Thursday, July 25, 2019

Arrest and All the Rest

By Kyla Ziegenhagen

I was arrested two days after my crime happened. To this day I can't tell you why I did what I did. I reacted to an impossible situation and I've spent every minute since wishing I could take it back.

On August 12th, 2014 I left a one year old baby and nine year old little girl home alone while I took my son’s puppy (and three other children) to an emergency vet clinic. Maybe you're thinking: Why would she do something so stupid? Well, I cannot justify my actions. I can only tell you what I know, what I was thinking, and the aftermath. 

I was out of my house for 47 minutes. I know this because I kept constant track of the time. I was in such a hurry to get home because I was scared. You can't honestly know what you would or wouldn’t do until you're in a dire situation where there is no right answer. I had a puppy that was dying, five children in my care, an SUV that wouldn't seat all of them, and not a single person to help me out. I can make a million excuses, but I won't. I was wrong. All I can say is that I never thought anything bad would happen. 

To this day I don't know exactly what happened while I was gone. I don't know exactly how it happened. But it happened. The baby got the car seat strap wrapped around her neck and she asphyxiated. She was sleeping peacefully in it when I left and because I did leave, nothing will ever be peaceful again.

911 was called. Police, firemen, investigators, military staff, and EMTs all showed up within what seemed like seconds. Statements and pictures were taken, and sadly, a body was covered and removed from my home.

That day I never told anyone I had left her alone. Not the investigators. Not even my husband. The only one that really knew what I had done was the nine year old, and I told her she could never tell anyone. But she did. She told her mom and her mom told the police two days later.

For two days I lived in constant fear that they were coming to arrest me. Every car I heard outside put me into panic mode. I was peeking out of my blinds like a tweaker watches for the police. Every time my phone rang I worried it was the investigators calling to tell me they knew.  I cried constantly, not only because I was scared to death, but because I knew I was the reason an innocent baby lost her life. An innocent baby that I loved and adored. An innocent baby that loved, adored, and trusted me. I failed her and I failed myself. And even though I didn't know the depth of the repercussions that were coming, I knew that they were on their way. I just didn't know they'd be so severe. 

I was arrested in York county, Virginia. A Commonwealth state for those of you who is. The worst kind of state to get in trouble in. (Hence the second degree murder charge instead of manslaughter.) I don't think I've ever had, or will ever have again, an experience quite like that. 

It isn't anything like what you see on Law and Order. There wasn't a two way mirror with people standing behind it, I wasn't bullied or belittled by the investigators, they were not mean to me, and they didn't ask a ton of questions. Unbeknownst to me at the time, they knew what I had done and they knew just what to ask for me to corner myself into confessing. When they asked me about our puppy my body literally went cold. I felt it start at the top of my head and go all the way down into my toes. Later on, during a court hearing, the detective said I went white as a sheet of paper. I imagine that was when I felt the coldness take over me. 

The investigators drove me from the sheriffs office to a regional jail in Williamsburg about 15 minutes away. On the ride I got to sit up front, my hands cuffed in front of me, and the investigator even gave me a piece of gum because my mouth was uncharacteristically dry. But I stayed silent for the most part. This was all so surreal. So shocking. So unlike anything I had ever been through before. 

I finally broke my silence and asked them where they were taking me. The short, fat man in the back seat, whose name was Stump, (whichI found hilarious considering how he looked) told me a couple things that still stand out to me. He told me where I was going, that the food wasn't bad and that I could stay there for up to two years. Two years??? I was horrified when he said that, and asked him if he could possibly think that I, Miss Never Been In Trouble In My Life, could be there for two entire years. (It's strange when I look back on how ignorant I was to all of this. I thought two years in jail was such a long time.  Compared to what time I've done and still have to do, it is nothing, a walk in the park.)

When we got there they handcuffed me to a metal ring that connected to the cinder block walls, and left me alone for over an hour. I don’t know where they went or what they were doing but when they finally came back I was allowed to use the rest room. That was the last time I peed with 100% privacy. 

They took me to the magistrate where prosecutors told him I had been arrested for two counts of felony child neglect and one count of second degree murder. It didn't even dawn on me that I was being charged with murder. No one told me and I think I was in shock. It wasn't until days later that I understood I wasn't being charged with negligent manslaughter, like I had been told, after all. 

They were through with me after that. The officers who worked at the regional jail took me to get my fingerprints done. This was also different than on Law and Order. I kept asking myself why everything I knew about crime was based off of a mediocre at best television show? They do your prints digitally now. They press your fingers onto a clear piece of glass and your prints pop right up on the computer screen. They took my mug shot, which turned out to be the worst picture I've taken in my life. It doesn't even look remotely like me.

I sat in the room they call Intake for hours. It had rows of chairs like a bowling alley and a loud TV on which I was the star. I hadn't eaten all day and my blood sugar was low. I was shaking but couldn't tell if it was from nerves or starvation. I tried to call my husband but he didn't answer the phone. I was panicked, terrified, hungry, sad, and all around exhausted. I just wanted to talk to my husband and wait to be bailed out. Finally my husband called the jail and left a message for me with a phone number to call him. Apparently the police had taken his phone while he was at the Sheriff’s office to look for evidence. I didn’t understand. Evidence for what? This was all a huge accident, why did they need his phone? I didn't get to talk to him very long and the only thing I remember him saying is, "I love you more than anything," as he cried.

When it was my turn to be booked, they strip-searched me and gave me an ugly, orange jumper to put on. I was also issued a small bag of hygiene items, a nightgown, towel and washcloth, socks, men's underwear, an orange pair of clog shoes, and linens for my bed. They opened a door and told me to turn right and go all the way down the hall to the women's section. This was it. I was really in jail. 

I will never forget the smell of that place, I had never smelled anything like it. And I know I never want to smell it again. Evan after the two years I spent there, I never got used to it. I came to the conclusion that it was what incarceration smelled of. A mixture of cleaner, laundry soap, sweat, blood, and tears. Sometimes, even now, I think I smell it and I get extreme anxiety. It passes in a second, but it triggers a horrible feeling in me from the time that I consider to be the worst days of my life. 

The officer who worked the women's section was named Miss Doc. She was a middle aged black woman who wore too much makeup and too much perfume. She sent me in the direction to my cell, let me in, and shut the door behind me. The opening and closing of the metal doors was horrifying and loud. Cue a panic attack. When I was shut in that small cell, alone, I couldn't breathe. I asked her to please open the door, but she wouldn't. I thought she was the most heartless person I had ever encountered. 

I knew I needed to calm myself down, but I felt so hopeless that I couldn't even think. I curled up on the concrete floor, in the fetal position and stayed there until Miss Doc walked by and finally opened my door to make sure I wasn't dead. She had me come sit with her at the officer’s desk. I was thinking that she had a heart after all. It turns out I was wrong and she just liked gossip. She wanted to know if I was really there for murder. I was infamous because York County rarely saw cases like mine. I was all over the news, what everyone calls a high profile case. 

I talked to Miss Doc for about half an hour. Until she got all the information she wanted and then she sent me on my way. When I got back to my cell I really saw it for the first time. In the corner there was a metal toilet with a sink connected to it. A bunk bed without a ladder for climbing up. A single plastic chair used in place of the missing ladder, and a small window about the width of a deck of cards. There wasn't anything else in there but signatures on the wall from previous captives. 

I pulled out my linens, which smelled just like the hallway, and thought that surely they had meant to give me a fitted sheet instead of the two flat sheets in my hand. I didn't have a way to ask anyone to swap it out so I put it on the thin, holey mat and and couldn't wait to go to sleep. Later on I found out that they don't give you fitted sheets when you are locked up. Why would I think any differently? I was in for a rude awakening. Fitted sheets weren't the only thing missing from my new life. 

When I got in the bed I prayed harder than I ever had. I begged, pleaded, and bargained with God to rewind time, to take me instead. I cried into my arm, because I didn't have a pillow, and passed out from sheer exhaustion. Being arrested for murder takes a lot out of someone mentally and emotionally. I slept for three days. I didn't eat, brush my teeth, or shower. I didn't even know where or when I was allowed to bathe myself. 

