My literary life kept me from being pulled into the unending ugliness of prison - the fistfights, the petty tyrannies, the mindless repetition of spending years and years doing the same thing and desperately hoping for a different result.
Stacked in my cell, there were always books and authors, characters and adventures-real or imagined-waiting to sustain me intellectually and emotionally, to give me a place to play out my anger, nurture my hope and indulge my ache for escape. As soon as one book ended, another began. Sometimes, I read two at a time, jumping back and forth from one universe to another.
It was the only freedom I had.
I was an insatiable reader, always seeking writers and stories that expanded and explained my claustrophobic world.
Over time I had internalized a toxic amount of the shame and undeserved guilt associated with Chris's murder and my conviction. Once in a while, when I would reveal to another inmate - or a free-world prison employee - what had happened to me, I found myself automatically offering whatever external support I had for what I was saying. Even for me, my truth was no longer enough on its own.
"I passed two polygraphs," I'd say. I'd kept the paperwork, verifying the results.
"The prosecution withheld evidence of my innocence," I'd tell them - not knowing that even I was completely unaware of the most dishonest and illegal of these omissions.
I sounded, even to myself, like an old con - itself a kind of awful evidence - further proof that my circumstances had diminished me, made me doubt myself, made me want to get away from me. I hated it. It was so easy to feel hopeless.
Books like The Odyssey and authors like Cormac McCarthy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminded me that even the longest journey has a finish line, that someday I would close the book on this chapter of my life. Reading reminded me that finding justice in the end was possible.
In the meantime, I still had to survive.
Not long after receiving my master's, I was promptly and unceremoniously transferred off the farm and onto the Michael Unit, yet another maximum-security facility.
This place was closer to my parents, which made me happy. I'd been behind bars for nearly two decades, and in that time, I had seen them age too much. They were bewildered by what had happened to me-they simply couldn't comprehend it - and I could offer no comfort. Knowing they would be able to visit me without making a lengthy and draining cross-state drive made me feel a little better.
But as usual, this new setting was a mixed bag. The cells were larger, but they seemed to be filled with an unusually high percentage of psych patients who really didn't belong in prison at all. They should have been in a mental institution.
Unfortunately, one of them was my cell partner.
At first, I judged him to be a tolerable sort. But after a few days, I realized how misguided first impressions sometimes are.
I began to notice that he brushed his teeth, showered, and washed his hair with Bippy - a crude abrasive prison cleanser, a lot like Comet or Ajax. The topper came when I saw him adding it to his drinking water. He was actually ingesting it. Soon he shared with me his firm belief that his clothes were bugged. Then he said he knew guards came into our cell every night to search through his belongings. He said he know this because, in the morning, everything was "suspiciously" sitting there, exactly as he'd left it before falling asleep.
He told me he was planning to kill the guards who went through his stuff at night - just as soon as he was able to wake up and catch them. He said he had written federal dispensation to do that.
Furthermore, he was a secret agent. I knew that because he told me so.
Ironically, in prison, none of this was considered evidence of mental illness or any serious indication that this guy could be a danger to himself or others. It all would have been darkly hilarious if I didn't have to spend every night sleeping - completely unprotected - just a foot or two away from. What if he mistook me for a guard one night?
We both slept lightly.
Difficult as it was at times, the Michael Unit was, for me, a place of great possibility. It was here that the Innocence Project finally made progress on my DNA testing request. Along with the team in the New York office, an attorney from Houston agreed to represent me pro bono. I wouldn't meet him for months and months, nor would I meet the angels from the New York office for ages. But we talked by phone, exchanged letters, evidence requests, updates, and their deep thoughts on strategy.
Despite the delays, I knew my file was flying across time zones, that the pounds of paperwork and peculiar details of my case were being absorbed by smart lawyers, looking at it all with fresh eyes. And I knew that these generous souls were doing this - without having any real reason to believe me.
I wanted to be worthy.
So I waited patiently - and felt grateful to get the attention of anyone this late in the game.
||Truth in Justice