I stand beneath the eaves at the back entrance to a prison school classroom watching the rain. A double row of chain-link fencing topped by spools of razorwire separate me from the piney woods distant. Down the close-cropped grass field stretching to the fences I observe a line of twenty-four boys wearing prison blues, white-striped pants, red, yellow, or blue ball caps, marching double time, some squatting, jumping forward, “bunny-hopping,” some laboring beneath cut-off lengths of telephone poles on their shoulders. Two guards, brown uniforms and caps, former drill instructors, scream at the boys, their strident harangues echoing off the wall behind me. The ones bunny-hopping and carrying telephone poles lag behind, struggling to keep up in the rain.
They approach. The voices of the prison guards ridicule and belittle them. Neck veins bulging, face beet-red, one guard orders a short, chunky prisoner to the ground for fifty pushups in the mud. The others stare straight ahead, rainwater drenching them. The guards order the poles stacked. The boys line up by twos, chests heaving, mostly thin kids, short to tall, black and white, a couple of browns, a Mexican, ages from a young fourteen to an old twenty. This is boot camp.
Two teachers stand by the door, a man and woman, “free people,” as opposed to uniformed prison guards, middle-aged, overweight, jaded, tired, they stare at the young men filing inside. The boys flop down into the class desks divided by a center aisle, limp rag dolls, exhausted, shivering in the soaked blues in the air conditioning. It is my turn to talk to them.
“My name is Charlie, and I’m serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.”
Eyes widen. Jaws hang open. I have their attention now.
“I’ve been in prison longer than any of you have been alive. When you were born, I was serving this life sentence. When you took your first steps, I was in prison. When you first stole money from your mama’s purse, when you broke into that house, smoked that first joint, got arrested, went to juvenile court I was here. When you finish this boot camp and go home, I’ll still be in prison.
“I’ve been coming over here talking to boot camp inmates for three years, several hundred of you. I’m the only adult prisoner from the real prison next door allowed over here. Why? I’ve been convicted of murder. But I’m not a child molester, a homosexual, or a druggie. They figure you’re safe with me.”
I nod toward the back. “Officer Friendly and Barney Fife out there don’t even come in here when I’m talking.” Nervous adolescent twitters flare at the verboten jibe at the guards.
“Let’s take a survey, a show o fhands. How many of you are going to get out and stay out, never come back to prison?”
Every hand shoots up. I look at them, face-to-face, walking around the room, studying them.
“How many of you are never going to commit another crime?”
About half the hands go up quickly. A couple more raise slowly, hesitantly. One goes back down.
“Never going to smoke dope?”
Another hand goes down.
“Never going to sell any dope?”
More hands go down.
“How many of you graduated from high school?”
All the hands go down.
“How many have a G.E.D.?”
No hands raise.
“I have some bad news.” I pause a beat. The room is silent. The clammy air is redolent with the musty funk of armpits, wet hair, and clothes, bodies steaming and chilled. I call it the odor of the wild inmate, the animal-den scent of fear, despair, regret that hangs like woodsmoke in a room of densely packed prisoners. All eyes focus on me. They may laugh and joke and cut the fool when the guards leave and the free people are trying to prepare them for the upcoming G.E.D. test, which is nominally why they are in this classroom, but when I take the floor, all that stops. In the presence of a lifer, a grown man their fathers’ age, a convicted murderer, there are no alpha males among these short-time boot camp boys, nor are there beta, gamma, or delta males in the survival ofthe toughest prison hierarchy.
“They keep records on you. They’ve found that about half–50 percent–of those who go through boot camp is rearrested and comes back to prison. That means this half of the room is going to get out and stay out, and this half is coming back to prison.”
The two halves look across at each other nervously. One boy starts to get up and move from the “prison” side to the “get out” side.
“Nope. Stay where you are.” He sits back down. “It won’t do you a bit of good to move. Half are staying out, and half are coming back. But which half?
“That’s the bad news. But there’s some good news, too. I’ve served a lot of time in prison, and I’ve learned some things.
“I spent years in college, University of South Florida, fmance, accounting, computers, foreign languages. Learned a lot. Did well. But guess what? When I came to prison I knew nothing. NOTHING!” I shout. They jerk back. I walk to the front of the room, thinking.
“In the past twenty-some-odd years I’ve learned a lot. Tons. More than I ever learned in college. I’ve seen thousands ofmen pass through prison’s revolving door, entering and leaving. And I’ve seen about half of them come back. Failures.
“I don’t care about the failures. They don’t interest me. The ones I’m interested in are the ones the prison people don’t talk about, the other half, the ones who get out and don’t come back. Guess what? There are thousands of them. I can’t get out myself. I’m stuck here. But I’ve helped a bunch of them get out, and some ofthem appreciated it, kept in touch, told me how they were doing.
“The men who stay out know a secret, a big secret, that those who return don’t know— how to get out of prison and stay out. Makes sense.” Heads nod. “And guess what? I learned their secret. Unfortunately, with this life sentence, I’ve been unable to put it into practice on my own behalf. But I know it.”
All quiet. I walk down the center aisle and turn. “How many men in here would like to learn that secret, how to get out and stay out?”
Every hand shoots up. “Looks like a hundred percent.” I turn and point to a dull-eyed boy at the back.
“What about you? You don’t want to spend the rest of your life in prison here with me?”
Heads nod no vigorously.
“How about you?” I point to another. He nods no quickly.
“Let’s take another survey. You fellas have this hand-raising down pat.” I continue to walk around the room, pausing for a moment or two near each desk.