After the third day of being locked in my cell they sent me to medical. They took my vitals and asked me questions. I was crying so hard I couldn't even speak. The nurse, Miss Butler, was so nice and told me to take all the time I needed. She told me she knows how hard it must be, but it will get easier. She checked me for TB and told me I would get put in population that day.

Everyone in the jail knew who I was and why I was there. I had never been more ashamed of myself than I was at that time. I didn't want to go to population, I didn't want to face anyone. I just wanted to go back to my isolated cell and die there. Never to face the world again. But that didn't happen. They sent me to A pod, room 214. A single cell. Thank God for small favors. 

When I got in there the pod was full of mostly black girls. That was such a culture shock to me. Being a military wife, I had never spent much time with anyone, let alone black women. I was raised in a one square mile town in the middle of Kansas that was filled with white country folk. They all hated me instantly and I think they sensed my fear. The first time I got called a baby killer was on my walk of shame from the front of the pod up to my cell. I stayed in there and didn't talk to anyone but I was later paid a visit by six girls who saw who I was and what I had done on the news. All six of them beat me so badly that I wanted to die right then. They broke a couple ribs, knocked out two of my teeth, removed fists full of my hair, and blackened every surface of my body that their twelve fists could reach. When the officers got wind of what happened they were taken to segregation.

I was escorted straight to the hospital. Clearly I recovered, despite my wishes not to. I never told my husband what had happened. He was already stressed out and I didn't want to add to his fears.

When I got back from the hospital days later an older woman everyone called Miss Mary took me under her wing. I sat with her while she read the Bible. I wrote stories for my kids, drew them pictures, and wrote them letters telling them how much I loved and missed them. 

I started to drop weight quickly. The food was nothing to be desired so I didn't eat. I couldn't understand why the girls would get so excited for me to give them my tray. It worked out well for me because 1) I was losing weight and 2) Whoever wanted my tray had to be nice to me long enough for me to give it to them. And I would take any form of kindness over the way everyone had been treating me, even if it was fake. 

Being in jail was strange. There were four phones in the middle of the pod. Side by side we sat, overhearing everything everyone was saying. There is no such thing as privacy when you're incarcerated. There were twelve rooms on the top tier and twelve on the bottom. The pod was a tiny room with an old TV. One shower on the top tier, one on the bottom. There were six metal tables with four stools built into each, bolted to the floor. Meals were delivered and we were rarely allowed the one hour rec time we were supposed to have. That was it. This was what my life had come to. 

There are two kinds of correctional officers. The good ones and the bad ones. There is no in between. You're either cool or you're a hard ass. Some of them were there for the paycheck and some of them were there because they believed, wholeheartedly, that they needed to enforce structure, rules, and their power on us. I can't tell you how many officers I've encountered who were so narcissistic and evil that they probably should have been sitting in the seat next to me. They used their power to their advantage and took every opportunity to let us know that we were scum of the earth and they could make us do anything they wanted. 

There was an officer named Miss Pagano that took every opportunity to single me out from everyone and embarrass me. She locked me down so many times simply because she could. She hated my guts, and to this day I wouldn't help that woman if it was the deciding factor of going to heaven or hell. She was horrible to me, and I'll never forget it or forgive her for it.

The days passed slowly, the hours even slower. I missed my husband and my kids so much that I cried constantly. I couldn't talk about them without breaking down. I couldn't write to them. I couldn't call them. I couldn't think of them. And then one day I got a letter in the mail from my son, who was six at the time, that said, "Dear Mommy, (backwards Y) how many days until you come home?" That was it. I needed to die. After that letter I learned how to block out emotions. I had to. If my kids popped into my head I cut myself with a shaving razor that I busted open. I would have rather hurt physically than emotionally and at that point I couldn't afford to spend my days crying in bed. This continued for months, until I could force them out of my head without hurting myself. But forcing them out of my thoughts wasn't the treatment I needed. 

I had been on depression and anxiety meds for years. The jail didn't have quality psychiatric care. I was on the waiting list for a year before I got to see someone. In that year the inside of my head became a breeding ground for horrible thoughts. Stopping my medicines cold turkey was a terrible thing for me considering all I had been through and what I was up against. Stopping cold turkey for a person that isn't in jail is bad enough. But for me, I believe it led to my mental downfall. 

I couldn't sleep at night because of the constant nightmares. They were always of the baby. I had one recurring dream that she was alive. She was wearing a red and white Minnie Mouse dress with a matching headband. I was holding her, kissing her, telling her that we had to find her mom because she would be so happy to see her. But no one could see her. No one but me no matter how many times I told them she was there. I tried to stop sleeping. If I didn't go to sleep I didn't see her and I didn't hear her. Until I did see and hear her while I was awake. I became delusional. Actually, that is the nice way of putting it. I lost my damn mind is more accurate. 

I was hearing Bri's cries while I was awake. Then her laughs. I'd see her out of the corner of my eyes. And in the beginning I thought the officers were playing a cruel trick on me. I thought they had somehow got a recording of her and were playing it to torture me. Because I deserved to be tortured. But I couldn't take it anymore so I took cutting myself to the next level and tried to commit suicide. Anything had to be better than what I was going through but no matter how hard I tried to get help, no one would help me. I had panic attacks on a regular basis and all the girls thought I was bat shit crazy.

My, useless, attorney came to see me in the very beginning and didn't see me again for a very long time. When he finally came for a second visit he noticed very quickly that I wasn't okay. He had Dr. McWilliams, the forensic psychologist, pay me a visit. Just as quickly as my lawyer had judged my mental state he did the same. He had me sent to central state hospital and deemed me incompetent to stand trial. Going to the hospital helped me tremendously because I got the help I needed. I was put on several anti psychotics, meds for anxiety and depression, sleeping pills, and I can't even remember what else. There were a lot. (Those meds continued when I was sent back to jail and I still take them to this day). After being deemed competent I went to trial.

Judge Rizk gave me 50 years, 35 suspended. I couldn't believe it. Every day for the prior two years was spent trying to guess how much time I'd get. Every person I came into contact with became my pseudo law advisor and if I didn't like the answer they gave me I moved on to the next person. I expected time and deserved time. Some people would say I deserve more than I got. But the people who know me, who know everything there is to know about me, think otherwise. Me, well, some days I think I deserve life and some days I think it was unfair. No matter what I think, though, I'm here. 

I got shipped to prison on July 13, 2016, not long after I was sentenced. The ride here seemed to take forever and I threw up five times on the way. An unfortunate side effect to car sickness. The officers that drove me didn't seem fazed that I was sick and told me to aim for the floor. 

When you get here they put you in the intake building and you stay there for about 60 days until you can go to general population. It was already so much different than jail. It was clean! It had a different smell. The day room was larger and had more phones. There was a kiosk capable of sending and receiving email. The bunks had a ladder. We could buy razors from commissary and use them whenever we wanted, keeping them in our possession. The wing had hair dryers, curling irons, flat irons, and something called a Marcel that is apparently intended for black girls hair. (I tried to curl a white girl’s hair with one and it was so hot that I burned a chunk of her hair off. I nearly pissed my pants laughing.) The best thing about the place was that it had a hot pot. Hot water for coffee any time. No more sink water cups of coffee for me! 

There were two bunks for every cell. It was set up almost the same as jail. It had the same sink/toilet combo, the same exact window, and the same cement floor. Only this room was a little larger and had two desks with built in stools. I was extremely excited about having a desk to write at.

They do four standing counts a day. 5:45 am, 12:30 pm, 5:45 am, and 9:30 pm. They also count at 11:30 pm and 2:00 am but you don't have to stand for those. There are two tiers here just like jail. However there are more cells and once you get to population they do not have toilets in them. (Thank the stars!)

I didn't like many people so I stayed in my cell a lot. I had an unfortunate roommate who snored like a fat man and I hated every second of it. I bought earplugs from commissary but they didn't help. After sixty-nine days of being in intake I finally got put in population. That's when I started to live my life again. 

