Thursday, May 4, 2017

This Friendship Has Been Terminated

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By Timothy Pauley

Commotion is the nature of the visiting room, but I could tell this was different.  A particularly abusive prison guard had just approached people seated nearby.  A young man from down the tier was visiting his aging parents.  No reason for the guard to speak to them.  No way were they trying to disrupt anything.

It became apparent that these facts did not matter.  Without trying to pay attention, I soon learned the guard’s undue attention was over the dreaded hand rule.  In the visiting room has tables with chairs situated around them.  The hand rule says that your hands have to remain on top of the table at all times.  Seems simple enough, until you realize the tables are just high enough that this simple act results in constant pain if anyone over thirty complies.  The aching in the shoulders sets in within two minutes.  After that, it´s an effort of will to keep your hands held that high for such an extended period of time. 

Most of the guards know this.  Many of them are sympathetic.  They understand the spirit of the rule. If your hands are under the table, sliding up your girlfriend’s leg, well, you can´t do that.  If you´re simply relaxing your aching shoulders for a few minutes, no harm, no foul.

The more abusive guards, however, live for those moments when they can impart some kind of correction on someone.  In this case, my neighbor´s mother had to be made to comply.  If he let that go, who knows where it might lead.  Next thing you know, someone might want to hug their child or something.

The brief encounter at the table concluded rather quickly.  I overheard the abusive guard tell my neighbor that he´d already been warned.  The guard placed his hands on his hips and declared, “This visit is terminated.”

My neighbor had to turn and leave or risk being thrown in the hole and having all future visits taken as well.  The look on his parents´ faces was tragic.  This can´t be happening.  But it was.  The only one who got any satisfaction was the abusive guard who quickly went back to the desk to brag about what he had just done.

Visits aren´t the only things routinely terminated in prison.  The whole system is set up to terminate various parts of your existence until one day you wake up and discover you are only a shell of the person you once were.  You might have come to prison with friends, family, dreams and a number of other things that helped define who you were. Within a few years, these components of your life have been systematically eliminated.  You are now just you, whatever that means.  And anything you value is subject to termination at a moment´s notice.

The last time I saw him, the old bastard was just sitting there taking it all in.  We´d walked many miles around the prison track over the years, but on the eve of his release we were parked on the bleachers and he was surveying the giant cage that had contained him for these past two decades.

Conversation was not as easy as it had been all over those years.  One of us was on the way down a path back to freedom and the other was stuck in groundhog day, only with one less friend to ease the suffering of it.  There really was nothing to say. We both knew.  And we were both happy at least one of us was moving on, finally.

“Clear the yard,” the tower guard announced.  As we walked out the gate to return to our respective cages, I turned and held out my hand.  “I´m sure gonna miss you Johnny,” I said with tears in my eyes.  “Likewise,” was all he could get out.  Neither of us dared say any more.  Two grown men standing there crying at the yard gate would only add insult to injury.

I walked back to my cage, contemplating how diminished my life would be without my friend.  Just like my neighbor´s visit, this friendship was being terminated.  A friendship that had grown close over the years was now being torn out by the roots, leaving a gaping hole in my life with only tears to fill.

This wasn´t the first time I´d suffered such a loss.  If I didn´t die very soon, it certainly would not be the last.  The only way to avoid such things was to isolate and never let anyone get close.  But what kind of life is that? No life at all, really.  So I know that this will happen again.  I know how it will feel.  I know that the pain will linger for a long time.

At some point it gets better.  The friendships that were terminated when I was transferred to another prison were much easier.  The new environment required much attention, easing the sense of loss.  Often it also brought with it ghosts of friendships past when I would encounter friendships that had been terminated years before.

The loss of a friendship terminated by release is the most devastating.  How can you not be happy for your friend?  He is getting out of prison.  Of course you want this for all of your friends.  Only a self-centered asshole would not be happy at a moment like this.

Yet there is a giant hole in your life.  One that, try as you might, cannot be ignored.  Regardless of your intentions, thoughts of this keep resurfacing.  It´s inevitable.

The Department of Corrections, in their infinite wisdom, know all about this phenomenon.  They have made rules to increase the impact.  When a prisoner is transferred to another prison, they are prohibited from maintaining contact with their friends left behind.  When a prisoner is released, they are discouraged by their parole officer from having any contact with another convict.  This friendship is over when we say it is, seems to be the message.

The days that follow are the worst.  Perhaps it´s something you ran across on television the night before.  Perhaps it´s a bizarre incident you witnessed.  Whatever the case, the first thought is how your friend will get a kick out of this.  Then the realization sets in that there is no one to tell.  Just shut up and keep doing this time.  That friendship has been terminated.

Timothy Pauley 273053
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777


Anonymous said...

This is an important posting, and needs to spread farther. It is only recently that I thought about the loss of friends when people are moved from one prison to another, or released, or die. Prison is a small, close world, and the people within make lives for themselves with what they have available. Friendship is part of that - people connect with one another, find each other harmonious, build routines with each other, develop close association, just as people do in other circumstances. But these friendships can be broken up at any time; years of conversation brought to an end in a day.

Timothy Pauley makes this very clear in this essay; I'll bet these losses are not considered at all in the prison planning. Not even being able to send the occasional letter back and forth is harsh, and cruel, and seems an unnecessary rule to me. If letters are read by prison staff, as I assume many are, why can't people in different prisons correspond with one another? I am sure the reason given will be "security" with no further explanation, or one that assumes everyone is trying to run a scam via letters. I am quite sure that long-term prisoners are well known to the staff, and they undoubtedly have a good idea who might try this and who would just keep a friendship going, as people do who move away from each other.


Anonymous said...

Another great story and a very insightful. Be well - Ken

A Friend said...

The following response to comments is from Tim Pauley:

Arethusa: Thank you for your comments. You correctly surmised that security is the excuse used to perpetuate this practice. You are also correct in your speculation that the authorities have a good idea who is likely to abuse something and who is not. The authorities, however, are fond of mass punishment. They have a penchant for punishing everyone for the acts of one or two guys. This happens even when they know exactly who did the thing that displeased them. So the prohibition against distance friendship fits nicely into that component of their correctional arsenal. I wish more people had your insight and compassion. Thank you for your comments. It is encouraging to know my message is getting through.

Ken: Thank you for your kind comment. It is very difficult to get feedback from where I sit and I appreciate that you took the time to do this.