“How many would like to get out of here, go home, get a good job, collect a nice paycheck every week?” Every hand shoots up.
“How many want to get married some day to a nice girl, sexy, she loves you, you love her, every night she fixes a good meal when you come home, turkey hot dogs, turkey bologna, turkey sausage, turkey loaf, instant potatoes, jello?” Groans and grimaces. “Okay, no turkey by-products. We get enough of that crap in here. Husband and wife, how many?”
Most of the hands raise. “I guess a few of you want tobe bachelors, monks, or players, right?” They laugh. “Put your hands down. How many of you want children, rugrats, a family?”
Most of the hands go up.
“How many already have children?” One-third of the hands raise. “More than one kid?”
Two hands stay up.
I point at one boy. “What are you, sixteen?” He nods. “You’ve got two children?” Yes. Head nods. “Same mother?” No.
“I take it you’re not married.” No.
“You feel bad about that?” He hesitates, drops his eyes. “You should. Don’t you think a father ought to be out there taking care of his family instead of being in here doing bunny hops while assholes scream at you?” Silence.
“Anybody in here ever visit their mom or dad in prison, or had a mom or dad serve time?”
Several hands raise reluctantly, then lower.
“I thought so.” I wait. Let them think.
“One-third of the children who visit a parent in prison will one day return as a prisoner himself.” Silence, shock.
“You want that?” I point to a boy who’d fathered a child. “You want your kids to grow up to be convicts?” He nods no.
“Back to the job, wife, kids. How many want to own your own house, three bedrooms, two baths, a garage, backyard, some trees, a nice neighborhood?” Hands go up.
“A dog and a cat, a boat, neighbors who treat you with respect, look out for each other?” The hands raise and lower.
“A bank account, checking and saving, a brown leather wallet full of credit cards, a wad of twenties?” Hands go up and down like a Pentecostal prayer meeting.
“What did I forget? Watch your kids grow up, put ’em through college, they get good jobs, get married, you and the wife sit on the porch and play with the grandchildren. You get old. REAL old!” They laugh.
“Die in your sleep. Have a nice funeral. Go to Heaven. Sit on a cloud and play a harp. How many of you fellas want that, the whole package, a good life, law-abiding citizen?” Every hand goes up. I raise my hand with them.
“I have good news and bad news.” I wait a beat. No one moves.
“The good news is that every single person in this room can have all that. It’s called the American Dream, and for good reason. Most people on Earth right now will never have a life like that. It’s not in reach. But it is for you, even after screwing up and going to a prison boot camp. The bad news is that you can’t have it in prison. It’s off-limits. I know, because I had all that. I had it made. I came to prison. I lost it all. Somebody else is sleeping in my bed, and it’s not Goldilocks. We call him Jody in here. ‘Jody’s got my old lady.’ Doesn’t matter what his real name is, while you’re in here Jody’s out there working getting your girl in the sack, telling her to forget about you, you’re in prison, probably already plucking your eyebrows and shaving your legs. Am I wrong?” Acknowledgment. “Your children are calling him daddy, and you’re in here carrying a telephone pole on your shoulder like a damn fool. It’s not funny, is it?
“Back to the secret. Get out and stay out. How do you do it? A question. How many think you can get out and stay out for two years? Two years. That’s it.” Every hand flies upward.
“You can’t get arrested, violate probation, get handcuffed, commit any crime, period. Can you do it?” Heads nod.
“What’s the big deal about getting out and staying out for two years? I’ll tell you. More statistics. Ninety percent of the men who get out of prison and come back in return within the first two years! What does that mean? It means that if you can get out and stay out for two years, keep your noses clean, most likely you’ll never return. You’ll break that chain that keeps you enslaved to a life of crime and punishment, a life in prison. That’s a start. Stay straight for two years. But how do you do that? That’s part of the secret. I’m gonna tell you, the first step of several steps you have to take that will walk you so far from these prison gates that you’ll never find your way back.
“First step, you get out, you get a job. Doesn’t matter where. You have to get a job, go to work every day, earn a paycheck. Don’t tell me your family is rich, you’ll live at home, mama will take care of you. I don’t want to hear it. Selling crack or pimping is not a job, either. Those are crimes. If you want to be a law-abiding citizen, you start with a job. Ninety percent of those who get out and come back to prison return within two years. And almost ninety percent of those who return were unemployed when they were arrested. They didn’t have jobs!
“Next step, no drugs or alcohol. None. No joints, no crack pipes, no beers. Why not ? It’s against the law. You’re on probation, and some time, some place, when you least expect it, the probation officer is going to pop up and pull out a little cup for you to pee-pee in. Go to jail, go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. You got a problem ? Get help. AA, NA, whatever.
“It’s a funny thing about statistics. The same numbers keep popping up. Close to ninety percent of those who return to prison within the first two years were high on drugs or alcohol when they got arrested. What’s that tell you ? Don’t get high, don’t drink, and you’ve eliminated another 90 percent of the risk of coming back to prison. Bottom line: Get out, get a job, stay straight, and you’ll be free for the rest ofyour life, be happy, raise a family. That’s just the first two steps. There are more.”
I look at the clock. “I’ll give you steps three, four, and five tomorrow. Looks like the ram has stopped. You can pick up your poles, march back to the boot camp, and think about what I said. Now get out of here.”
They nod. Some smile. One approaches tentatively, holds his fist out, and I bump it with mine. Others file by and touch hands. I watch them go, and wonder how many I’ll see again in six months, a year, two years down the road. And how many won’t I see? How many will get out, struggle, go straight, seek a law-abiding life in society ? About 50 percent.