Population was completely different than intake. The only time you left the wing in intake was to go to rec (which I never did) and commissary. When you're in population you go outside for everything. I don't know how it is at other prisons, but this one is set up like a college campus. We walk outside to get to the chow hall, pill line, appointments, rec, work, school, church, or any other movement, come rain or shine. And I love it. There are flowers, birds, grass, and you don't really see the fences that keep us in. It doesn't look too much like a prison and for the most part it doesn't feel like one either. I've learned to block out the whistle blowing, the rudeness of officers who scream at you to "keep moving" while you walk slowly to wait for your friends. I've grown used to being patted down on a regular basis, stripped on a moments notice, getting drug tested, sneaking to places I'm not supposed to be in, hiding things on my person, and waiting for every door you go through to be unlocked. 

It is hard to explain how I feel about this place, about this maximum security prison that I consider my home. On the one hand I hate it. On the other I have made some of my best memories here. I have met some of my best friends here. I found the love of my life here. But all of the things that I love came at a high price. If I could go back in time and change things I would. But since I can't, I have earned to live the life I have instead of dwelling on the one I had. 

I'm not the same person I was five years ago. I've grown in ways that make me proud. I don't always cry when someone calls me a baby killer. I can talk to my kids without breaking down. I can enjoy a book or show on TV. I can live and love. But I'll never forget why I'm here. What happened was horrific. It has left scars on so many people and changed the lives of everyone I loved. That's something I'll deal with even when I get to leave this place. This prison is temporary, but the hurt is forever. 

Kyla Ziegenhagen #1655594
P.O. Box 1000 
Troy, VA. 22974

My name is Kyla Ziegenhagen and I have been incarcerated since 2014. I'm currently taking college courses through PVCC to earn my associate degree, paralegal correspondence courses through Blackstone University, and I work full time as a muralist. When I'm not painting murals, I spend a lot of time drawing, writing, and reading. My latest release date is in 2027 and when I leave this place, I'd like to get a job as a paralegal and do volunteer work in a women's prison. I want to make a difference in at least one person’s life.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Are You Hurt? Part Three

By Terry Daniel McDonald

To read Part 2 click here

During the first week of May 2010, I obtained Level 1 status. What started out as any other day on F-pod, abruptly altered course when a guard appeared at my door and said, “Pack your stuff, you’re moving.” That had been expected, I just didn’t know when they would show up. I got my answer, though. 

Knowing when things would happen tended to set my mind at ease–lowering anxiety, helping me to adapt. Though it was easy to mask the fear of the unknown, I had learned enough about what I would likely face up the hall to feel confident in my ability to transition. If I could handle F-pod, I shouldn’t have any problems elsewhere. Or so I hoped. 

I had already conditioned myself to endure the worst TDCJ could offer. After each weekly move, I habitually cleaned each cell, contending with the detritus of the previous occupant, hair, dried skin, and toe nails; dirt-caked floors and various stains splattered on the walls; dust bunnies the size of small rats….

It all seemed to me then, and still does now, as a display of each slow death one man after another shared. You could mark the passage of time by how thick the dust coated the bunk, by the size of each dust bunny rolling about—by the intricate lattice work of matted hair that barely shifted as I moved around the cell.

Once I learned to meditate on a certain topic or person, like my sister, each stain I wiped away brought me closer to her, or to a better realization of how my mind worked. Each area I freed of grime, the biological remains of another, gave me leave to share my own forensic story. Sometimes it took hours, but I never complained during the process, except to shake my head at how far each man was willing to let themselves go. 

They say cleanliness is next to godliness. If true, then many of those men were sanctified as demonic overlords.

The move in the first week of May marked the end of my thirty-day exile. A period of time to scald my senses and break my spirit? I had ample time to reflect and develop a unique awareness, for sure. When it became common knowledge that I would be leaving soon, guys I knew shouted out random comments.  

“See you up the hall!”

“Dodge the bullets next time!” 

Right, it was necessary to forgive the idiots.

Some asked me to carry messages (kites), or asked, “Hey, can you tell…” Yeah, yeah.  It seemed like everyone had an urgent I-need-to-get-word-to-a-person request.  But I understood. We worked together to share information. I would do my part. I even collected some books and stamps (to pay a debt) for guys on the pod I was going to. 

The extra items were hardly a burden. I had accumulated property, but only two white-mesh commissary-bags worth. Legal work, stationery, writing supplies, and the Harry Potter box set filled one. Assorted hygiene products barely reached the one quarter mark in the other. It took very little time to pack. Then I made sure the cell was clean, and used a new cologne strip to leave it smelling fresh—my gift to the next occupant. 

Once cuffed and outside the cell, an SSI began the loading process. I watched, answered questions, replied to other requests, and breathed slowly to relax. Then with my bags, mattress, and meager necessities on the old rust-flaked flat cart, I let the guard lead me away. I left the decay marked by cell-warrioring, banging, random fights, and human effluent behind.

*                                        *                                        *

To suggest I was ready to leave F-pod would be an understatement. No one in their right mind would want to stay. But even in such a dark place, with its fetid air and hazy ambiance, it was possible to get attached to things. Mostly the men who’d helped me in a time of need, when I had nothing and could not access commissary. They had long been repaid, but the feeling of gratitude remained. It still does. 

It would have been easy for them to stay silent, ignoring how I suffered—leaving me alone out of sight, out of mind to remain unaffected. Their great gift to me was sharing my burden by supplying basic hygiene items, extra food, and reading material. Then in the odd hours conversations helped us to connect further. 

I accepted the privilege of their kindness, and I took the lesson of their generosity with me. I felt that if I could find a way to draw men out of their mental shells, getting them to focus on and explore positive things, then I would be paying it forward. 

*                                        *                                        *

As a whole, experiencing the Disciplinary Pod in Michael Unit’s Administrative Segregation reminded me of the time I visited Skid-Row and Box-City in Los Angeles, California, where broken men and women on the fringe of society chased addictions. In both places, as homeless on the streets or in prison, great effort was extended to reach their oblivion of choice. If, in fact, they ever had one. 

Outsiders might say they were simply junkies and fuckups. Guards (and even other offenders) used terms like psych-patient to classify those who acted different; or if an individual was truly bad, piece of shit, trash, snitches, and then expletives of choice were tossed in. 

Were the fringe addicts flirting with various forms of evil? If I was to believe that, was it any less evil to be a sideline spectator? Were they riddled with doubt and self-hate, thus doomed to a failure they didn’t want to ponder? Was it truly an act of free will that set them on the illusory paths of release?

It often seemed that many of the men on F-pod couldn’t help but wallow in pain, craving it, wanting to taste the fecal combination of foul discourse and physical abuse–as if fucking themselves up made them truly free. Many were obviously bored, willing to accept any sort of attention, because even pain was preferable to nothing. Give them chaotic drama, a way to openly grieve, maniacal laughter, cackling aggression, even the ghostly evolution of imprinted madness. Anything but apathy. 

I didn’t need to ask to understand how, as a means to obtain comfort, those men enslaved themselves to any habit of addiction as an antidote to suffering and loneliness, because I had walked those same paths. In that way, they were living a life that mirrored my own, a life I wanted to overcome–where narrow-minded awareness and radical thought had limited my options, making me a slave to my physiologically damaged mind. 

Explore the depth of that reality in Badflower’s song “Ghost,” with the words take away the pain, I’m a freak. Brandon Cain embodied that notion every time he shouted the misunderstood plea, “Are you hurt?” Whether they wanted to admit it or not, those expressions were the requiems emitted by the ley-lines of shame passing through the heart of every man. 

*                                        *                                        *

Much like the cadence of my steps, there was a tempo to the us vs. them culture. Each correctional officer faced the challenge of balancing how they did their jobs with their emotional reactions to disrespect and aggression. Offenders were naturally going to retaliate against oppression, being denied what they felt they needed, even if their actions could be deemed unreasonable. 

In such a low-pay high-stress environment, I would like to think their beliefs mattered—that shared Gods and principles could bridge divides. But too often it was difficult to see the right side amidst all the wrong. 

Who, by the nature of their position, was more correct? Were they bound up in a cosmic struggle for belief-oriented dominance between angels and demons–those principalities of good and evil? Or was their visceral reality the only realm of true freedom, where even shared beliefs were stereotypes to fuel contention, forgiving each other’s refusal to offer another common decency?

Unfortunately, when men and women are pushed (forced) to rely on their primal nature, esoteric beliefs become irrelevant. Could it be that what is too often so readily judged to be evil, is actually nothing more than disease and ill health?

