronome-like tick-tock gets louder when a visit is anticipated. At least, this is how it was for me.
My love life wasn't all bad. I mean, I wasn't getting any mentions of the locked-down love variety but I still did okay. Maybe it was my personality or my way with words (I don't think anyone would say it was my looks), but as the years rolled by I did a good job of staying in touch with a lady or two. I know that these weren't the most ideal kinds of relationships—for them, at least—but I tried to make them work. I understood that they, being on the outside, had lives to live and that the last thing they wanted was a needy dude clinging to them. So like a Zen master I tried to keep them at a distance while playing them close. I never asked about any other guy they might have been dating, I just appreciated the moments we shared. I called frequently enough, but only when time allowed"—rarely first thing in the morning and at night only if a phone was available. I helped out with the bills whenever I had a few nickels to spare. One thing I made sure of was to arrange a meeting with my family. When asked why this was important I would say because my family is important; if you don't cut with them then you don't cut it with me—and I always tried to reciprocate this level of involvement. Honestly, I didn't want these relationships to be just physical, romanticized notions of what a relationship could—or should—be. It wasn't all sappy kissy faces (even though I wrote plenty of love letters).
While I always tried to keep my cool there was one woman who practically had me losing my head. I mean, I would have done anything for her. And my family liked her, too, which had me thinking that all signs were pointing up.
Her name was Lily and from the first moment I saw her I knew she was what I had been looking for. I imagined that some people took her beauty for granted. She was short and on the pleasantly plump side—but that was part of what attracted me. Her face was one of those from old Italian frescoes—soft, round cheeks, with seductive almond-shaped eyes and an impish smile. Her short dark hair reminded me of Danica McKellar in The Wonder Years—and what boy didn't crush hard on Winnie Cooper! I wanted to be her Fred Savage (the fact that I can't remember his character's name just goes to show who I really thought the star of that show was).
Lily was a Social Services major at a local college who was taking a criminal justice class here at the prison. That's how we met. On the surface of things you might think that this was a sweet meeting; the very definition of serendipity. But the prison frowns on these kinds of relationships. It can be debated whether our cozying up to one another was a breach of security or if we were treading unethical ground. But I'm in the camp that says that preventing relationships between prisoners and volunteers is just another way of dehumanizing prisoners.
Our class met up every Wednesday. I would spend the days in between waiting on pins and needles for class time to come around. If ever I hated school—and I did—she gave me a reason to look forward to doing the work. For starters, I knew she looked forward to seeing me. But I really solidified how she saw me when I rolled up in class ready to discuss the subject like a pro. I really made myself look like a boss in that room. Of course, I wasn't; there were others in the room who knew the subject better than I did. But there were only maybe one or two others who could articulate the subject as well as I could. All modesty aside, I was probably the shiniest star this side of Alpha Centauri.
As much as I wanted to be close to her, the obvious wall between us was the distinction between prisoner and visitor. I knew that until the day came when I could prove my innocence I would remain the bad guy trying to manipulate the situation with my big words and welcoming attitude. She held on for a couple of years—battling her own doubts and fears. I wanted her to wrestle with whether or not I was worth waiting for, worth fighting for; so I shared every detail of my case with her. I didn't want her to make an educated guess. I wanted her. She eventually gave in to the social pressure that pulled her in a different direction.
I never told her about my late-night R&B sessions. I never wanted her to listen and maybe set herself to worrying about my emotional state. Worse still, I never wanted her to pity me to the point of sending an insincere shout-out my way.
It was a double-play Tuesday, and Tina was hitting me right where it hurt most.
If I were a bell, baby I would ring
Just to let you know that you're my everything
In the low light, and surrounded by the echoing music, the clock struck twelve. Midnight Love danced its way out of my thoughts as I realized that it was my birthday. I had just turned thirty. Another year had passed, and with it passed any chance of being a twenty-something ever again. More importantly, I realized that I had spent every last day of my twenties in prison. It was done. I'd grown old in prison, and while I wanted to hold on to my youthful disposition I knew that when I woke up in the morning a new kind of pressure would start to wear me down. The clock would speed up and my desperation would see me crack and crumble. I know it sounds like a cliché, but the walls did seem to become tighter around me. There was no one to talk to so I thought out loud—praying to a God I wasn't even sure I believed in. What I wanted to believe in most was that I would get out while someone still cared. But there was no way I could be assured of that.
I'd loved other women before and none of them could hold on for that long. Being in prison rips to shreds the delicate tendons that hold a relationship together. For all my congenial dealings with professors and volunteers, I knew they would go home and soon forget about me. While they might have wanted to be sympathetic to my cries I knew that they doubted me to some degree. It's so common to hear prisoners protest their innocence that most people discount these claims as unbelievable. But I think they'd rather not believe because it's easier to dismiss the guilty than it is the innocent. Besides, knowing would make them responsible for doing. Something. The guards didn't care. They'd been at this job for so long (and had actually witnessed a few exonerations!) that in some way the madness had infected their brains. Don't believe me? Ask Philip Zimbardo what happened with the Stanford Experiment.
God! What about my family? How powerless must they feel every time they get a call from me or a letter? What will power it must take to visit me and then to leave without crying every time. My father once told me that he didn't like to talk about my situation because he didn't know what to do about it. I'd be lying if I said that the thought didn't cross my mind that he—they, my loved ones—don't feel powerless so much as they have made their peace with the idea that I might die in prison. Damn it hurt to consider this possibility. But I guess better people than me have suffered worse and made their peace more readily than I have.
I wish I could say that I spent the rest of the night crying my eyes out. But after ten years I was All Cried Out (thanks, Lisa Lisa). I closed my books and wrapped things up. I knew that no matter how intently I dwelled on the circumstances I couldn't change a single thing at that moment. So I went to sleep. No biggie. I just closed my eyes and let the darkness roll over me as Sade sang me a lullaby:
She cries to the heavens above
There is a stone in my heart
She lives a life she didn't choose
And it hurts like brand new shoes
Nine years have passed since that night. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that these latter days have been harder on me than the earlier ones. Back then I thought I'd be home at a young enough age that I'd still be able to enjoy a long and vigorous life. I was never really interested in having kids, but who knows. If not Lily, then maybe someone like her would have come along and I would have had a change of heart. At the very least I would have had the opportunity. But, no. I have to deal with the aches and pains in my muscles. Now that this is the way it is, it's kind of hard to think about the future. I want to, but the tragedy of having your life unjustly taken away changes the way you think about that future. Maybe when I prove my innocence I'll feel differently. But I'm about to close out my 30s and things aren't looking too bright.
I used to be so lovely. But that was half a lifetime ago, before the weight of time pulled me into this black hole.
|Edward Ramirez DN6284|
P.O. Box 244
Graterfprd, PA 19426