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Free Bird



I was out of breath, running down the gallery to my cell. I was running because I would be getting out the next morning, and for that there were seven prisoners within 20 feet ready to kick my ass.

That's the law of the penitentiary-of the Western Illinois Correctional Center, where I was serving time for a drug-dealing conviction, of any penitentiary. Beat up those who are going home before you. They say it's so you won't came back, but the sinister snarls of those throwing the punches say otherwise. Luckily I knew the gallery quite well, having been incarcerated almost three years, and I made it to my cell without harm. After slamming the metal door, which instantly locked, I rushed to my window and gazed through the metal bars. About a mile away I could see a road with passing cars. The cars were so small that I couldn't tell what kind they were, but I knew in the morning I would be among them.

My cell mate, a six-foot-five body builder, was one of these men who pummeled those who were going home before him, and he was now coming into our cell.

"So word is out that you're leaving us in the morning," he said. "Well?" I realized just how small our cell really was, and though he was speaking to me I noticed only his fists, and realized just how big they really were. And though my celly (short for cell mate) and I had always been up front with each other, I found my lips moving on their own. "Man please, don't you think that if I was going home in the morning you'd be the first one to know? C'mon man, were tighter than that! I got a month to go--it's next month on the 11th, just don't tell no one." There was a long silence, and slowly but surely the fists unfurled.

That night was the longest night of my life, as it is for all prisoners who face the realization that freedom is only a few hours away. The very idea wears you out physically and mentally, yet charges you up; your mind races across memories of winter nights, lost loves, fresh air, driving, real food, and the list goes on into the wee hours of the night. Then the panic hits. What if something goes wrong? What if an old warrant pops up from years ago? Though you know they're supposed to check for all this type of stuff, you never put anything past the system. What if someone found out and used your social security number before robbing a bank, or an old girlfriend put your name on the birth certificate of a "trick baby" so she could get child support when you come home, or worse yet the system confused you with another person having the same name or plain lost your paperwork among the thousands of other files? Or what if, since you told everyone that you truly don't go home until a month later, word got back to records and they think that maybe they made a mistake with your file so to cover their own asses they put you on 30-day waiting list to make sure things are OK?

I lay on the bottom bunk hearing my celly snore in the distance, though he was merely three feet above me. My mind race over old street phrases and wondered what the new ones would be, where the new restaurants would be, who would be holding their own on each block and what I would do when I got out there. Finally I sat up, put my shower shoes on, and stood in front of the window. The silence was loud, that obnoxious loud ringing silence that seems to drown out your thoughts, the humming tone of silence.

I turned to look at my celly, whose massive body hung over the tiny frame of the steel bunk bed. I thought about his future--he was bound to be here for another 40 years. I thought about the others I'd become friends with, all those guys in the wrong place at the wrong time. I thought about the other unit they were building on the side of the penitentiary for more inmates, and talk of three more to be built after that. I noticed something wet touch my finger. I looked at it and though I knew what it was it took a moment to realize that it had come from me. A small tear had rolled down my cheek, passing my lip and hitting my finger on the way to the floor.

I still don't know exactly what it was from: exhaustion, loneliness, pity for those who had to stay, remorse for what I had put my family through, the time that I had lost that I would never get back, the frustration of waiting for morning.. .... I still don't know if it was any of these or if it was all of them, but I do know that tear was the first and last tear I shed during my almost three-year stay in the penitentiary.

I'd been holding my breath, and I let it out. Immediately anticipation regained its hold, so I walked toward the door and peered out of the chuck hole. All was silent on the gallery, not a worker in sight, so I knew it was late. I wanted to scream out of the hole; instead I peed in our rusty toilet. I paced, I counted trucks that I could see in the distance, I counted how many times my celly snored and I paced again to keep from putting a sock in his mouth. My feet were sweating in my shower shoes. I felt my armpits getting hot and I was now short of breath, almost claustrophobic, and then it happened.

A loud click at the door, then another, louder. I knew it was time to go, but I couldn't move. My celly rolled over and slowly sat up. I used every muscle I had in my body to start putting on the clothes that I was going to wear home, which I'd been hiding in a locked drawer since they were delivered to me a week before.

I decided to glance in my celly's direction. His expression seemed to change three time in one instant, from curiosity to realization and then to disappointment: I had lied to him. He put one foot on the sink and the other on the toilet (this was how you had to get down from the top bunk) and stood in front of me, towering over me in his boxer shorts. I braced myself for a blow to the chest. I did feel bad that I had lied to him, but I just wanted him to beat me up and get it over with. I was ready to go; I had a new world waiting on me.