I believe the concepts of hope, faith, and love are universal. Cultivating a better state of right being can work wonders in helping to resolve conflicts. But it takes a strong, independent desire to detach from labels and the emotions entwined with them. Then it takes time, within any belief system, to become respectful, empowering, inclusive, humble, curiously open to the experiences of others, willing to stay interconnected, capable of sharing perspectives and needs, responsible and accountable towards the suffering of others, and remaining positive during a crisis to seek growth and change. 

Therein exists a way to avoid the all too prevalent systemic abuse behind closed doors, which is overlooked because, “you are in prison, what do you expect?” We have broken wings that used to fly as Chris Stapleton sang, but it doesn’t take being in a physical prison to reach that state. Nor should we ever think that our choices never affect anyone else. I strive to avoid giving up on people, despite their failures. I want to believe it is possible for everyone to do the same. 

To that end I may be naïve, because the utter shame I have never been able to shake was the commonality found in guard and offender alike when it came to picking on the weak. Such cruelty was unnecessary. Suffering should not be mocked, but sadly, it is often scorned as a get over it weakness. 

Those with damaged minds suffer great indignity in prison. For them I constantly feel compelled to offer up fervent prayers for peace. 

*                                        *                                        *

Walk with me into the nexus of 12 building, a north-south vein branching and pulsing with activity. Let us chase the phantoms together, boots and shoes squelching, squeaking over gleaming white tile. Hear the section door slam, and the whomp-whomping wheels of the cart pulled by the SSI behind us. Feel the guard’s firm grip on my right arm. Smell his stale breath and musk. Then breathe in the Cool Water–which I spread in the cell–lingering on my fingers, and the remnants of the guard’s Eternity failing to mask his exertion. Hear coded messages from my escort’s Motorola. See the gray uniforms, black (anti shank) vests, a bobbing baton as the lead guard called out, “face the wall!” 

Inmates in two piece whites, often wearing tan or black boots, stood nose-to-wall until we passed, or scurried across intersections, pulled/pushed other flat carts (most loaded down with property), talked to associates while standing in alcoves, or leaned out of rooms ( mainly around the kitchen area) to simply watch.

Often I was their muse. Each of them knew where I came from and where I was going. Inaudible greetings were common, conveying shared understanding of the harrows I had endured. To some, through their glassy-eyes, I was but part of the panorama–another offender in white, a white man in cuffs, a poor soul being led toward the next chapter of existence. 

There went the cleaning crew–the cart with paint and chemicals, and assorted brooms, brushes, and mops stabbing the air trailed them.  Laundry bins, one white, the other blue, were pulled frantically through the hive of medical personnel in scrubs off on errands. Ranking officers issued orders; other guards escorted men dressed similar to me in button-down white jumpers. 

Awash in neon light, we passed two-tone walls, black rising to white, rising-rising up to conduits, duct work, and pipes. Heading northward, port-hole like renderings of nature dotted the eastern hall. 

Were they true images drawn from the artist’s personal experiences? An elder stag watched from the woodlands. A bass with mouth agape was leaping amidst spraying water. Near a bush by a stand of towering pine trees, a bear was seeking something. Ducks were content to rest on a pool of crystalline water. Further down I knew a trio of Longhorns waited, but our journey ended before I could evaluate their expressions.

We passed one, two barred windows framed in black, like gazing through bruised and swollen eyes, constricting my view to glimpses of nearly clear skies that suggested another reality.  Were those plexi-views less surreal as a gentle wind caused puffs of clouds to drift, fresh-cut grass to sway, or too distant trees to twitch? Was the stop-action motion of people walking, cars rolling by, horses grazing in the distance, a peek at something I was missing? A treasure that was lost? Did it ever really exist? 

Like the frozen eyes gazing out from the nature scenes, or down from the stern (undoubtedly judgmental) eagle resting atop the painted flag—in the center of the hallway where the ceiling dropped–there was the hint of something more…a hint…Would I be as stoic or free if my acrylic poses were rendered there? 

But those musings ended as we entered a short hallway, stopping before another black door. The guard beat on the window with the baton, then the metal, which rang out and reverberated, temporarily masking the rattling chains on men in cages, ratcheting click-click-clicking cuffs, Ms. Arthur (the property officer) telling offenders to sign forms (ignoring the “Fuck you, bitch”comment from a disgruntled guy who wasn’t wrong in his assessment of her), and other slamming doors. Soon the electronic (or magnetic) lock released and we passed into another 84 cell warren of individuals I would begin familiarizing myself with…a week at a time. 

*                                        *                                        *

It didn’t take long to notice the differences. A cleaner pod and cell. A mirror without scratches. Few if any markings on the wall. My hot water worked! The toilet didn’t leak. A tan plastic cover over the electrical outlet instead of a welded-on stainless-steel plate. 

Of course I couldn’t expect every cell to be as good, but there wasn’t a spider in sight and only one measly roach. As far as first impressions went, those were improvements I could live with. Heck, even the birds outside seemed less depressed. 

After delivering the messages, books and stamps, I didn’t interact much the rest of that first week, but I learned the consequence of getting rolled to F-pod was taken seriously. Having a radio was a lifeline for many. The privilege of being able to access all of what commissary offered really was worth staying out of trouble for. My blue slips for a radio, fan, and hot-pot were ready to go. 

When I did talk, I quickly determined that a good majority of the men were affiliated with one gang or another, based on their race. Being solo wasn’t a problem, just a curiosity. My story quickly became lore, added to the tomes of many. 

On store day, ice cream and putting in for appliances made me smile. More books arrived courtesy of Linda. The latest Time magazine updated me on world events. All too soon, though, my 29th year of living was set to end. 

May 9th arrived in a rush—a blur of crappy food and sweaty sheets. I began that day grumpy and depressed, lost in silence, wondering where my father was and how he was doing. 

Why? It was his birthday.

Every year he was absent in my life, I couldn’t help but remember back when the actual day didn’t matter as much as the time we got to spend together. I was born on the 10th, but for many years we celebrated on the same day–the 9th. Being in his presence, hearing his voice and laughter was pure joy…even as my heart beat faster when my anxiety spiked. Our relationship was complicated. I constantly fought to reconcile my love for him with anger, frustration, a sense of abandonment, and hate. I didn’t really want to contemplate all the “whys”–doing so would leave me in a funk for days. When the guard asked, “Are you ready for your shower?” I did not hesitate. Unlocking my mind was a good reason to go, but also sweaty sheets, remember? Without a fan, it was pretty much a necessity to get out of the cell each day. 

It was cooler on the run, during the walk, which somehow reminded me of the first shower I took on F-pod. The compare and contrast was just silly. Back then I was still subject to subtle retaliation tactics, so I was stuck wearing some boxers that required me to knot the elastic in front...because I could've sworn a 300 lb. gorilla had worn them as spandex. Then my towel: it looked like it had been used for target practice. Silver-dollar sized holes, and frayed edges (not to mention about a quarter of it was missing) made drying a swiss-cheese experience. But that was okay. The only way I could get out of my cell at that time was by going to the shower, because I was on cell restriction. 

My real problem was the lack of shower shoes. Luckily I had ample time to contemplate that fate, because it was a grand production of several officers, with a Sgt. and a camera that were necessary to even open Tony T's door. He had forced his cell door open and beat up a law so they feared him. As they filmed his five step walk one way, then five steps back, finally returning him to his cell, I decided that I would just go to the shower fully dressed. And that is what I did. 

Still, having shower shoes was such a little thing, made critical by their absence when bodily fluid control problems were an issue. There was absolutely no way I was going to stand barefoot in the shower. Instead, once in the shower I slipped my shoes off and leaned them up against the door, as far from the water as possible. Then I bathed in my socks–gray, partially ripped with frayed elastic socks. No problem at all (though admittedly, I did scan the walls with a certain amount of dread).

When it was time to wash my feet, I did a one-legged flamingo, pulled off one sock, soaped, scrubbed and rinsed that sock and foot, then laid the sock down so I could switch. The left leg was trickier, though. Damaged left knee, remember? It was a similar situation, except there was more of a half-flamingo, squat, sway, and play patty-cake with both walls that was required to keep from tipping over. 

I couldn't help but laugh quietly as I relived that action. 

I walked back to my cell on F-pod dressed in a jumper, socks in one hand, dripping gorilla-spandex boxers in the other, while my slip-on canvas shoes squeegeed themselves free of water with each step that I took. 

I looked down at my soapy toes peeking out of the front side of my shower shoes and laughed again. That was enough to lighten my mood for most of the day...until night crept in. 

*                                        *                                        *

Annoyed with my lumpy mattress, I had rolled it up and set it on the floor. Then I folded my (by then dried from the need-to-get-the-sweat-out-rinse) sheets into a pad on the bare metal bunk, which is where I was laying, feet propped on my folded jumper, thinking–periodically casting side-eye glances of disgust at the legal work on my table. 

My eyes were tired of the e pluribus unum way to aver how, in retrospect, blue should have been black, because the probable orange (which was little more than supposition at the time) really needed more due consideration within the realm of jurisprudence. It was enough to make my eyeballs spin in their sockets and gaze at my brain's attempt to form some sort of rational understanding with disdain. 

Ignorance wasn’t an excuse? Sure. Bah! Verbatim ac litteratim it was all vomito to my neural pathways–a sure via crucis I needed to escape. And yet, legal work was my self-induced peine forte et dure to avoid the darker recesses of my mind, something I had approached a' l'abandon to prevent a crise des nerfs

Macabre? Sad? Pathetic? All of the above. 

It was my aversion to the cerebral episiotomy necessary to reconcile the past, so I could work more fully on the present. My reticence was due to the vortex of emotions that bonded me to my father. Unfortunately, because it was his birthday, I was open to exploring the subject, but did I really have the strength to confront it all? Would I bend or break? Luckily, fatigue won out.

*                                        *                                        *

Undoubtedly, it was cowardice drawing me beneath layers of awareness. With eyes closed, body exposed to tepid air, I was a wraith nestled in the ambience from the door and slanting down from the window. No thoughts existed, just an image of a walkway. One I knew well. A concrete path over a brook of water, burbling around what resembled stones patterned as a natural, uniform guide toward the impression of a mist-shrouded water garden beyond. 

I took one step, two, listening to the liquid melody as the scene shifted. There was no path. No veil of obscurity remained, just me as a boy in simple shorts and a shirt, kneeling beside a long-ago twin sized bed, with fists clenched and eyes cinched tight, fiercely praying. 

"Please God," the boy once me, whispered," please don't make me be like my father. I don't want to hurt anymore." The words were desperate, repeated until they fractured into one syllable, staccato pleas. 

Finally, as if drained of reason and purpose, he leaned forward, touched his forehead to the mattress, and then slowly climbed into bed. As he turned, settling on his back, a tear glinted on his smooth cheek. His eyes, glistening pools of sorrow, closed. His lips, so pale within the monochromatic shadows, began to move.

Surely there were words, but I could not hear into the sepulchral realm of phantoms the boy rested in, so I moved closer. Deeper. Until I merged with him and finally understood. 

"Now I lay me down to sleep,
        I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
But if I die before I wake,
        I pray the Lord my soul to take."

The boy and I cried together.

*                                        *                                        *

Imagine, not a crooning dirge to seduce wakefulness, but repetitious thunderclaps of sound ripping silence apart, forcing eyes to snap open and a body to all but levitate with adrenaline. 

The guard stopped beating his iron bean-slot bar against the plexi-glass shield on my door. "If you're eating, turn your light on!" He commanded. And like an automaton, I stumbled forth with bleary eyes, instinctively finding the button to set the halogens ablaze, causing my eyes to slit in protest. A tray waited on the slot. I grabbed it, set it on the sink, already knowing, through much Pavlovian conditioning, what would come next. 

"Want coffee?" Was the question asked, but my white cup was already in place before the SSI actually finished. He poured from his white bucket, up to the brim, and then moved on. Soon a guard slammed the slot closed. 

I took a sip of the steaming chalky-metallic brew, caring less for the taste than the tingle beginning within. A daily ritual to encourage the mind and body to seek more than a sedentary reclined state. I needed to get things done, and I needed energy, which meant I needed to eat, but as usual bleh pancakes greeted me. Such an uninviting sight: partially-cooked doughy flat-cakes drowning in the congealed mess of brown syrup.

Just looking at it gave me a headache, or maybe the dull throb was more of a residual reminder that I foolishly allowed myself to sleep too deeply. I’d missed the tell-tales of banging carts, other commands…but maybe it was for the best. I could not fully recall what had held me, but to get lost in such trances were as much of an addiction as any other. 

Two more sips. A third of the cup was empty–more white to see. My hands began to shake so I set the cup down. With my spoon and finger I began the methodical process of lifting the top two pancakes over into the second largest slot on the tray, away from the viscous, bubbling quagmire. The last of the trinity was a sacrifice. I smothered the other two in applesauce and ate mechanically: swift cuts with the spoon produced several large sections; each mass filling my mouth was nearly swallowed whole. The food, as it was, stilled my hands. 

The headache dwindled. 

When the guard returned, and opened the slot and called for the tray, I passed it to him then stepped away, returning to the dregs in my cup. To the dregs of my Spartan life. 

That was how, on May 10th, my thirtieth birthday, I found myself choking down the rest of the then tepid coffee before the mirror. Changes drew me in. The steel clarity provided a new, reflective awareness of my hairline, a thinning that surely didn’t exist before the previous evening, as if more than mere hours had passed. And my body seemed heavier, holding weight it had never been able to manifest before. 

Too much else reeked of lucid reality for it to be a dream. The scar on my head, another above my brow, one on my chin.  A hint of an age-old nose break. Memories of swollen eyes, black rimmed, bruised and red-splotched from draining tears. Just one eye completely red from burst capillaries when my father choked me. 

My gaze was relentless in seeking out old wounds; a broken jaw; emotional breakdowns; the desire to thrust a knife toward, into, my chest. A faint scar remained on my breast. Much like they sliced down both arms, razor-etchings from sorrow that once owned me. Where my flesh had been rended apart, pale traces remained–on my thighs, my knees, my shins. There would never be a need to get tattoos, not when the rips and gouges, bullet holes and abrasions told a more lurid tale. 

My eyes were showing me the self-actualized renderings of pain, confusion, and jaded yearning. Why had I been so content to accept the mutilation? Why was I still allowing fear to rule me?

It was a small thing, but in that moment I saw a new path, as if turning a faceted gem in the light, following the reflected glimmerings. My time amidst the broken had opened a new awareness within, showing me the depth of the vault where past grievances were stored—all that was unresolved. It was massive and daunting. It terrified and yet invigorated me, because there was the true face of what had been tearing me apart. On those shelves were all the lost hopes and dreams, a broken childhood. The failed man. My choices were a reflection of an inner cancer; feeling unworthy of praise or joy, all that could have been good. 

For too long I had been setting the pain aside, in a corner, out of view from the need to reduce its ability to fester. And so, as a present, there was an ethereal force within asking me to see differently. The mire couldn’t be dissolved in an instant, it whispered, but with time I would learn to navigate the web. It dawned on me then; all of the effort towards cleaning cells had been laying the foundation for that moment. A subconscious, primal desire took the reins when I was too weak to push forward. 

Some say the eyes are the window into the soul. If true, then mine was cracked open to let the effluent of time ooze forth. 

There was too much to consider, so I decided to focus on the one thing that had been recently plaguing my mind. I searched out the image of my father in the driveway, watching me leave the last time. And I spoke the words that began the process of unravelling the chains binding my heart: “Forgive me, Dad.”

In turning thirty, I felt freed from the need to chase a self-imposed doom, where I had pushed away success, love, and kindness. I learned to evaluate fear in a new light, because pain and suffering were as natural as breathing.  

I reached into the past, into those moments when my viperous tongue had assaulted my father: “I wish grandpa was alive, and you were dead in that grave.”

To stop the fight between Bryan (my step-brother) and I, Dad pinned me down.  I raged: “So what are you going to do now, beat me like you did my mother?”

I never hit him, never caused him an ounce of physical pain, but I knew my words had been a thousand-cut torture on his mind as he fought his own demons. 
He failed me as a father. 

I failed him as a son. “Forgive me, Dad.”

“Are you going to rec and shower?” a guard asked.

Blinking, drawn from my musings, I noticed how a sheet of light was beginning to filter in through my window. So much time had passed….