As my celly stepped forward, I closed my eyes, but instead of a fist I felt a hand. A warm gentle hand on my shoulder. This was my friend. This was the man I had spent nearly three years of my life with , through Thanksgivings, Christmases, New Years, and the worst, birthdays. This was the man with whom I shared secrets until the sun came up, in an eight-by-ten cell called home. But now my new home was waiting, and for the first time in his life, I think, he was supportive, as if a piece of him was leaving with me. "Good luck man, take care of yourself," he whispered. I knew I would never see this man again, and we hugged.

I grabbed a small box which held the only items I possessed: a radio, four tapes, two outfits, nine letters, and a picture of my mother holding me as an infant. I opened my cell door and walked down the gallery to the inside tower, the first of three stops on the way out of the penitentiary. The guards went through my possessions, checked my ID, and asked me a ton of questions: did I intend to have safe sex when got out? did I want breakfast?

Upon leaving the inside tower I had to walk half a block outdoors to the visitation room, my second stop. The air outside was cool, and my heart thumped at the sight of those steel gates. I stopped, put down my box, and looked around at the huge compound, here in the middle of nowhere. Cornfields to the left and cornfields to the right, all the prisons in Illinois seem to be choreographed as such, saving these little towns from financial problems. I looked up at the stars that were quickly fading, and I now realized that I was caught. Yes! Half of me was institutionalized, not ready to jump back into society, while the other half knew prison was stealing my life and dreams. I needed to get back into society, but I knew society had not waited for me. I was now familiar with this place, the hustle, the people, the food, the schedules, and it dawned on me that the last three years of my life were not fake. This was home.

In the visitation room I was ordered to sit by the wall--even when you're leaving the guards still feel that you're trying to escape. Three other inmates were ordered to do the same thing, and though we engaged in small talk it was obvious that our minds were all elsewhere. The inmate to my left had done 14 years, the inmate to my right had done 8, and the inmate in front of me had done a year and three months, and anticipation had us all by the throat. We were each given $50 that we still had to take our bus fare out of, and led to our last stop.

This last stop is known as check out, which is exactly what it was. We were fingerprinted and asked to sign a document that stated we were indeed checking out of the prison system, that we had received our property, and that we were taking the bus home. Upon signing this we were given papers that said we had 72 hours to see our parole officers, and then we got in the van.

I remember looking back at the compound and seeing through the walls. I saw rows of men sleeping on top of each other. It reminded me of the cemetery, but instead of tombstones we had steel doors, and instead of a caretaker we had a warden. Someone asked the driver what time it was as we came to a red light. "Nine o'clock" he responded, as a station wagon full of cheerleaders on their way to morning practice pulled up alongside us. We all broke our necks to look at them, but though they were the finest things we'd seen in years, we immediately turned away. We weren't there yet.

The Greyhound bus terminal in Mount Sterling, Illinois, is not actually a terminal but rather a gas station with a sign that reads "For Bus Wait Here," so we waited ... and waited ... and waited. And though we waited only 15 minutes, I embraced the past three years all over again. Each of the other men smoked (a habit I quit during my first month in prison); each finished an entire pack. I immediately scoped out escape routes just in case this whole thing was a hoax. It now made no sense--what had we done that the others hadn't? Why were we given our freedom? I could see the same look of panic on the others' faces--we knew that we were supposed to be coming back to the cell from breakfast at this very moment and getting ready for our daily activities. I had to be in the library in ten minutes; I hadn't been late in two years! We were all abandoning the ship, we were cheaters! I truly think that if the bus would have taken a minute longer, one of us would have cracked.

Looking back at this next moment, no matter how many times I think about it, seems so dreamlike. Slow motion describes it best; as sparks of silver appeared a block away, we all stood up, high. I heard the national anthem in the back of my mind. This was it ... freedom, rolling toward us in a blue, white, and gray limousine to Chicago, glistening as it floated closer.

We all pulled out our money to buy tickets. The bus stopped. The officer who had waited during our 15-minute layover, though he was itching to go, murmured, "See you guys in a few months; don't worry, you'll be back," and watched us board the bus. I turned back to watch him leave, but I couldn't see him or the van. I was momentarily puzzled, but then I realized it didn't matter. He was part of the past and that was where I wanted to leave him ... so I did.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Russ Ando.

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