“Are you going or not?”

I nodded. “Yes,” I offered in a weak voice. My mouth was dry. Saltiness lingered on my lips. Wetness padded my cheeks but that was okay. The guard had already moved on. I turned and began getting ready to embrace the day. 

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

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Tanka Trilogy

By Burl N. Corbett

Part One

Clear waters unchanged
in a meadow
I saw long ago:
Will you remember
this face of mine?

Saigyo (1118-1190)

My “home” prison lies at the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, near the edge of Lake Erie, and every winter our friendly neighbor Canada sends us generous helpings of it’s surplus snow. When it reluctantly melts in the spring, temporary snowmelt pools appear in the depressions of the poorly graded lawns, creating magic mirrors in which clouds may swim, birds fly, and an old man can contemplate the toll exacted by yet another year away from his family. 
Although mirrors never lie, memory often does. As the tarnished stainless steel mirror above the sink reminds me every day, I have changed during my twelve-year incarceration. Yet my memory--an unreliable witness--tells me otherwise. To it, my hazy reflection is still that of the ten-year-old boy sailing empty mustard jars down the sheep pasture creek, the carefree lad urging with a stick their fitful progress as they plummet over tiny waterfalls, bob through timid rapids, and occasionally become entrapped in stream-bend eddies. 
That boy, prodding with a willow switch the laggards back into the current, no longer exists. His cloud-framed image atop the water, embossed upon the blue sky background of an eternal summer day, survives only in his memory, and soon even that evanescent snapshot will begin to fade into that inevitable oblivion where all things must eventually pass.

Sometimes when my cellie is away, I turn off the radio and think about my life. I was born a Gemini--an air sign--but my boyhood heart was stolen by the naiades, the happy-go-lucky water sprites who mocked the hermit frog in the tin roofed spring for sitting zazen on his mossy stone instead of frolicking with them among the sunshot spears of watercress and duckweed. On the August day that I followed the brook to it’s upstream source deep into the “Big Woods” behind our farm, I thought I glimpsed them escorting my reflection from pool to pool, darting amidst glittery schools of frightened minnows until the creek narrowed to a rivulet, then a mere thread, and finally plunged underground on a rocky hillside, carrying with it as a souvenir of it’s faithful lover the shimmery likeness of my face.
Baffled by the unsettling dichotomy between perception and reality, I get up to peer in the mirror. Why, I muse, do we invariably perceive ourselves as we were decades before? Why don’t we see ourselves as others see us? Why does seventy-one-year-old me see a thirty-eight-year-old version of myself, a man who upon looking into a similar mirror would probably witness an eighteen-year-old boy delivering a cocky wink? And will I, should I live to a hundred, in my senility see in another mirror my ten-year-old self grinning back, blissfully happy and in love with a world that will never, ever, permit it’s favored son to grow old?

A harsh buzzer disturbs my reverie; yard is over; my cellie will soon return. Two hours later on my way to chow, perhaps I’ll catch a fleeting glimpse of my weary reflection in a snowmelt pool. Then I’ll silently thank the inept landscapers whose shoddy grading created these vernal mirrors. They reflect the illusions I long to see, and their visual blarney strengthens me for another season.
And if I’m fortunate, perhaps some day after I too have vanished from this world, someone whom I once dearly loved will gaze into a still pool in some faraway meadow to see my ghostly face smiling over their shoulder. 

Part Two

Will someone,
at the scent of cherry blossoms,
think of me
when I too
am a person of long ago?

Fujiwara No Shunzei (1114-1204)

I lost my sense of smell after suffering a drunken fall in 2006, the year before I came to prison. Yet last night in a lucid dream, I smelled my grandmother’s distinctive perfume. Even though she had died in 1972, and had not appeared in my dream, when I awake I sense her presence. I sit up on my bunk, look about the darkened cell, and pray that her restive soul has not returned from whichever lucky world it now enriches to witness her favorite grandchild’s precipitous fall from society’s grace, or worse, her esteem. 

Slanted stripes of diffused light from the outside light towers fall upon the shadowed wall, crosshatch the form of my sleeping cellie. In the profound silence, I think of Granny, my dead parents, and all the other departed souls who once loved me, and am thankful that they aren’t alive to behold my present disgrace. Then I think of the living--my three daughters and grandchildren--who are witness to my undoing, and I am overcome with late-night despair: Here come those old 3 a.m. dark-hour-of-the-soul blues again. 
Unable to sleep, beset with guilt, I remember how I attended each of my grandchildren’s births (despite fleeing into the hallway at the critical moments), and was the first person after the doctor, nurse, and mother to hold them in my arms, christening their tiny faces with involuntary tears of pride and joy. The oldest girl was nearly eight when our lives were suddenly torn asunder, and now I wonder if the autumnal perfume of woodsmoke and the sweet summer fragrance of new-mown grass conjure up fond memories of me, or does she recall with distaste the reek of spilt beer, stale cigarette smoke, and the double-barreled stench of an overflowing litter box and an old man’s chronic flatulence in my unkempt farmhouse?
I cringe at the memory, grateful that no one sees me blush with relived shame. All of those things--and worse--were the actions of another man, a man who no longer exists. That person is now as dead as his Granny, replaced by a reformed doppelganger anxious for a new trial, vindication, the right to die a free man. But even if that trifecta of wishes were to occur, what then of all the not-so-good memories already forged, what of the foul odors imprinted upon my grandchildren’s impressionable minds? Will someday a chance madeleine-whiff remind them of the outdoorsy aroma of a cut-on-our-farm cedar Christmas tree hung with homemade ornaments, or will they merely recall the stink of their grandfather’s past bad habits?
With a sigh, I lie down and drift back to sleep. Morning count is hours away, time enough to dream of persons of long ago, who perhaps are dreaming of me. 

Part Three
“Wild Geese”

When the wild goose
has flown far off
beyond the mountain,
its companion, left behind,
will surely cry

Minamoto No Sanetomo

Because it is an eight hundred-mile round trip from my daughters’ homes to this prison, I have not had a visit for over six years. As a result, my memory of the time before my prelapsarian fall struggles to stay afloat, feverishly treading the Lethean waters that would engulf it. Not only did I lose my freedom, most of my material possessions, and a considerable inheritance when I was imprisoned at the age of sixty--a man whose only prior conviction was a twenty-four-year-old DUI--I lost physical contact with my three daughters and their very young children, who at the time of my downfall ranged in age from two and a half to almost eight. On the day of my undoing, my oldest daughter watched in teary consternation as I was taken away in a police car. At the time, I was too stunned to cry myself, but after the shock wore off the next day, I wept bitterly too. God only knows what my grandchildren felt, but through my own experience I know that pain is not quantitative, it’s degree hardly computable, it just is, and we the afflicted must somehow bear it. And our tears lubricate our passages through difficult straits. 

I lived in the country for most of my life, and each of my many springs was accompanied by the welcome arrival of Canada geese. The incessant early March quacking, piping, and trilling of mating wood frogs, spring peepers, and chorus toads in the creekside swamp next to my home provided the basso and soprano voices of the annual opera, while high above the passing geese sang the two-note baritone theme. The performance ran for weeks on end, until the next generation of singers were spawned. 
In memorable years, a pair of geese would nest in the marsh, their mournful dirges stilled until autumn, where upon departing their friendly summer quarters for far-flung destinations at the nether end of the continent they would cry a last farewell. Watching them leave, a small part of my soul yearned to go with them, soar off into the morning sun, my troubles left behind. But then I would think of my family, and allow the foolish thought to pass. 
For how could I ever voluntarily deprive myself of their love?

Here at my “modern” prison, whose one and two-story buildings are divided by spacious lawns, there are no frogs or toads, no mature peepers piping from the crowns of the distant oaks. There are, however, plenty of geese; both the year round residents that waddle about in brazen gaggles, defecating at will, and their migratory relatives who like to drop in for noisy chats with their sedentary cousins. They all share the same tongue, the one that I mastered at an early age: the universal language of nostalgia.

They are my friends, these geese, and I obtain pleasure from their casual joie de vivre, their untroubled existence reassures every sentient being that happiness is his or her birthright too.
When they fly away to unknown shores, I sometimes fantasize that the western wind will bear them eastward, over my daughters’ homes. If so, I think, perhaps my little grandchildren playing in their yards will hear their mournful cries, look upwards, ask one another if geese ever fly over their Grandpa’s new home, and for a few moments think happy thoughts of a lonely old man who often cries for those left behind. 

The end.

SMART Communications
PA DOC # HZ6518
Burl N. Corbett 
SCI Albion
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733
Born 6/9/47 in Reading, PA.  Raised on a 123-acre sheep farm only three crow miles from John Updike´s famous sandstone farmhouse of “Pigeon Feathers,” The Centaur, and Of the Farm.  Graduated from Daniel Boone High School in 1965.  Ran away to Greenwich Village to become a beatnik in 1966 with only a Martin guitar and the clothes on my back.  Lived among the counterculture for 3 years, returning disillusioned to PA for good in 1968.  Worked on a mink farm; poured steel in a foundry; chased the sun as a cross-country pipeliner; drove the big rigs, baby!; picked tomatoes with migrant workers; tended bar on the old skid row Bowery; worked as a reporter, columnist, and photographer for two Southeastern Pennsylvania newspapers; drove beer truck (hic!); was a “HEY, CULLIGAN MAN!”; learned how to plaster, stucco, and lay stone; published both fiction and nonfiction in several nationally distributed magazines and literary quarterlies; got married and raised four children; got divorced and fell into the bottle; and came to prison at the age of 60 with no previous criminal offenses other than a 25 year-old DUI. The “crime”? Self-defense in my own house without financial means to hire a decent lawyer.  Since becoming the “guest” of the state in 2007, I have won six PEN Prison Writing Awards (two first and four honorable mentions); the first and only prize of $500 in the 2013 Eaton Literary Agency short fiction contest; written a children/young adult book, Coon Tales; a novel of the 1967 “Summer of Love,” Dreaming of Oxen; a magic realism novel, A Redneck Ragnorak, and many short stories and memoirs.  My first novel, A Haven from Violence, and Coon Tales, are available at or

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Long Day

By Edward F. Hudak

This day started out like any other. I get up for work, arriving at the construction site by 7:00 AM. Pouring concrete today. Around 9, I look up and see a brown sedan pulling into the parking lot. Two guys with ties get out – no smiles. They talk to the foreman and I see one pointing my way. Detectives. They come over and ask me to go in for questioning. 

By midday, I was in the police station. I hadn’t even eaten yet. I was questioned and arrested, my words recorded. In the holding cell, I wondered what was going to happen next, time ticking by ever so slowly. My mind raced, thinking of alternate histories. If only I had done this, said that, hadn’t gone there, or gone somewhere else instead: STOP. It seemed endless. Then I was hustled out for photos. No smiles in this one. This was 1989: fingerprinting with ink. Sloppy! I’m sure I signed a few things and was sent back to the cell to wait, time standing still. My mind racing again, no time for emotions to catch up. Numb! They finally brought food, what they called food, and I ate like a wild beast. 

There is no real contact, no real communication. I’m an object they have to deal with, like a bouncing ball or a load of laundry. I was hustled out to the car – it seems odd, like a dream, or like I’m not really there, looking at this scene like it’s in my head. I’m driven to downtown Pittsburgh, and people don’t even look at me in the back seat, but it seems like they know I’m in there. Time moves on; at this point it’s only been six hours but it seems like weeks. When I’m hustled in for my arraignment, it’s like an assembly line; move, stop, move, stop. The judge says something; I hear a dollar amount, then I’m hustled to a holding cell. It’s all too much. I can’t process what I’m thinking, experiencing, and feeling. 

Time stands still, not moving. I’m hustled into a boxtruck – a paddy wagon, like in the movies – and driven to another place. I can’t see where. There are five of us chained together. We enter what looks like an old castle. Dark, dingy. More photos, no smiling, more ink, more signing. I’m put into another holding cell and stripped naked, then I put on a jumpsuit and am given a bedroll with stuff inside. I’m hustled down a dark hallway, and then we stop at a door. I walk into a huge room that is very noisy – there are men everywhere: on the phones, running around, playing cards at metal tables. The cells are stacked on one side, I’m told there are no beds. 

It’s all so unreal, until I finally make contact with something real, something I know because, up to this point, it’s like a long scene from a movie. On the phone, my dad says tomorrow I’ll be out – Relief! Time doesn’t move though; tomorrow will never come. Now! It has to be now! Focus on getting through this. Tomorrow, wow, I doubt it. I sit there stunned by what is going on – I’m young, but no one bothers me. Everyone seems to calm down all at once – become quieter, less noisy. I pick a table to sleep on but sleep never really comes. Tomorrow, will I ever see it? Time turns into my enemy and there is no defense against it. 

Awaiting my court date, I reflect on “A Friend’s Goodbye – Danny’s Goodbye.” Growing up with someone you call a friend lets you know you are alive. Danny was that for me. We did so much together: playing army in the woods, swimming, exploring, talking – having fun. I felt wanted, accepted, a part of something. I always felt comfortable around him. Once, an abandoned old mine shaft entrance collapsed where we were playing. I don’t remember who did what, but we saved each other, growing closer through surviving being buried alive. We didn’t go to the same elementary school – he was public, I was Catholic – but we couldn’t wait to hang out together. We both wrestled little league, in different weight classes – he was bigger than me until I turned nine years old. While playing with walkie-talkies in a certain part of his yard one day, we contacted a girl sick in some local hospital. She was dying. Realizing that this made her happy made us happy. Danny was my friend and brother. We felt at home in each other’s houses. How I miss those times, miss Danny! Emotions well up inside me. Now there’s no Danny!

It was a time in my life with real meaning, one worth talking about, the remembering of Danny. When I was with Danny, my own pain and suffering were eased. He helped me deal with the ups and downs of life, enjoying the ups and getting through the downs. There were a few times we got mad at each other. Who was wrong, or what grievances we had, are all lost to me; we always made up and were stronger for it. Danny had his own health issues; there were times when we couldn’t play outside. He never let that stop us from having fun, though.

I started public school in Junior High. Danny, a year older, paved the way. Public school was a shock to a Catholic boy. We made friends with the kids on Circle Drive – Billy, Jody, and Michelle: all of us becoming fast friends. 

Danny was turning 16! Danny, Billy, and I were in my basement. Danny was fast asleep on the couch, looking peaceful lying there, my last good memory of him. That picture has never left me. Michelle came seeking our help, worried and excited, saying we needed to fix her bed. She was promising us all kinds of things. We had no problem with it, she was our friend, and we loved her. We all left on a mission. After breaking her bed down, Billy and I went into her brother’s old room. He’d moved out. Toys were throughout the room. We lifted the mattress and beneath it there was a gun.

My memory of this is like a dream, vivid, in slow motion. My breathing gets heavy. My heart races. I sweat every time I get to this part. It’s like watching a scene from an action movie, it’s super slow. Like you could almost change the outcome, you know, stop it from happening. Strangely, it’s like I split from the me standing there, to a vantage point higher up in the corner of the room, watching us as we move through the hallway, stopping at the bedroom door. Danny is in the middle of the room. I hear, “Danny, I’m going to shoot!” My view is back to looking over a shoulder. BANG! A scream, “BLOOD!” 

My eyes never leave Danny. My heart is still racing, this isn’t real. I’m numb, this is not happening. My heart is beating in my ears, a nightmare, a frozen force field. Danny is right in front of me and we’re alone – they’ve left us. This is my friend, my brother, who I love and care about. We look directly into each other’s eyes and I’m frozen. The corners of his mouth move into a smile, letting me know he sees something off in the distance. He is happy there is no more suffering, only peace and love. He closes his eyes, drops to the ground and I reach out. No, Danny! NO! My friend’s goodbye, Danny’s goodbye. 

This I’ve carried with me. I could have and should have stopped it. Could have saved his life, saved everyone from witnessing it and suffering this hurt. It’s my fault, I’ve believed this with all my heart. Dad confirmed it once back from the police station. I’m a murderer, and this burden is mine. It was ruled an accident by the police and I hated myself even more because of it. I was destructing slowly, fulfilling my own prophecy. Exactly three years from Danny’s death I committed my crime. I was sentenced a year later. 

The van pulled up to Western Penn. Shackled to my seat, I looked up. Atop the wall was a uniformed man with a rifle. Five of us were chained together. My heart sank as the metal gate slid open, metal on metal. We pulled in. Short, uniformed men searched the outside of the van. Once they finished the gates opened. We pulled up to a ramp and were ushered out and up into a room. The chains made awful sounds as we waited. We couldn’t shuffle our feet or take a full step. CO’s were yelling directions, “Hurry over there,” “Wait here,” “Stand here,” “More over there,” “Kneel on that chair.” They uncuffed the shackles, and then moved us to wait some more. We were then ushered to see medical, counselors, and others I can’t remember. Hurry up and wait. Time is once again my enemy. 

I was stripped naked and searched, issued pants, shirts, laundry bag, bedroll, and toilet items. They ushered me through the compound, past the chow hall, past where men were yelling in the yard. I saw a man, no a hulk, through the open door of the gym bench-pressing some unimaginable weight, an amount I couldn’t pick up with a crane. His arms were bigger than both my legs put together. It was all so overwhelming. I heard roars from the yard, CO’s yelling. A Lieutenant was saying something unintelligible. This place was like an old beat up castle, full of dark, dank smells foreign to my senses. There were five tiers, men everywhere yelling, and the noise was almost unbearable. I could barely see the end of the block. Over 600 men walked into a room and sat down. A big Lieutenant says, “Men, there are only two ways to do things here: Western’s Way or Western’s Way! Go find your cells!”

Time again to reflect on my family life, my past, the effects of the addict. Addiction affects every person that comes in contact with the addict. Addiction is more than likely not the root problem but rather the way the addict has chosen to deal with their root problems, which has become a norm in our society. You may wonder how the addict affects the people closest to them. It’s simple. Imagine standing by a beautiful clear, still pond. Now, throw a stone into the water. The stone disturbs the water, changing it. Ripples go out from the point of impact, changing the whole surface of the pond. The people close to an addict are similarly changed, disturbed by the actions of the addict. Those people are carrying with them the pain, hurt, worry and confusion created by the addict. This can lead to other problems, too. I’m not saying the addict is responsible for the actions of others; just know the addict causes harm to those who are closest. The ripple effect can reach far. 

There are many things people are addicted to; the list is long. Most, if not all, are harmful to the self and others. People become addicted because of an underlying problem or problems. Addiction is a tell-tale sign, the noticeable way people recognize the existence of a problem that poses a high risk to the person addicted. Once in recovery, the hard journey to discover the self and root problems begin. 

I myself have been on both sides of addiction. I grew up in a family where my dad was the primary addict. Dad was a heavy drinker. He would stay out late and come home only to cause a ruckus with the family. Rarely, if ever, did we get the “happy drunk.” Instead, he would be a mean, nasty, abusive drunk, who liked to cause trouble with his words and fists. Even when he was sober, he could go into a rage. The funny thing is, looking back, I would rather take the beatings than hear his rants. There would be a long list of obscenities, degrading remarks toward each of us, which would come out of his mouth. This is how he built up his anger enough to unleash his rage on us physically. No one in the family was immune. There were times when Mom instigated it, egging him on, which made me cringe inside, knowing what was coming. I dreaded him coming home at night. It was always there in the back of my mind. I could be at school, out playing with friends, having fun, but right under the surface I was feeling dread and terror for the night time. 

I am the youngest of five. I have three sisters and one brother, aged 14, 13, 11, and 6 years older than me. My parents were both 42 when I was born. I believe Dad had PTSD from the Korean War. He got off on being pissed off, a rage-a-holic. I’m no doctor, nor do I have a degree, but the fact that I lived it makes me somewhat of an expert. In some form or fashion, each of us in the family has had an addiction or dysfunctional personality. Personally, being addicted to alcohol, sex, food, and drugs, I was also a fear-a-holic, doing things to keep fear steady in my life. I was addicted to how it made me feel. 

This one time at band camp (a little humor, no), Mom was cooking breakfast one Saturday morning. It was just her, Dad, and me. I said to Dad, “Hey, if you and Mom ever get divorced, I want to live with you, Dad,” not even caring that I just crushed my mom’s heart, creating deep pain. I did it so Dad would maybe like me and not hurt me anymore. As an adult, I hated myself for doing that. 

I would go to school carrying with me all that hurt, pain, confusion, and dysfunction in my daily routine. I affected my friends, girlfriends, classmates, teachers, coaches, teammates, neighbors and other people distant to the addictions of my dad, family and myself. These dysfunctions caused so many problems for me and those I dealt with. I really never knew who I was, I played roles that I thought I was going to be. I was an actor. I had no real identity. I wanted to hide the fact that my dad, family – hell, even myself – were all screwed up. I would try to act like other kids. It only lasted short periods. Inside, my emotions would boil over and come out in negative ways. Yes, I could have asked for help, but it wasn’t the thing to do in the 70’s. If Dad found out, it’d be my worst nightmare! You didn’t talk “bad” about your family or discuss your problems. Got to keep up the image. So many people were affected by me and my family.

I started using alcohol and drugs as I got older. Food became my friend. Sex was a fantasy to escape my ugly reality. I believe I have some form of PTSD. I started using rage like Dad, becoming addicted worse than my dad, finally ending up in prison. This is where I started tackling each one of my addictions, dysfunctions, and behavior problems. I realized that these were all the outward signs of my deeply rooted problems; misinformation, behavior lessons, and trauma from childhood. I began to be retaught, to learn from the groups and the wealth of information available from others. I learned to be healthier in mind, body, and spirit. I spent time discovering who I really am, growing to really know myself. I started to like, and then love, myself for the first time. My God, the father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit led the way for me. 

I always believed that God, my family, everyone, didn’t love me. Dad had never told me so, until one time on a visit. Dad and Mom came to see me every other week. In 1992, two weeks before a massive heart attack would take his life, as he was leaving the visit, Dad, turning to me and with so much emotion said, “I love you, son!” Wow! On the way back to my cell at Rockview, I cried, a good healing cry. I’ve heard guys say they never had a dad or a father figure in their lives. I would’ve traded places with them in a second. After facing and dealing with most of my past issues, I began to see how much my dad had really loved me. He cared and wanted a better life for me. He didn’t want me to turn out like him. Sometimes you don’t see all that until later. I don’t look at my past as something I want to hide. It motivates me to do better, be better, to be the best person I can be for myself and others. 

My past wasn’t all negative; there were a lot of positives. It was hard for me to see them, though, at the time. Oh, I wish that I hadn’t hurt anyone in my past. But, for better or worse, my past created who I am today. My past is the journey of my life. I can look back and learn from my mistakes. I can help myself, and anyone along the way who will listen, by being a positive influence and making a difference; a meaningful difference in life, in society. Time is no longer my enemy! From the brokenness of my past, the true meaning of love shines through. Love makes a difference. 

Time has given me the opportunity to apologize to my three victims; to take account of my actions and realize there are no excuses. There is no easy way to address this; no easy way to make amends for the harm I caused my victims. Yinz (Pittsburghese for two or more people) are not at fault in any way, yinz are blameless. I am to blame. It is my fault, and mine alone. I am responsible; there are no excuses, no justifications for my behavior. Making amends is an action that involves much more than an apology. Recognizing that the past cannot be remade, I am holding myself accountable. By my hand, my willful acts, my behaviors, I violated you individually as people. No person deserves to go through the pain and hurt I caused you. I take full responsibility for my actions. This is a crucial step if healing is to happen. 

The trauma that I caused yinz not only affected yinz but your family members, friends, and the community. My actions have led me to examine myself and find the defects within my character so that I will never hurt someone again. Completing many treatment programs and classes helped me to see the damage I’ve caused and to help transform myself, my thinking, and my behaviors, so that I will now be a person who makes a positive difference in people’s lives and society as a whole. 

I have a drive; a duty to become aware of my selfishness, to be selfless. This is the life I now lead. It’s bigger than me; it’s how I affect people around me. The journey of this process for me – now that time is my friend – has given me energy to strive to work diligently on improving myself every day to become the best version of me so that I have NO MORE VICTIMS. 

Smart Communications/PADOC
Edward Hudak QC8110
SCI Phoenix
PO Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733